My aunt warned me that the doll had suffered damage over the years, possibly from heat or just plain age. But the oversized flesh-colored painted head and face I studied after peeling back the plastic, seemed to be in perfect condition. Molded cocoa brown swirls had been painted to resemble curled hair; the cupid-shaped painted lips were still vivid red as were the bright rouged cheeks. Her eyes were startling cobalt blue glass with soft brushed eyelashes framing a vacant stare. I resisted the urge to close them.
The yellowed linen gown, once mine according to my aunt, appeared to be intact when I lifted the doll to examine it. I almost dropped her though, when I saw the darkened, rotting stub that was supposed to be a left arm. Stiffened and crackled baby shoes, mine again, couldn't hide the decaying feet and ankles and I felt sick to my stomach. I didn't dare explore for more damage, not with those haunting eyes staring at me and I hunted for a safe place to lay her, a place where I wouldn't have to look at her. I finally selected the dresser in the guest bedroom. Yet, her presence emitted down the hallway like a ghost who wanted some kind of closure so it could pass on to the next world. I ended up closing the door so that I could sleep that night. Still, I no longer felt I was alone in my house and it wasn't a comfortable feeling. Often I'd catch myself talking in a low, soft voice on the phone or keeping the television volume down so as if not to wake her.
I spent the next few days searching the web for information on the doll and to find a reputable doll hospital to send her. I learned the Life-Size Baby Coos Doll, made by Ideal, was one of the first to be made with what was called Magic Skin, a soft rubber composite that was skin-like to the touch. Made between 1947 and 1951, my doll wasn't considered "antique", but "vintage" instead. Her blackened and rotted arms and legs hadn't resulted from neglect, but due to the chemicals that made up the Magic Skin, (which also explained why Magic Skin is no longer produced). And unfortunately, shipping the doll wrapped in plastic spurred the deterioration to warp speed. Knowing the specifics didn't banish my revulsion toward the doll and I was only too happy to ship her to New Braunfels TX where I had located a doll hospital that specialized in remolding bodies for dolls like her.
With the doll no longer in my possession, I'd hope she'd disappear from my thoughts as well, but she didn't. The first e-mail I got from the woman who owned the doll hospital said, "Your baby arrived today. She has one of the sweetest faces I've seen. I like to know something about my patients. I assume she was your baby when you were little since you explained the dress she's wearing was yours. What was her name? How old were you when you got her? How was she stored?"
Her name? Sudden guilt assaulted me. I never considered that the doll might have a name. I didn't dare write or call my aunt to ask her. Confess to the eighty-three year old woman who'd kept my favorite doll for me all of these years that I didn't remember the doll's name?
The vintage doll was on the medical waiting list which was a year long, the next e-mail said. I honestly could say I didn't mind. All the more time to decide what I would do with her after she was released to come home. Maybe once whole again, she'd be no longer repugnant to me, instead become the precious baby she'd been manufactured to be. But I wasn't a doll person. Never had been that I could remember (age five and older).
Growing up in Iowa, each Christmas and birthday I hoped for either a fire truck or a train set. And every year I faked my delight in holding the latest Shirley Temple, Betsy Wetsy or the Toni Walker Doll. Only days later, in the secrecy of my bedroom closet, would I release my repressed hostilities on the offending doll by cutting its hair off. The one doll I did ask for was a Barbie doll because she was a grown-up like I thought I was at the age of twelve. Plus I wanted to be invited to the Barbie doll parties where all the girls spent hours dressing up their dolls and pretending they were on dates. My mother caved, saying, "Well, I guess you can have one last doll. Since you're older now, maybe this doll will be able to keep her hair."
I can still see the broad smile on my mother's face when she tiptoed upstairs one afternoon and saw me combing and styling Barbie's long blond straw-like hair. But when Barbie disappeared weeks later, my mother didn't ask any questions. She knew Barbie had joined the other scalped dolls in the back of my closet.
Over the course of the next year, I got the occasional e-mail stating the progress on the baby doll, but not often enough that I gave her much thought. However, my internal clock had counted down the months and shortly before she was due to be discharged, I asked my daughter-in-law, Paula, if she would like the doll when I received it. Thrilled, but also suspicious of my motives, Paula asked, "Why aren't you going to keep it and why are you giving to me?"
"I'm giving it to you because I know how much you value family heirlooms. You'll take good care of her. You also will make sure little Sammie won't break her."
Paula knows me well. "And why don't you want her? What aren't you telling me?"
"Okay. If you must know, I don't like her. She's ugly."
"Well, I don't care if she's ugly or not. She'll be special to us because she was once yours."
I wasn't too proud of myself at that moment and regretted my generous offer to Paula. The doll was special. The one doll that had survived my childhood. Here my aunt had guarded her for all of these years and I was going to discard her like an old shoe or purse? Maybe I shouldn't give her away just yet? I could always will her to Paula and little Sammie.
The e-mail finally arrived. "Your baby is ready. I've laundered and mended the dress and socks, too. I'll send her by Fed Ex to your home address unless you want me to ship her somewhere else."
I instructed the hospital administrator to send the package to my work. With $110.00 invested in her recovery, I wasn't about to have her wait all day on my front porch in the Texas summer 100 degree temperature. Without thinking, I dialed Paula's number and announced, "She's on her way!"
Why did I do that, I thought, hearing the excitement in my voice? I wanted to keep the oversized baby doll with the sweet face for myself. She was part of my childhood. Surely with normal arms and legs, I, too, would find her beautiful instead of creepy.
The receptionist called my extension the next morning. "Your Fed Ex package is here."
"Great!" I said. "I'll be right there."
When I saw the square cardboard box, I said, "This isn't what I thought it was. My doll can't be in that box. She's life-size."
"Well, you said she was a baby doll. It could fit in there."
I shook my head. "Trust me, she's more toddler than baby."
She handed me the scissors and I opened the box. The oversized head and wide eyes were now swimming in a sea of white peanuts and I let out a squeaked, "Help me pull her out. She's drowning."
"Oh my, she's beautiful," Sheila, a co-worker said. "May I hold her?"
Handing her to Sheila, I saw that the doll's new arms and legs were now perfectly shaped. Both hands were molded into closed fists. The dress, once yellowed and limp, was starched white and I saw for the first time, the light blue embroidery around the neckline and hem. Sheila cradled the doll and cooed, "What a sweet baby," then looked up at me. "You are so lucky that your aunt kept her for you all these years."
True, I thought.
"What are you going to do with her?"
Yeah, what was I going to do? "I planned to give her to Paula, but I'm not sure," I said.
"Oh no, you need to keep her," Sheila said, handing me the doll that let out a sudden faint cry.
We both started.
"I didn't know she cried."
"Me, either," I said, swallowing hard. I wanted to hurl the doll back into the box and run, but what if the doll's plaintive cry was a plea for help? "Please don't desert me again."
It was like a homecoming parade or a funeral procession, I couldn't decide which, as one friend toted the box and another the doll down the hallway and into my office. Alone with the doll that now sat upright in the box of whitecap peanuts and stared at me, I felt the rise of repulsion mixed with fear. Why was the repaired toy from the past still filling me with terror? Maybe if I got another affirmation of how beautiful she was?
I darted out of the room and headed to another friend's office. "Come see what I have," I said. "It's a doll that I had when I was little."
Janet's reaction was the same as the others. "What a gorgeous doll!"
I forced myself to relax, enjoy the glow of praise for the treasure from my past. "Isn't she, though?" I chimed in. Of course, I'd keep the doll. Whatever my problem was with her, I could get over it. "She even cries," I boasted.
"How sweet," she said. Janet was gently rocking the baby in her arms when suddenly the doll let out a strangled cry and its head lobbed forward. Speechless, I watched as Janet struggled to reinsert the doll's head into its stuffed cavity. "It wasn't glued very well, was it?" she said.
"Apparently not," I answered.
Together we worked to put the vintage Humpty Dumpy baby back together and then I called Paula. "She's here. Come get her now!" I know an omen when I see one and I also remember why I never liked dolls.
Copyright © 1999-2005 by Amarillo Bay. All rights reserved.