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What Makes Toys Meaningful

A facelift for my daughter’s doll and a viral video about a toy monkey teach lessons about redemption

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Maxie with Isabel Montina, before the facelift. (Jonathan Steuer)

I did tons of research, because I do not have a soft doll to worry with my fingers, and this is how I self-soothe. Isabel Montina turned out to be a copy of a Waldorf doll, a hippie humanistic folkloric Steiner education tool with a squat figure-eight-shaped face, a neutral facial expression, and a body made of battened wool covered with cotton interlock stitched together according to traditional European techniques. I wound up having conversations with Waldorf mamas on the crafting site Etsy—I sought someone to create a new face and hands for Baby, but apparently fixing a Waldorf doll involves utterly taking it apart from the stuffing outward and putting it all back together (presumably while not watching TV and not vaccinating), and really, I’m supposed to do it, not pay someone else to. What I heard, though the moms did not say it, is that if I really loved Maxine, I would know how to sew and provide the proper educational and moral playthings because that is what motherhood is. Lesson #3: No, it isn’t. Motherhood is what you make it, not what you make. And Lesson #4: Good heavens, defensive much? None of these moms actually said this. I was projecting. Why was I so willing to buy into Mommy Wars bull-pucky?

I pushed my neurosis into the toy box and called the New York Doll Hospital, then a couple of freelance doll medics. We were talking a minimum of $300. The doll had probably cost $20. But Max (pushed by Josie, whom I’d idiotically managed to make even more frightened of freaky Baby by telling her the plot of the Talky Tina episode of The Twilight Zone) just kept asking. Hanukkah 2011 was approaching. Finally I took a leap of faith.

On the second day of the holiday, when Maxie was in school, I handed Isabel Montina to Jimmy, the old tailor on the corner. (He’s the one who wouldn’t take any money from me when I asked him to shorten a vintage bassinet bumper when Josie was born. “It’s a baby gift,” he’d said.) Jimmy, whose name is surely not Jimmy, found a faded piece of beige fabric in his rag bag. He peeled off the stretchy bits of Baby’s old face and hands and sewed on a large fabric patch for her face and two small ones for her hands. I carefully drew the most basic, lousy smiley face on her with a Sharpie while he watched. I tried to keep my hands steady. The entire process took 15 minutes and cost $3. With her new minimalist, hand-drawn look, she didn’t look quite as freaky as the lopsided-monkey-Jesus from that recently restored Spanish fresco that’s been on the news lately, but neither did she harken back to her former self.

I gave the old, new Baby to Maxie for Hanukkah. I had no idea how she’d respond.

She was overjoyed. She did not sob like Liam. She just squealed and hugged Baby, and me, repeatedly. She still sleeps with the doll every night.

Laughing at myself a little, I shared with my mom my anxiety about fixing the doll. Maxie is an inherently upbeat kid—of course she’d see the real Baby shining through the new fabric. (In fact, as I was writing this story and looking at old pictures of Baby, with the girls peering over my shoulder, Josie pointed at one ancient photo and said, “Oh, look, Baby was perfect!” Maxie responded, “She’s perfect now. It’s just a different kind of perfect.”) There’s a little lesson to be found here, too. Mom pointed out that part of the narrative of exile is that God “hides God’s face”—God is nistar, hidden, can’t be found. Eschatology, the “end of days,” when the messianic era will come, is restoration. Again, toy is metaphor. The return of Ah-Ah and (in a smaller, more personal way) the reinvention of Isabel Montina are resonant because they hold the promise of bigger stories, stories that speak to adults—and our need to believe—as much as they do to children. Stories of redemption, reunion, and return are vital to us all.

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My daughter, now 14, has a 12″ Pat the Bunny bunny on her bookshelf. He is her third; she got the first one at 20 months old as a new-big-sister present from a neighbor. Luckily, Pat the Bunny is replaceable. Sort of. By the third purchase, Bunny had been changed and there was now crinkle paper in his long ears, making chewing on the ears not as pleasant. but there he sits on the bookshelf, with the Clique novels and Hunger Games trilogy.
What a lovely essay. And yes, I cried for Liam and Ah-Ah.

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What Makes Toys Meaningful

A facelift for my daughter’s doll and a viral video about a toy monkey teach lessons about redemption

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