Wednesday, July 10, 2013


Cousin Sallie is two and a half years older than I. One day, when quite young, I found myself playing dolls with her. We fed our baby dolls from toy bottles (in 1950, any other method of feeding babies was out of favor and its existence carefully concealed from the young and innocent); burped them; put them in bed for a nap; responded to their cries when they woke up; changed their diapers; and started over again. Following Sallie's lead through all of this, it dawned on me that that's what you're supposed to do: you're supposed to pretend that the doll is a baby and that you're its mother.

That had never occurred to me.

Furthermore, it struck me as hugely boring. I was used to playing dolls with Paula, who, as much younger than I as Sallie was older, followed my lead in using the dolls to act out elaborate fantasies. And it wasn't just dolls. When I was given a set of colored pencils, instead of sharpening them and drawing pictures I gave them names and personalities and made up stories about them. Paula and I did the same with marbles, evolving around them a complex fabric of stories and props.

I never understood the way Sallie and Cousin Priscilla played with paper dolls -- in fact, didn't play with them.  They would buy a book of paper dolls (I don't suppose they still make those big books with underwear-clad dolls that you cut out of the covers, and many pages of clothes with tabs that held them onto the dolls).  Sallie and Priscilla and I would sit next door on Sallie's grandmother's screened porch and patiently cut out all those clothes, some of them quite intricate. I went along; but my heart wasn't in it. I was waiting until everything was cut out and we could get on to playing with the dolls and their wardrobes.

It didn't happen.  After Sallie and Priscilla finished cutting out a book of doll clothes they would fold it all up  carefully and place it in a drawer, where as far as I could tell it stayed forever. All that snipping was the point. It seemed not to occur to them to play with the dolls and their attire, ever. I continued to cut paper dolls with them because I was outnumbered and Sallie was older; but I didn't understand it.

I still don't. Spending hours on a summer afternoon freeing paper dolls and their clothes from a book, and then re-imprisoning them in storage without doing anything further with them or, as far as I ever knew, intending to, seemed to me -- and still does -- as  pointless an activity as I can think of.  Even the gadget that does nothing but shut itself off is vaguely amusing to watch. Nor did I ever understand what was wrong with using dolls and pencils and marbles as props for story-telling (my mother thought I was crazy; she may have had a point; but that's another story).

By the time I started high school, instead of hanging my fantasies on toys I walked around the six-acre field behind the house looking at flowers and plants and other features of that micro-landscape and setting my stories there.  My daughter-in-law -- an artist, who would at least have made proper use of the pencils -- says I was obviously born to be a writer.