Ask anyone else the first word that comes to mind when they think of her, and undoubtedly, it’d be “ugly.” Even I must admit there was a rather unfortunate aesthetic transformation as she aged alongside me. And in all fairness to those who didn’t know her the way I did, yes, I suppose she could be a rather surprising assault on the eyes. Okay, some could call her fairly hideous. But me? Picturing her now, each perfect imperfection wrapped up in that snuggly, scrawny package, brings to mind just one word of my own: “everything.”
She was, you see. It wasn’t just that she was my most prized possession; it was more complicated than that. Because to me, she wasn’t a thing, a possession. She was a she. A companion. And she was mine.
If you’re one of the humans closest to me and you’re reading this right now, you know know who I’m talking about already. You knew from the word “ugly,” didn’t you? But once, she was beautiful: a bright pink, floral, cloth body, grandiose in its 1960s-ishness. The flower child taken to the literal, the boldness of skin choice ideal for a small girl. Her hands and face? Those were plastic of the caucasian variety. Tiny-little fingers, all stuck together in one plastic mold, topped with tiny-little carved fingernails. The head, true to the anatomy of a wee one, was huge. Bald save for etched, wavy “hairs” painted a pale whisper of brown.
I’ve seen pictures of her this way: fresh, fluffy, pink. Well-dressed, hugged tightly between chubby toddler arms. Photographs tell only pieces of our story together, but there are a few, including one notable visit with the big man himself, Santa. I sit, staring mid-giggle just to the right of the camera (likely at the parent dancing to its side), and the top of her head peeks out from the crook of my arm. A formal Sears photo features the two of us, me in my smocked sundress (its innocence carefully chosen by my mother), she completely naked, pink skin glowing--small white polka dots, green and blue flowers all gloriously bright. By this point likely a package deal, a compromise, more entrenched in my history with each flash.
Through the years, I came to know every square millimeter of her. She was well-loved, to be sure, so as time marched on, the wear on those millimeters became more obvious. Not immune to the battle scars of youth, and not built nearly so well to hold up to them, her aesthetics, shall we say, suffered. Over two decades, slowly, she eroded: bright pink faded to dull then morphed to “dirty.” Stuffing shifted, flattened out. Still, I would picture silk beneath her flowers as I rubbed her skin back and forth between my anxious (or tired, or eager, or excited) fingers, soothed by the smoothness, never even missing the fluff. Thick to thinner to thin, she aged rather ungracefully. A strange box floated within her, no longer making baby cooing sounds--just a clunk when it thudded against something hard. She grew tired.
Poor thing suffered at the hands of others, too. A fight with my sister resulted in a tug-of-war; she was the rope, and (thin arms nothing but faded fabric now) lost most of her hand in the process. My mother sewed her back together with dark blue thread, and those stitches remain. I’m not quite sure when her left eyeball began sinking into her socket, but family lore has it that the culprit was once again my sister. She claimed she wanted to see what would happen to the (beautiful) clicking sound if one eye was held shut and the other stayed open, and the result was rather disastrous. What started as as a left-eye-that-wouldn’t-blink eventually became a sunken, twisted mess that made it rather difficult to look either my sister or my companion in the eye. That accident, along with her tragically slow loss of eye lashes throughout the decades, the permanent dents left in those tiny fingers (from years of chewing? from the cat? from my baby brother? who really knows), and the increasingly tragic way she hung her oversized head in what could be interpreted as shame, marked mere parts of her physical decline.
Those in my life treated her presence with anything from mild amusement to agitated disgust, which, on a few occasions, led to outright abuse. She was hidden from me on numerous occasions by my siblings, playing not-funny jokes through the years until my tears brought her forth. Friends sleeping over found her creepy. One morning in college I returned from class to my room, where I had left my boyfriend of two years sleeping that morning. There, hanging from the ceiling in a noose fashioned from one of my belts, I found my sweet thing, inexplicably swinging and not remotely funny. Another time, I developed film and found pictures of my guy friends singing to her, stroking her head. She had that reaction on people. They simply didn’t know what to do with this strange looking thing that was an obvious presence in my life. Most of the time, their reactions were quite funny, and I shared in and contributed to the laughs. After all, I was a grown woman. Even my own daughters haven’t known what to do with her, besides relegating her to the freezer for a week to kill off dust mites. All this time, and still, deep down, I don’t want Karen to be uncomfortable, hurt, tormented, made fun of, or laughed at. I tucked her in for far too long. I covered her tiny-little plastic ears to protect her from the mocking, but only in half-jest.
At all ages, she was real to me.
Her presence went deep, past that sixth sense and well into the seventh: the sense of comfort. I miss her still. Occasionally, I’ll settle into bed, flip and flop to get comfortable, quietly aware that something is missing. I’ve reached for her regularly in the years since I’ve been married, since she was relegated to a bookshelf, a chair, or now, a box (where I hope she lies comfortably). I long to feel that silky comfort still, smell the familiar scent of her big head, and need her sometimes when things are a little rough. I’m not quite sure if this makes me normal, this attachment to a constant in a world full of inconsistencies and pain, or if this is a confession I should burn after sharing. But I’m glad she’s still around, even if it’s in a box, sleeping peacefully.
Thank God for my dog.