My mother became a doll maker in Tehuacán after my father died when I was less than a year old. Doll making helped my mother pass the time during her widow’s withdrawal from the world, and unwittingly, helped disclose a unique talent. This was 63 years ago before all the North Americans came down here to sell their white haired dolls wrapped in bright pink packages.
She started out making simple dolls with cottony stuffing and stray buttons for eyes. As time passed, she refined the craft until people in the town started asking her to make dolls for their daughters. Before she knew it, she became a busy woman with a booming business.
Needless to say, I had the best dolls in town, and I was the envy of all the girls in my school. They especially loved the dolls that my mother made in my likeness. Each year my mother would take my measurements so she could make the doll’s measurements correspond with mine. She special ordered the chestnut eyes with golden flakes from Europe. She even saved my wavy tresses after hair cuts and used my hair on the doll’s head.
Of course, the birth of a doll made in my likeness became a colorful ritual celebration. Everyone we knew came to see the introduction of a new me. We would rent a hall and each year the crowd grew bigger reaching to over 200 people on my 15th birthday. At the celebration, my mother would make me sit next to the new doll, which was always covered with purple velvet and waiting to be unveiled. She’d line up all the other dolls in order according to age.
Once the unveiling was complete, everyone would comment about the way I had changed from year to year. “Ah, she’s big-boned like her mother.” I heard someone declare on my 15th birthday. That comment was too much for me to take, so I decided to discourage my mother from making the 16th doll.
“Mamá, please don’t make any more dolls that look like me,” I begged as I saw her gather her supplies to make a new me.
“Don’t you think this obsession is just a little, well, twisted?”
“Twisted? What kind of silly talk is that? Shame on you. You should be flattered. Do you know how many mothers have begged me to make dolls in the likenesses of their daughters? Hundreds have asked. But I save that for you.”
I already understood the great mechanism that was my mother would be hard to fight. She was a force in my life. She was a strong wind pushing me in the direction she wanted me to go.
“Can’t we skip a year?” I persisted even though I knew her answer.
“Skip a year? I won’t have a complete set. I wanted to make a doll every year in your likeness until you’re married. The last doll will be you in my wedding dress. That was my original plan and I have to stick to that.”
She concentrated on her pattern a moment before she spoke again. “Believe me. Some day you will appreciate the effort I made for you, when you have your own children, these dolls will mean something to you. I would promise to do it for your children, but I’ll be dead by then.”
The words were never there to answer my mother.
Finally I said, “I don’t want a party this year.” I wanted a party, but I didn’t want her to invite the dolls. If I were this specific with my mother she would never accept it as my honest wishes. So I had to side step. Ok, manipulate, carefully.
“No party? This is your 16th birthday. I have some special things planned this year.”
I groaned. “Shouldn’t I be able to make some of my own decisions about how I want my birthday party?”
Turning sweet as she always did when she was tired of arguing. “Oh, Daughter, we’ll see. You might change your mind.”
I didn’t change my mind, and I stood my ground. As usual, however, my mother didn’t listen.
As my birthday neared, I watched my mother working on my look alike. Of course, she didn’t want me to see the doll until it was completed. I did get glimpses as my mother closed the door to her workroom or through the window before she noticed me and closed the blinds. I saw my body parts all over the table ready to be assembled, my hands, palms up, every palm line matching mine, the back of my bald head before my mother put my own hair on one strand at a time.
Once, I even got a full view of the doll’s face. Seeing myself look back at me with an expressionless face made my heart stop. As I stared into my unblinking eyes, the doll smiled raising one side of its mouth unsteadily as if it were drunk. I jumped away from the window and fell to the ground.
In the dining room down the hall, I could hear my mother hum while she set the table to eat. She always feigned innocence when she was most guilty.
The day came, my sixteenth birthday. I had managed to talk my mother into a smaller get together. I had insisted with a warning. If the celebration were too big, I wouldn’t show up for my own birthday party. It was the only threat that made my mother agree to the terms. She explained my rudeness to others with a simple explanation. “She’s a teenager now. She’s moody. What can I do?” People nodded with soft understanding eyes.
That evening, ten guests arrived dressed casually. They mulled around in our living room. The atmosphere was gloomy. This wasn’t how I had wanted things.
After a time, they took their seats in front of the figure sitting in a chair and covered by the purple velvet blanket. My mother told me to sit in my chair by the figure. The other dolls were standing clumsily together in the corner of our small living room.
“I don’t want to sit next to the new doll this year,” I told my mother. She didn’t seem to hear me as she pushed me in the direction she wanted me to go. Before I knew it I was sitting beside the lump of purple velvet. Our guests talked amongst themselves quietly.
I looked over at the 15 other dolls set up in a group. There I was as a one-year-old. My mother was just learning how to make dolls at that time so it doesn’t really look like me. At five, she’d managed to make my dimpled hands just right. I was chubby and funny looking at 10 years old, but my doll look-a-like was slimmer, more acceptable. In fact, as I examined the dolls, I realized that all the dolls looked just like me, with one exception. They looked better than me. I wondered if this was how my mother truly saw me or if this was the way she wished I looked. I shivered.
I found myself staring at that lump of purple velvet beside me. I wanted to smack it off the chair. I glanced back at the guests. They weren’t looking at me. Without moving my head I slowly turned my eyes toward the lump of purple. Mmm… Smacking it wouldn’t accomplish anything so why do it? I asked myself. Because it might feel really good to smack it and hear the thump as it hits the ground, I thought. Hitting that doll won’t make you feel better. Don’t do it, I told myself.
I won’t. I won’t, I told myself back.
But then before I could stop myself, my right hand reached out and backhanded the doll. It slumped to the side. I thought I’d feel relief, but instead I felt angrier so I gave it a punch with my closed fist. It wobbled around a bit but still didn’t fall off the chair. My hatred and my anger escalated. I looked around to see if anyone noticed. No one was even looking at me.
I was about to hit it again, but I saw my mother walk in the room. She took her place beside me. She positioned the doll up in the seat again and whispered to me. “How did that happen?” I shrugged my shoulders. Our guests were taking their seats. I squirmed in my chair fighting the urge to pounce on that dummy that looked like me. My mother began her speech.
“You are our closest friends, and you were all here when I unveiled the first doll of this long line of unique dolls made in the likeness of my daughter, Pilar.” My mother gestured toward me with a sweep of both her arms. “Each year you may have noticed that I improved the dolls making subtle but very important changes. I’ve perfected the look in the eyes, the skin tone and its texture, the wrinkles on her knees and on her throat.”
I brushed my throat with my fingers. I had wrinkles on my throat?
My mother kept talking. “I’ve even worked with the small hairs on her arms.” She took a deep breath before she said, “This year I did something even more amazing. Behold!” She carefully took the blanket off the doll.
The doll made a few jerky movements before it said, “Hello.” I gasped, but our guests all had very pleased looks on their faces. They looked from the doll to me back to the doll again. I doubted whether the doll had actually spoken.
My mother said, “This doll is my finest achievement. Notice every detail.”
My mother’s voice faded into a low hum in the background of my mind. I glared at the thing sitting next to me. It looked straight ahead pretending it didn’t see me. I was sure of it. But then it turned its head and looked toward me, not exactly at me. I expected to see pure evil in its expression, but I was surprised to see a tear fall from its chestnut eye. I leaned over and wiped the tear away with my index finger. It sparkled like a diamond before it dried up.
I heard clapping and realized our guests were applauding my mother. From my seat I watched her. There was something in the way she held her hands, in the tilt of her head and in the set of her mouth that made me see my mother as a woman, just a mother who saw a special image of her daughter, something no one else really saw unless they were looking at their own daughter. I looked back at the doll. If this was the way my mother chose to see me, than so be it. I wasn’t going to stop her anymore.
Eventually, I joined the family business, and I made a good doll, but nothing compared to the dolls my mother made. Hers was a realistic fantasy of soft baby dolls with big brown eyes and full bronze lips and dancing dolls with wavy dark hair and long black eyelashes. We had fun designing clothes for the dolls and we made a fortune. We expanded the business and opened doll factories all over Mexico.
I never did get married. As for the dolls my mother made in my image, she made 53 all together. She was making the 54th doll when she died. She was 75 years old. I found her passed out over the pattern, which called for a broader waistline and a flabbier chin. Yet, the reflection of me was to be thoughtful and knowing. She always thought I was more than I was.
– Kendra Paredes Hayden has written a collection of stories called “Beyond the Colored Mountains” that take place in Tehuacan, Mexico. One story, “The Ugly Woman” published by The Louisville Review at Spalding University, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.