My granddaughter Violette wants a doll for her seventh birthday, and I am giving her one. This is not just any doll, but an American Girl Doll, complete with 18th century costume and a historical novelette of which she is the heroine. One can also purchase an entire Revolutionary-era environment (clothing, furniture, transportation) for this doll, whose name is Felicity.
The weird thing is, I\’m excited about Felicity. I\’ve been tracking her progress all the way from Wisconsin, a progress almost as slow as it would have been in Revolutionary times. She is being delivered to our house instead of going directly to Violette because I want to open the box and lift her out and check out her outfit and her underwear and shoes. I want to feel her hair, sit her down, move her arms, turn her head.
I grew up without siblings or cousins, so dolls were my companions. I had big dolls and tiny dolls; boy dolls and girl dolls; I even had a Black doll. I had good dolls who always behaved properly and others who were disobedient and had to be punished by being made to stand in the corner. Most of my dolls could open and close their eyes—I can still hear that tiny click—and they made a mewling sound when you lay them down. I had a doll that walked, and one that wet its diaper if you fed it water in a baby bottle.
My favorite doll, however, had no mechanical capabilities. Her eyes were painted on and she couldn\’t turn her head, much less walk. Her hair was made of thick yarn, gathered in a ponytail. Her trunk, arms and legs were stuffed, and you could see the seams where her “skin” was sewn together. She was big and floppy, and I loved her precisely because she couldn\’t do tricks. Tricks—the clicking eyeballs, the robotic walk—inevitably reminded me that a doll was not alive. But this one was a blank-slate doll, who let me project my maternal fantasies without mechanical interference.
She was my last doll, the only one that, when we left Spain for Ecuador, I was allowed to take with me, and I carried her in my arms throughout that week-long trip.
No, we did not walk to Ecuador. We flew, but in the 1950s that meant spending a couple of days in fancy hotels both in New York and Bogota waiting for the next scheduled flight. I have a photo of our arrival in the Quito airport. There is the welcoming committee from the Department of Culture; there is my father holding his violin case; my mother in a suit she had had made for the occasion, a hat, and a fur stole. And I am there, in my braids and round glasses, my best dress and shoes and—oh God, I just remembered, my father\’s socks.
Apparently, in the course of that week of flying and staying in hotels, I had run out of clean socks, and my mother insisted that I wear a pair of my father\’s. Some day before I die I hope I can forgive her for that.
Anyway, there I am in the picture, a robust ten-year-old in men\’s socks, clasping that big doll to my chest. And I kept her close for the next couple of years at least, until the moment when, mysteriously, my attention shifted from her to a boy I met at a bar-mitzvah.
I don\’t remember an interim period between dolls and boys. I believe I went straight from dolls to boys, then from boys to a husband, husband to babies…and now here I am, back to dolls again.