by Dawn Reno Langley
At Christmastime, Nana takes me to Jordan Marsh, a huge department store in downtown Boston, a place my asthmatic and claustrophobic mother never brings me. But my elegantly slim Swedish grandmother dons her pillbox fur hat and slips into her winter-white wool coat and pulls on her black leather elbow-length gloves over her red-manicured fingers, and we go shopping. It is an adventure made more exciting by the twinkling lights, delighting children like me who eye Roy Rogers snap guns, Tiny Tears dolls and automated window displays of Santa with his elves and reindeer. To my five-year-old eyes, it is magical.
We ride up the escalator past ladies’ lingerie and household goods, men’s suits and children’s shoes, to the top floor: Santa’s Village. Last stop. Home of every toy in creation.
I catch my breath, overwhelmed by aisle after aisle of beautiful dolls. Baby dolls that cry and wet, porcelain dolls with finely-painted black eyelashes and lace dresses fit for Victorian princesses, dolls as tall as I am, and Shirley Temple dolls dressed in costumes from each of her movies. Dolls stacked to the ceiling, so high I strain to see the ones on top.. My eyes widen as I reach out a finger to touch one dressed in an emerald green plaid kilt. Her fiery red hair the color of a summer tomato.
My daughter is two and a half. I’m living in Upstate New York, in a cement block house down the dirt road from a little farm owned by my new friends, Tom and Barbara. Tom is a former lawyer, former professor, now landlord. Barbara is redheaded, wears glasses, and is Jewish, with a laugh as big as her love for Tom. Their house, filled to the rafters with the goods from their antique shop in Cambridge, looks like it can’t hold the winter’s heat within the thin clapboards peeling with age. My cement ranch house holds very little heat itself. A small woodstove sits in the middle of my dining room. I burn green wood that I chop myself in the acreage in front of the house. I’ve never chopped wood before I lived here. Didn’t even know people still did that.
I’m barely twenty-one years old.
There are nights I’m so scared that I force myself to keep stoking the stove, staying awake because the sounds of coyotes and owls and wild cats send shivers down my spine. I am totally incapable of protecting the child who sleeps in the room off the hall, my daughter.
My jealous heart almost explodes because I know that nothing so perfect, so fine and beautiful like those porcelain dolls will wait for me under my Christmas tree. We live in the projects less than ten miles from Jordan Marsh. My father drives a garbage truck for the city; my grandparents live on my grandfather’s meager retirement from his job as a mechanic. At five, I already know what I can have and what I cannot. That gorgeous red-headed Scottish doll is not on the reality list. But I can dream and standing there in the aisles of that toy department, I imagine bringing each doll home with me.
Nana spots her own “toys,” the selection of paint-by-number kits, and momentarily leaves me to marvel at the dolls. In that brief breadth of time, I drift into a world my imagination created—a place I know all too well now as my “writer’s place,” but at five, that place is new to me.
I begin to make up stories about each of the dolls. The Scottish doll speaks to me with a funny accent. The baby dolls find their way to my bedroom, nestle on my single bunk bed, filling the space where there should be a pillow. The huge dollhouse—taller than I with room after room of miniature furniture—becomes my home. The perfect family who are tiny enough to fit on those itty bitty pieces of furniture becomes my family.
I live on Welfare in that cement block house in New York State. I have barely enough money to buy milk and to put some gas in my car so that I can go to the grocery store. I buy yellow-lined paper to write letters to my mother back home in Boston. She sends me stamps in the cheery cards I receive every other day. Stamps and a few dollars here and there, a few dollars I know she can’t afford.
I tell her about the words her granddaughter, Jennifer, is learning, how she loves to sit on the old red tractor that rests in my garden patch behind the house, the patch that is now frozen over though it is only October. As I write the letters, huddled at the red wooden kitchen table below the half window where I’ve hung curtains decorated with watermelon slices, I think of home, of the friends and family I left behind when my ex-husband chased me away. I think of the night policemen sat in patrol cars in front of my mother’s house, loaded shotguns in their hands. I think of the night my ex broke into my mother’s house. And though the cries of animals scare me every night on this farm in the middle of nowhere, I feel safer than I did when he knew where I lived. He has no idea where I am, and even if he had my address, he will not be able to find me.
The aisles of Jordan Marsh disappear. My world is inhabited by the fragile porcelain-faced dolls on those shelves. And when Nana calls my name and her voice breaks through that imaginary veneer, I do not want to go home with her. I want to stay where everything is bright and beautiful. I do not want to return to a home where those dolls do not live.
I hide behind a big doll house, and when Nana’s voice follows me down that aisle, I disappear into the next one. Her frantic voice follows me. A nervous giggle bubbles up into my throat. I will not let her find me. I will not let her ruin my game.
I hold my breath against the cold November chill and head out to the mailbox, hoping for a letter from my mother. Jen is in the kitchen. She’ll be okay for the moment it takes to get the mail.
I pull out bills and a couple of flyers for sales at the local stores, stores that I don’t frequent because I have enough money just to pay for necessities, but my eye is caught by one of them. Yarn on sale. Christmas will be coming soon. I could make some sweaters for Jennifer. I tuck the circular under my arm. Then I see the envelope and the familiar handwriting. A letter postmarked Boston. Mom.
Standing in the cold breeze, I read the first page. Newsy. She talks about the weather. My father’s last visit to the doctor. Her battles with asthma. The wind rustles the pages, so I fold them, slide them back into the white envelope, and head back into the house.
In the kitchen, Jennifer is on the floor, singing. In her hands are fistfuls of sand. I must have left the door open. She brought the sand in from outside the front door. She looks up to smile at me. Something white is on the floor mixed with the sand. I take a step closer. Milk. The quarter cup of milk I was saving for coffee and cereal the next day. The last of the milk for this week.
Mail forgotten, I sink to my knees. The fear and loneliness and anxieties well up, mixing with the milk and sand. I cry.
Jen, my baby, my two-year-old innocent, slaps some of the sand and milk on my cheek and laughs. It’s too much. The anger toward everyone else wells up in me, and I stand above her, wanting to slap her.
But I can’t. She’s my baby. My two-year-old. Innocent.
I walk out the front door.
I pass the Shirley Temple display and round the corner where the boys’ trucks replace the tottering display of dolls. Nana’s voice recedes into the distance. I study the mustard-yellow dump trucks and the red and white fire trucks with their movable ladders. They clank and whirr, but my heart remains with the pink and white dolls in the next aisle. Slowly I wander around the corner, head back to the dolls, eyes skyward, and slam into a pair of legs.
“Where have you been?” Her voice shakes. “You scared me silly. Don’t ever do that again!”
One gloved hand grabs my shoulder, the other whips across my face. The sting brings instant tears. My imaginary doll world shatters as if they all had toppled to the floor, their porcelain faces cracking into a thousand pieces.
I’ve left the house and I realize too late that I’m in the middle of the dirt road without a sweater. The gray November sky swirls with hints of snow, and I shiver, but I can’t go back inside. I’m still too angry. Walking a little further, I duck into the woods on the side of the road, thinking that being in the trees might cut the wind. I breathe deeply, calming myself, blinking back hot tears, hating my life. A car slides by, voices; I stay hidden. I don’t want to talk to anyone now. Not now.
The voices become louder. I hear my name. A child cries. Jennifer.
I can’t stay hidden any longer. Crackling leaves and bramble bushes catch my legs as I climb out of my hiding place. I see the rear view lights of an old Buick. The white head of a man carrying a child. My child. I run.
Jennifer calls me as I near, and the man turns. I know him. The Colonel. My friend Debbie’s father. Jen reaches for me, and I hold my arms out. The Colonel and his wife exchange glances, look at me quizzically. Didn’t know why a child would be out alone on the road, he tells me. I reply that I had lost something, thank him, tell him it’s cold, and head for my house.
My terrified heart pounds.
This weekend, I’m taking my two-year-old grandson out by myself. It’s the first time I will have him in the car alone, the first time we’ll go to a store and out to lunch, the first time it’ll be my responsibility to bring him home to his mother, my daughter, safely. He likes to hide when I babysit in his house. Just last week, he started saying, “I see you!” when he plays peek-a-boo. The game is a frightening reminder of the one I played so many years ago with my grandmother.
When I run downstairs on Christmas morning, my little sister is barely a year old. Every year after that, there’ll be two or three sets of presents (my brother would be born two years later), but for that year, I am the main focus. My sister has no idea what Christmas was all about. That year—the year of Jordan Marsh—is the year my parents asked a special favor of my grandmother. They asked her to travel to Jordan Marsh for the one toy my parents would buy for me that year. Under the tree, in a place of honor, sat a 20″ tall Shirley Temple doll in a red and white polka dot dress. The doll my grandmother had been buying when she left me alone.
Author’s Note: I know now that the knowledge we are expected to have as parents truly doesn’t kick in until we become grandparents. I wanted to show that, as well as the insecurities we all feel about raising other human beings.
Dawn Reno Langley is a writer who grew up in Boston and currently lives in North Carolina. She has written and published in every genre except screenwriting. She is currently navigating the very warm waters of grandparent-hood.