It was early December when my parents called us into the living room to tell us that our family had been canceled. “Your mother and I are getting divorced,” my father said, his voice steady and solemn. I was in the fourth grade, and it was perfectly reasonable to feel stunned by this news. There’d been no warning signs of my parents’ sundering. At least none I’d detected. My parents didn’t fight. They didn’t even yell. Until that December evening, we’d been a gentle sitcom family: a mother, father, and two kids, and none of us facing the kind of challenges that might make for “a very special episode.”
My vivacious mother, usually so chatty, sat silently between my older brother, Joel, and me. My father told us that after this school year we’d live with our mother, who, he added, would soon be marrying Arthur. Arthur was my father’s close friend and teaching colleague. They’d been working on a book together. My mother remained still but Joel’s face flushed and, in a blur, he was out the room, stomping up the stairs and banging his door shut. I waited a couple of beats before exiting to my own room, carefully shutting my door as if I didn’t want anyone to know I was there.
It was 1969 and divorce was still the D-word, whispered, and never discussed. It would be decades before people “processed” their feelings. So, with no language for our family’s volcanic upheaval, my brother slammed doors, my father bellowed, my mother glared, and I stood mutely by. Is it any wonder, then, that a dimpled, battery-operated doll who barely reached the tops of my knee socks so easily won my heart?
Her name was Baby First Step and right away, I knew she was the doll for me. She was blonde, blue-eyed and like most plastic people, uncomplicated. I could tell she wasn’t the kind to dominate our sole television set, like my brother, or abruptly leave the dinner table in stony silence, like my parents.
The first time I saw her, she was strolling in a glossy television garden with fake sunlight bouncing off her yellow curls. Her chubby arm reached straight up to the fingers of her human companion who, in a lilting voiceover, sang of the joys of having Baby First Step in her life; not just for strolls in the garden, but for tea parties, bubble baths, impromptu car washes and finally, for tucking into bed at night, right up to her rosebud lips. Each blissful scene of the girl and her doll in their exclusive relationship further convinced me that with Baby First Step in my life, my world would burst into a shiny, colorful paradise. And in that idyllic world, my doll and I would frolic together through happy, bubbly days. Batteries not included.
“Can I have ten dollars?” My father was always the go-to guy when it came to begging small luxuries like comic books and Cracker Jack. But this time his reply of “What for?” set off alarms in my chest. I was going to have to fight for Baby First Step and frankly, it was a little embarrassing. I was teetering on the edge of Too Old for Dolls and in declaring my desire for a plastic sister, I knew that risked baring my need to dominate someone when I, myself, felt so small.
“Itsforadoll,” I gushed, hoping my blurred words might disorient my father. A weary, wallet-worn look fluttered across his face, but I pressed on. “Daddy, she can walk!” I said, with evangelical fervor. “She can really walk!” But my father wasn’t buying into my zeal for yet another doll. I was already well-equipped with a sizeable army of Barbies and shelves full of board games and books. A line of stuffed animals slumped at the end of my bed like sentries to the Land of Nod while my gerbils, Peanut butter and Jelly, banged their exercise wheel against their glass prison in nocturnal rodent rage. As far as my father was concerned, my world was complete.
And yet, without Baby First Step, what was my world? I might as well have had a pair of dead gerbils for playthings. “I have two dollars,” I offered. It needn’t be a total hand-out. But for the first time, my adoring father had no interest in my latest passion. Perhaps he viewed a walking doll as yet another interloper in his life. But that was his problem, not mine. I knew what I needed and after a few days of scrounging up $3.50 in coins from my family’s coat pockets, I was back at the table. Worn down, my father agreed to pay half, grabbed his keys, and drove me to the toy store.
When we returned home, it took a while to free my new sister from her twist-tie restraints. She’d been strapped to her shiny, pink box as securely as Dr. Frankenstein’s creature to the lab table. But at last, I brought her angelic face up to mine and breathed her in. She smelled like love. I pulled down her panties and located her center of power, just above the buttocks. “She needs two batteries,” I said. In Dad Land, batteries are among the few things that make sense, so my father set aside his vodka and New York Times and went to the basement.
Standing beside me like a humpless Igor, my father’s heavy breathing filled the space as I shoved two small batteries into the small of Baby First Step’s back. In my excitement, my sweaty, fumbling hands sent the plastic panel shooting across the room. “Oh, Christ!” my father said. “Where the hell’d it go?” I was quickly down, searching the floor till I found the piece and with trembling fingers, pressed it in with a satisfying click. Nudging the on-off switch from left to right, the doll’s legs toggled back and forth. “Life! Life! My doll has life!” Setting her down on the table, I held my breath for the moment I’d been waiting for: my sister’s first steps.
Together, my father and I watched in silence as her tiny backside shimmied forward. But what was that horrible, grinding noise? The doll on TV hadn’t made any sounds. I felt slightly dizzy with the sudden realization that my baby sister had an awful lot in common with an electric can opener. How was I supposed to bond with that? She didn’t toddle so much as teeter from side to side in a stiff, swaying gait that reminded me too much of Frankenstein’s creature. A creature with a load in his pants.
I didn’t take my eyes off the doll as she vibrated across the table. But her mechanical whir couldn’t muffle the avalanche of disappointment crashing down inside me. Our strolls in the garden, our impromptu tea parties, our collage of giggly times together—all of that was dissolving as Baby First Step tread like a tiny zombie towards the table’s edge.
So lost was I in my disappointment, that if my father hadn’t caught her by the leg, Baby First Step would have crashed to the floor. But what did I expect? That she’d stop at the precipice and telepathically communicate in the way of dolls: “Oh, no! Now, what do I do?!” Her arms, legs, and buttocks were still shimmying as my father handed her to me. Embarrassed, I quickly switched her off. “What a junky doll,” I wanted to say, but couldn’t. Not in front of the person I’d begged, bugged, and borrowed from. And so, with as much sangfroid as I could muster, I carried Baby First Step upside-down by one foot to my room.
While Baby First Step had been saved from serious injury, I myself felt shattered. The doll’s Creature Feature lurch, her soulless double-A hum had proved that my desire for a sister to help me through our family’s unraveling was nothing more than a made-for-TV fantasy. What I’d longed for wasn’t merely another toy, but a relationship. That was the real heartbreak of Baby First Step. A walking doll couldn’t insulate me from an angry brother brooding in his room, a father sobbing into his pillow, or a mother fleeing down the stairs. A walking doll couldn’t change the fact that our family had changed overnight from sitcom to soap opera.
But even if my family life was less a stroll through a sunny plastic garden and more a clumsy stagger towards the table’s edge, I was determined not to fall off. My disillusionment with Baby First Step had toughened me up and I understood that the only one tending to my feelings now was me. The following week, I rolled the doll in some wrapping paper for the Junior Girl Scout holiday swap and traded her away.
And yet, I still leaned into the shiny brand of hope commercials dangled in between Saturday morning cartoons. I still believed in the transformative power of toys. I just needed the right one, the one that would give me the veneer of stoic self-reliance. The one that would speed me away from feeling so alone with my sadness.
When Christmas morning rolled around, my face flushed with joy at the fulfillment of my heart’s new desire: Mattel’s Hot Wheel Stunt Set. Stretching out the smooth orange track like giant fruit leather, I breathed in the freshly molded plastic. It smelled like cool. In my room, I piled textbooks on top of my dresser to weigh down one edge of the track so that it dove perilously to the floor. As I sent the tiny, metal cars zipping down the track my heart raced along as I imagined myself the shiny blue one, a speeding blur on a long orange tongue, gathering enough momentum to defy gravity and loop-the-loop, jump the grief chasm and with a little luck, land firmly on the other side.
Miriam Glassman has written several children’s books including CALL ME OKLAHOMA! selected as one of the top chapter books of 2013 by the New York Public Library. She received her MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, taught workshops at Solstice MFA in Creative Writing of Pine Manor College, and is currently working on a memoir. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter @mgglassman, Instagram: mgglassman, and her website: www.miriamglassman.com