Simply realizing that I was a broken doll didn’t result in my overnight transformation into a genuine real live girl. No blue fairy with softly shimmering wings appeared to anoint me with starlight and set me on my way. In fact, as I’ve mentioned before, my familiar little world had been badly shaken and my support network scattered at that time. And to make matters even worse, as I thought, we moved to an area where I knew no one but my parents-in-law, who were in the middle of a bitterly ugly divorce.
With the remarkable clarity of fifteen years’ worth of hindsight, I recognize now that all these things had to be. Had I stayed where I was, I most likely would have remained as I was: desperately miserable but paralyzed to do anything. The terrible upheaval in my life both forced and freed me to admit that I needed help from somewhere I hadn’t looked before.
By the end of my twenties, I had begun to recognize that I couldn’t go on as a wind-up doll forever, that no matter how faithfully I followed the programs and performed the tasks expected of me, I could not win the deep affection and unmitigated approval I longed for. No one could love my true self, because no one – not even I – could see my true self, obscured beneath so many layers of attempts to appear acceptable.
Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t hold my world together. My husband lost his job and had to go back to working on the road, leaving me alone with three young children from early Monday morning to late Friday night most weeks. My church fell apart and the friends to whom I clung desperately to keep me afloat were no longer there. None of my well-rehearsed scenes were playing out according to the script I had studied, no matter how hard I tried to adapt my lines.
Sometime around my thirtieth birthday, when I was broken open enough so that a bit of light and air could get through to my real buried self, I made a decision to stop: to stop trying to be perfect enough to make my parents happy, to stop trying to be sophisticated enough to mingle with my husband’s business associates’ wives, to stop trying to be spiritual enough to accept human leaders’ foibles and failures as God’s master plan. I realized that I didn’t want to be a ventriloquist’s puppet any longer, reciting the speeches my various audiences wanted to hear. I wanted to be Rebekah, a real live girl of whom I had caught occasional glimpses through the years.
I married at barely past twenty, and for the next decade I functioned more or less acceptably, much like one of those dolls with a pull string on the back of her neck that makes her talk. I developed a repertoire of stock phrases and behaviors that, if they didn’t quite fit the circumstances, if they didn’t ring exactly true, were yet close enough for people to gloss over and interpret as what they wanted to hear and see.
I didn’t realize it then, but of course the mask works both ways. The smooth, resilient exterior that prevented people knowing what I mess I was inside also undoubtedly kept me from absorbing much light and love that might have been mine.
Over time, by the grace of God, the polished finish began to wear through in spots, and the pull string started fraying. Around my thirtieth birthday, I began to wake up inside, began at least to realize that I had been suffocating.
By my late teen years, I had packed away my baby dolls and started collecting china dolls. Daddy was pastoring a little church then. Most of the twenty-five or thirty congregants were older folks. Many of them I’d known all my life, but there was an occasional newcomer. One ‘new’ old gentleman who lived alone became quite active in the church and accordingly spent a fair amount of time with our family.
Frank often told my parents, in my hearing, that I was ‘a little porcelain doll.’ He meant it as the sincerest compliment; it was his way of saying that I was pretty and delicate and well-mannered.
Collectible dolls are usually meticulously molded and constructed, perfectly painted, elegantly dressed. They are lovely, but not precisely lovable. They don’t hold up well under the strain of ordinary day-to-day handling. They are cold, and stiff, and fragile.
At that point in time, I had most of the qualifications for being a china doll. I wore a vaguely pleasant, noncommittal expression on my face. I went where I was supposed to go and filled the place assigned to me without argument. I behaved properly, as expected. I didn’t talk out of turn. My feelings were carefully concealed beneath an aesthetically pleasing surface.
Baby Girl the Second’s ‘big’ Christmas gift last month was a very special doll, one that looks quite a bit like her. For the first couple weeks, Buttercup went everywhere with us, had her hair combed frequently, and was talked about to every friend, acquaintance, and store clerk who seemed even mildly interested (or not). This daughter of mine has never latched onto one particular necessary-for-breathing doll or stuffed animal or blanket, but it looks like Buttercup is going to be a good friend for a long time, even though the first flush of adoration has worn off a bit.
Naturally, Baby Girl’s interactions with her doll set me to thinking, not only about the dolls who were my particular companions when I was her age, but also about my own experiences as a doll.
I loved my dollies; they were as tenderly cared for as a little girl knew how: bathed and dressed and tucked in carefully at night. But even more, I loved Grandma, and I was her dolly. That was what she called me when I was small, and I was supremely happy and secure in the inarticulate but clear understanding that I was cherished and delighted in.
We moved a state away from Grandma when I was five. She and I remained close always, but I had outgrown being her dolly by the time we lived near each other again. That’s what happens, of course. Little girls grow up, and their relationships change and mature. They don’t relate to either their grandmothers or their dolls the same way when they are teenagers that they did when they were toddlers. But that innocent assurance of being treasured, just by being, still seems to me a grievous loss.