When I was four and a half, a tiny, three-inch-tall doll named Heidi came out. She had blond hair, wore a red and white dress, and little red shoes. Best of all, when you pushed a button in her stomach, her right arm shot up. I loved how Heidi waved at the world.
Though I knew better than to allow my mother to see that I cared about something, I begged her for a Heidi doll. Every time a television commercial showed the doll, and every time we passed a display of the dolls in a store, I pleaded with my mother to let me have one.
When I first saw the doll, I had hoped to be able to have one for Christmas. That was just before my father discovered a fundamentalist Christian cult leader on a radio show. After that, he insisted that his family live according to every word this man spoke. One of the cult leader’s main messages was that all commercialized holidays, like Christmas, Easter, Valentine’s Day—everything but Thanksgiving, actually—were pagan.
Since my father discovered the cult leader’s show in November, his sudden devotion for the man’s messages plunged our family into darkness in many ways. No Christmas lights. He decided it was a sin for us to even look at Christmas lights. No tree or decorations. No holly, mistletoe, eggnog, or carols. And definitely no Heidi doll.
My mother cried when my father announced that not only were we no longer Catholic, but that our house would remain dark and undecorated during the darkest part of the year. I don’t know whether it was her tears, or the late-night arguments where they threw words at each other like two wrestling cats, but my mother won a small victory that year.
We would still visit our relatives for Christmas, and my mother could still have a small tree in the window of her bedroom. That year, I sang carols with my mother’s family and my father’s family, with all my heart. I believed it would be the last time I would be able to sing the beautiful songs with their gorgeous melodies.
I ate Nana Cafera’s Swedish butter cookies until my stomach hurt. I ate Nana Hendrick’s roast lamb until grease coated my chin.
My father allowed each family to give one gift to each of his children. My sister got a cute stuffed tiger from Nana Cafera and a stuffed horse from Nana Hendrick. To be honest, I don’t remember what my brother got. I don’t even remember what Nana Hendrick gave me. My memories converged on Nana Cafera’s gift to me.
It was a small box, wrapped in lovely red paper, and a gold bow artfully tied across the top. Inside was the coveted Heidi doll.
“Oh, you shouldn’t spoil her!” my mother cried.
“It wasn’t expensive,” my grandmother chided. “And she wanted it so.”
My mother let me play with the doll while we were at Nana’s house, but as soon as we got into the car, she snatched Heidi from my hands.
“I’ll just hang onto this,” she sneered. “Let’s see how many chores you can do to earn this.”
I cried the rest of the way home. I already did most of my mother’s chores. I had done chores like vacuuming and washing dishes since I was young, so much that I didn’t know how to play with other kids at all. My mother was good at building up drama, too. When we got home, she sat Heidi on top of the refrigerator, right at the edge, so I could see her but not reach her.
After that, my chore list doubled. There was so much work to do, and so many rules! Not only did I have to get up early and wash any dishes my father had left in the sink, get my mother and siblings breakfast, clean the toilet, scrub the bathtub, and clean the sinks—I had to do it all without complaining.
“If you do everything you’re told for two months,” my mother decreed, “I’ll let you have your doll for a week.”
So I tried to follow her instructions. At age four and a half, two months seemed like two years. Still, the days slid by, one by one. Once, when I was only a few days from earning my Heidi doll, I reached through some cold, greasy water in the kitchen sink, and a sharp knife pierced my finger.
“Ouch!” I shrieked in pain, yanking my finger out of the filthy water and dissolving into tears.
Life was way too serious, and my young system was at its breaking point.
“I heard that!” my mother snapped.
Nope, no sympathy for my cut finger. No concern at all for my well-being.
“Now you have to wait two more months for your precious doll!”
She laughed as if withholding one of the few items I had dared to care about was a delicious treat for her.
Well, I’d had enough. The next morning, before she got up, I pushed a chair against the refrigerator and stretched as far as I could to retrieve my doll.
I took Heidi to my room without washing the dishes my father had left in the sink. I made her wave at me, and played with her until I heard my mother stirring. I sunk down in my bed, hoping she wouldn’t check on me first thing.
She didn’t. But when she went downstairs for her morning coffee, I crept out of my room and slipped partway down the stairs, where I could peek into the kitchen. I heard her sigh in exasperation when she saw the dirty dishes in the sink. She placed her hands on her hips and surveyed the room.
It took her less than ten seconds to check the top of the refrigerator.
I leaped up the stairs, and dove back into my bedroom, burrowing face-down under the covers, clutching Heidi against my chest.
She didn’t call my name, as I’d thought, to command me to come downstairs. Her anger was far too intense for that. Instead, I heard the thunder of her feet pounding across the living room and up the stairs. She was in my room and had flipped me over before I could take three breaths.
“Where is it?” she demanded, her foul morning breath choking me.
“W-what?” I whimpered, covering as much of my Heidi doll as I could with my hands.
“You know very well, what, you little brat!” she snapped.
She saw Heidi poking out between my fingers, and grabbed her by the hair. I resisted, pulling my arms tighter against my body in an attempt to hold onto my toy for a few seconds longer. I knew that this time, my punishment would be far more severe than seeing my doll sitting on the top of the refrigerator for months on end.
My mother dug her red-polished fingernails deep into the flesh of my hands until I couldn’t bear the pain. I let go of my doll, and she snatched it away.
“Oooh, hoo!” she cried as if she’d just won a jackpot. “Now let’s see what I can do with this piece of trash!”
She marched out of my room and headed down the hall, toward the bathroom.
“No Mommy!” I cried, running after her, tears making my breath stutter.
“This is what we do when little girls don’t obey their mommies!” she cried, as she held Heidi over the toilet.
As my eyes widened in horror, she dropped Heidi head-first into the toilet bowl.
“Now you march right over here, young lady, and flush the toilet,” she demanded.
“N-no, Mommy!” I stuttered.
I was so panicked that I hyperventilated.
“I-I can’t! I-I’ll clean her off! I-I’ll be good, and do all your work!”
Part of my desperation was due to the fact that I knew there was nothing I could say that would change my mother’s mind.
“Oh, no,” she sneered. “You’ve had your chance. Naughty little girls don’t deserve nice toys.”
As she finished speaking, she flushed the toilet. I rushed over in time to see Heidi’s little feet disappearing down the drain.
Growing up with a mother who spoke, and acted, like the Wicked Witch of the West, taught me the value of play, of childhood, and of love. Since she offered none of these things, I saw them as even more precious than I would have if they had been freely given.
When I grew up, I found a Heidi doll, complete with her original outfit and shoes, on eBay. She sits on the shelf behind my bed now, on a plush unicorn that smells like vanilla. Every night she smiles and waves at me. I can play with her any time I want.
And that feels wonderful.