Living Dolls

Melanie Saward inherited her nanna’s love of dolls – but her sister may have had other ideas.

Nanna’s house is full of dolls. She has beautiful antique cabinets stuffed to the brim with vacant plastic faces staring out. All the wardrobes in her house are stacked high with boxes full of immaculate porcelain dolls bought from women’s magazines and the home shopping channel. At Nanna’s house, the good dolls all stay in their boxes.
But it’s not just good dolls that Nan collects. It’s ones from the op shop, too. If you search her cabinets, you’ll find dolls with cracked faces and eyes stuck open, the blinking mechanisms long broken by kids who have poked their fingers in the delicate sockets. There are strange dolls of adult figures, like Mr T – though he’s the size of a small child, with a baby face to match, he has the facial hair of a grown man. There are too many other creepy and weird dolls to list.

Sometimes, my niece and nephew are allowed to touch and play with the dolls, but often Nan purses her lips and shakes her head. The dolls are all special and important to her. But she’s generous, too. She knew I wanted Black Barbies but couldn’t find them in Tasmania, so she bought them on the mainland and sent them to me. Every birthday and Christmas of my childhood, another Black doll arrived. When I called to say thank you, she’d warn, “Don’t take them out of the box. They’ll be worth a lot of money one day.”

My sister used to decapitate Barbies. Between the two of us, we had well over 20 – including some that are now the most sought-after collector’s items, like Barbie and the Rockers, Day to Night, and Peaches and Cream. We’d make up elaborate scenarios where one Barbie married another. I have a vivid memory of pushing two dolls together to scissor. Not long after, someone gave me my first Ken. He didn’t last long: his fragile head disconnected from his body somewhere in downtown Wynyard, and our Barbies went back to scissoring.

I don’t think it was my sister who decapitated Ken, but as I grew out of playing with Barbies, more and more of the dolls in our toybox lost their heads. If you’ve ever seen a headless Barbie, you might know that their inner workings make them almost impossible to put back together.

I recently asked my sister why she did it, and she replied, “I don’t know. Maybe because you wouldn’t play with me anymore.”

As kids, Nan and her sisters didn’t have shop-bought dolls. Instead, they’d go down to the creek and collect reeds. Then they’d weave them together into doll-shapes. The story both breaks my heart and warms it. Of course a person who wanted a doll so much as a child would grow up to rescue those cast aside. Cracked porcelain, broken eyes and stained clothing are nothing to worry about when the only dolls you had as a kid were made from creek reeds. No wonder we had to call Nan and tell her I had enough Black Barbies: she didn’t like that I hadn’t been able to find a doll that looked like people in our family, and she didn’t want me to go without.

Now when I think about Nanna warning me not to take my good Barbies out of their boxes – or I watch her lovingly stroke the hair on a doll she’s dressing up to give my niece for her birthday – my heart fills with understanding.

I’ve started watching Australian drag queen Vanity unbox vintage Barbies. As a child, she’d been obsessed with her sister’s dolls, but didn’t have any of her own. I watch her gleefully open the boxes and sniff the vintage plasticky smell. It sends me down a Barbie rabbit hole. Under my house, I find a crate full of Black Barbies – the ones that survived my sister’s executions. Then I get buying on eBay, trying to reclaim some of my lost collection.

As a 40-year-old woman who is in the absolute grip of Barbie nostalgia right now, the dolls spark happy memories of playing with my sister; of making up stories and games; of exploring my sexuality before I knew I had a sexuality to explore. They are bright, colourful and fashionable – and now, as a grown-up, I love being the brightest, pinkest person in the room. But more than anything, they are another thread that connects me to my past. With every doll that arrives in the mail, and every plastic-scented memory I reclaim, I remember what a gift it was to have dolls to play with, when Nan and her sisters had to go traipsing through the creek bed to make dolls of their own.

By Melanie Saward @littleredwrites
Melanie Saward is a Bigambul and Wakka Wakka woman based in Tulmur (Ipswich), Queensland. Her debut novel Burn will be published by Affirm Press in September.

Published in ed#690