When Dolls Talk
David Perez

 

 I was 18 years old when my daughter, Belinda was born - a kid having a kid. I didn’t see myself as a kid, of course. That understanding came later.

I wasn’t ready to be a father. "You’re too young, son," my mother told me more than once. She also knew marrying Serafina would bring me heartache. But I went ahead anyway. Serafina was pregnant with Belinda, and I felt marriage was the manly thing to do.

"I know what I’m doing, Mom," I repeated and repeated.

We were married at St. Luke’s Church in the South Bronx, the parish in which I grew up. Photos of the ceremony show me facing the priest with my head down.

Unhappy with the marriage from day one, I became a part-time dad. After working 9 to 5 in the mailroom of a big advertising firm, I hung out with my friends rather than spend time at home. When Belinda turned one-year old, I joined the Navy. The Vietnam War was all but officially over.

I lasted 10 months in the Navy when I was "offered" a General Discharge, one rung below Honorable. I returned home to a marriage that was over. Serafina told me she was having a relationship with a friend of mine who, in fact, had been the one to convince me to join the service.

By this time, Belinda was a bubbly little two-year-old. I was a stranger to her. Since things were over between her mother and me, I found myself entering a new phase of my life. There was so much for me to learn; so much for me to do. And here was Belinda, a daughter with a sweet round face and a great smile. "Now what?" I thought in a panic. How could I get to know her when I didn’t really know myself?

I spent the next few years searching. I went to night school at Hunter College and took Puerto Rican studies. This put me more in touch with my culture. I became active in radical politics, realizing I had more questions than answers. I got a new girlfriend, and we moved in together after dating for a few months. I continued to work in the mailroom in the hope of finding a better job.

But I remained neglectful of Belinda. Serafina and my arrangement was that I would spend every other weekend with my daughter. I could have seen her more if I asked, but I never offered. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy spending time with my daughter. She was not a difficult child, and we usually had fun times together - be it going to the movies, the zoo, or hanging out at my place. It was just that I was somewhere else inside, in a place that left little room for working on the relationship. I was still the stranger.

Then a miracle occurred. Well, maybe not quite a miracle, but something that felt close to it.

When Belinda was five years old, Serafina bought her a doll named Thumbelina. At first, there was nothing particularly special about the doll - blond hair, blue-eyes, the norm in those days (and still the norm, I think). She was dressed in pink pajamas; the kind babies wear to sleep. A string in her back played music when you pulled it. All in all, a pretty standard doll. Belinda liked her, though, and that’s what counted. She made the doll her close friend and renamed it Tumby for short.

One day, when Belinda was staying at my parents' house, my mother noticed that Tumby was dirty. So she put her in the washing machine. When Tumby emerged, she was clean all right, except now her blond hair had become shorter, so short that her forehead was huge - about the size of a small cantaloupe. In addition, her hair was coarse, like extra-strength twine.

Belinda was upset. "Abuela, look what you did to poor Tumby!" she cried. My mom felt terrible. To make it up to her, she crocheted a pink hat for Tumby. The hat was the size of a small saucer and fitted the doll like a skullcap.

When I saw the new Tumby later that day, I smiled. I honestly thought the doll looked better with her new look. "Hey, honey, Tumby doesn’t look ugly at all," I said. "I think her new hairstyle makes her special. C’mon, let’s hear her music."

When Belinda pulled the string in the doll’s back, we discovered that Tumby had acquired an extraordinary "talent." She no longer made music; instead her head swirled as if she was exercising her neck muscles! And that wasn’t all. When we held Tumby's head to prevent it from moving, her body would gyrate as if she was doing the hula-hoop. That cracked us up.

Then and there I made a game out of "being" Tumby. I took her in my hands, gave myself a high-pitched voice and spoke as if I was the doll. I infused Tumby with a sassy personality. "Hey, Grandma, what’s up with my head? Are you responsible for my Hollywood looks?" I had her say. And, "Belinda, want to see me shaking my booty?"

Belinda started clapping and answering the doll back. "Yeah, shake your booty." I pulled the string again, and Tumby did her jig. My mom was delighted also. We had rescued Tumby from possible banishment.

Playing Tumby quickly became Belinda and my game of choice. Every time I visited Belinda she would ask, "Daddy, wanna play Tumby?" We would go to her room, and I’d grab the doll and improvise. One of the doll’s assets was that, except for her head, she was very malleable, enabling me to twist her arms and legs every which way. So not only did I make Tumby talk, I gave her body language too. I especially liked having Tumby fold her arms and tap her foot to emphasize her "don’t mess with me, I’m bad" attitude.

I became quite good at making her real, I gotta say. One time Tumby (me) got Belinda's mother so flustered that she actually screamed in anger, "Tumby, will you stop it!"

Yes, our Tumby-play was really something. I remember the time Belinda, my mom and I went to Puerto Rico to visit our relatives. Tumby came along of course, much to my mother's chagrin. She thought Tumby made Belinda look like a poor kid whose parents couldn’t afford a better doll. When Belinda proudly displayed her to our kin at the airport, they smiled politely. Their looks were, "You got to be kidding."

"La muņeca es especial," I told them. And I meant it. I played with Tumby right in front of everyone. One day, we all went to Luquillo Beach, one of the most pristine beaches on the island. As we played in the water, Belinda suggested we throw Tumby in the air and let her fall in the water – "just to see what would happen." I threw Tumby high in the air and let her crash into the water; the doll was unfazed. We did it again and again, so that all of Puerto Rico could see this one-of-a-kind doll sailing through its blue skies.

Whenever I look at the pictures we took that day, I remember how much fun my daughter and I had. At the same time I feel a tinge of sadness, because I also recognize that it represented the best I could do with Belinda. My visits were still erratic, and I showed little interest in her schooling. I didn’t really know Belinda, her joys and her pains. And I doubt she knew me.

There’s a lot more to being a father than playing with a doll, no matter how inventive and funny it is. This point was brought home to me when Belinda reached adulthood. By that time, of course, the Tumby games were long gone. I tried to hold on to them, even going so far as to buy a "playmate" for Tumby: a boy doll called Joey. I tried turning Joey into a character, sort of a sidekick to Tumby. The attempt went nowhere. Father Time had other ideas for my daughter - like real boys.

Eventually I relented. Belinda was growing up, something I had to do also. On her 18th birthday, Belinda and her mother decided to spruce Tumby up and give her back her original look. They fixed the string in her back and even put back her original hair. Belinda's mother took Tumby to a doll doctor, can you believe it?

When that happened I felt sorry for Tumby. But I was much sadder for myself. I felt robbed of something unique, something that symbolized me at my best. Belinda said it was no big deal, that it was really her mother’s idea. I replied: "It’s okay, I ‘m only a little hurt. No big deal." But it was a big deal. It meant that perhaps our play was not as special as I thought. Or that it was only special to me.

I was a kid who had had a kid. Through the words of a doll, I had forged a bond. Now Tumby’s silence proved I had much to learn.

 

Copyright (c) 1999 David Perez
Published on the World Wide Web by "www.storymania.com"