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When the Dolls Come Down
I look into the glass display case and see all the deformed, demented dolls that I’m so used to seeing in my house. I remember all of them being made, and recognized every mutant face and every thread astray from the messy stitches. Their marker drawn eyes look up at me through the felt and cloth cut lazily. I’ll admit, I even helped make one or two of them, when I had nothing else to do. I remember each doll’s story; each obsession; each life-dominating character. I see all these dolls in front of me, and I know people will walk by them and see them too. But they won’t give a second glance; they won’t realize what these dolls are, or what they mean. The people will just walk on past.
I was lying on my living room couch watching TV, but I wasn’t listening to the speakers, I was too distracted by a different sound. “So, I was talking to the library and they said that we could put Liza’s dolls on display,” I heard my mom telling someone on the phone. “And April is Autism Awareness month, so…it’s just perfect!” Instantly a feeling of peace seeped into my heart and my mind. I felt like on some subconscious level, I had been holding in my breath, and it had all just come out in one, long, quiet puff. People would know. They’d know what our lives were about. They wouldn’t know every detail, but they’d just… know. All those times of having to explain to people when they first come over my house, or when people I barely know ask what school my sister goes to, and then ask why once I answer, or dealing with my friends commenting on the shower instructions suction cupped to the wall in my bathroom… they’d know. They’d know why.
And even if no one noticed the display case, which most people probably wouldn’t, it would be nice just to have it out there in the open. As if just having her display there for everyone to see, even if they didn’t see it, would let some of the tension out of me, like air out of a balloon that‘s about to pop. It’s like when you just feel so mad or happy or full of emotion that you have to scream! The display case would be the scream that I couldn’t let sneak out of my throat.
I study all of the dolls. They’re all hard-to-recognize imitations of characters that already exist, sitting next to store purchased dolls. There’s everything from Buzz Lightyear to Princess Fiona; these characters that my sister would think and talk about nonstop for weeks at a time… until shee moved on to something else. They’re all sitting here so peacefully, taunting me. It wasn’t very peaceful at my house as they were being made. Now, my eyes glide down towards the paper my mom had written. It was about how my sister started making the dolls. Liza is eighteen now, and four years ago she made her Confirmation. When one makes their Confirmation, they have to do a certain number of service hours. Though the lady in charge of this at my Church said it ‘wasn’t necessary for Liza,’ my mom forced her to do something anyway. Liza’s service project was making plain, faceless autograph dolls for kids in hospitals. With a lot of my mom’s help of course. One day, she and my mom decided to give a doll a face, hair and clothes, and they kept it. They started buying felt and cloth and yarn to make more and more characters from movies and stuff, which is how her collection grew to the size it is today. There must be at least thirty dolls in my living room right now, not including the dozen or so in the display case in front of me. I would have described this story a little different than the way my mom did in the paper she typed up. I skimmed over the story my mom had written, though I already knew what they words were going to say.
“Why are you typing ‘I?’” I asked my mom. She was typing up the paper for the display case on the computer and I was sitting on the uncomfortable pink plaid couch reading over her shoulder. But something was wrong, something I didn’t like. It crushed all my hopes of people knowing, all my wishes of releasing my metaphoric scream. I knew this whole thing was too good to be true. “Why are you writing this in Liza’s voice? And there’s nothing about Autism in it.”
“No one has to know about her. I just want her artwork to be on display.”
“Yes. I know, but isn’t the whole point of this to let people know about Autism? For Autism Awareness month?”
“She deserves to have people see what she makes.”
“Yeah! The dolls are going to be on display! People will see them! But can’t you write about Autism as well?!”
“Look, you and your father have talent, and can promote yourselves by yourselves. Now let me do the same for her!”
Secretly, I had argued with my mom for the sake of my sister, as well as myself. My eyes read over the page my mom had written. ‘My creations,’ ‘I thought,’ ‘I hope’… it killed me. It killed me that my sister could never write or type a sentence about this by herself, never mind a whole page. I couldn’t recall that my mom even showed the paper to her. My mom always tried to make my sister seem normal, tried to give her the same treatment everyone else gets. But she always ends up contradicting herself. A mother writing a paper for her daughter in her name; that doesn’t seem very normal, or fair. But I’m sure my sister didn’t care, or even understand.
After reading the page, my eyes continue to lower, only to see my sister’s name in the black and white letters that the library had set up. Black and white; the colors of dread, a symbol of all that I feel right now.
I was sitting on my living room couch doing homework. The only thoughts going through my head were the geometry problems on my paper. I shivered in my light sweatshirt as I began to solve the next problem. ‘3/4x+2…’ There was no wind outside, the only thing that could be heard was an occasional chirp from a bird or a rustle coming from my guinea pig’s cage. The math was putting my brain to sleep, but at the same time, I was pleased and felt almost warmed with the quietness and peace in my house.
Suddenly, I heard a car door slam. I looked up, and just as I expected, my mom’s car was in the driveway and she and my sister were getting out of it. They were coming back from putting the dolls on display. A second passed and the kitchen door opened. The sound of the car door opening had only been the beginning of disturbances to the serenity in my house. Immediately the whole atmosphere changed as my mom and sister’s heavy footsteps clunked around the kitchen.
“Hi,” my mom shouted.
“Hi,” I sighed. My sister walked into the living room where I was and the presence of her dark, poofy bangs, t-shirt and sweatpants dominated the room. She reached out with one of her tiny hands and turned on the television, which caused a ridiculous, crooked half smile to form on her small, chubby, square face. I gathered my notebooks and pencil case, moved into the playroom, and closed the door, like I usually do. My concentrated thoughts on math were now invaded by the faint sounds of the television and my sister’s shrieks of delight- which weren’t so faint- coming from behind the closed door.
A few minutes later, my mom opened the door and walked inside to tell me something. “I took a whole bunch of pictures, you’ll have to put them on the computer later,” she began. “I’m glad I noticed the lettering they were going to put on display.”
“Huh?” I asked with no enthusiasm.
“You know the letters they use to spell out the names of the artists?”
“Uh…huh,” I answered, my eyes on my homework.
“Well, they had the letters spelling out ‘Autism Awareness Month,’ and I was immediately… ‘No,… I don’t… Um…’ I took it down,” my mom said, almost laughing.
“But mom,” I sat up, “isn’t that the whole point? To show people who don’t know about Autism?”
“But people who know Liza will know.”
“But they already know! What about people that don’t know her?”
“They don’t need to know!”
I walk away from the display case. It feels awkward seeing the dolls at the library. I walk in and out of the bookshelves, reading the back covers, distracting myself by becoming enveloped in the words of others. Reading a book is like shutting off your life, if even for a few moments.
I’m a little kid again. I’m at my house, sitting at the kitchen table with my mom. We’re probably the only ones home; my dad and sister are who knows where. I don’t remember how old I am, I don’t remember when this is happening, I don’t remember our conversation, I don’t remember anything
but the words: “You don’t have to tell any of your friends your sister has special needs. It can be like a family secret, okay?” flowing from my mother’s lips, spoken with no effort.
I walk to the checkout counter and ask a librarian to get the CDs I’d ordered from the back shelf. As she turns away to look and scans the various books and such on the shelf, I notice the pink notebook lying on the counter. The same pink, spiral notebook, with the flower on the parchment-like background on the cover, that had been in my house just days before. I know that-
-the pages of the notebook are beginning to fill with polite little letters from people we know that visit the library, commenting on my sister’s dolls. Most are from librarians. They all know us. Most people who work in places we go to as a family know who we are. There are a few comments from people we don’t know, but not many. My mom and sister have to go back at the end of the month to pick up the dolls and the notebook, and then we can see all the comments.
I check out my CDs, put them in my messenger bad, and slowly walk out of the library.
I don’t like always being associated with my sister, I don’t like how my mom forces us all to do things together so often. “Us three girls,” she always says, especially since my dad isn’t around too much. If my mom had put the ‘A’ word on the display, people would know about my sister. One person would notice it, then they’d tell someone else, who’d tell someone else… They might associate me with my sister at school. I’d be ‘the girl with the retarded sister.’ Now that I think about it, I don’t know what’s worse- everyone knowing, or everyone not knowing… I guess it doesn’t matter anyway, because in the end, my mom didn’t put up the ‘A’ word.
My bag is extra heavy today because of all the books I have to bring home for homework. The strap cuts into my shoulder, forcing me to lean over a little. Its okay, my mom is going to be here soon anyway to take me home.
I wait a few minutes until I see my mom’s silver car pull up in the library back parking lot, and then hop in. She reminds me to put the pictures of the display into the computer, which I haven’t done yet. The drive home is quick since I live nearby, and soon enough, I’m walking through the kitchen door. It’s just about 3:00, my sister will be home soon. I take off my shoes, and put the icepack from my lunch in the freezer, like I always do when I get home. I hear my mom go upstairs. I’m starving, so I get some pretzels from the cabinet on top of the refrigerator, and go to the living room to eat my snack. It’s quiet and peaceful, and the only sound is the soft crunching of the pretzels in my mouth.
Suddenly, the calmness is interrupted by a soft jingling. She’s home. I hear my sister’s key struggling against the door knob, trying to unlock it, and I know that right outside there’s the white van that drives my sister to and from school in the driveway, and it’s going to leave as soon as she gets inside. The little noise is irritating, and I just wish I could open the door. But, I’m not supposed to, ‘she has to get used to unlocking the door.’ After a minute, I hear a faint click, and then a small squeak as the doorknob turns. I feel a breeze as the door opens and my sister walks into the house.
“Hi,” I say. No answer. “HI!”
“Myeah,” my sister mumbles. She immediately walks right to the television, turns it on, takes off her backpack, and sits down.
“I saw your dolls at the library,” I tell her. But my sister’s eyes do not move from the screen. I know she’s in a trance now, lost, there’s no getting through.
“Is that Liza?” my mom calls from upstairs, “Hi!” she rushes down to us. “What did you do in school?”
“Idunno.” At this point I walk into the playroom to watch television. Under the sounds coming from my program, I hear my mom’s booming, frustrating voice as she tries to find out what my sister did at school today.
---------A Week or Two Later----------
Well, the dolls are down now, they’re back at my house. Their familiar faces fill my living room again. My mom and sister just got home with them a few minutes ago. The notebook has a few more polite little notes in it. My sister marches into the living room and is just about to start fooling around with her latest doll, Conrad Birdie, that isn’t done yet, when my mom says: “Not now, Liza, Lacey is going to show us the pictures I took of the display on the computer.” Being the only one in my house who knows how to work a computer is such a pain. “Lacey!”
“Uh-huh,” I say. I seat myself in front of the computer and my mom and sister surround me. I find the file of pictures, and we take a look. There really aren’t many photos, and the first few are just of the dolls together on our couch. A lot of them are the same picture, just blurry. “Mom, you’re an amazing photographer,” I chuckle sarcastically.
The final few pictures are my sister standing next to the display at the library. “I’m so glad I was able to set this up for you,” my mom sighed. I look at the computer screen. My sister’s there, standing next to the display, her hands folded neatly at her stomach, elbows bent. Her head’s facing to the far right, and she’s looking nowhere near the camera. She’s probably looking at something in the distance- or nothing. The next picture is the same way. In one or two of them, she actually is looking at the camera. But she’s not smiling, there’s no expression on her face, and it seems as if she doesn’t even realize what’s going on.