Chatty Cathy Essayby Vivian McInerny
Here is what I want to tell you: that my Christmas memories are rich with roasting chestnuts, singing carols and the wondrous sight of evergreens bent from the weight of white snow and red cardinals.
That is what I want to tell you. But this is a newspaper where honesty is not simply the best policy but the only one, and my actual childhood memory is less soft-focus nostalgia and more sharp-edge commercial. There was this doll, Chatty Cathy, and I wanted it!
She had blond hair, blue eyes, two mini-Chiclets for front teeth and a plastic pot-belly body that resembled my own 5-year-old self in 1961. She also had a plastic ring attached to a string at the back of her neck. When pulled, it spun a tiny turntable hidden inside her belly and Chatty Cathy, true to her name, talked. I had to have that doll.
I was the fourth of what would soon be six children and could barely get a word in edgewise, so I am certain the household didn't need another talking anything. But the doll was all I wanted. Maybe I was simply vulnerable to the sales pitch. Mattel bombarded the airwaves that season with images of the freckle-faced, 20-inch plastic wonder, yammering away. They manipulated my innocent emotions with carefully crafted advertisements for the sole purpose of making a buck. Like I cared! I needed that doll.
The original Chatty Cathy dollThe American Girl dolls look a lot like Chatty Cathy dolls of yore. . .and both are from Mattel
The weeks leading up to Christmas were practically painful with anticipation. Whether I was sitting on Santa's lap doing my best impression of good behavior for the big guy, or kneeling in church awaiting the joyous arrival of that other big guy, my thoughts were, heaven forgive me, on Chatty Cathy.
I tried to bring up the subject at supper one night. The conversation went something like this.
Me: "So, I've been good this year."
Brother I: "Pass the bread."
Brother III: "Goo-goo glmph!"
Me: "As I was saying, I've been really good."
Sister: "I don't think she's been that good. Hey, stop kicking under the table. Mom, she's kicking me."
In my defense, may I point out that our kitchen table, formerly a wooden door that had grown legs in my grandfather's workshop, was maybe a little more narrow than most. Or was it wider? In any case, my feet were jittery. Chatty Cathy was on the line!
Me: "I'm sorry! Did I kick you?"
Mom: "No. The baby just kicked!"
Brothers I, II and III, sister and myself --maybe even Dad --responded: "Wha?? Huh? What baby?!!!"
Turns out, it wasn't the Christmas cookies making Mom's belly bulge. Brother IV was on his way. I couldn't get anyone to focus on Chatty Cathy after that.
Other children did not suffer the same indignity. When my best friend Karen wanted a toy, she simply expressed the desire to her parents, who calmly discussed the pros and cons. (A doll that wets? Are you certain you want that responsibility?) At least, this is how I imagined conversations in those neat and tidy homes where meals were eaten on actual tables and living rooms did not merit their name. So I did what any Chatty Cathy-coveting 5-year-old with no hope of laying her pudgy paws on such an expensive doll of her own would do. I asked Karen to ask for the doll.
"But I don't want a Chatty Cathy."
"If you don't like her, you can give her to me!" said the always-ingenious me.
"I've already asked my parents for Patti Playpal."
"So ask Santa!"
"There's no such thing as Santa."
"Shhh! He'll hear you!"
"How can he hear me," Karen asked, "if he doesn't exist?"
Whoa! This was exactly the sort of mind-bending philosophical conundrum I needed to talk over with someone. Someone like Chatty Cathy! I imagined the two of us having intimate conversations over cups of imaginary tea. We'd drop the formalities. I'd call her simply Cathy. I'd tell her my secrets. She'd keep them. And when we were alone in the hours before sleep, she'd say in that sweet, sing-songy voice of hers, "I love you." Imagine! Love --or a close, recorded proximity --right there, whenever I needed it. Sure, I'd have to pull a few strings, but still.
I desperately wanted that doll.
My mother told me straight up: No Chatty Cathy.
Why? Hadn't I been good? Sure, I hit my sister on occasion. Pulled my brother's hair. Stole a piece of Wrigley's Spearmint Chewing Gum and . . . wait, let's not get carried away with confession. The point is, I was only 5.
When the nuns ordered bad students to sit in the corner with the picture of the devil, that pointy-tailed, cloven-hoofed demon was as terrifyingly real to me as if he'd personally tapped me on the shoulder. Now my own mother was declaring me bad and not doll-worthy. Let's just say the psychological wounds didn't heal until years later when I learned that the $25 Chatty Cathy cost more than most of the men in our neighborhood earned in a day.
That Christmas morning, I woke hours before dawn. We spent the morning tearing open presents in a flurry of red-and-green paper. My brothers got the hockey skates, race-track set and fire truck they'd wanted. My sister found a bride doll under the tree. I opened plenty of presents, but I can't recall a single one. When the last bit of satin ribbon was neatly rolled, put away and saved for next Christmas, my tears began.
No Chatty Cathy?! My friend was right. There was no Santa. There was no good will toward men. There was no good anywhere in this big wide world and, obviously, not an ounce of good in me.
"Have you looked behind the tree?" my Dad asked.
Lo and behold, there she was! Not even gift-wrapped, she stood in all her cardboard-and-cellophane-packaged glory for all to admire. Family legend has it that my ever-practical mother refused to spend money on an expensive doll that was bound to bore. But my dad, sensing that his youngest daughter had invested her young soul in a hunk of plastic, rushed out on Christmas Eve to search downtown streets and suburban strip malls, tiny toy shops and gigantic department stores, until he found the last Chatty Cathy on Earth, or at least in South Minneapolis.
So that Christmas when I was 5 years old, there were no roasting chestnuts, singing carols or red cardinals on snowy boughs. But there was a doll. I held her close.
(This essay first appeared December 19, 2005 in The Oregonian.)