The first doll in the doll collection was a baby doll. A hideous oft-bodied thing with a hard-molded plastic head, about the size and shape of a small sack of Irish potatoes. The doll’s official name was Baby Precious, which struck me as inordinately stupid. “I think Baby Precious is a such a sweet doll,” my mother would say. I thought Baby Precious looked like Marlon Brando stuffed with one of those embedded noisemakers that made it sound like a dejected sheep whenever you picked it up. “What is the point of a baby doll?” I would ask. “What do you do with a baby?”
My mother would smile, beatific. “Why, you take care of it, of course.”
“Taking care of” sounded like a chose, not a game, and thus wholly unfun. Besides, infant humans weren’t cute like small animals. Unlike puppies, they would not play. Unlike kittens, they were exceptionally loud and incapable of handling their own shit, an obvious design flaw. And unlike the infinitely more exciting elderly humans, they neither played nor drank gin and probably wouldn’t let fly some tantalizing piece of family gossip—Did you know your great grandmother once committed murder? I’m not surprised. She had a tacky powder room and a weakness for men from Louisiana, and you know that they are all criminals down there—before letting you win a whole ten dollars in nickel bets.
Nana divined early on that my interest in Baby Precious and her ilk was scant, at best, and changed her doll strategy. A collector herself, she had a notion she might instill some of her passion in me. But instead of Japanese Porcelain or Chippendale mirrors (a hard sell to even the most eccentric child), she would give me dolls, in particular Madame Alexander dolls, a brand of molded plastic costume dolls with shimmery, heavy lashed eyes and lustrous hair. They came in blue floral-sprigged boxes with a rosy pink interior, identifying paperwork ribboned round their wrists. Instead of small, fat, bald people in unflattering nightgowns, these new dolls were at least adolescents. (Mostly) young (mostly) women with crinolines and pinafores, stockings, bloomers, high-button shoes and velvet dancing slippers. They had taffeta evening dresses, tulle ballgowns, organdy day dresses, silk tartan wraps, fringed handbags and beaded reticules. Tiaras, broad-brimmed hats, lacy mob caps and the various geometric follies that constituted Renaissance millinery. They had auburn ringlets, glossy black braids, long blond hair, short honey bobs, and in the case one of men, a neatly trimmed moustache.
I wasn’t really supposed to play with the dolls. To retain their value, Nana instructed they must w stay in mint condition, with original boxes and literature: their hair unmussed, their accessories perfectly maintained. For a while, Mom tried to enforce this. She collected the blue boxes in a corner of our low-budget horror film of a basement and told me These dolls are valuable. You can’t play with them like your Barbies. But she also surreptitiously collected the tiny slippers in a plastic bag she kept with her fancy table linens so I wouldn’t lose them. Because she knew I couldn’t keep my hands off the dolls. I brushed their hair and talked to them. I admired every scrap of lace trim, each fold of gathered satin. I thought, it is cruel that I do not live in the era of portrait hats.
Nana, convinced that having the dolls out in the open would only tempt me to mess with them, bought me a tall, five-shelved cherry display cabinet that squatted on claw and ball feet in the corner of my bedroom. By that time, I had enough of a collection that most of the shelves were at least half-filled with dolls, sitting side by side, their legs outstretched beneath voluminous skirts. I didn’t like consigning them to their glass house, but I arranged them, so their heads were turned to each other and arms raised as if gesticulating in friendly conversation. Whenever I took them out, I tried to put them back in different combinations, so they would be able to meet new friends and get a different perspective. I had four boy dolls total; I tried to distribute them as widely as possible between the shelves to foster some diversity.
“Many of my friends are boys,” I would tell the lady dolls. “Don’t be mean to them just because they wear boring clothes. It’s not entirely their fault.”
I loved my dolls without reservation. Other kids had Star Wars Figures and My Little Ponies. They had Care Bears, Strawberry Shortcakes, Rainbow Brites, Cabbage Patch Kids. They had Legos, Barbies, and G.I. Joes. All the toy commercial nostalgia pieces from the apex of 1980s Saturday morning wish lists. I had a few of those things too, but they weren’t the same as the dolls. The dolls were resolutely unfashionable, a thing little girls in the 80s were not supposed to want, and as a result the dolls felt both retrograde and kind of subversive. At night, I went to sleep facing shelves of fantastically arrayed women in geographically and chronologically impossible combinations, seeming to discuss the news of the day with great with and enthusiasm.
“Aren’t you ever afraid they come alive at night and do creepy things?” asked Andie, when she spent the night.
I was secretly sure they did not come alive at night, because the world is, in no way, that cool or magical. But I wished they would. I figured they’d discuss fashion politics and theatre, which were precisely the things I imagined sophisticated, grown-up ladies discussed all the time. I wanted to be a sophisticated grown-up lady more than anything when I was little. And the first part of being a sophisticated grown-up lady was calling bullshit when you heard it.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Andie,” I said. “They’re just dolls.”
It wasn’t just Andie, though. Somewhere along the line, the dolls went from being merely unfashionable to evidence of some grotesquely feminine Gothic Horror lurking in the attic. I don’t know if the world decided dolls were creepy and then Hollywood decided they were creepy or vice-versa. But by middle school, the consensus had it that dolls were the province of withered, lonely old crones, who may or may not be witches and probably murderers. Witches and murderers were okay, almost cool. But ugly, lonely and old? No worse fate if you were a woman.
I didn’t argue. I got that people were squicked out by dolls. Everyone had things that got under their skin and unsettled them. For me, it was natural disasters, tube socks, boredom, uniforms, and farms. Stacey thought my doll collection was scary; I thought that the Girl Scouts were probably fascists. But that’s the beauty of life. We’re all different!
Also, I was getting older. The bullshit of adolescence leaves little time for staging conversational vignettes between Alice (of “Wonderland” fame), Jo March, and Mary Queen of Scots. When we moved from my childhood home to the post-divorce house under the mountain, the doll case overwhelmed my bedroom. It moved to the living room, and there, left estranged until years later when it was marooned in the upstairs hall of my mother’s new house, and finally, removed to the far side of the smallest upstairs bedroom at my mother’s new house, half-blocked by the bed.
“Ew. Those things are so creepy,” a friend said, when we were visiting my mother’s house. “I don’t know how you can even sleep with them in the house.”
I remember thinking, they’re not creepy. I remember saying, “Your kid has realistic toy guns, right? How do you sleep with those in the house?”
We live in a world in which it’s perfectly normal for adult men to collect action figures and comic books. I’ve had a blind date, a man in his early forties, who asked earnestly if I was into Legos. Nostalgia for kid stuff is a huge industry, but most of that kid stuff, the stuff it’s okay to still like, is coded masculine. Things overtly and conventionally feminine are often viewed as, at best, superficial and, at worst, well, close your eyes and give me the first three adjectives that would pop into your head if I were to tell you that I have a doll collection in my house.
I don’t, by the way. My excuse for abandoning the doll collection at Mom’s for all these years is that I don’t have space. But that’s not really true. I would, in a minute, find space if Mom made good on sending me the piano, which is objectively bigger than the cabinet and its contents. Eventually, my parents will downsize, and I will have to do something about dolls. They didn’t end up being the valuable collectibles Nana once anticipated. The boxes are gone. Many of the dolls have been heavily played with and well loved, better suited for some kind of sentimental “Velveteen Rabbit”-style apotheosis than eBay.
I’ve never wanted children, but I have always fantasized by the notion of some other little girl seeing the doll collection, being transfixed by the same petticoats and ribbons, the fluffy skirts and portrait hats as I was. She wouldn’t think they were creepy. She’d see them, paused in the same animated, witty conversation they’ve been having since I was little.
I’d like to think she’d think they were fabulous.
Which, honestly, they are.