Certain women my age may recall Dare Wright’s The Lonely Doll books, with their pink and blue gingham covers and their odd, compelling stories of a doll named Edith and the adventures she had with two teddy bears, Mr. Bear and Little Bear. There is even, apparently, a Lonely Doll cult; the biography of Dare Wright has just come out, to some fanfare. As a child, however, the book did not feel odd or strange, but rather, it produced a feeling of inexplicable but familiar longing, a feeling I was not to fully comprehend until I was all grown up and understand as a vital part of who I was.
When I was little, my mother would read those Lonely Doll books to my sister and me, in the hushed, reverent tones she reserved for her students. My mother was a librarian; her world was and still is, the world of the mind, the no- nonsense milieu of academics, art, and sophisticated pithy conversation. She was the first feminist I ever knew, in the true sense of the word, a woman who quietly got a part-time job once my sister and me were school age, leaving the dreary world of housework behind her so that she could focus on what she thought were the important aspects of motherhood: raising us to be thinking, happy women. Because of my mother, I never questioned but that I, too, would do something with my life, and growing up I thought more about what my career would be than about who my husband would be or the children I would have.
But I was not all modern woman, and we both knew it. I wanted Barbies. Mom abhorred them. I can still see her slight frown as I begged her to buy me even the smallest pink outfit packet that contained one perfect, tiny dress, a matching pair of pumps, and a tiny plastic hanger. “Alright,” she muttered, taking it from me and slinging it into the shopping cart with the disdain she reserved for impulses that distracted from the important stuff. After all, she had shopping to do, and chores to finish.
My attraction to the Lonely Doll went deeper than my mother realized and if she had, she probably would have put the books away and pushed me towards Nancy Drew. But I would flip through the pages of the Lonely Doll and study the contents. Edith with her little gingham dress, thick white tights, black patent leather shoes. Her perfect blonde hair shone white and was pulled back in a ponytail, secured with a wide bow. She was as mouthwatering as candy, in the same way as Barbie, but Edith had a melancholy that Barbie did not share. Maybe that was part of the draw; Edith had a more serious side, or a sadness. After all, she did not have a mother at all; just the Bears.
But it was what she did that had me in its grip. One afternoon, while Mr. Bear, her guardian was out, she and Little Bear went rummaging through the dressing room in the house (I try not to think to hard about the strangeness of this domestic set-up, but she was a toy, after all, so why wouldn’t she live with other toys?). She opens a closet, and there she finds row after row of beautiful dresses, hanging down in a glorious mix of the best fabrics: tulle, velvet, satin, and lace. I had only seen such things once in my life. I had caught a glimpse of such things, and they were in my mother’s own closet. I was sitting on her bed and seeing a full-length black evening gown hanging on the door, a perfect pink bow at the waist. What was my librarian mother doing with such a gown?
Edith pulls out a white tulle petticoat and puts it on, with Little Bear’s help. She looks beautiful in it, and soon they raid the make-up drawer and the jewelry box, festooning Edith with pearls and lipstick. It was my fantasy right there in black and white: to look that glamorous in what was obviously a mother’s things. And I knew my mother had such things; she just never wore them. The longing I would feel pulsed outward from that page.
It wasn’t until I was an adult, and by that I mean, an established adult, with a home, a routine of social engagements, a sense of who I was, that I began to tap into what Edith and her indulgence meant to me. At 41, I received an invitation to a gala, where the attire was suggested “black tie.” I knew that I could have gotten away with slipping on a simple little black dress, my grandmother’s pearls, and some new chandelier earrings. But I had a new body to show off, having just lost twenty pounds of post-baby weight in the past year. I was not as slim as I’d been in high school, but that had not been my goal. Rather, I was now slim enough to go into my favorite stores and try just about anything on (well, maybe not miniskirts or midriff-revealing stuff, but all the other things I had coveted when I had been heavier). So this invitation meant, therefore, all-out-mouth-dropping glamour to me.
I went to shopping, to one of these stores and I hauled in a full armload of evening outfits, all strapless and form-fitting. I had never worn anything strapless before, not when I had been a double D cup! I tried them on with my heart in my mouth, I was that excited. I slipped a dark satin strapless top over my head, pulled it down and wanted to laugh out loud. I looked like Catherine Zeta-Jones! Well, maybe her ethnic, older distant cousin. But still. It was perfect. As I looked in the mirror, I was aware of an old feeling floating upward from inside.
It was my Lonely Doll feeling, only inside-out. It was happy. The longing was gone. And I realized that this was always in me, this desire for glamour and to feel beautiful, but I had never quite realized it. I had been raised to value other things, to work hard, to hone my mind. Certainly I have done that. As I said, I was at a point when life felt full, purposeful, and at the top of my form. But this craving to do something so indulgent, like wear this outfit, be daring, was alien to my serious, intellectual upbringing. This was like being like Barbie. Or Edith.
I bought the outfit and couldn’t wait for the night. I happened to tell my mother about it, soon after. She let me describe the whole outfit, down to what accessories I would wear with it. She said, “I bet you will be so beautiful in it. Make sure Ned takes a picture.” Nothing but happiness in her voice. And I realized something else. Maybe my mother had a little of Edith in her, too. After all, there was that dress…
“Mom, remember that gown you had, that black evening gown with the pink bow?”
Copyright 2004, Susan Senator