It’s hard to pick your favorite child.
As any mother will attest, each of your offspring has qualities that make him or her unique. You see pieces of yourself reflected in their eyes. You love them each differently—but equally.
And now here I was, forced to choose.
Ugly dolls, such as these, give my pretty ones a bad name.
“I really don’t know if I can pick a favorite,” I said, anxiously scanning each of my babies’ faces. I had just reunited with them after a four-month stint in England and was far too emotional to make such a decision.
“But if you had to pick one, who would it be?”
After agonizing over the question for 15 minutes, Mom was getting impatient. I took final stock of my progeny.
Isabel had beautiful, golden hair—the kind that was made for a French braid—but Leslie had kind eyes. Melissa was the sharpest dresser—but Julie made me laugh.
“I don’t knowwww. It’s too hard!”
“Fine, you can pick three.”
Three was better, but a betrayal all the same.
“I guess…if I had to pick one…I’d pick…the black one.”
“You have two black girls. Which one?”
“Her,” I said, pointing to the girl closest to me, “the one with the three braids and the beige dress.”
Although Sarah was, in my heart of hearts, always my favorite, verbalizing it was excruciating.
“And then Jennifer and Lucy,” I whispered, too ashamed to look any of them in the eye.
No one said anything for awhile; the girls motionless. The words were out there and there was no taking them back.
“You should probably get rid of some of them,” Mom finally said. “We don’t have the space anymore.”
“Get rid of them? Dear God!”
“Maybe it’s time to…box some of them up.”
I stared at my mother, searching her eyes for what little remained of her soul. I had cared for these little miracles for two decades and all of sudden I was supposed to just toss their bodies in a communal coffin, shove it under the house next to the mouse traps and Christmas lights, and move on with my life.
These were porcelain dolls for God’s sake, not toys.
Mindy was my oldest. I was six or seven at the time—still a child myself—and I propped her up on my dresser with a gentleness I didn’t know I possessed. She was fragile and had to be treated with care—unlike my cousin Jill’s porcelain dolls, whose faces were defiled with a permanent marker the day she got them.
Unless you were a fan of Mike Tyson, it wasn’t a good look.
With skin as creamy as margarine, hair tied neatly in purple ribbons and a dress to die for, Mindy wasn’t your average dime store doll. She was beautiful—and she set the bar high.
The collection started slowly—one new doll each Christmas, occasionally a second for my birthday. By the time I turned 10 and saved enough money to buy my own, the brood grew exponentially.
Soon, I opened my bedroom to all ethnicities, taking in girls from Scotland to Canada to some place in Asia—poor Usagi’s country of origin still unclear. Just short of tattooing the latitude and longitude coordinates of their birthplaces on my bicep, I was the Angelina Jolie of the porcelain doll world.
I loved them all equally.
As I got older, the dolls began taking over the top of my dresser. With the exception of a towering redhead—presumably of Nordic-Irish descent—the girls were all relatively equal in height, those in the back rows barely visible.
It was a good way to hide the less attractive, less expensive dolls I occasionally received—most of which were missing full sets of eyelashes and appeared to have rosacea on one cheek—but they were the minority. Most were beautiful and blemish-free and deserved to be showcased.
To address the issue, Mom and I stacked books of varying thicknesses, creating standing-room only stadium seating for the dolls in the second, third and fourth rows.
With the girls in the very back balancing on four books apiece, friends would come into my room for the first time to an onslaught of eager, staggered doll faces beaming their way.
“Oh my God!” they would exclaim, in what I thought at the time was admiration and only later realized was pure horror. “You have…so many.”
Thirty-six, to be exact, by the time I was 20.
“I know!” I said proudly, moving to the side so they could get the complete picture. “Can you even imagine how much money I could make if I sold them all?”
I’d never sell any of them, of course, but the notion seemed appealing when it was time to clean my room. Mom insisted I dust each and every porcelain doll with a damp rag when guests came over, an undertaking as overwhelming in my twenties as it was when I was eight.
Those velvet hats were a bitch to clean at any age.
Although Mom frequently expressed concern that my dolls were collecting dust and taking up too much space, she had no additional gripes. My friends didn’t seem to mind, either. Much like their polite silence in seventh grade when our 68-year-old gym teacher and I accidentally wore identical nylon windbreaker suits, they kept their mouths shut about the collection.
So I kept the dolls on display.
By the time freshman year of college arrived, I hadn’t purchased a new one in years—Mom had officially declared them contraband around 2003—but it was still hard to say goodbye. There obviously wasn’t room for all 36 in a college dorm room, and I knew I had no right to uproot them from their normal routine. They needed stability.
Running my fingers down Sarah’s third braid—the rest of the Windstar already packed up—I remembered reading an interview with Teri Hatcher, who said her job as a mother was to raise children who could live without her. With Lois Lane’s words ringing in my ears, I grabbed one miniature porcelain doll, wrapped her up safely in a Clay Aiken t-shirt, and left the others behind.
It was time to be a grown-up.
Still, that initial semester away from home was tough. I spent the first week sobbing openly on my twin bed, watching “The Babysitter’s Club” and spooning a stuffed animal. The second week, I hid behind some bushes and made a desperate and inaudible call to my mother, begging her to come visit—also while sobbing.
But then it got easier. I survived my first year and thrived my second. Except for Eloise, whose petite porcelain frame was nestled in a hand-painted wooden cart that sat on my printer, my college life became separate from my home life—and most notably, my dolls.
I was just a normal 20-year-old with a Clay Aiken t-shirt.
So normal, in fact, that by the time I studied abroad in England junior year, none of my new friends were aware of the collection. They knew I had a weird obsession with prairie dogs and ate sour cream and onion Pringles in bed and liked to reenact the scene from “Steel Magnolias” when Julia Roberts’ character is going into diabetic shock and refuses to drink her juice, but not about the dolls.
And then one day during a weekend trip to Edinburgh, I found myself standing in a gift shop, face-to-face with the most adorable Scottish boy I had ever seen. With high cheekbones, jet-black hair and lips the shade of a pink Starburst, he was a real heart-breaker. After years of successfully managing my addiction, I was going to relapse.
I returned to my flat in England the following day, eager to show my housemates what I bought. My friends back home weren’t freaked out by the dolls—why should these new people be any different? This was the real me and I wasn’t going to hide it any longer.
After everyone had gathered downstairs around the kitchen table, I opened my duffel bag and pulled out a variety of Loch Ness Monster-themed items.
After the polite “oos” and “ahhs” dissipated, I reached for the tall box. Slowly, I pulled my little boy out.
“That is the creepiest shit I’ve ever seen!” Caitlyn exclaimed, throwing her hand over her mouth.
“I’m serious—don’t get that thing near me!”
I looked around the room, waiting for one of my friends to jump to my defense, to explain to Caitlyn that this little porcelain boy, complete with a kilt and bagpipes, was adorable. Instead, everyone appeared horrified.
“You realize I have 36 of these at home.”
“I refuse to visit your house if those things are in your room,” Kara chimed in.
“But they’re not creepy, they’re pretty!”
I couldn’t believe it. Ian was not scary! Attempting to cut my best friend’s bangs with poultry shears was scary. Blowing an undigested corn kernel out of my nose was scary. The varicose vein already bulging out of my left calf was scary. A young boy with the face of a cherub certainly was not.
Stunned by their reaction, I retreated to my room to reevaluate my life. What else did people find unsettling? The plastic container of Barbie dolls I collected from McDonald’s Happy Meals? My binder of magazine clippings featuring Julia Roberts? The dead sea horse I kept in an old film canister?
After sulking for a few minutes, I decided Caitlyn deserved to pay for her hurtful comments. How dare she attack my way of life.
Grabbing Ian, I tip-toed up to her room on the third floor. I opened her top dresser drawer as quietly as possible, gently laying Ian down in a bed of underwear. Closing the drawer, I tip-toed back to my room, closed my eyes and waited.
Half an hour later, I heard the girls coming up the steps.
“What the HELLLL,” Caitlyn suddenly screamed, her girlish yelps making their way down to the second floor. She appeared in my room seconds later, thrusting the doll toward me.
“I swear to God I will take a baseball bat and smash that doll’s face to pieces.”
“That was uncalled for!”
“So was that purchase. Get it out of my face.”
I started to laugh—and Caitlyn started to reach for the doll.
“I’m serious—I don’t want that spawn of Satan in my room.”
Starting to seriously fear for Ian’s safety, I respected her wishes and placed him on the desk next to me. I would keep him out of Caitlyn’s underwear drawer if she promised to keep his face in one piece.
With that verbal contract in place, I kept Ian hidden in my room for the remainder of my stay, away from the monsters I was living with. He certainly wasn’t appreciated in England, but he would be fawned over back home, with dozens of attention-starved girls vying for his affection.
He’d simply have to wait.
“Maybe it’s time to…box some of them up.”
I had just brought Ian home, swaddled in Loch Ness Monster tea towels, and my mother had the audacity to talk about giving him up for adoption.
“You can’t be serious,” I said, brushing back one of his curls.
“Of course I’m serious. Why did you buy another doll?”
“Because he’s a boy! And Scottish!”
“Where are you even going to put him? This room is starting to look like crap.”
“I’ll make room,” I snapped, still tense from the Sophie’s Choice that had unfolded moments prior with Black Sarah and Black Jennifer. If I wanted to welcome an orphaned immigrant into my heart and home, that was my business.
I was jet-lagged and in no mood for an argument. Jasmine and Monique would have to move to the back, whether they liked it or not.
“This is the last one.”
Ignoring her, I combed through his matted fur hat and straightened his kilt, spending the rest of the afternoon shifting the kids around.
Climbing into bed later that night—Ian front row center—my finger lingered on the lamp switch.
Isabel’s golden hair still looked beautiful, albeit a bit dusty. Melissa still rocked a pea coat and muff like no one’s business. And Julie, well, she was as comical as ever.
I had grown so much since I left for school—exponentially since I studied abroad. But the dolls never changed, never moved from their perch on my dresser unless I rearranged them myself.
Exhausted from a transcontinental flight, I finally turned off the lights and fell into a deep sleep.
In the dark, 74 glass eyes kept watch. They didn’t even blink.