Domestic Bliss 

Best Baby Doll: Poor Pitiful Pearl

In our 1960s household of three girls and one boy plus parents, new baby dolls came each Christmas. I chose the softest, the one that looked most lifelike in the pages of the Sears catalog and asked Santa to grant me the wish of a Baby Dear.

Baby Dear had a cloth body and soft rubber arms and legs curved into fat, overstuffed C's. Her toes curled under; her baby fists pointed one stunted index finger upward while the other fingers clenched into a round fist. Her face was vaguely Mongolian, a little like a miniature sumo wrestler with blown up cheeks, a tiny bow of a mouth and squinted cracks of blue eyes. Baby Dear had a sheath of thin blondish hair glued to her rubber head, thin and wispy, just like a real baby's until it came unglued and devolved into a stiff topknot emanating from a crater at the crown of her head. Eventually I cut the whole thing off to its stump and Baby Dear became a shiny bald real baby look-alike. A newborn who looked as if she'd just had chemotherapy treatments.

I loved her. My mother loved her and sewed real baby clothes for her, hand-smocked dresses made of the softest cotton, a gauzy white christening gown, a matching christening cap with streams of white ribbons hanging down. Baby Dear wore real cloth diapers with safety pins. I carried her in the crook of my elbow, propping up her oversized head. I put her up on my shoulder to burp.

My little sister always chose the newest in high-tech dolls or dolls based on television cartoon characters. Chatty Cathy arrived one Christmas in her smart schoolgirl dress with her stiff arms, button nose and slight spray of freckles. We pulled her string and listened to her repertoire of phrases until we wanted to toss her to the dogs. She could only say seven things, all of them inane.

My little sister's favorite doll was a plastic replica of Pebbles Flintstone, a redheaded tart with an upswept ponytail fastened with a rubber band festooned with a white plastic bone. Pebbles and Chatty Cathy shared a shelf in the bedroom with my sister's other favorite doll, a European platinum-blond boy doll named Sydney dressed in smart short sets with vests.

My older sister, Kim, who had Down syndrome and was not as enamored of dolls as my other sister and I, would rather have gotten a holster with a toy pistol than a doll. A basketball would have suited her fine. But because she was a girl, one of the three sisters in a family of doll-lovers, she got a doll at Christmas too. One year, Santa brought Kim a doll named Poor Pitiful Pearl.

Pearl was dressed like a pauper, in a ragged black dress with stains and patches. She was rubbery like Baby Dear but of an indeterminate age. Her hair was the color of straw, with shaggy bangs. Her face was as plain as pudding, a perfect oval with round ears that stuck out perpendicular to her head. She had small black eyes and a knob of a nose sticking out above her thin painted lips.

The lips, a narrow line barely curving either up or down, were the clincher, the thing that gave Poor Pitiful Pearl power over all dolls. If you looked at Poor Pitiful Pearl when you were playing -- let's say you were pretending to be really, really rich and really, really happy and living in a perfect house with perfect furnishings and perfect children -- if you looked at Pearl then, she appeared to smile. If you looked at her when you were playing, say, Hansel and Gretel, when you were sad and scared and lost in the woods, if you looked at Pearl then, she looked as sad and bereft as you were supposed to feel.

Poor Pitiful Pearl was the best doll ever, and I wanted her the minute I saw her. I thought Kim would ignore her and go off playing cowboys, leaving her behind, but no such luck. She loved Pearl like a sister and held her close for a long while, until Christmases came that brought clothes and makeup to my younger sister and me, and our dolls lay somewhere forgotten. A basketball still suited Kim fine and when I looked at her, wondering what went through her head as I navigated my tempestuous teenage years, she looked to me a little like Poor Pitiful Pearl -- sad when I was sad, happy when I was happy, ageless, with hair the color of straw, the best sister, just like Pearl.

-- kathryn@csindy.com


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