Talking to Big Baby

A child’s doll exerts a gravitational pull on every member of her family.

Leslie Kendall Dye | Longreads | November 2018 | 10 minutes (2,966 words)

 

Amazingly, the fall weather arrives on the first day of September this year. It is not yet Labor Day, but it’s chilly on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The angle of the light has changed; last week it was still the light of late August: warm and glowing. Now it is a sharper ray, a crisper beam that strikes the gum-stained pavement that rolls beneath my daughter Lydia’s scooter.

We are on the way to the playground, but I have to get a jacket hemmed, so we stop at the dry cleaner, where my daughter dances and chats with herself in the mirror, and the tailor, haloed in perfume, remarks on how cheerful she is.

Sometimes she is,” I say, deploying the weary tone parents use to field remarks about their good fortune — the one that straddles pride and modesty and grace while assuring people that in raising our children we do endure a measure of strife.

There is a jar of Tootsie Rolls on the counter. Lydia asks for one, but it’s much too early in the day for candy. We bargain, and I tell her she can have one “later.” She pockets her treasure and we exit the cleaners.

“Mommy?” She turns back, her chin tipped mischievously.

“Yes?”

“It’s later.”

The wind is picking up and a few dried leaves are rattling along the sidewalk. People walk quickly, hands are shoved in pockets; I see a few jackets amidst the Bermuda shorts; in no time at all the chestnut stands will be out, the air will be thick with the scent of roasting, of all things quickening, electrifying the air as the days darken. Here’s the paradox of fall: Light wanes but energy intensifies. The city grows crowded once more as families return, the bus stops are thick with commuters, the lazy currents of summer are replaced by the excitement of late-year festivities; Halloween replaces sailboats in all the windows. This spot where Lydia and I stand in September feels the briefest, this time of year that combines the cheer of summer with a premonition of the gloom of fall.

Here’s the paradox of fall: Light wanes but energy intensifies.

“Yes, darling it’s later. It’s already later.”

I smile — it’s still too early for Tootsie Rolls, but nice try — and we proceed south to the playground.

Lydia has always been a student of the mechanics of movement. When she was 6 months old, she began hurling objects beyond her own reach. She was teaching herself to crawl. She would lunge with all her weight at the object she had voluntarily denied herself: If she missed, she’d try again; if she caught it, she’d hurl it out of reach once more.

Now she strides around the playground on her daily rounds as though this is her place of work. First, the monkey bars. She wipes her hands against a concrete slab to dry them, then she swings her 38-pound bulk onto the first ring. Back and forth and back again. Next she walks to a structure made to look like a wagon. She hurls herself over the tire and swings from a metal arch at its top. She pumps her legs aggressively, gaining height and speed, eventually swinging to the pavement in a glorious leap. I am sometimes afraid that she’ll swing backward and try to land the wrong way, but she never does.


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She’s at her third stop — a low bar she likes to shimmy across by hurling her shoulders left to right in alternating motions — inside turn, outside turn — when she jumps to the ground and rubs her sweaty hands together.

“Mommy, I want to talk.” Despite her beauty, there is a new awkwardness to her face. There are angles now where there was once the soft curve of baby fat.

“What do you want to talk about?”

“I want to talk about first grade.”

First grade starts in six days.

“OK.”

She examines her calluses — hard-won badges of honor.

“I want to talk to Big Baby about first grade,” she clarifies.

Big Baby.

Big Baby is a doll, easily held in one of Lydia’s tiny hands. Big Baby is named for her size compared to a smaller doll Lydia owns, purchased around the same time. The dolls quickly came to be defined by and named for their comparative size, hence: Little Baby and Big Baby. Lydia used Little Baby as a teething ring; her head is the size of a lollipop and is now marred by dents and tooth marks. Big Baby was spared these assaults because, I suspect, Lydia always felt her to be “real.” Big Baby is actually a very small doll, such that when Lydia holds her in public and addresses her by name, it garners confused stares.

Lydia picked out Big Baby. Big Baby is a fancy doll, made by a company called Corolle; she hails from Paris (or, as the company coyly puts it, she is “designed in Paris”), and when she was new she was heavily scented with baby powder. Mais bien sur. She is shaped as a newborn is shaped, she slumps gently, supported by beanbag stuffing. She has no neck; Lydia props her up at the table for meals. She sits on the edge of the sink when Lydia brushes her teeth, recalling the Ernest Shepard drawings of Winnie the Pooh propped on the rim of the bathtub while Christopher Robin bathes. Big Baby’s smile is sweet and somehow knowing. She used to have a pink jumper with a little bib, but Big Baby has gone au naturel for years. She has been through the wash a few times and no longer trails clouds of talcum powder, although Lydia insists she can still smell some through her belly button.

Big Baby’s smile is sweet and somehow knowing. She used to have a pink jumper with a little bib, but Big Baby has gone au naturel for years.

On a dreary winter’s day, when she was 2, Lydia and her father, Kerry, were playing “diner” in Lydia’s room. Kerry, who is a screenwriter, decided Big Baby would be a waitress with a Lucille Ball–like screwball tendency for mishap. If you ordered a ham sandwich, she would bring you a tomato. If you asked for the check, she’d bring you a chocolate shake. This elicited gales of laughter from Lydia, and, as with all unexpectedly successful games that parents invent for their children, it dominated our play for months.

As the years have passed, Big Baby has been many things, including Lydia’s sister, the school principal, and the President of the Bathtub, which meant something to Lydia at one time. Regardless of her various job titles, her personality is fixed. Kerry’s characterization of Big Baby on that winter’s day has only strengthened with time. Big Baby is insatiably curious, naive, open to new experience, and, although hapless, capable of remarkable insight and intuition. Big Baby’s antics have become the highlight of every day. There are also the side characters: Sheila, Big Baby’s preschool classmate who moved uptown and can’t come to play anymore, and Devereaux, her friend who switched to private school but still invited Big Baby to his birthday party. (They had pony rides. Big Baby fell off hers.)

Lydia usually asks about Big Baby at dinnertime.

“What did Big Baby do at the office today, Daddy?”

“Did she eat someone else’s lunch? Did she photocopy secret files?”

“Has she uncovered more Russia dirt?” (My hand to god, our children listen to the news.)

My husband has a million stories, and as my daughter has grown, she’s been scripting his intros.

I should explain that Big Baby can travel quite suddenly into the past wherever she’s needed to be to make a story work. We all know the actual doll doesn’t hide in Kerry’s laptop bag and hitch a ride to work, but the moment one of us says she was some place, that’s where she was. It’s a nifty trick. Also, if I were ever in doubt about what Lydia understands, she once asked this: “If there were a fire, would you save Big Baby?” I said, “Of course. I would never leave my child!” And she said, “No, not Big Baby the child, Big Baby, the doll.” This distinction requires a moment’s concentration.

Big Baby is insatiably curious, naive, open to new experience, and, although hapless, capable of remarkable insight and intuition.

Big Baby has now taken on more roles. It’s textbook, as though Big Baby were a doll in a child psychiatrist’s office. She is an object of endless role play, a major player in my child’s life, in the working out of all her problems. She is someone with whom Lydia laughs and someone whom Lydia can laugh at. Big Baby commits every sin — she tattles, she gets into confrontations on the schoolyard, she refuses to listen to the teacher. Big Baby is — tellingly — younger, and therefore slower at working out math problems. She also thinks every word begins with the letter “Q”; Lydia is forever correcting her. Through Big Baby, Lydia gets to be an older sibling, a role that circumstance (her evil parents) have denied her.

Today on the playground, when Lydia asks to speak to Big Baby, I know it’s not a summons to a casual chat. Much looms. First grade looms. As sparkly as this day is, as crackling with the energy of seasonal transition, it is also for Lydia a purgatorial pause before she discovers her fate. First grade’s unknowns pose a near-existential threat. New classmates, new teacher, new expectations, new lunch hour. Nothing will be as it was. Ever again. The wheels of time grind on and right over us, and even at not-quite-6 my child is aware that she changes not through her own volition but through the exigencies of life. This is not easy stuff, not for a child and certainly not for her mother. Who can we call upon in this pinch? Who can soften the contours of this predicament, who can ease the childish ache to stay in the known when we feel it slipping from our grasp? Who can offer herself totally to Lydia right now and provide the companionship and stability she craves? Who can name Lydia’s fear?

First grade’s unknowns pose a near-existential threat. New classmates, new teacher, new expectations, new lunch hour. Nothing will be as it was. Ever again.

I summon Big Baby’s distinctive speaking voice from my vocal register. Big Baby then tells Lydia that she is not happy about starting school, not happy at all. She can speak as flowingly as anyone else, but sometimes emotion gums up the works and she grows halting.

“Don’t. Wanna. Start. School. Won’t. I. Hate. School. Hate hate hate it. Let’s eat chocolate instead.”

Big Baby is in my purse, but I don’t bother to take her out. We don’t have to see her to talk to her. I remember hearing my mother “talk to herself” when I was young. She was in fact talking to someone else, but in the privacy of her own head. The truth is, I do it all the time. Big Baby simply flows out of us and we seem to know what she feels and where she’s been and who she’s played with during the day. Big Baby’s point of view unfurls inevitably and spontaneously; we know how she thinks but we are often surprised by her responses.

My daughter smiles at Big Baby’s confession. Big Baby is starting kindergarten; she is one year behind Lydia and she will have the teacher Lydia had last year. Lydia must reassure Big Baby all the time. In the mornings, Big Baby wakes up startled by a nightmare, and Lydia, still half asleep, her pigtails askew and her nightgown bunched, asks me to care for her. Big Baby requires a lot of care, and Lydia is sometimes too busy to help her. Big Baby needs to be held and told it was just a bad dream; Big Baby wants apples in her oatmeal and won’t accept blueberries; Big Baby refuses to wear a hat in the sun.

Big Baby is, like Lydia, learning to read. It’s been a laborious process, because she sits by Lydia as Lydia practices handwriting, and constantly questions her spelling. Doesn’t “chocolate” begin with the letter “q”? “Q” is Big Baby’s favorite letter of the alphabet. Chocolate is her favorite thing. She envisions playgrounds and penthouses made entirely of chocolate. She loves Paris (because that’s where she’s from), and she loves the monkey bars. And Lydia. Oh, how she loves Lydia, and how Lydia loves her back. When I am busy with dishes and other life tasks, Lydia will do Big Baby’s voice. Once, I overheard Big Baby speaking to Lydia in her bedroom, and she was telling Lydia she loved her MORE than chocolate. This was an admission of the deepest love, and Lydia responded by telling her that she loved Big Baby more than the monkey bars and as much as she loved Mommy and Daddy.

I don’t know what will happen to Big Baby. For now, her work is not complete, but I do anticipate the day when my husband uses her voice and Lydia rejects it, says it’s silly or childish and pronounces — unbearably — that Big Baby is not real. Kerry will die a little when this happens. So will I. Sometimes I envision Lydia’s first night of college, when she is no longer home for dinner. I’ll still set three places, but Big Baby will take Lydia’s chair. Big Baby will open up to us on that night, telling us how it’s felt to be objectified all these years, how hard it is to function as a child’s id and her comic relief, her amygdala and her nonjudgmental partner in crime. Big Baby will pour herself a glass of wine and unwind. I’ve described this scene to Kerry, to make us laugh. But we don’t. It’s too sad. Also, Kerry can’t bear to think of a debauched Big Baby and says if I can, that’s entirely on me.

I don’t know what will happen to Big Baby. For now, her work is not complete, but I do anticipate the day when my husband uses her voice and Lydia rejects it, says it’s silly or childish and pronounces — unbearably — that Big Baby is not real.

If you think about it, Kerry says, who will understand our loss better than Big Baby? Big Baby will have to console us. I wholeheartedly agree. Then I realize something. Who are we kidding? Big Baby isn’t going to hang around with us; she’s going to go to college too.

Big Baby often sits on the dining room table all day, after her breakfast chat with Lydia. Her face has been painted with such expressiveness that I find myself talking to her. Kerry is always there when I do — I am not insane, after all. Still, Big Baby functions as a light rail for communication. She facilitates psychic unburdening. It’s hard not to look at her and think she may provide more answers in time. Then I remember that she is only a doll, and Lydia is a rapidly growing person. The questions will become more fraught and the answers more elusive. Maybe I’ll absorb Big Baby, integrate her into my cortex and, through her delightful way of spinning the day, help Lydia process complexity when a doll alone can no longer do it. Big Baby will still be speaking, but in my voice, or Kerry’s, or Lydia’s. Her ethos will remain as her personality dwindles into the light of common day.

But not today. Not yet. First grade first. Growing up — later.

“What if kindergarten doesn’t have the letter Q? Can I find you in your first grade classroom? I’m gonna run down the hall until I find you!” Big Baby expels all this in one breath.

Lydia looks down at her calluses again, her expression suddenly somber.

“Big Baby, you can’t run down the hall and find me — you don’t belong in the first grade. You have to face these things for yourself.” Then — as if to soften the blow — she says, “The letter Q is always there, even if I am not.”

Because the playground is nearly empty — people linger outside the city until Labor Day, willing the summer to hang on just a little longer — Lydia wants to leave. The weather is so fine, such an astonishing mixture of summer and fall that I try to convince her to stay out a bit longer.

Lydia digs her heels in. She wants to go home. I plead — how about a little stroll? No soap, she wants to go home, even though we don’t know how many more days the weather will be so lovely, so in-between, so idyllic.

“Mommy, I’m outta here!”

Outta here? I wonder where she has picked this up, this bit of teenage flotsam.

Off she scoots, sailing up the avenue, dodging pedestrians and gliding through intersections.

Big Baby and I trail up the street after her.

“Wait up, Lydia!” Big Baby calls. She is still in my purse, but were she in my hand, or even in Lydia’s, I don’t think that Lydia would at this moment hear her.

“Mommy, it’s later,” Lydia had announced in her gambit for a Tootsie Roll.

I fold my arms across my chest; a chill wind is sweeping down Amsterdam Avenue. Perhaps, I realize, it’s even later than I think.

Leslie Kendall Dye is an actress and freelance writer based in New York City.

Editor: Krista Stevens

Copy editor: Jacob Gross