All Dolls Go to Heaven

January 14, 2012

Originally published in Foliate Oak

September 2011

Something strange happened in the mid 1980s, and one day, every child in America went crazy for Cabbage Patch Kids at the same time.  It was like they were pod people, and the alien race that spawned them had contaminated our atmosphere with a virus, causing everyone under the age of ten to covet these freaky, pudgy-faced replicas of ourselves.  The disease spread quickly, and soon the entire country was infected.  Symptoms included a tiresome, whining noise produced by spoiled children, which increased in volume and frequency as the Christmas season approached.  To stop the whining, indulgent parents were forced to visit their local toy stores in search of these ugly, overpriced dolls and then present them as gifts to appease their annoying offspring.

But it wasn’t that simple.  Suppliers were unable to keep up with the rising demand, and it soon became apparent that—horror of horrors!—some children would be Cabbage Patchless on Christmas morning.  This was reported on the nightly news alongside stories of local homicides and babies born into drug addiction.  The cameras showed haggard-looking parents lined up outside of malls at five o’clock in the morning, their faces blue, their breath white.  When asked by the newswoman (it’s always women that report shopping stories) why they were torturing themselves for a toy, the parents looked woefully into the camera and said, “I just don’t want to disappoint my kids on Christmas.”

It was a competition over who loved their children most, and the winning parents received one excited squeal, followed by a lifetime supply of Xanax.

My sisters and I desperately wanted Cabbage Patch Kids for Christmas, much to my father’s chagrin.  He didn’t mind such a request from his little girls, but I think his heart broke a little when he discovered his son wanted to play with dolls.

“Oh, leave him alone,” my mother said.  “It’s just a phase.  He’ll grow out of it.”

But my father wasn’t so sure.  He’d seen my other phases: playing house with my sisters, singing along to The Sound of Music with my mother, embroidering pillow cases.  He would come home from work and ask if I wanted to throw the ol’ pigskin around.

“Just a minute,” I’d say.  “I need to finish this needlepoint pattern, and then I’ll be right with you.”

My father’s shoulders would sag and he would search out my brother, who was always up for a game of catch with an inflated animal carcass.

As a traditionalist, my father disapproved of many modern Christmas rituals.  Lights, for example.  He didn’t like those.  What did colorful bulbs hanging from your storm drains have to do with the birth of the Messiah?  There was no electricity in Bethlehem.  It was ridiculous to decorate your house with lights.  Also, it was a fire hazard.  And candy canes!  You didn’t want to get him started on candy canes.  Those J-shaped peppermint treats were an abomination that distracted children from the true meaning of the holiday.  Do you think Mary and Joseph were sucking on striped sugar molds as they plodded across the countryside on their way to the inn?  No, they did not.  Also, they caused cavities.

On this particular Christmas, my father decided he was against trees.  Not all of them, just the ones that inspired peace and good will toward men.  He refused to purchase a seasonal evergreen, insisting that decorating a plant and placing gifts under it was some sort of pagan tradition.

“Trees have nothing to do with the real meaning of Christmas,” he said.  “Why don’t we just sacrifice a goat in the kitchen or have a séance in the bathtub?  It’s basically the same thing”

The goat idea did not sound pleasant, but my youngest sister Cheri and I were intrigued by the possibility of talking to ghosts.

“But we could never get the whole family in the bathtub at the same time,” Cheri said.  “That’s ridiculous.  We should do it in the hall closet.  It’s creepier in there anyhow.”

“That’s not the point,” my father said.  “The point is…”

But by that time, we had stopped listening and were busy trying to figure out what to serve for the occasion.

“Do you think ghosts eat cheese?” Cheri asked.

“Only if it’s Swiss or Provolone,” I said.  “Not Velveeta.  Ghosts only eat white food because that’s what makes them glow in the dark.  Everyone knows that.”

My father tried to turn the conversation back to the subject of Christmas, but we would have none of it.  As far as Cheri and I were concerned, his reputation was already shot.  He’d tried to pull a similar stunt the previous Easter, claiming we shouldn’t paint eggs or consume marshmallowy Peeps because Jesus happened to rise from the dead on the same day the Easter Bunny came to town.  It didn’t make sense that we should suffer just because those two couldn’t get their calendars straight, and so we began an extended whimpering campaign designed to wear down our father’s defenses.  In the end, our mother negotiated a truce, and we ate Cadbury Eggs and chocolate rabbits while watching Jesus of Nazareth on television.  The Christmas-tree ban reeked of unfairness.  Our father was trying to persecute us for our religious beliefs, which were protected under The Bill of Rights or the Pledge of Allegiance or something old and important, and we would not stand for it.

Cheri and I couldn’t understand why we had suddenly been denied our annual tinsel fix; therefore, while my parents were away at work, we took matters into our own hands.  Neither of us could operate a chainsaw or heft an ax, so cutting down a wild fir from the forest was out of the question.  Also, we lived in the middle of the prairie, and the nearest forest was two-hundred miles away.  So, there was that.  We briefly considered breaking into our wealthy neighbor’s house down the street and stealing one of the three unnecessarily-large, pretentiously-bright trees from their imitation-brick castle, but decided that was just too Grinch-like.  Also, neither of us knew how to pick a lock.

Finally, our backs against the wall, we found an enormous tumbleweed in the ditch behind our house and dragged it onto the driveway, where we proceeded to defile the mummified shrub with florescent-green spray paint, our neighbors looking on in horror.  Afterward, we set it up in the living room and plastered it with every shiny object we could find.

When our mother returned home, she found us covered in glitter and swooning from paint fumes.  “I don’t know how I feel about this,” she said, hands on hips, staring at the gleaming spoons and plastic jewelry we’d taped to our palsied plant to make it sparkle.  “This is definitely not good.  We need to fix this.”So she put some popcorn in the microwave, and we spent the evening stringing it together to decorate our Christmas weed.

“What is that?” my father asked when he saw the prickly dead bush sitting in our living room, a star made from yellow construction paper duct taped to the top.  “You said you didn’t want a tree,” replied my mother.  “Well, it’s not a tree.”

My father grumbled, but he didn’t make us take it down.  And, that is how it came to pass that our family gathered together around a large, highly-flammable weed to open presents on Christmas morn.  Just like in the Bible.

To this day, I have no idea how my mother obtained our Cabbage Patch Kids in the midst of that psychotic media blizzard.  There were no toy stores in Yuma, and my parents were not the type of people who just up and flew to Chicago or New York City on a whim.  This was before the Internet turned holiday shopping into a national bidding war between desperate soccer moms and entrepreneurial computer nerds.  All my mother had was an outdated JC Penney catalogue and an overwhelming desire to please her children.  It was a Christmas miracle. Of course, they saved the good stuff for last, making us wade through a series of colorfully-wrapped tube socks and notebooks before we finally got to the cool presents.  I was so excited when I finally tore open the last package.

It was a boy!  But he didn’t look much like me.  He had black hair made out of yarn, and his eyes were large, blue, and incredibly creepy.  The expression on his fat face closely resembled Renaissance paintings of the baby Jesus, which seemed appropriate considering the circumstances.  He wore a flannel shirt underneath a pair of denim overalls.  On his feet were plastic tennis shoes tied with real string.  It wasn’t an outfit I would have picked for myself, but then again, as my father’s deflated expression indicated, parents couldn’t dictate their children’s desires.  If my son wanted to dress like a Depression-Era redneck, I wasn’t going to stand in his way.  I named him Jericho. Jerry for short.

I had a rather large collection of stuffed animals that were arranged in my room just so.  The dogs were on the dresser, the cats were posed above the headboard of the bed, the exotic animals (lions, tigers, monkeys, etc.) were lurking on the bookcase, and the aquatic animals swam around underneath the bed.  I rotated the stuffed animals that slept in bed with me in order to prevent jealousy and political infighting amongst the groups.

Jerry immediately became prince of my little animal kingdom and took his place beside me in bed.  After I explained the situation to the other stuffed animals and positioned Jerry in a comfortable spot on my right, my parents came to tuck me in.  They always tried to get through the process without answering a million questions, but I rarely allowed that to happen.

“Will Jerry go to heaven?” I asked.

“No,” my father said immediately.  “Absolutely not.  That thing is a toy, and there are no toys in heaven.”

“His name is Jerry,” I said.

“What?”

“He prefers to be called Jerry and not that thing.”  My father made a familiar, strangling noise, which was something that often happened when he was talking to me.  I continued.  “Because I’m worried about Jerry going to hell.  He has a plastic face, and I’m afraid the fire would melt it off.”

“That thing is not going to hell either,” said my father.  His neck was starting to get red the way it sometimes did when the Nebraska Cornhuskers were losing at football.  “It’s a toy filled with stuffing.  It’s not alive.  In the Bible it says…”

“But what about the Scarecrow?” I said.

“The what?”

“The Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz was filled with stuffing, and he was alive.”  I paused to consider this.  “But he didn’t have a brain.  Maybe that’s the problem.  Can Jerry go to heaven if he doesn’t have a brain?”

“The Scarecrow is not alive either.”

“Yes-huh.  If he wasn’t alive, how would he be able to help Dorothy find the Emerald City?”

“That was a movie.”

“Lots of movies are about real stuff.”

“But this one isn’t.”

“How do you know?”

“I just know.”

“But how do you know?”

My father raised his hands in the air like a criminal surrendering to a SWAT team.  “That’s it!” he said.  “I’ve had enough.  I’m going to bed.”  He turned to my mother on his way out.  “You bought him that…doll, so you deal with this.”We watched him leave, and then my mother said, “Roll over on your stomach so I can rub your back.”  She sat on the edge of my bed.  I rolled over, and my mother ran her fingers over my back, which was relaxing and made me sleepy.

“Is Dad mad at me?” I asked.

“He’s just grumpy,” she said.  “Don’t pay any attention to him.”

“I’m still worried about Jerry.  Do you think he’ll go to heaven?”

“I don’t know,” she said.  “But heaven is a paradise, right?”

“Right.”

“And what is a paradise?”

“A paradise is a perfect place.”

“That’s right.  And, would heaven be a perfect place if Jerry wasn’t there?”

“No.”

“Then there’s your answer,” she said.  “Now roll back over and accept your punishment.”

I rolled over, and she kissed me on the nose.

“Jerry, too,” I said.

She kissed Jerry on the nose, as well, and then left the room.

I was thankful for my mother’s reassurances, but I was still worried.  There was a hole in her logic.  In order for people to go to heaven, they had to be baptized.  My father had delivered numerous sermons on the subject, and he was adamant about it.  It didn’t matter what you believed, if you died without being baptized, you were going to H-E-double hockey sticks.  It’s possible that Jerry’s former owner had given him proper theological instruction, but I couldn’t take that chance.  I would have to solve this baptism problem, and fast.

My parents both worked full time, which left a two-hour window after school during which my siblings and I were left unsupervised.  It’s surprising how much mayhem you can cause and then cover up in one hundred and twenty minutes.  We once turned our entire basement into a medieval castle, stormed it, broke two lamps and a hair dryer, and still managed to have everything back in order before our parents walked through the door.  It was like a scene from Mary Poppins, except there was no duet between an uptight British nanny and Dick Van Dyke.

Two hours was more than enough time for me to baptize Jerry before my father came home.  I filled the bathtub with cold water and lit several candles.  I don’t remember what the candles were for now, but they seemed appropriate at the time.  I instructed my siblings to change into their Sunday clothes, and after I put on the finest clip-on tie in my collection, I brought Jerry to the bathroom.

It was a simple ceremony.  I asked Jerry if he believed that Jesus was the son of God.  He said that he did.  I pushed him under water for a few minutes, and that was that.

At least that would have been that if I hadn’t remembered the mob of unrepentant stuffed animals living in my bedroom.  There was Curious George and Scooby Doo and Harry Dog and Theodora Bear.  They were all heathens.  How could I have been so foolish?  I ran to my room and started hauling armloads of stuffed animals to the bathroom.  It was quite a collection of furry anthropomorphized sinners.  I rolled up my sleeves and got to work. I was cleansing the Cookie Monster’s soul when my mother came home.

“I see we’ve been busy,” she said as she stood in the bathroom doorway.  She looked at the pile of soggy animals in the hamper. “Swimming lessons?”

“Baptism,” I said.

“I see.  Are you done?”

“Two more.”

She thought about this for a few seconds, and then she took off her jacket and picked up the hamper.  “Finish up and bring them downstairs,” she said.  “You have a big mess to clean up, young man.”I finished baptizing Cookie Monster and Big Bird, and then I joined my mother downstairs, where the dryer was making a heavy plunk-plunk-plunk sound as it rotated.

“Are they okay in there?” I asked.

My mother nodded.  “They’ll be fine.  You get some towels and clean up the bathroom.  I’ll keep an eye out on your disciples.”

“Good thinking,” I said.  I ran upstairs to get rid of the evidence.

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