Inside a small, oval-shaped wooden box festively adorned with yellow, green, and red paint lay six little dolls made of wire, paper, resin and tiny bits of cloth. Worry Dolls is how the store described them, and once I read the instructions for their use, they had to be mine. Before you go to bed at night, tell us your worries. Sleep with us under your pillow, and the next day your problems will disappear.
Finally, a toy that encompassed my three great passions: dolls, magical thinking, and obsessive worry.
I'm not sure what started my thing with dolls. All I know is that my first-ever Christmas wish, conveyed to my mom in my 21st month of life, back when words existed primarily for the purpose of bossing others around, was “Santa Claus! Bring it! Dolly!” Santa granted my wish, bringing me some sort of imitation Cabbage Patch Kid. My doll collection continued to grow with each birthday or Christmas.
My nagging fear was that these vinyl-faced baby-dolls with stickers for eyes might actually be sentient beings. I knew this probably wasn't the case, but I didn't want to risk assuming the opposite. I felt an obsessive obligation to love all my dolls equally, which meant playing with them for equal amounts of time and rotating which I'd take along each Friday evening when my family went out to dinner.
A bad parent through and through, I treated my children equitably not out of love, but out of fear of repercussions. Sometimes I'd slip up, taking out my cute new Cabbage Patch Preemie for dinner several weeks in a row, or I'd leave out of my dinner-date rotation the homely, homemade dolls my Canadian aunt sent me. But when I went to bed at night, I could feel the unmoving eyes of the ones I'd neglected glaring at me in the dark, waiting until I fell asleep to come alive and do something evil to me.
The night I brought home my Worry Dolls, I lined them up on my pillow and proceeded to divulge all my anxieties, like the one involving a killer clown. As if clowns weren't scary enough, I had seen some news magazine show like Hard Copy, which told the True Story! of a guy who dressed up as a clown and rang the doorbell of a house, seemingly chosen at random. When the lady who lived there opened the door, the clown shot her in the face. According to the TV report, or at least my interpretation of it, the Killer Clown was still on the loose.
As my mom was the only one at home during the day while my brother and I were at school, I figured there was a decent chance that the Killer Clown might arrive at our doorstep some late weekday morning and shoot my mom in the face, leaving me motherless. My dad would have to raise me and my brother Jason alone, which, judging by his short fuse when it came to putting up with our “Constant Fighting,” (my fourth great passion), would quickly prove impossible, and he'd have to marry an evil stepmother to help raise us. Inevitably, Jason and I would have to run away, and we'd end up living on the streets as orphans.
Other than being made an orphan by an evil clown, I also worried about spontaneous combustion and, occasionally, about swarms of killer bees. After unloading these pressing concerns to the Worry Dolls, I thought it prudent to make a wish as well. The instructions didn't specifically say the dolls could grant wishes, but I figured that since a wish was in the same general arena as a worry, it wouldn't be inappropriate to also mention that I'd like to increase my cash flow, perhaps by means of a substantial increase to my weekly allowance, “. . . if it's not too much trouble,” I added, with thinly veiled avarice.
That night in bed, I closed my eyes and pictured myself skipping through the aisles of Toys “R” Us (though, of course, not the haunted one I'd seen on Unsolved Mysteries) with money to buy whichever toys I wanted. The first thing I'd buy with my imaginary money was a boy Cabbage Patch doll to balance out my annoyingly girl-heavy collection.I kissed each Worry Doll (even the two ugly ones with the crooked mouths), and we all went to sleep.
When I saw my mom standing outside the school to walk me home the next day, I felt the usual rush of relief that she hadnot been murdered by the Killer Clown. I deduced that my investment in the Worry Dolls was already starting to pay off. On the walk home, I thought I'd casually broach the issue of raising my allowance.
“So, some kids in my class were saying they get three dollars every week for their allowance, and some get five dollars! What do you think about raising my allowance to thr-- five dollars?” My mom made a noise of apparent disgust.
“No way,” she said. “Don't be greedy! Two dollars is a good allowance. When I was a little girl I didn't get any allowance. Maybe your allowance is too high!”
My mood quickly darkened. I'd blown it by asking for five dollars instead of a more modest hike. I could see that I'd have to consult the Worry Dolls again.
The day after that was Valentine's Day, but love was the furthest thing from my mind. I knew what I wanted: cold hard cash. And I told the Worry Dolls as much. On that Valentine's Day of 1990, I received exactly two dollars and fifty cents. The fifty cents was from David Denham, a cute-ish brat with whom I competed fiercely every day to be the fastest kid in class or to shout out the answer to the afternoon math problem. He occasionally beat me on time, but he also often got the answer wrong in his haste, after which I'd shoot up my hand and smugly deliver the correct answer. At least, that's how I remember it. David had apparently mistaken our academic rivalry for love because he placed on my desk a Valentine, which, next to the two quarters taped neatly inside, read: “You are my girlfriend. David.” Pretending I wasn't incredibly flattered, I pocketed the change and threw away the card.
The two dollars came from a certain Paul Carrow. Paul was a skinny, thuggish type whom I also enjoyed fighting with, though on a more primitive level than with David. Usually the fights were instigated when I hit him with my lunchbox, which was made out of soft vinyl and attached to a long strap, and thus seemed custom-designed for this very purpose. In turn, Paul would threaten me with some sharp object, usually a knife he'd fashioned out of a cut-up soda can or a pencil or a piece of broken glass.
My blasé attitude toward these violent displays admittedly seems rather shocking in hindsight, but for me, it was sportive. I think I had acquired a taste for fighting with boys because of the way my brother and I fought at home. We never thought twice about using a found object as a weapon to threaten each other, whether it was a brass candlestick holder poised at the other sibling's head or a jump rope, which made a hell of an awesome whipping noise when you cracked it on the pavement. At the end of the day, it was all in the name of entertainment. Plus, I was still operating under the naïve belief that because I was a girl, I could get away with and from anything – other than an act of God like Killer Clowns or bees, of course.
Notwithstanding our mostly antagonistic interactions, I wasn't too surprised to receive Paul Carrow's Valentine's gift (which he simply placed, stickily, in my hand, sans card), as he had declared his love to me on previous occasions. But I suspected the Worry Dolls had to have played some part in my good fortune.
The next and last time I used the Worry Dolls to influence my fate was a few months later to guarantee that I would land a part in the illustrious “Patriotic Program.” Riding a wave of Operation Desert Storm-inspired nationalism, our elementary school was planning an end-of-year recital featuring pro-USA-themed songs, speeches, and skits to be performed by a select group of well-behaved second- and third-graders. I'm not sure why, exactly, but it was a pretty big-ass deal. After placing a request with my Worry Dolls, I landed a spot in the chorus. I was so stoked. True, I wasn't selected to recite “The Gettysburg Address” or picked for the solo performance of “God Bless the USA,” but I loved singing my heart out to “When the Saints Come Marching In” and “Battle Hymn of the Republic” during rehearsals.
One day after school, Paul Carrow and I got into it. Paul was not allowed to participate in the Patriotic Program because of his poor behavior in class, but he hung around after school on rehearsal days regardless. On this day he began lecturing me about how his dad was fighting in Iraq and how this made him so much more important than being part of “some faggy Patriotic Program.” In response, I took my fruit snacks and started throwing them at him. It was on. He began chasing me around with some homemade weapon as I shrieked delightedly. Suddenly, I heard the authoritative voice of our teacher, Mrs. Durn.
“Shannon! Paul! Inside! Now!”
“Ooh-oooh!” the other kids taunted us, drunk with schadenfreude. Paul didn't appear to be fazedby the prospect of an impending punishment and walked nonchalantly into the classroom. He was used to being bad and the repercussions that came with it. I, on the other hand, was petrified. Despite my penchant for fighting, I always made a point to be very well-behaved in front of adults since I knew they were the ones who doled out thePunishments. Thus far, I'd been lucky enough to never get caught misbehaving at school, so I followed Paul to meet my fate as solemnly as if walking to my own execution.
Once inside the classroom, Mrs. Durn informed me that if I continued to run around screaming and fighting with Paul, I would be banned from the Patriotic Program. Banned. I didn't hear what she said to Paul, and I didn't care. All I heard was Banned. I might be Banned.
Although it was just a warning, I was deeply upset with myself for almost ruining something so important. I decided that my good luck had run out and that this was somehow connected with the Worry Dolls. I got them out that night to apologize for jeopardizing the part in the Patriotic Program that they had so graciously granted me. But this time, after I lined up the dolls on my pillow, I couldn't bring myself to speak to them. Their painted eyes seemed to cast a decidedly judgmental glare in my direction. I am really getting too old for dolls, I decided, and threw them into the drawer that housed my “educational” toys such as the Speak-and-Spell and math flash cards – i.e., garbage toys I never played with.
I stopped playing with dolls altogether about a year later, when I got my Talking Cabbage Patch Kid whose constant bitching made me decide that the idea of dolls having souls was just too annoying. But I've never stopped wishing on things. Shooting stars, eyelashes, countless pennies thrown into countless fountains. I claim not to be superstitious, but each year I make an earnest wish on my birthday candles and feel like I've been cheated somehow if the wish doesn't come true. I consider myself an agnostic, but if a family member is sick or there's turbulence on the plane, I pray. Because usually things turn out all right, but you can never know with absolute certainty whether your magical thinking didn't prevent your mom from getting shot in the face by a clown.
Shannon George is a San Diego, California-based writer. She obtained a B.A. in English from San Diego State University and is the former editor in chief of Prime Magazine, a trade publication. George has been published on websites Livestrong.com and eHow.com, and in 2011, one of George's articles was featured in a HubPages.com newsletter sent to over 100,000 people. George is currently producing a work of creative nonfiction which she hopes to publish as a book.