This was originally published in HerWord.com on July 31, 2009, following my blog piece My Hello Kitty Build-A-Bear World. I had wanted to cross-post this as soon as it came out, but weighed against national events, this seemed inappropriate at the time. I am sharing this now with you, dear friends.
I grew up faster than most of my peers. At a time when we were supposed to be perfecting the art of imaginary play with dress-up or dolls, I had already said goodbye to my toys. At 11, I felt too much like an adult in mind, body, and spirit to enjoy anything beyond reading. As the oldest girl in a brood of five, I stood as Big Sister to everyone, even to my older brother, and I willingly took on responsibilities in our household, never mind that we were a spoiled lot and we each had our own nanny to answer our every beck and call. I was big for my age, and my mind, even bigger. And so, I left my toys behind, as I did my preempted childhood.
Years later, I would think about it and remember how I boxed up my dolls for the very last time. My favorite doll was a “My Friend Mandy” from Fisher-Price. I slept with her every night, bathed and dressed her, and played with her every single minute of the day. The last time I saw her, I gave her a farewell kiss and packed her in a storage box with her things. I didn’t realize until years later that the day I packed away my toys, I had thrown away a very important part of my childhood. I miss being a child now.
This sudden shift from child to young person came at a point in my life when I felt lost. I had just moved to a different school and the adjustment was very difficult. I made few friends in that period of my life and, for the most part, I was a very lonely child. I couldn’t play. I ate too much. For close to three years, I thought about dying constantly. I dreamt of different ways to end my life. Yet the thought of leaving my family crying always deterred me from acting out on my impulses. The only way I could cope, without killing myself, was to fashion a new personality—a stronger, more capable person from who I was then.
Having decided upon that, I grew up that day. I stopped playing, stopped being a child, and stopped hurting. Even when I found new happiness a few years later, it felt too late to ever go back to that time in my life when all I wanted was to be my doll’s keeper. And then, with more serious studying required in high school and university and medical school, there simply was no time to recover the lost years. I simply kept moving forward. Later, I got married, had a family, and dedicated my years to raising my children.
One day, however, I realized just how much I missed. That was the day my husband gifted me with a Hello Kitty Dress-Me doll. My husband is always like that; he indulges my caprices and whims, he buys me all sorts of unexpected gifts. The doll was supposed to be just another addition to my growing collection, but to me, it meant so much more. I took the doll to bed with me that night, my husband amused at my childlike giddiness, and I dreamt I was 11 again, holding on to my favorite doll.
I woke up the next morning with a sense of rediscovery and wonder. I felt young and carefree. I carried my doll everywhere in the following weeks, oblivious to the stares and, sometimes, the whispers. Then my husband, ever my enabler, bought me a nicer, bigger Hello Kitty Build-A-Bear doll weeks later, with matching clothes and accessories. I was head over heels in love with my new toys. Now, I have six of them, all dress-up dolls that I pretend are my babies.
I know I cannot hope to find “My Friend Mandy” anymore. The last time I ever saw her, she was in a big brown box in a storage cabinet near the laundry area in the old house where I grew up more than thirty years ago. Between moving houses and normal aging and deterioration, it is unlikely she made it all this time. Most probably, she had been given away to charity. I like to imagine some little girl still playing with her after all this time.
I suppose that is why I love my dolls, my Build-A-Bear dolls (I have three, all Hello Kitty) most of all. They remind me of Mandy, and how I can dress them up like her and play make-believe, and pretend that loneliness never came into my life. Now that my children are almost fully grown and I am in my middle years, I have found new freedom to reclaim a lost childhood. And this is what my dolls give me beyond fun and pleasure—a sense of completion for having remade a past I once could not escape.