I stood in the mall in the tiny store crowded with books and toys and trinkets of all shapes and sizes, and I stared at the wall of stuffed animals as I tried desperately to narrow down my choice.
I was 8 years old, and my fourth facial surgery was just a few days away. The stuffed friend I was about to pick would be my hospital companion, tasked to stay with me after visitor hours ended when my parents would be required to leave.
That’s the way hospitals worked in the early 80’s, without fluffy modern-day nonsense where parents remain with their kids in the hospital around the clock. And, of course, by “fluffy modern-day nonsense” I mean nothing of the kind; parents of the 80’s were made of stronger stuff than me, no doubt, because it would take an elephant tranquilizer, a team of Navy SEALs, and a reinforced cage to get me out of my kid’s hospital room.
Still, I was never afraid in the hospital as a child due to equal parts Unflappable Parents, Unlimited Popsicle and the kind of Unshakable Companionship only a teddy bear can provide.
Choosing that bear was tough, though. A whole wall of bears and lambs, and I had to hurt all their feelings except one. I was that kid. The one who truly, deeply believed my animals and dolls were alive. The one who hid outside my bedroom and then JUMPED through the doorway to try to catch them moving. The one who whispered that I was trustworthy and if they’d just let me in on their secret, I’d keep it. Cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye. So when I picked my bear in the mall that day, I cried because I couldn’t take them all, and I told them quietly not to worry; their turn for a family would come soon.
When Abby, my oldest, was 10, she campaigned for an American Girl Just-Like-Me Doll. I resisted because Oh my word! EXPENSIVE. We’re not the $100 doll kind of people. We’re more like the Look It’s On Sale or We Can Get It at a Thrift Store or Hooray for Hand-Me-Downs kind of people. Plus, American Girl Dolls need clothes and a hairbrush and stuff, stuff, stuff. And Abby was a fairly grown-up 10 who was already more interested in make-up than make-believe. How long would she play with a doll, anyway?
But then I remembered my hospital bear and my favorite childhood book, A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Have you read it? It’s still good. Much better than her more well-known The Secret Garden which is kind of spooky and sad and yellow.
A Little Princess chronicles the story of Sara Crewe after her father reluctantly leaves her at a boarding school. Before he goes, father and daughter search London for Sara’s Last Doll. “Dolls ought to be intimate friends,” Sara says. And finally, they find Emily, with her attentive gray-blue eyes that read as though she knew Sara all along. That’s because she does, I thought when I read it for the first time. She really does know you, Sara.
And with that memory, I was done in. It was time for Abby’s Last Doll.
She picked Tiffany, who was everything you hope for a Last Doll to be.
But time went by, as it usually does, and eventually Tiffany was boxed up and put on a shelf and forgotten.
Until 6-year-old Cai found her yesterday. A beautiful box that revealed a beautiful doll. He pulled Tiffany from storage, and he held her reverently because he knew somehow that’s what you do with a doll like her.
I sat quietly in the living room yesterday, watching as Cai, with Tiffany in his arms, pushed Abby’s creaky door open. “Abby?” he said, “Is this your doll?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Can I play with her?” he asked.
And Abby was quiet for a long moment before she said, “Yes, Cai. Her name is Tiffany, and she’s very special. You’ll have to be careful with her and treat her kindly.”
“I will,” Cai said, and he withdrew from her room and closed the door.
And I swear I saw Tiffany smile.
P.S. A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett is currently free on Amazon for Kindle.