The Day Chatty Cathy Stopped Talking
I climbed up the metal stairs onto a plane that would take me on another family vacation where I was sure to get in trouble for something. I clutched my Chatty Cathy doll to my chest, trying to quell the nervous turns and twists in my stomach. The stewardess (this was before we got all p.c. and turned them into flight attendants) greeted us warmly. I could already smell the food preparations coming from the tiny kitchen. These were the days that airplanes still served food to everyone, not just to first class.
“Show them your doll,” said my father. He was always eager to gain attention from a pretty young woman.
My head sunk to my chest. It was starting already, the endless demands to be someone I didn’t want to be.
“C’mon, honey, show them what your doll can do,” said my father.
Reluctantly, I pulled out the long cord attached to the doll’s back and released it. A palpable silence hung over us. Chatty Cathy wasn’t talking. I panicked, continuing to pull out the cord and let it go, all to no avail. Tears welled in my eyes. The stewardess lost interest in us, and my father took my hand and tugged me angrily down the rows until we found our seats.
“Don’t be stupid, Cassie. It’s just a damned doll,” he said, yanking on my hand.
Once in my seat, I shielded my eyes. Dad thought crying was a womanly sign of weakness, and I burst into quiet tears. I felt them, wet and sticky, on my cheeks and didn’t even try to brush them away. He was already engrossed in a brief he was writing. A tornado could be spitting out angry wind, even hail, and he wouldn’t have noticed. My wonderful doll, the one I had lusted over for an entire year before I got it, had stopped talking. I shook her angrily. Would she ever talk again, or was her talking voice dead forever?
I caressed her blond curls as I stared out the window, watching the Chicago landscape. It seemed ginormous to me, shrinking as the pilot steered us up and away from the world I knew best. My doll had talked on the ground. Every time I had pulled out her cord, she had talked to me. And when I didn’t pull the cord, she was silent. I wished I had this kind of power over adults, who seemed to talk at me relentlessly, pounding at my ears with the pressure of their speech. Chatty Cathy knew better. She spoke in a kind, gentle tone, and she knew when to be quiet. At least, her being quiet was in my hands.
I watched the clouds float past my window, wondering whether this was the heaven that adults had told me about. Did dead people really live up here, playing happily, waiting for us to come join them? Is this where my doll’s voice had gone? I bowed my head, and the tears spilled out all over again. How my parents hated my tears. I couldn’t stop them. They sprung up any time I was sad, upset or ashamed, despite every effort my parents had made to shame me out of them.
“Big girls don’t cry,” my mother had said the last time she caught me curled up under the eaves in my secret reading corner, sobbing.
“I’m not big yet,” I had answered, suddenly feeling the ungainliness of my body. I seemed to be sprouting in all directions in response to her words, like Alice in Wonderland, when she grew so large that she pushed out of the frame of the picture in the book.
“You’re five,” said Mom. “You’re old enough. And you cry too much.”
Well, here I was, alone on a trip with Dad, fulfilling her worst thoughts about me. I was good at that. With hope, I pulled Chatty Cathy’s cord again. This time I drew out the cord ever so slowly, and controlled the speed of its release. Now, it would work, and she would talk.
The same stewardess that had greeted us when we first stepped onto the plane was suddenly in my face, leaning over Dad. I blinked, and curled back into myself instinctively. I didn’t like adults, especially this one, who had seen first-hand that my wonderful doll was dead. What did she want anyway? Maybe she didn’t like crying either. Dad poked me in the ribs.
“She wants to know what you want to drink,” he said impatiently.
I shook my head, staring at the enormous drink cart that was standing in the aisle, the one that would prevent me from getting to the bathroom as it slowly lumbered down the aisle.
“Talk to her,” muttered Dad. “You’re not a goddamn mute.”
Still, I said nothing.
“Is she okay?” asked the stewardess, Angela, according to the nametag on her dress. “Is there anything wrong with her?”
Even I knew what she meant. In my Kindergarten class, there were those obvious kids that had something wrong with them. Billy Cox, who peed in the coat closet and sat by himself. Jenny, the large girl who seemed older than the rest of us, who never seemed to know the answer, the one who often sat staring down at her empty paper, as if there was nothing she could imagine to put on it.
Dad cringed. “She’s just shy,” he said, glaring at me before returning his attention to his brief.
I turned back to my beloved doll that had never left my lap. I wanted nothing more in the world than to be able to hear her talk. I needed her kind little words to erase what I had seen in Dad’s face, and in Angela’s. But I didn’t even try to pull her cord. I accepted the fact that her voice was dead, up in the clouds by now, hopefully saving me a place for when I could join her. I felt lost. I pulled out a book and tried to drown myself in it, but for the first time I could remember, the book didn’t work. There was no magical transport into those black squiggly shapes, those words that I loved with all my might.
I closed my eyes, feeling sick again. When I first got Chatty Cathy for Christmas, my parents had tolerated my pulling the cord constantly, letting her sweet words sail over our house. But then they tired of it, as they so often tired of all my child-like interests. I had finally figured out last year that Mom and Dad were simply waiting for me to grow up and become a real person.
A memory swept over me, reddening me with shame all over again. We had gone over to visit some dreaded relatives; my parents hated all our relatives. I was sitting in their living room, and Dad called out to me from the den.
“Hey, Chatty Cathy,” he said. “Why don’t you pull your nose out of your book and go outside with the other kids?”
My uncle and aunt laughed. The nickname stuck, I hated it instantly. Was he making fun of me for talking too much? How could he be talking about the same person who so often got in trouble for not talking? While Chatty Cathy was a beautiful name for my doll, I didn’t want it for my own. She was supposed to be chatty. I hated even the possibility that adults would look at me as chatty, which to me was the same as pesky, annoying, like the mosquitoes that everyone was always trying to shoo away.
When the lunch trays came, I played with my food, my thoughts still revolving around my doll and her sudden muteness. Pushing my food around my plate, I watched my doll out of the corner of my eye, sitting so regally next to me on my chair, safely wrapped with me in my seat belt. Did she really need to talk? Wasn’t there something relieving about knowing that she would never talk?
I returned to playing with my food in earnest. It was the one advantage over travelling with my mother, who absolutely forbade any behavior that smacked of poor table manners. My Dad was stuffing food in his mouth while scribbling on one of his endless supply of yellow legal pads. I opened up the tiny plastic container of milk, just enough so that I could be sure it could close once again when I was done with it. I cut up my food into tiny bits that I fed into the milk, listening with satisfaction to the plink each small morsel made as I dropped it in. I stirred up my concoction with the toothpick with the frazzled red edges, the kind that was supposed to make an ordinary toothpick festive.
Already, I knew that I was not a festive child; I showed little of my sister’s off-the-wall exuberance. While she often got in trouble for making too much of a ruckus, I suspected that my parents much preferred her to my quiet self, the child that tiptoed around trying not to be noticed, despite the humiliating nickname that Dad had bestowed upon me. When the container was full, I carefully resealed the lid, hoping that some unsuspecting person on the next flight would open my container. I loved thinking about what their face would look like when they looked inside.
I looked again at my doll, so quiet and serene. I was beginning to enjoy our mutual silence, as if together we were watching the world from a distance, never quite involved. I grinned at Chatty Cathy before picking up my book again. It was all right. She could stay quiet, just like me, and maybe Dad would rename me Quiet Cathy in honor of her lost voice. As soon as my tray was removed, I stuck her back on my lap and got back to my book. And this time, it worked like usual, and I was lost in book space until the seat belt lights began to flash and the pilot announced that everyone should return their chairs to their upright position and get ready for landing.
By the time we were waiting for our luggage, transfixed by the endless loops of the rubber treads of the belt transporting nothing, Chatty Cathy and I were set. Bonded over our preference not to talk, I felt a new love for my doll. Suddenly, Dad, as if he had just recalled my sorrow when Chatty Cathy stopped talking, turned and looked down at me.
“Try her now, honey,” he said with an unexpected kindness. “I’m sure she’ll talk now that we’re on terra firma.”
When I did nothing, unwilling to try pulling her cord, after all, I now preferred her silence, Dad reached down, yanked her from me and pulled her cord.
“Want to play?” said my doll in chirpy voice that now sounded unnatural. “C’mon, let’s play.”
I shook my head and walked away, leaving Dad with Chatty Cathy dangling by his hand. I learned something that day that has stayed with me well into my adult self. Sometimes being quiet was good enough, especially in a world where talking was so often required of me.
Jan Charone-Sossin is a clinical psychologist, professor and writer with an MFA from Bennington College. Her stories have been published in MUSED-the BellaOnline Literary Review, Icarus DownUnder Review, and The Drowning Gull. She is passionate about reading and writing, which she sees as the most powerful tools for increasing our understanding of the perturbations of the human soul.