When I left for San Francisco last week, Leta had just begun playing Mommy to her collection of baby dolls, scary plastic dolls given to her by my mother who found them on sale at Wal-Mart. I’m not exactly sure why it is my mother does this, always seeks out and buys the cheapest option possible when her economic situation doesn’t require it. Even the cabin she bought in the desert was on sale, was built on the cheapest lot, was furnished entirely with things she bought at a second-hand store. It’s the way she uses these cheap things that makes them look expensive — each room in her cabin feels like a carefully laid out retreat in a prestigious hillside bed and breakfast. There’s even a room so festively patriotic that it looks like George Washington walked in and exploded all over the walls.
A few weeks ago Leta spent the night with my mother, and when I picked her up early the next morning she waddled toward me with four plastic babies in her arms tumbling in odd directions like an overflowing stack of firewood. I haven’t seen many dolls in my lifetime that are scarier than these, and I’m not sure what my mother was thinking when she bought them. Maybe, “I’d like to be the one responsible when my precious granddaughter wakes up in the middle of the night, rolls over and finds herself inches from a plastic face permanently molded into an expression of someone who has just witnessed a pig being violated by a tire iron.”
It was only a couple days before I left that she began wrapping each one in a blanket and laying them down to go night-night, that she kissed each head exactly the way I kiss hers at night before she goes to sleep. Once while she was playing this way she began screaming frantically for Elmo, not because she needed him, but because she was imitating the way we scream at each other in a frenetic search for him when we get her ready for bed. There was an eerie familiarity in her tone, one that indicated she was aware that the rest of her whole day depended on whether or not she found that red monster. I wanted desperately to pull her aside, offer her a cigarette, and swap horror stories of what it’s like to have your entire life subjected to the tyranny of a fictional, red tree sloth who refuses to use pronouns.
I didn’t want to leave when she started doing this. I didn’t want to miss that moment when she turned to that one baby who looks like the ten-day-old corpse of Kojak to say, “Why haven’t you fixed me a hot dog?” because I knew it would happen, and I knew that it would be a sign post in her life I could point to when I wanted to show, hey, this kid pays attention. The night before I left I lingered a few extra minutes in her bedroom after I put her into her crib, stroked her head several more times than usual, put my nose into her neck and repeated, “I love you SOOOO much.” I knew I was going to miss her immeasurably, and after I turned off her light I came back to kiss her nose one more time. She whipped her head around before I could bend down to touch her face, waved her hand as if shooing away the butler, and said, “Close the door!”
I think that for the first time I caught a small glimpse of what it will feel like when she is thirteen and asks that when I pick her up from soccer practice could I please pretend that we have never met, and eww, when did I ever think it would be a good idea to wear that shirt.