When I was a little girl, probably five or six years of age, someone gave me an old, cheap plastic doll. It’s arms and legs moved and I could rotate its head a bit to the right or left. Its hair was painted auburn and its lips a light shade of red. It was nothing fancy, but it was my first doll.
We were quite poor, so I appreciated the plastic doll most likely more than a rich kid would have. In fact, a rich girl would probably have tossed it in the trash.
But not me. I was proud of the doll and so carried it everywhere.
At the time we lived in Dayton, Ohio, in a housing development that I later understood was projects reserved for the very poor. Our house was quite small. I seem to recall only two bedrooms, a tiny kitchen, and a front room. There was a screened-in porch out back that held a wringer washing machine. That thing terrified me, because my mom repeatedly warned me of the dangers of getting my hand stuck in the rollers. Nevertheless, she made me feed the damp clothes into the noisily grinding machine.
At that time my older brother was the bain of my existence. He teased me, pushed me around, took things from me and ridiculed my pudgy body. Despite my cries of protest, my parents did nothing to stop him.
As a small child, I already understood the power he held over me and the lack of stature I had within the family.
For some reason, my brother hated my doll. He frequently stole it from me, then would dangle it above my head until my cries grew so loud as to bring my mother into the scene. He was told to give it to me, which he did, but even though he repeated that same action daily, he was never told to stop.
My mother’s parents were extremely poor. They lived in a tiny rented house in Galipolis, Ohio. Because it was such a long drive from our house, we visited them only once a year.
While we had little, they had even less. We had furnace for heat, while they had a huge coal-burning furnace in their front room. We had running water in the bathroom and kitchen, while they had an outhouse (which terrified me) and a pump in the kitchen that poured out the coldest, most refreshing water I’d ever tasted.
After my grandmother gave me the doll, I brought it with me every time we returned for a visit. And, every time, during the car ride, my brother would take it away from me and hold it up against the window, out of my reach. I’d cry. He’d refuse to give it back, then I’d cry louder.
I never fought back physically as he was bigger and stronger.
When we arrived at my grandparent’s house one time, after getting hugs from Grandma, I went outside on my own to play with my doll. This was not unusual. Even at home I played by myself. I enjoyed my own company, coloring, drawing, and once we lived somewhere with a swing set, swinging for hours.
My brother often followed me outside. He’d sneak up behind me, then do something to hurt me. It might be a violent push that sent me to the ground, scuffing knees and hands.
This time, he only chased me around my grandparent’s back yard. In a way, it was better than being pushed, but my legs were shorter than his and so I moved much slower. I knew I would lose eventually because I always did.
As soon he trapped me against the side of the house, he stole the doll, which I had expected. However, I didn’t think he’d ever really damage the doll as the risks to him would then become a possibility.
Well, with an evil glint, after throwing my doll on the ground, he raised his right foot and stomped on it. Over and over until the arms, legs and body were shattered pieces of plastic. I howled, long and loud.
My grandma came to investigate. She was normally so quiet that I was always surprised when I’d spot her in a room. When she did speak, it was in a whisper that only the person closest to her could hear.
So when she stormed out of her screened porch and marched up to where I stood wailing, I was shocked. And even more so when Grandma asked what had happened, then listened as I told her the tale.
Then, to my even greater surprise, she chastised my brother and told him to go sit on the porch. She took me by the hand, walked me inside and proceeded to wipe off my face. Gave me a cup of cold water. And held me close, brushing my hair off my reddened face.
When we left that night, of course there was no doll to take home. I cried all the way home.
Months passed. In time I forgot about my doll as I had moved on to other things. I colored obsessively, filling page after page of coloring books that relatives gave me, getting better at staying within the lines.
A full year passed with nothing changing in my life. My brother still teased, pushed, pulled, pinched and ridiculed. My parents still did little to stop the abuse.
When summer came, we returned to my grandparent’s house. As always, Grandma greeted me at the door with a hug and a kiss on the cheek. But then a most magical thing happened. Slowly, ever so slowly, she pulled something from behind her back.
Imagine my surprise to see my doll, fully restored.
To be precise, only the doll’s head was intact. My grandma had created a hand sewn body made of beige cloth. It had sewn lines to indicate fingers and toes. Better yet, it now had clothes where before it was naked!
She’d made underpants, a slip and a dress.
It was beautiful!
I hugged it, tears in my eyes. I whispered thanks, then sat in an old rocker, my doll cradled in my arms.
What happened next surprised me. Grandma turned to my brother and in a firm voice, told him that he had better, never take that doll from me or he’d have to answer to her, and she would not be gentle.
My grandma had given me a precious gift. It was more than doll and clothes.
She made me feel special. But most importantly, loved.
I still have that doll. It is now more than 68 years old. It occupies a place of honor in my house. Whenever I see it, it speaks to me of the first person who loved me as I am.