Growing up in rural Wisconsin, life was carefree. We were somewhat poor, but of course didn't know it. When you're not surrounded by the clutter of stuff, your imagination has a chance to make up the difference. My days were filled with the magic of pretend. What I remember most were my dollies, my babies piled carelessly in the top drawer of an old peach colored dresser in the playroom of our basement. They were my secret stash, the promise of long hours of pretend, of dreaming of the days I would hold real babies in my arms and they would call me Momma and I would love them like nothing else in this world.
My first baby was a Chatty Cathy doll I unwrapped when I barely knew what Christmas was and first discovered that beautiful boxes under a magically lit tree held wonderful surprises inside. If I put my finger into the little white plastic ring on the back of her neck and pulled the cord, she would say amazing things like, “kiss me good night,” “may I have a cookie,” or “I love you.” Eventually her pull cord broke, and she was forever silenced, but she was still my baby.
There were other babies in the drawer, including several cast-off, hand-me-down dolls from friends or cousins who outgrew the need to play house or babies. There was my beloved Paulie, so named because it was the best name in the world and because I always had wanted a boy baby. I found a picture of Paulie in a Sears catalog years later and to my dismay, discovered that his real name was something akin to “little Miss Wet Wet” or something equally derogatory. Paulie was beautiful, and a BOY, and would never be reduced to a little miss anything. There was Cindy, my biggest chubby baby that had indelible red marks on her face, left over from the time I tried to play clowns with her and a sample tube of Avon red lipstick. She was forever marred, but I covered her face as best as I could with a receiving blanket when I held her, and loved her despite the fact that her clown-like appearance remained.
Babies were for holding, and dressing, changing, feeding, and putting down for naps. They didn’t have many clothes between them, so they learned to share and make due, just like the rest of us. They loved you, and needed you and never left you. Whenever you needed a friend, they were forever waiting in that top drawer, carelessly strewn from a quick clean up time. They never seemed to mind being piled in there, always ready for their next excursion.
I remember sewing outfits for my babies. I had taken old pairs of shorts that were too small for me and cut them down and sewed them on my mom’s old Singer that she had patiently taught me to use at the tender age of seven. Paulie, Cathy, Cindy and the others had new clothes. They were so excited!
Days of playing and imagining turned into weeks, months, and years. Eventually my tattered group of dolly friends grew old and worn, and I felt the need for a new baby. Christmas was coming, and along with it was the promise of a new doll. Out came the Sears catalog, and as I began my search for a new friend, I came upon a very sobering discovery. As I turned page after page, combing the pictures of beautiful little baby dolls, some with pacifiers and bottles, others with beautiful clothes or accessories to accompany them, one thing kept popping up at the bottom of each description--"recommended for ages 5 to 10." A few included age 11. All of a sudden I realized the manufacturers must have known something that had unknowingly slipped by me. The truth I discovered that day was this: twelve was too old for playing with dolls. It was time to embrace what other girls my age had long since done. The babies were to be set aside to make room for music and sports, sleepovers and crushes.
This day will remain in my mind as the day I grew up, even if just a little. The bitter-sweet coming of age time ushered in new days of insecurity, peer pressure, and a nagging feeling of innocence lost. But I will be forever grateful for the care-free days of playing Momma to a group of little ones that helped mold me into someone who would someday love her real babies more than I could ever have imagined.