The Horn Book
It was early December when my parents called us into the living room to tell us that our family had been canceled. “Your mother and I are getting divorced,” my father said, his voice steady and solemn. I was in the fourth grade, and it was perfectly reasonable to feel stunned by this news. There’d been no warning signs of my parents’ sundering. At least none I’d detected. My parents didn’t fight. They didn’t even yell. Until that December evening, we’d been a gentle sitcom family: a mother, father, and two kids, and none of us facing the kind of challenges that might make for “a very special episode.” My vivacious mother, usually so chatty, sat silently between my older brother, Joel, and me. My father told us that after this school year we’d live with our mother, who, he added, would soon be marrying Arthur. Arthur was my father’s close friend and teaching colleague. They’d been working on a book together. My mother remained still but Joel’s face flushed and, in a blur, he was out the room, stomping up the stairs and banging his door shut. I waited a couple of beats before exiting to my own room, carefully shutting my door as if I didn’t want anyone to know I was there. It was 1969 and divorce was still the D-word, whispered, and never discussed. It would be decades before people “processed” their feelings. So, with no language for our family’s volcanic upheaval, my brother slammed doors, my father bellowed, my mother glared, and I stood mutely by. Is it any wonder, then, that a dimpled, battery-operated doll who barely reached the tops of my knee socks so easily won my heart? Her name was Baby First Step and right away, I knew she was the doll for me. She was blonde, blue-eyed and like most plastic people, uncomplicated. I could tell she wasn’t the kind to dominate our sole television set, like my brother, or abruptly leave the dinner table in stony silence, like my parents. The first time I saw her, she was strolling in a glossy television garden with fake sunlight bouncing off her yellow curls. Her chubby arm reached straight up to the fingers of her human companion who, in a lilting voiceover, sang of the joys of having Baby First Step in her life; not just for strolls in the garden, but for tea parties, bubble baths, impromptu car washes and finally, for tucking into bed at night, right up to her rosebud lips. Each blissful scene of the girl and her doll in their exclusive relationship further convinced me that with Baby First Step in my life, my world would burst into a shiny, colorful paradise. And in that idyllic world, my doll and I would frolic together through happy, bubbly days. Batteries not included. “Can I have ten dollars?” My father was always the go-to guy when it came to begging small luxuries like comic books and Cracker Jack. But this time his reply of “What for?” set off alarms in my chest. I was going to have to fight for Baby First Step and frankly, it was a little embarrassing. I was teetering on the edge of Too Old for Dolls and in declaring my desire for a plastic sister, I knew that risked baring my need to dominate someone when I, myself, felt so small. “Itsforadoll,” I gushed, hoping my blurred words might disorient my father. A weary, wallet-worn look fluttered across his face, but I pressed on. “Daddy, she can walk!” I said, with evangelical fervor. “She can really walk!” But my father wasn’t buying into my zeal for yet another doll. I was already well-equipped with a sizeable army of Barbies and shelves full of board games and books. A line of stuffed animals slumped at the end of my bed like sentries to the Land of Nod while my gerbils, Peanut butter and Jelly, banged their exercise wheel against their glass prison in nocturnal rodent rage. As far as my father was concerned, my world was complete. And yet, without Baby First Step, what was my world? I might as well have had a pair of dead gerbils for playthings. “I have two dollars,” I offered. It needn’t be a total hand-out. But for the first time, my adoring father had no interest in my latest passion. Perhaps he viewed a walking doll as yet another interloper in his life. But that was his problem, not mine. I knew what I needed and after a few days of scrounging up $3.50 in coins from my family’s coat pockets, I was back at the table. Worn down, my father agreed to pay half, grabbed his keys, and drove me to the toy store. When we returned home, it took a while to free my new sister from her twist-tie restraints. She’d been strapped to her shiny, pink box as securely as Dr. Frankenstein’s creature to the lab table. But at last, I brought her angelic face up to mine and breathed her in. She smelled like love. I pulled down her panties and located her center of power, just above the buttocks. “She needs two batteries,” I said. In Dad Land, batteries are among the few things that make sense, so my father set aside his vodka and New York Times and went to the basement. Standing beside me like a humpless Igor, my father’s heavy breathing filled the space as I shoved two small batteries into the small of Baby First Step’s back. In my excitement, my sweaty, fumbling hands sent the plastic panel shooting across the room. “Oh, Christ!” my father said. “Where the hell’d it go?” I was quickly down, searching the floor till I found the piece and with trembling fingers, pressed it in with a satisfying click. Nudging the on-off switch from left to right, the doll’s legs toggled back and forth. “Life! Life! My doll has life!” Setting her down on the table, I held my breath for the moment I’d been waiting for: my sister’s first steps. Together, my father and I watched in silence as her tiny backside shimmied forward. But what was that horrible, grinding noise? The doll on TV hadn’t made any sounds. I felt slightly dizzy with the sudden realization that my baby sister had an awful lot in common with an electric can opener. How was I supposed to bond with that? She didn’t toddle so much as teeter from side to side in a stiff, swaying gait that reminded me too much of Frankenstein’s creature. A creature with a load in his pants. I didn’t take my eyes off the doll as she vibrated across the table. But her mechanical whir couldn’t muffle the avalanche of disappointment crashing down inside me. Our strolls in the garden, our impromptu tea parties, our collage of giggly times together—all of that was dissolving as Baby First Step tread like a tiny zombie towards the table’s edge. So lost was I in my disappointment, that if my father hadn’t caught her by the leg, Baby First Step would have crashed to the floor. But what did I expect? That she’d stop at the precipice and telepathically communicate in the way of dolls: “Oh, no! Now, what do I do?!” Her arms, legs, and buttocks were still shimmying as my father handed her to me. Embarrassed, I quickly switched her off. “What a junky doll,” I wanted to say, but couldn’t. Not in front of the person I’d begged, bugged, and borrowed from. And so, with as much sangfroid as I could muster, I carried Baby First Step upside-down by one foot to my room. While Baby First Step had been saved from serious injury, I myself felt shattered. The doll’s Creature Feature lurch, her soulless double-A hum had proved that my desire for a sister to help me through our family’s unraveling was nothing more than a made-for-TV fantasy. What I’d longed for wasn’t merely another toy, but a relationship. That was the real heartbreak of Baby First Step. A walking doll couldn’t insulate me from an angry brother brooding in his room, a father sobbing into his pillow, or a mother fleeing down the stairs. A walking doll couldn’t change the fact that our family had changed overnight from sitcom to soap opera. But even if my family life was less a stroll through a sunny plastic garden and more a clumsy stagger towards the table’s edge, I was determined not to fall off. My disillusionment with Baby First Step had toughened me up and I understood that the only one tending to my feelings now was me. The following week, I rolled the doll in some wrapping paper for the Junior Girl Scout holiday swap and traded her away. And yet, I still leaned into the shiny brand of hope commercials dangled in between Saturday morning cartoons. I still believed in the transformative power of toys. I just needed the right one, the one that would give me the veneer of stoic self-reliance. The one that would speed me away from feeling so alone with my sadness. When Christmas morning rolled around, my face flushed with joy at the fulfillment of my heart’s new desire: Mattel’s Hot Wheel Stunt Set. Stretching out the smooth orange track like giant fruit leather, I breathed in the freshly molded plastic. It smelled like cool. In my room, I piled textbooks on top of my dresser to weigh down one edge of the track so that it dove perilously to the floor. As I sent the tiny, metal cars zipping down the track my heart raced along as I imagined myself the shiny blue one, a speeding blur on a long orange tongue, gathering enough momentum to defy gravity and loop-the-loop, jump the grief chasm and with a little luck, land firmly on the other side.
The library wouldn’t tell on me, so that’s where I went whenever I needed a break from my bully. I say mine because she operated as a boutique bully, exclusively intimidating and denigrating me, and always in private without any witness as day after day, I handed over my self-esteem. Her name was Nadine. No one suspected anything amiss between my bully and me as we walked to school and ate lunch together every day. Like many abusive relationships, ours began as a seemingly healthy one, meeting in the fifth grade and quickly declaring ourselves best friends. When you’re eleven, friendship feels easy and all it took for ours to thrive was a shared love of Oreos and a pack of cards for endless games of Spit. But after that first year, our compatibility grew increasingly strained and by the start of seventh grade, Nadine had morphed into a mean girl. And knowing me so well, she knew precisely how to work her mean girl wiles on me. Every morning, before setting out for school, Nadine commanded me to open my coat for her daily inspection of my outfit. These critiques took place regardless of the weather, even on freezing winter mornings and her opinion would set my self-esteem for the day. Gazing at my matching vest and hot pants she’d exclaim, Oh, you look so cute in that! And I’d revel in the boon of her benevolence. But the next morning, the air would thrum with inexplicable hostility and when I opened my coat, Nadine would stare stonily at me, declaring in an icy voice, Your thighs look big in that skirt, ensuring I spent the entire day squeezing my thighs together as I walked, and thoroughly hating my new skirt. It was a brilliant tactic. As long as Nadine kept me questioning the friend-to-bully ratio, I remained stuck in exactly the state of anxious, frayed confidence her bullying required. The situation grew worse. I did her homework, stole my mother’s Parliaments for her to smoke, and at lunch, sat staring at the checkerboard she’d abandoned to gossip with some girls at another table. Everything about me–the way I walked, talked, even how I stood during chorus, invited Nadine’s secret taunting and verbal lashings. I tried to free myself from her, but my meager attempts to slip from her clutches always sent her flying into a soap-operatic rage. You’re such a bad friend! she’d yell, stomping away from me. And sucker-victim that I was, I’d run after her, begging forgiveness and frantically trying to knit things back together. I didn’t bring my troubles to my parents. In the three years since they’d divorced and remarried, I’d learned to absorb my pain and grievances silently, as if they were toxic fumes. But then one day, something inside me broke, and I knew I couldn’t continue on in this way. Desperate for an ally and a protector, I turned to the library; and like most secret relationships, ours began with a lie. Once or twice a week, I’d call Nadine to let her know I was going to be out sick. Then I’d get ready for school and pretend to leave the apartment. “‘Bye, everyone!” I’d shout, as if I was off to Morocco, only to tip-toe back to my room where I’d hide in my closet. When certain that my family had left for school and work, I’d take the stairs down to the lobby and walk up the street to the library. Our city’s public library was a stately old building with an arched vaulted ceiling and colorful stained-glass skylights. To avoid suspicion, I willed myself into invisibility, avoiding the children’s room where the powdery librarian sidled up to young patrons like a kindly old witch suggesting new books. Conversation with this woman, I knew, could slide swiftly from “Have you read the latest Paul Zindel?” to “And what brings you here, my pretty, on a Wednesday morning?” So, I stuck to the main room upstairs where gentle, turn-of-the-century ceiling lights barely lit the large space. Slipping between the stacks, my footsteps echoed softly on the floor as I headed down the long aisles away from inquiring eyes. At the back of the library sunlight filtered through tall windows, and in the dusty light newspapers hung like laundry over long wooden rods slotted into a special stand; among them was Variety, the trade paper for the entertainment industry. As I secretly aspired to be an actress, I couldn’t believe my luck. Here it was…for anyone to read! Lifting the latest edition of Variety from its slot, I’d settle in at one of the long, polished tables and make a Talmudic study of its pages. I felt giddy decoding the compressed show-biz lingo, a language far more alluring than seventh grade French. I’d read an article or two and then reward myself with the crammed back pages tight with casting calls in tiny print. As my eyes traveled up and down the notices, I was filled with internal helium, expanding my hope of one day finding this line waiting just for me: 12-14yr femme for sitcm, no xperince nec. All I needed, I thought, was one professional gig that would allow me to quit middle school. A busy work schedule of rehearsals and filming would mean my parents would have to hire a private tutor and then, Oh, well, guess I’ll never see Nadine again! Boohoo! I don’t know how I got away with it. My school was either very lax or very disorganized. The one time the school office called me at home, I fuzzed my voice into a malingering rasp and claimed to be down with the flu. Truancy, I began to realize, was an art. You had to mix things up just enough to keep the school and parents off the scent. Revising my strategy, I endured stomach-twisting stretches with Nadine before going back underground. Even so, my report card for seventh grade shows me marked absent for twenty-nine days. I’d skipped nearly an entire month of school. But life as a bibliosquatter suited me. Here, in my fortress of hushed purpose, I didn’t see myself as a truant but as a researcher, seeking opportunities to audition my way into a happier life. I delighted at having found such a comforting refuge from my bully. The sound of footsteps clicking down the aisles, the squeak of book carts wheeled from shelf to shelf. These became the white noise that quieted my mind, switched off my internal alarm, and slowed my heartbeat down to a soothing page-turning lub-dub. As for the librarians, I viewed them as the sentinels of my refuge, guarding me against all external pressures. Standing behind the circulation desk with model posture, they wore pilled cardigans with only the top button fastened so that their sweaters spread behind them like shrunken superhero capes. I admired their efficient way with books, how they smoothed each one with a calm hand as if it were a baby in their care. And I loved the satisfying ka-chunk as the librarian stamped each due date card before tucking it into its manilla pocket. My secret liaison with the library endured until the end of seventh grade. After that summer, I returned home from sleepaway camp with enough newfound confidence to finally liberate myself from Nadine. In school, I found a real best friend and while I still loved spending time alone at the library, I no longer showed up on weekday mornings. Years later, I worked for a while in a library, and often, as I slipped books back onto their shelves, I felt as if I was taking care of old friends. You don’t easily forget the people or places that offer you a chance to catch your breath or feel safe enough to dream about the future. At a time when I regularly handed over pieces of myself as if I didn’t matter, the library gave me a space to remind myself of the person I could, and wanted, to be. With hardly a word, it comforted and encouraged, never demanding that I hand over anything precious other than say, my library card.
Rhoda On My Mind
Last month, I was jolted by the news of a “Go Fund Me” campaign to help actress, Valerie Harper, with her cancer recovery costs. Then recently, it was reported that she’d been advised to enter hospice care. Since 2013, Ms. Harper, best known to the world as, Rhoda, has been fighting a rare brain cancer, after beating lung cancer in 2009. Amazingly, she’s defied the odds and inspired us with her pragmatic yet, positive, attitude along the way. But it’s been a long struggle, and now it’s hard not to feel like we’re collectively preparing to lose a best friend. It’s a sad comment on the state of health care in this country when one of the most successful television actresses can’t cover medical expenses. It’s also a wrenching moment for many of us who grew up with Rhoda, the beloved sidekick on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Everything about Rhoda lit up the room: her crackling wit, her groovy head scarves, her relatable insecurities, and of course, her New Yawk mouth. Sure, Mary turned the world on with a smile; but honestly, it was Rhoda I wanted to hang out with. I adored her brand of Bronx panache and for the life of me, didn’t understand why Rhoda couldn’t see what a beautiful, magnetic person she was. Of the three main, female characters on The Mary Tyler Moore Show Valerie Harper says, “Mary’s who you wish you were, Rhoda’s who you probably are, and Phyllis is who you’re afraid you’ll become.” Her assessment sounds like the perfect Rhoda line, full of perspicacity and punch. But for me, it was not Mary, but Rhoda I wanted to emulate. And not just for the headscarves or her wisdom regarding the psychological benefits of devouring a frozen Sara Lee cheesecake. What really kept me in her thrall was her character’s tough inner core and strong sense of self. In 1973, when I was thirteen and struggling with the aftershocks of my parents’ messy divorce, Rhoda became a role model of a woman who didn’t stuff down her feelings and always spoke up for herself. I only wished I could be like that and in my burning desire for a more tangible connection, I wrote a treatment for an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. My Rhoda-centric premise involved a niece who runs away to live with her in Minneapolis. Conveniently the niece character was the same age as me, and I let the producer, Ed Weinberger, know I was very available to play the part. It’s rare a thing when an individual and her persona are admired and adored in equal measure. Valerie Harper is exceptional in this way, and has done a lot of terrific work beyond Rhoda, both as an actress and an activist. But Rhoda is how I came to know her best, and I wasn’t surprised that she faced her health crisis in a way that was downright Rhodaesque. “Don’t die until you’re dead!” she proclaimed in 2013. “We’re all terminal,” she told Piers Morgan in CNN interview. Embracing her remaining time with grace, humor, and fortitude, Valerie truly embodies the courage and strength reflected in her name. Perhaps a fitting way for those of us feeling the anguish of letting go, would be to celebrate both Ms. Harper’s valorous spirit and our abiding affection for a beloved TV bestie as Rhoda might: grab a friend and share a frozen cheesecake. And don’t forget the forks.