My sister Amy holds up a dilapidated cardboard box bent inward from my long-ago hugs, the one-line cartoon figure stenciled on its lid, a suddenly remembered friend. “What do you want me to do with this?”
Our father had recently died and allowing for the excused absence of our brother, we shoulder the exhausting task of cleaning out our childhood home. Amy is systematically removing toys from the shelves of our doll collection that takes up an entire wall in the bedroom we once shared. We are sorting among three laundry bins—hers, mine, and to give away.
“That’s Pearl!” I say, and sit up on my old twin bed. “Let me see her.” I was the kind of girl who never played with baby dolls, my lack of interest an early indicator that I would never choose to have children. But for a time, Pearl was a doll I played with every day and slept with under the covers instead of the menagerie of stuffed animals assigned to my bed.
Amy’s laundry bin is nearly full with keepsakes for her three-generation family back in Minnesota. My nearly empty bin shows the stoic pragmatism stiffening my spine, a hedge against the grief I feel. I want the memory not the thing, as I stave off her encouragement to fill my bin.
I sit the box in my lap and remove its cover, limp from decades of humidity. Inside is the doll I got for Christmas when I was five, the lids of her eyes closed, as if she’s sleeping.
The doll’s creator, The New Yorker cartoonist William Steig, contracted with the Brookglad Toy Company in the late fifties to design a different kind of doll.
I take her out of the box, embrace her soft rubber body and remember the faint scent of peppermint.
Memories unravel—me wearing dungarees, sitting next to the Christmas tree, stripping the gift wrap off a package the size of a shoe box. I was too young to read the words printed on the lid, but I immediately felt a tug of kinship with the slouch-shouldered little girl sketched like a cartoon on the box.
Steig maintained that America’s toy chest required not only glamour dolls to awe and baby dolls to be mothered, but a plain, unfortunate doll on which kids could exercise their ready compassion.
Next to the Christmas tree, my mother knelt beside me and read aloud the printing on the box, pointing to each word. “This is Poor, Pitiful Pearl.”
I lifted the doll with both hands, excited to show everyone.
My big brother shouted, “What a homely mug!” and the room burst into laughter.
They could laugh all they wanted. My heart hummed with the certainty that I was the only one who could appreciate Pearl’s specialness. This knowledge confirmed an inner sense that I was special, too. I saw my own asymmetrical face in Pearl’s pug nose and lopsided smile. I didn’t care that she wasn’t beautiful to anybody else but me. My adult self holds the doll and tears burn. I look into Pearl’s now open moveable eyes and recognize the same wistfulness I experienced as a lonely child. No cousins or kids my age on the block. My older siblings, a duo I was unwelcomed to join. Teased because of my baby fat, I was more prone to cry than giggle.
That Christmas, I set Pearl on the dinner table next to me, her retractable legs stretched flat, and dressed in a raggedy burlap dress with a patch stitched on the front. I supposed the “poor” in her name meant she had no money, and offered her milk from my two-handled cup. Now as I look at her, that outfit with the mismatched black socks and red polka dot head scarf seem grunge before its time.
Steig modeled the doll after the real-life, tenement-dwelling Pearl Bimblick, the daughter of a Jewish seamstress who was his best friend when they were twelve. Pitiful Pearl dolls became a 1950’s toy phenomenon and I wonder if my parents bought her because it was a hot item at Parker’s Department Store or if they owned some subtle understanding that their youngest daughter would take to loving something pitiful.
My sister Amy comes over, sits across from me, her voice warm, not teasing. “You and that doll were inseparable.”
“Pearl and I had our own secret language.” The doll’s rubber body still feels familiar in my arms and I brush her Saran hair away from her face. The old thrill of make-believe surprises like a light behind my eyes.
“I used to listen to you talk to her at night!” Amy laughed.
“I loved the sound of Pearl’s name. I’d say it over and over again, popping each P. Poor. Pitiful Pearl.”
“Do you want to keep her?”
I sit her on the bed and look back inside her box. Pearl wasn’t merely a doll; she possessed a superpower. Folded on a miniature hanger is the doll’s second set of clothes—a blue organdy party dress and a pair of white plastic pumps. She knew how to go from rags to riches with a costume change and her owner’s power of pretend. Pearl was Cinderella, and I, the Fairy Godmother.
How old was I when I stood on a chair, opened the sliding glass door and put away Pearl’s box on the top shelf of the collection? Seven, maybe—about the time when my imagination switched to books and my long loneliness dissolved when I began school.
In a Look magazine article published before the doll launched for Christmas, Steig said he envisioned her as more than a loveable urchin. He wanted her owners to also see Pearl as a spirited and resourceful girl who knew how to work out a good life for herself.
At the very bottom of the box, my fingers land on a slim booklet which had accompanied the doll. Stieg illustrated it in his iconic New Yorker style, and was probably the first self-help literature to which I had ever been exposed.
Pearl, the booklet explained, needs a refreshing bath, a nice dress, clean socks, and new shoes; but most important, Pearl needs a chance to admire herself. One drawing showed the cartoon Pearl looking into a hand mirror, pug nose and all—smiling that lopsided grin of hers.
Steig started writing and illustrating children’s literature when he turned sixty-one. Besides Pearl, his most famous creation was a green-skinned ogre named Shrek, that symbol of the boundless power to reimagine oneself.
I live a long plane ride away and the family treasures I’ll be taking will be only those that can squeeze into one piece of checked luggage. My heart veers between nostalgia and a clinging sentiment unwilling to let go. For a moment, I see my five-year-old self ripping open a tinseled gift under a Christmas tree. Then, I slip the booklet into my pocket and place Pearl’s box in the giveaway bin.
Linda Petrucelli lives on the Big Island of Hawaii. She likes the view from her lanai which she shares with one husband and ten cats. She won first place in the WOW! Women on Writing Fall 2018 Flash Fiction Contest. Her essays have appeared in Memoirist Magazine, Sky Island Journal, Barren, and KYSO Flash.