Paper Dolls

When Lizzy arrived at St. Mary’s her niece’s first communion service was all but over. Twenty tiny brides rose from the front pew and made their way in two lines down the aisle. Their white-gloved hands demurely clasped glittering rosaries or folded around soft-skinned bibles. One or two of the eight-year-olds craned their necks to beam angelic smiles or waved shyly at parents and siblings. Most kept their eyes ahead and down, trained on the light that shone through the door from the vestibule.

Lizzy slipped into the last pew as the girls approached. She carelessly brushed at the strands of dark hair around her face that had come loose from her ponytail, then huffed with frustration as she unsuccessfully tried to tug her denim skirt over her knees. She wished she’d had more time to run back home and change after filing the restraining order against her ex, but she was lucky she made it to the service at all. There was her mother, sitting four rows from the front, with Sarah. Lizzy waved to let her sister know she’d made it, but succeeded only in catching her mother’s scowl. Maybe this was a bad idea.

Lizzy looked around for somewhere to hide, an exit to escape through, or a friendly face that would allow her to conceal herself in conversation. But the aisles and doorways were now full with congregants impatient to get home to family parties. Those still left in the pews around her busied themselves collecting their belongings as they waited to move into the aisle. Her mother was halfway up the aisle now. Lizzy looked away. She couldn’t bring herself to approach her mother. So she sat and flipped through the hymnal.

It wasn’t quite five years ago that Lizzy walked this aisle in a white dress herself. Billy converted just so that they could be married in the church, not that it mattered to her. She had never considered herself very religious. She would have been happy to be married in the park, or at home in the yard.

No, it was her mother who wanted the church wedding, a dress she couldn’t afford and relatives Lizzy couldn’t even recognize, let alone name. “Elizabeth, how could you forget your Great Aunt Martha! She gave you that box of hankies for your birthday when you were six! I’m terribly sorry, Aunt Martha. I’m sure she appreciates that you came here today.” Lizzy was never sure who her mother was trying to impress. None of her relatives were wealthy. They all came from the same middle-class, blue-collar backgrounds. But her mother took great pride in showing off her children, despite the derision she always treated them with.

Dressed up like a doll, Lizzy was paraded from table to table and presented to her elders, while Billy drank at the bar with his groomsmen. Her mother fawned, smoothing Lizzy’s hair and praising the lace at her sleeve, while at the same time scolding her for carrying her champagne glass along with her or leaning on the back of Uncle Fred’s chair. The best Lizzy could do was stand at her mother’s side and try to ward off the next criticism before it came.

“I’m not surprised you were late.”

Lizzy looked up to see her mother and sister had reached the end of her pew. Standing, Lizzy fell into line behind Sarah. “Congratulations,” Lizzy said.

“Thanks. Madison will be out in the lobby. You’re coming back to the house, right?”

“What, and miss cake?” Lizzy distrusted the invitation and tried to make light of it, but rather than smile, Sarah looked at her out of the side of her face. Lizzy rolled her eyes. Sarah had turned back to their mother again, and didn’t notice.

Whether or not the invitation was sincere, Madison would expect to see her. At least three times a week Lizzy got another drawing from Madison in her email. Every one of those drawings showed the afternoon the two spent together when Madison was four. Lizzy was nineteen, newly married, and thrilled to babysit her niece for the whole day. They watched cartoons together in the morning. Lizzy made grilled cheese and tomato soup for lunch. In the afternoon, she dragged out the cardboard box her Barbie dolls lived in. Madison’s eyes lit up when she saw them.

They were Lizzy’s favorite toys as a child, too. Her mother bought them for her at garage sales, so she had all kinds, even Malibu Barbie with tan lines, and the cat-eyed 50’s Barbie with matted hair. But she really paid little attention to the dolls themselves. Instead, she spent her afternoons making accessories, the pieces that got lost, that you couldn’t find at sales; end-tables from wooden spools, kitchen sinks from cardboard and tape. If you turned the screws at either corner of the matchbox TV, the hand-drawn car drove across the screen. Lizzy and Madison quickly forgot where they were, reminded only by Billy’s roar of surprise, when he got home from work, at the miniature world that supplanted his living-room.

As Lizzy pulled up to her mother’s house, Madison met her at the car. She had removed her veil and gloves, but still wore the white dress, and stood scuffing her white patent-leather shoes, kicking at the gravel in the driveway. “Hey there,” Lizzy said, climbing out of the car. “You looked beautiful this morning. Congratulations! How was your first communion?” Lizzy bent down and pinched Madison’s cheek.

“The cracker tasted gross and the wine was really grape juice.” Madison cupped her hand and whispered in Lizzy’s ear.

“Well then,” Lizzy cheered, standing back up, “let’s go get some cake.”

Madison replied, “Mom says we have to wait.”

“We’ll see.” Lizzy took Madison’s hand. They walked together toward the house and the party tent set up in the backyard. “You haven’t changed your clothes? Won’t your dress get dirty in the yard?”

“Mom won’t let me. She says I have to stay nice for pictures.”

“Lizzy!” Her mother called from the tent as they approached. “Come tell Aunt Harriet how you’re doing at university!”

Lizzy bent down to Madison again. She handed her niece the boxed cupcake she’d been carrying in a gift bag. Then she winked. “Go change your clothes, and I’ll take your picture.” Madison beamed and ran off to the house. Lizzy steeled herself before turning toward the tent.

A few of the men were drunk already and cheerfully spewed racist politics over their euchre game. The women sat and updated each other on illnesses or the successes and failures of the adult children of people Lizzy didn’t know. Lizzy filled coffee cups, fetched napkins, brought dishes from the house, smiled and nodded on cue. She wondered what year it was. This could be her own first communion. Or her 14th birthday. Or Sarah’s graduation. Or her father’s funeral.

Or her wedding. What had she done it for? A house, a car, a fence, a party, and everything her mother expected of her? All those nights under the stars in his convertible made Lizzy believe Billy could make them real, breathe life into the stagnant future she saw before her. Maybe she just missed her father. While they were dating, Billy would drive her around, showing her new things, taking her places she wouldn’t have thought to go on her own. Just the same way, she used to spend evenings in the yard with her dad. They’d walk through the vegetable garden, and he’d tell her interesting things about the plants. He taught her to identify bird calls and pointed out the constellations. She wondered if her mother was ever jealous, or if she shut herself in the house on purpose. Maybe her parents’ marriage was something other than it seemed.

The reality of her own married life was different than Lizzy imagined. Sundays they’d have dinner at her mother’s house. Roast beef or chicken, gravy and potatoes, with yellow wax beans, picked and snapped right after church. “You work so hard,” Lizzy’s mother would say, filling Billy’s plate with more than he could eat. “Elizabeth isn’t much of a cook, is she? You must be so glad for Sundays, to get a good meal.”

“Don’t be silly, Mom,” Billy would reply. Lizzy takes good care of me.” He’d smile at Lizzy across the table.

The first invitation was something of a surprise. Her mother never bothered with Sunday dinner after her father died. Suddenly, their weekly presence was required. And little-by-little, her mother’s words over dinner wormed in between the newlyweds. It wasn’t long before Lizzy couldn’t do anything to please Billy. The house was never clean enough. Her tuition cost too much. And if there wasn’t enough beer in the fridge for his friends on football night, she’d be picking up the careful tray of canapés off the floor.

Madison’s party was winding down, now, cake and coffee finished over Scrabble and euchre. Madison ran up, holding a camera. “Aunt ‘Lizabeth, are you ready to take my picture?”

“Sure, Maddie. Where should we take it? How about under the tree in the front yard? You can sit on the swing.” Lizzy looked around.

“Not now, Madison,” Lizzy’s mother interrupted. “Wait a few minutes and we’ll all take pictures. Grandma wants to show Great Aunt Harriet the pictures from Aunt Lizzy’s wedding. Run and get the album from the living-room, would you please?” Madison pouted and turned toward the house.

“She doesn’t want to see that, Mom,” Lizzy tried to dissuade her mother.

“Of course she does. Aunt Harriet couldn’t be there, and this is the first we’ve seen her since. At least show her the picture of your dress.”

“Here, Aunt Harriet. Take a look at this picture.” Lizzy picked up her purse off the ground by her chair. She pulled a photo from her wallet and passed it over to her Aunt. “This one’s my favorite. I know my mother’s seen it, but I doubt you have. You’ll love it, I’m sure.” In the photo, Lizzy’s eye is swollen shut and ringed with purple bruises. Her lip is split, and the indentations of fingers can be seen on her neck.

Lizzy’s mother gasped and tried to snatch it away, but several of the women at the table had already seen. Lizzy took the photo back out of Aunt Harriet’s hands. “Sorry I was late for the service today. I came from the police station, requesting a restraining order,” Lizzy explained. “Billy still won’t leave me alone.”

Lizzy’s relatives looked around nervously, unsure of what to say or do. “Elizabeth,” Sarah interjected, “this isn’t the place.”

“Never mind, Sarah,” her mother replied, “Elizabeth’s always been the life of the party.”

“It’s really been lovely, Mom.” Lizzy stood up and headed toward her car.

As she passed the house, Madison came out the door, clutching the photo album to her chest. “Aunt ‘Lizabeth, you aren’t leaving, are you?” she asked.

“I’m sorry, sweetie, I won’t be able to take your picture today. But when I see you next time, we’ll use that photo album to make paper dolls.”


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