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Paper Dolls

February 23, 2011

One of my favorite things about my own childhood is how much my mother supported my dreams.  She indulged and encouraged my wildest fantasies, believing with equal gusto, or so it seemed to me, that I could become a famous fashion designer and a quantum physicist, despite not knowing, actually, what either of those jobs might entail.  (The great irony of my life is that my mother wasn’t quite as supportive when I came to her, after my first year of college, and declared that no career or career-prep interested me as much as motherhood.  An irony because I’m pretty confidant, now, that she’s totally satisfied that I just live in my hometown with my family and do this.)

As a child, my play was always designed around these grand dreams, and I spent hours constructing the props I would need to create the elaborate worlds of my fantasies.  I loved all kinds of imaginative play- make-believe, role-playing, dress up, barbie dolls.  House, doctor, school, work.  I could be persuaded to ride my bike around the neighborhood with my cousins, only if each of us pretended to be someone else- an expert in our field, an unlikely crime-fighting trio composed of one actress, one scientist, and one lawyer.  Or swim in the pool all summer, carefree adults luxuriating at a fancy country club or mermaids involved in a mystical plot.  I actually can’t remember many times when I wasn’t fantasizing about something else.  This bath water is a soup and I’m the host of a kitchen show; this mailbox is the president’s mailbox, and I’m the president, insisting, in an effort to stay humble, to retrieve my own mail.  The bus to school is the bus to a Swiss boarding school, and who knows what adventures are waiting for me there?  Chores and the mundane could become romantic adventures.  (To some extent, as an older child, I replaced this activity with reading, but I still participated in it at least sometimes until, well, I guess I still do it now.  These chores are challenges in a bizarre reality show, and I’m the reluctant star.)

My favorite, though, was playing alone, quietly, all the dialog of a particular drama playing out in my head, and dolls acting out the scenarios I’d dreamed up.  I liked barbies, of course, and even large dolls, like Cabbage Patch dolls, or Pamela.  Among my favorites were paper dolls, with their endless but delicate clothing options and static poses.  Mom bought me all kinds: fairy tale princesses, 80s heroines, prairie girls.  They weren’t good for group play- their clothing sat precariously on them, threatening to flutter to the floor with the flick of a wrist.  They were a low-key, lone endeavor.

I also loved making paper dolls and clothes for paper dolls, and could easily spend several afternoons in a row carefully drawing and cutting them out, tracing them to make snug and smart clothes.  I was the kind of kid who loved large, intense projects.  And when those projects were complete, I could just as easily spend another several afternoons enjoying and considering the results.  Many solitary hours were happily spent simply thinking and dreaming up situations for my dolls.

I’ve learned, as a parent, to relinquish control of playing.  When I was a child, I was mostly alone and I was the boss of my imaginings.  Now, I have to defer to Irene’s mind when playing make-believe.  The worlds are hers.  And, of course, I’m okay with that.  But I can’t help but relive, in some ways, the joys I myself felt, mastering the puppets in my own created landscape.  I hope I can pass down that love of imagining, and of make-believe, to my kids.  I truly believe that those experiences are what made me into a person who still loves being alone.

Now, I’m the kind of lady who tries not to buy something that I can make, and so introducing paper dolls to Irene has turned into another family project.  She’s pretty interested in them, and I’ve smiled to myself overhearing the little dialogs that occur in her games.  Arguing over toys and pretending to be cheetahs.  I wonder if my own mumblings, under-the-breath bickering and making-up between my dolls, amused my mother so much.  I wonder how many more wonderful years I have with the kids constructing endless worlds and solving myriad problems in imaginary places and between imaginary people.  I am so looking forward to seeing what they come up with.


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