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The Cohen Doll

I’m lying in bed next to my father.  He is sleeping and I am not.  This is an almost daily occurrence because my mother and my father work different shifts so that someone can be at home with me.  My father works the night shift and then sleeps during the day.  Often, I wake up and I see him sleeping and I sit up in bed and begin playing little games, trying to occupy myself in the manner of tiny children who are left to their own devices.

I’m not supposed to go out of the room or even off of the bed.  I’m supposed to stay where my father can see me and make sure that I’m okay.  I play finger games, play with the patterns on the quilt, sip at my drink or nibble at my snack on the bedside table – and I keep looking over at the Cohen Doll.

The Cohen Doll is my mother’s greatest treasure.  In high school, she had a good friend named Cohen.  Cohen was very talented when it came to fashion and clothing design.  His specialty was taking ordinary Barbie-type dolls, creating outfits for them, styling their hair, putting them on stands, and displaying all underneath a shiny glass dome.  He made these special dolls and gave them as gifts to his dearest friends.

My mother is the lucky recipient of one Cohen Doll.  It is rare.  It is irreplaceable.  Mostly, because, my mom says, “Cohen’s dead now.  He’ll never make another one.  Cohen died.”  I don’t exactly know what this means, but I know that it makes this doll very special.  I also know that the Cohen Doll is the one doll in the house that I am not allowed to touch.  Of course, that very fact makes me want to touch it all the more.  Touch it, I’m determined to do.  I lie here, working up the courage to try.

As my father sleeps, I carefully creep closer and closer to the Cohen Doll.  I’ll have to get around him without waking him if I’m to reach my target, because the object of my desire is on the nightstand next to his side of the bed.  At first, I step over him, but I’m too tiny and I my short, child legs connect with his body.  There’s an uneven break in his breathing, and he stirs, sending me quickly scuttling back to my side of the bed, my little heart racing.  Thankfully, he doesn’t wake up.

Next, I try going around the end of his feet.  This seems to work better, but the bed still moves.  At last, I decide to dismount from my side of the bed and sneak my slow way over, scooting on the floor and peeping over the big bed at my father’s prone body.  I watch for signs of wakefulness. When he stirs, I panic again!  I freeze in place and begin making up stories in my mind to explain to my father why I am where I am, and what I am trying to do!  “I dropped something down here, Daddy!” or “I was just stretching, Daddy,” or “Daddy, I fell off the bed!”  In reality, all that I’m wanting to do is get my itching hands on that Cohen Doll!

After a few days of practicing this, I finally make it all the way over to her!  I’m squatting, uncomfortable and nervous, right in front of her.  I am awestruck!  I just stare, absorbing every detail!  Her hair is light brown and swept up and back to highlight her dainty eyes of blue, and it’s as if I can hear her begging me to run my own brush through it.  Her plastic skin is smooth, peachy and creamy and inviting.  Her dress is this shimmering satin and lace overlay, in intricate layers that beg to be explored.  She is in a glass case, just like Sleeping Beauty from the fairy stories that my mother relates to me at night.  She is the closest thing to a princess that I’ve ever seen, and she is right in front of me!

For days, maybe weeks I practice getting over to the Cohen Doll without waking my father.  At last, I feel that I’ve mastered it!  It’s clear to me that I’m not going to cause my father to awaken.  I grow more bold.

More than anything that I’ve ever wanted in my young life, more than frosting, more than banana sandwiches, more than a tall glass of sweet-iced-tea, I want to hold, touch, caress, kiss this marvelous wonder before me – this treasure that is the Cohen Doll.

I risk reaching forward.  I tentatively touch her little house of glass.  It’s cold and smooth.  I’m trying to be careful not to leave any finger prints and I slowly lift up the bottom front of the wall that separates me from her and I reach in a pudgy finger in order to touch, simply, the hem of her dress.  My father stirs and turns toward me!

Hastily, I drop the top back down and try to figure out whether it is better to run around the bed to get back to my assigned spot, or if I should just jump directly onto the bed and pretend that I have crawled over to the wrong side.  Even though that will get me into trouble, it will cause me far less trouble than would touching the Cohen Doll!  I opt for option one, and run as quickly, as silently, as my toddler legs will carry me to my side of the bed, crawling up and  pulling the covers over me in one fell swoop.  I feign sleep, listening for signs of my father having woken or having spotted the fact that I was off of the bed.  My heart is about to pound out of my chest, and I feel tiny beads of perspiration breaking out on my little-girl forehead!  I’m sure that if he becomes conscious and looks over at the Cohen Doll, my father will see the residue of my presence there.  I’m still not sure how all of these things work, but I just KNOW that he will be able to see where I have been, as if I’ve left the mark of the energy of my intent upon the scene!

He doesn’t wake up after all.  Still, I’m too scared to attempt going back over to his side of the bed that day.  It takes me many more days of resting beside my daddy and hearing the voice of the doll calling to me before I go to her and attempt to give her the interaction that I am so sure that she needs.  I feel sorry for her there, in her glass case, not out with the other dolls and toys.  I want her to experience my loving touch, and I’m convinced that I’m doing her a good deed in providing that.

My courage returns at last, and I am kneeling, in front of her again.  I sit and lift the case up a bit so that I can touch her dress, and her feet, and I gently set it down again.  I do this over, and over, and over.  Each time, I try to creep up the bottom a bit higher so that I can touch more of her.  This becomes my most precious game, and the thing that I look forward to every morning when I awaken beside the snoring figure of my father.

Over a period time, I finally have the nerve to completely remove the case and set it on the floor.  Here she is in front of me, fully exposed!  The Cohen Doll!  Now that our unnecessary barrier is removed, I can at long last touch that soft and perfect hair.  I caress it, ever so gently.  It is long, past her shoulders.  I run my fingers along her exquisite dress from the bottom to the top.  I fluff out the layers, poofing it.  I study how she fits on the stand.

Now, when my father stirs, I sit very still.  He always settles back down again and if I simply wait for that to happen, I have learned that I can slowly make my way back to the bed and all will be well.  I grow even more daring in my shenanigans.  Sometimes, I miss waking up before my father – and then I awaken and his eyes are already open.  These days are sad ones for me because I don’t get the opportunity to sneak playtime with my Cohen Doll!

Through the passage of time, I gain the privilege of being allowed to get down off of the bed when I wake up, and to make my way to the living room in order to play with all of my toys while my father still sleeps.  This is a mixed blessing.  I want my freedom outside of the room, but it also means that I have to be away from my new-found friend and playmate!  This creates quite a conflict for me.

Awake, I lie bored on the bed, torn between the idea of sneaking over to my mother’s beloved, or escaping the bedroom to the larger living room where I can interact with more things and make the time go faster.  Time always slows down for me when I am stealing it with the Cohen Doll.

At last, I think that I have a solution!  I make a “fort” in the living room of our trailer home.  I pull all of my riding toys and my rocking chair and various items around in a circle, and I put all of my other toys in the middle of this circle.  Even though I am doing this just for the fun of it, I do have another purpose in mind.  I get my fort situated, and move silently through the room where my father is resting.  Gently lifting the dome cover, I wrap my fingers about her and claim the Cohen Doll!

My plan is to hide the Cohen Doll in the middle of the fort, and if my father wakes up, I will keep him from seeing her until I can sneak her back into the room.  He’s not nearly as observant as my mother, and I think that this is a plan that I can get away with.  As I play, I am glancing at the front door that will open at some point, admitting my mother as she returns home from work.  I know that getting the toy past her would be harder to do.

Over the door, there hangs this round mechanical device that bears the name “clock”.  I am aware of the fact that grown-ups look at it and can then tell when certain events are going to happen.  I sit, clutching the Cohen Doll, whom I’ve now taken off the stand and am holding, fully (oh, the miracle!) in my clutched, little-girl hand.  I stare at this device and the unintelligible (to me) markings on it, realizing that if I could just figure it out, I’d know when my mother was going to walk in and I could have the Cohen Doll put back and never have her catch me with it.  Alas, I don’t learn how to tell time until many years later.  This point is very frustrating to me, because I want to understand the magic markings, and I wish so badly that I could ask someone to explain them to me – but then, they might ask why I need to know, and what excuse would I give?

These are troubled days for me.  As I lie in the bed with my mother at night, I always glance over at the Cohen Doll and in my imagination, I see the little nuances of difference where I’ve rearranged her dress and her hair.  I imagine the energy of my fingerprints left on the glass.  I lie in amazement beside my mother, wondering how she is not noticing that her priceless possession is being pilfered.  I am overcome by this horrible sense of guilt, but it is not enough to stop me from continuing the behavior.

One day, I have a marvelous surprise!  My slightly older cousin has come over to play with me!  She helps me to set up my fort.  As we sit in the middle of it, all of my other precious toys surrounding us, I say to her, “I have something much better!  Let me show you!”  I do not tell her that it is not really mine.  I do not tell her that we are not allowed to play with it.  I want to pretend that the Cohen Doll is mine.  After all, am I not the one who frees her from her glass jail and loves her and keeps her company?

I scamper off to the bedroom and she follows me down the short hallway.  I stop her at the door and put my fingers to my lips to “SSHHUUUSSHHH!” her.  “Stay here!” I hiss, feeling all cocky and proud.  Following my usual tiptoeing routine, I get my hands around the case of the Cohen Doll, rejoining my cousin at the door.  Giggling quietly, we return to the fort.

My cousin is enthralled!  She LOVES the Cohen Doll!  Who wouldn’t?  She takes her and manhandles her in a careless fashion that makes me very nervous.  She brushes her hair with vigor, and I cringe as I try to figure out how I’m going to make it look like it did before when I put the Cohen Doll back where she belongs.  I always handle her with such grace and dignity, and I’m careful not to disturb her too awful much.  My cousin is older, and I don’t know how to speak up and tell her that she needs to be careful.  I’m not sure how to make her understand how regal and delicate the Cohen Doll is.  As it turns out, I needn’t have worried about putting her back, properly staged.

In my concern for the doll, in my excitement over having a playmate, I forget all about that mechanical device above the door that is ticking away the minutes until my mother gets home.  I forget all about watching the door, so as to run quickly back to the bedroom, doll in hand, hurriedly placing all in order before my mother can get fully inside.  By the time the noise registers on my play-distracted ears, my mother has opened the door, and is already standing inside the living room, peering down into my little, and as it turns out, ineffectual fort.  I have forgotten than my mother is very tall, that she bears the perfect perspective for looking down into the middle of the very short “fort walls” that surround my cousin, myself, and HER Cohen Doll!

Everything goes into slow motion.  I hear my mother scream, and whatever had been in her hands drops to the floor.  My cousin seems frozen in place, looking up at my mother with a shocked and confused expression.  In the clamor that ensues, I’m not sure WHO has the Cohen Doll in her hands at the exact moment of our interrupted play, but the doll doesn’t remain there for long, I can tell you that!  My mother’s hands leave her howling face as she makes short work of snatching the doll up and away.

My poor mother is devastated.  She is in shock.  She is in mourning.  “Oh, NO!” she screams.  “My Cohen Doll, My Cohen Doll!  My Cohen Doll, My Cohen Doll!”  It is sing-songy like that.  Over and over, and I’m not sure how many times she repeats it.  Tears are streaming down her face.  She begins stroking the hair of the doll, turning her over and over in her hands, examining her, and kind-of rocking back and forth.  “Look at her hair!  Look at her hair!  I’ll never get it back looking like HE had it!  Oh, My Cohen Doll!  My Cohen Doll!”  I see the look of pain on my mother’s weeping face and I know that I have done a horrible, unforgivable thing.

At this point, my memory leaves me.  The me who is writing this now went away.  I don’t know where the little girl is who came in and stayed through the rest of these events for me.  I only know what happened next due to anecdotal evidence.

As my cousin tells the story, my distraught mother jerks me up and begins to whip me.  I don’t know if she uses her hand, or a belt, or something else.  I don’t remember any of it, but I’m sure it is very frightening.  I mean, she is very angry, very upset and very sad.  I’m sure that this comes through the blows.  My elder cousin takes off, out of the house and up the hill to fetch my Grandmother.  “Granny, Granny!  You’ve got to come quick!  Deneen’s mama is beating her and she’s going to kill her!  You’ve got to come help her.  You’ve got to help Deneen!”

Whenever I contemplate these events, I remember losing my own temper with my eldest child:  She isn’t even two.  I am nine months pregnant and it is July and I am trying to get her to stay in the bedroom with me, the only room with air-conditioning.  She is being whiny and uncooperative and throwing fits.  I get really angry with her and I pull up her pretty, lacy little dress and pop her several times on her small, bare and squirming legs.  I hit her four or five smacks, purely out of frustration and anger.  I hit her too hard, because my hand is stinging when I stop.  Immediately, I know that I am wrong.  I have hit my child in anger!  I am a terrible mother!  I fall apart, horrified, and begin to cry along with my baby, overwhelmed with frustration and a deep disappointment in myself.  I grab my tiny girl and hold her tightly in my arms and sob and rock back and forth saying, “I’m so sorry!  Please forgive me!  I love you!  I’m so sorry!”  She just tries to squirm away, still angry.

Thankfully, I never remember hitting her in anger again, but to this day, the event still haunts me.  I wonder if my mother did this with me, too, after returning to her senses the day that she found me with her most precious Cohen Doll.  I wonder if she scooped me up into her arms.  I wonder if she comforted me, told me that she loved me.  Somewhere, someone inside of me remembers, and I pray that when she feels safe enough, she will share with me the memories of the rest of this story.

In a recent conversation with my mother, she spoke to me about some of the events from our past.  She’s retired now, her own mother has passed away, and she has ample time for contemplation.

“I find myself sitting here by myself and thinking a lot,” she tells me.  “I look back on a lot of things that I did when you all were little, and I have a lot of regrets.”  She says.

“Like what, Mama?” I ask.

“Well, I think about things like how upset I got over that Cohen Doll.  I shouldn’t have over-reacted like that.  I just regret a lot of things.”

These tiny words from my mother reach back and erase so much of the pain and shame that I felt as that small child.  I’ve seldom been as grateful for any words uttered – for, you see, they also help me, a little, to gain permission to forgive myself for my failings with my own children.

I don’t remember my response to my mother, but if it wasn’t this, it should have been:  “It’s okay, Mama.  I’m okay.  All of us mothers, we are all human.  We all make mistakes.  I know that you did the very best that you could – and I love you.”

And she did.  And I do.

Posted in My Inheritance.

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11 Responses

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  1. Mike Bernier says

    This is an amazing story, excellently written and filled with very strong emotions. I felt a little tingle along the back of my neck and my heart was racing as you got closer and closer to the doll! I can remember doing something similar when I was little, but the facts are pretty fuzzy…and I know I didn’t like the whipping I got for it!

    One question that came to mind is, does your mother still have the doll? And was she ever able to get it looking like it did before your cousin got rough with it?

  2. Deneen Ansley says

    Mike ~ My mother DOES still have the doll, in fact. She is very good with keeping up with things like that. As far as the dolls condition, I think that the hair was the only thing that never got back quite like it was. My mother always kept the doll on display, and all through my life, I would look at her and know that I’d messed her hair up, and that it would never look as good as it had when Cohen had arranged it.

    What tempted you when you were a child? What was worth risking a spanking in the eyes of the little child who was Mike?

  3. Yvonne says

    Mike said it very well, Deneen. I found myself breathing more shallow, feeling dread about the fate of the doll and the little girl who only wanted something tangible and crying as you interacted with your mom years later. Awesome writing.

    Do we really ever purge ourselves of the guilt we feel over mistakes we made with our children? Of all the things I could feel regret about, the only ones that still haunt me are the mistakes I made rearing my children. Adults have highly developed coping skills that enables us to deal with physical and emotional pain. Children have not developed those mechanisms. My only redemption is that my children have children of their own and have made their own mistakes. Thus, I hope this has given them an understanding that may not have been able if they had nothing for comparison. I am not saying I’m glad they made mistakes with their children (my beautiful grandchildren), only that I hope they learned, as I did, that as imperfect people we are still capable of great love.

  4. Mike Bernier says

    Deneen, I don’t know for certain, but my dad had dresser drawers where he kept all his “stuff” like cufflinks, watches, tie tacs, and so forth. The best that I can reckon, I got caught going into one of those drawers and playing with his “stuff”, and was punished for it. I had to be really young, like 3 or 4, and it took some effort to even reach the drawers in the first place, but somehow I managed. So, like you I suppose my curiosity was also centered on things I wasn’t supposed to touch.

    I actually was a bit of a smart-mouth up until about the 4th grade, using words I thought I understood but really didn’t, and getting into trouble frequently at home and at school. My attitude changed a lot after I started wearing glasses and being picked on for it, and that “smartiness” faded away.

    So now you know a little more about that little boy who was Mike!

  5. Deneen Ansley says

    Yvonne – Thank you for being so brave and open and honest during this post! Your words really resonate with me. My suspicion is that regretting mistakes with one’s children is a common theme amongst parents, mothers and fathers alike. With me, I know that I would think, “Wow! God has given me the most important job in all of the Universe – and I’m screwing it up.” I didn’t always suck at it, but I sometimes did.

    There is a lot to be said about the shoe being on the other foot, and I do believe that we all understand our own parents better and can become more forgiving as we have children of our own. Our being imperfect people seems to be a big part of God’s plan, and one of our greatest challenges is that of loving our fellow beings through the most horrible of flaws, and to recognize that we are all, on some level, made of the same stuff.

  6. Deneen Ansley says

    Mike – I think that we are all drawn to the forbidden in life. In some ways, that’s what has brought our species forward to survive and conquer (or to think we have) this world in which we find ourselves living. We have to somehow stretch forward through our curiosity, and we also must learn to manage our fears – the unknown, of the consequences of our actions, of being hurt.

    It seems as if we’ve both also learned to treasure those things that were kept from us. You are still drawn to watches, and I still love dolls!

    I’m sorry that you were teased as a child, but not sorry that you learned to stop being such a smartie-pants!

  7. charlene says

    i’m just going to pop in quick and say ditto to what Yvonne said. and that we will always try to second-guess what we did when we were raising our children. not to go all whiney (which i always seem to do!) but second-guessing seems to be a big problem for me these days. so i guess we are all text book parents…

    great job hun xo

  8. Julie Carriker says

    Very well written and vivid story, Deneen. I’m amazed that you can recall such details from such an early age! I also admire the way you are still able to put your mind into the mind of that small girl.

    Yes, we do all make mistakes as parents, but most of us try to do our best, and we can only do what we can do. Forgiveness, of ourselves and others, is often difficult, but it is essential if we are to grow. I hope you will continue to find resolution with your mother, and that you and your children find it also.

  9. Deneen Ansley says

    Charlene – Hey! I think I’ve learned how to actually reply to this comment so that it shows up as a reply! It it works, then this is going to be so handy!

    I don’t think there’s a GOOD parent in the world who hasn’t wondered and worried over actions that they’ve taken when bringing up their children. With the possible exception of Buddhist Monks! As much as I hate to admit it, I think I am “normal” in this regard.

    You’re a GREAT parent, too, my Dear! Second guessing may be second nature, but in your case, it is totally unnecessary!

  10. Deneen Ansley says

    Julie – It’s probably easier for me to write as the small girl than it is for most people because of my Dissociative Disorder. She is a part of me, but kind-of exists in an intact bubble that the “now me” is no part of. If I go into a meditative state and get my “now-self” out of the way and search for her in the filing system of my mind, I can almost disappear and watch her story – like seeing a movie but through a set of eyes, not from a distance in the manner that movies are shot. Her emotions flow through my body, and so I KNOW what it felt like/feels like to BE her. As a matter of fact, the emotions are how she comes to me, and we fill in the details of what else is going on by leading our awareness OUT from that emotional center.

    This process is something that happens with me on an almost daily basis with different ones of my selves. It’s also the thing that CAN drop me into a state of non-functioning if I don’t do the dance well, because I live in the reality of the constant danger of loosing the “now” me, and the control of this body that we all share.

    All that I can say is, thank God I was given this brain that has helped me survive, and that allows me to deal with the sort of complexity and difficulty my Dissociations bring.

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