The first rival for my parents’ affection was not my younger sister, Laura. It was a doll called Patty Play Pal, who arrived when I was eight and Laura nearly six.
At first we thought of Patty as our new sister. She stood halfway between us in height and we’d take turns combing and brushing and braiding her long, straight black hair. Both of us had short hair — Mom said it was easier to manage that way — but I still had a treasured stash of ribbons and bows, headbands and barrettes, from the days before the “practical haircut,” and took great pleasure in adorning Patty with every imaginable accessory.
We quickly re-named her Patty Rachel Shoshanna Play Pal, after our just-born baby cousin, and assigned her the role of teacher’s pet in the classroom we ruled over on Saturday mornings. Before my parents were even awake, Laura and I would convert our shared bedroom into a one-room schoolhouse, propping all our dolls up on our beds, stiff-backed against the wall. Posture was an important aspect of the curriculum.
There was Gladys and Mimi and Peggy One and Peggy Two and Squinty and Babette and Susie-Susie and Heidi. These were just your garden variety dolls. They weren’t especially pretty or bright. Sometimes, even, they were very, very bad and had to go sit in the corner as punishment. But Patty Rachel Shoshanna — at last, a pupil worthy of us.
Patty Rachel Shoshanna could spell, she could add and subtract, she had beautiful penmanship, a good memory for historic dates, and truly exceptional posture. She was without a doubt our star pupil, and if Mimi or Heidi hated her guts, well, they never said anything to us about it. If they had, they would have been punished. Envy was not a characteristic we encouraged in our school.
All went well for a number of weeks. Patty Rachel Shoshanna continued to get gold stars every Saturday morning; her hair was always neat and shiny; she looked adorable in her pleated plaid skirt and clean white blouse, and she never spoke without first raising her hand. Laura and I were in love with her.
Until we realized that our parents loved her as well. Maybe a little too much. Dad, a guy with a strong predisposition toward the literal, was impressed by how real she seemed. “Would you look at those eyelashes, how’d they manage to do that? And her fingernails! Kids, I’m telling you, it’s amazing what science can accomplish these days.” (You’d think NASA was about to send her to the moon.)
Mom, with her flair for all things fashion-related, was spending hours dressing Patty in clothes Laura and I refused to wear ourselves. We didn’t go in for the crinolines and stiff, lacy dresses Mom was always bringing home, and if we got within three feet of a woolen sweater we broke out in hives. But Patty didn’t mind any of this. She’d stand perfectly still while Mom pulled first one sweater and then another over her head. Sometimes we would just sit there on the floor, bug-eyed, at the appalling sight of our mother trying to decide which particular shade of green went best with Patty’s coloring.
At dinner, Dad would ask how Patty’s day had gone, and Mom wondered, more and more often, why we couldn’t give her some peace and quiet, like Patty did. Clearly, Patty was the good child; we were the little beasts.
We didn’t like it. Not at all. We no longer viewed Patty as a beloved sister. We saw her for what she really was: the devil’s child. We’d pass our Brussels sprouts to her and when she wouldn’t eat them we’d pinch her, hard, on her leg. We came up with really tricky math problems for her to solve, like: “What is 9 million, 2 thousand, 6 hundred and fifty-four times 15 billion, 4 quadrillions, a zilliontrillion and a half?” And when she sat there looking at us blankly, with her great big oh-so-realistically-constructed brown eyes, we’d yell at her, “Stupid, stupid girl,” and make her go sit in the corner. Mimi was delighted. So were Gladys and Susie-Susie.
All this time my father was working two jobs. During the day he cooked at a neighborhood luncheonette, and at night he batched up bundles of the New York Times, preparing them for early morning delivery. He’d come home at dawn, bleary-eyed and exhausted.
One morning when he walked through the front door, there was Patty Rachel Shoshanna Play Pal, carelessly left in the hallway. Trust me, there was nothing premeditated about this. We were just kids, we left a doll standing in the hall, it was all a big mistake. Really.
Anyway, Dad bumped into her, knocked her over in fact, fell on her. And in his over-worked, over-tired state of mind, he assumed it was one of his daughters. “Oh my God,” he yelled, imagining the very worst: a broken arm, fractured skull, etc. He scrambled to his feet, felt around in the dark — “I’m so sorry honey. What are you doing up this early?” — floundering, sputtering — until he touched the long straight hair, the cold plastic hands.
“Shit!” he screamed. By this time we were all up and crowding into the hallway, Mom turning on the light, asking “Morty, are you alright?” and Dad saying “What the hell is the God-damned doll doing here?” Laura and I were completely silent for once. And if we were relieved, maybe even secretly ecstatic, who could blame us?
The next day Patty Rachel Shoshanna Play Pal was given away to Dorie Kaminsky who lived in the apartment next door. Mom told Mrs. Kaminsky that we’d outgrown her. Patty went to her new home with only one outfit, and it was not her most flattering one. By this time Mom didn’t care if the green sweater matched her eyes or not, she just wanted this doll, who had almost killed her husband, out of our lives forever.
By the weekend, Laura and I had our first Barbie doll. She never became one of our students in the Saturday morning class. Oh no. She was our teacher. Miss Barbie, we called her. She was strict, but fair. We did not chew gum in her class, we did not pass notes, and we certainly did not cheat when she gave us a math quiz. Miss Barbie helped Squinty and Babette improve their spelling and she uncovered Heidi’s hidden musical talents. Dad never asked about Miss Barbie’s day and Mom took no interest in her wardrobe whatsoever, adamantly refusing to sew any clothes for her.
We all liked it better this way.