I had a doll who traveled the world.
Some of her travels she did with me. Some she did on her own.
She was a brave little doll.
And, very persistent.
Twice she turned up under the tree on Christmas morning, waiting for me.
I guess “under the tree” is a bit of a mischaracterization. My parents set aside a chair for each of their five children and placed the important presents out on the chairs. Chatty Baby appeared twice on my chair. Once on December 25, 1962 when I was six and again a year later in 1963.
The first time I found her on my chair, it was a dream come true. The second time took me completely by surprise.
My best friend, Linda, had a Chatty Cathy doll. All the girls in school wanted one. Chatty Cathy was an invention by the Mattel toy company, marketed from 1959-1965, and desired by many a young girl.
Chatty Cathy was practically an instant best friend. She talked!
Well, she didn’t actually talk. If you pulled a string at the base of her neck, she emitted one of eleven pre-programmed sentences like: “I love you,” or, “take me with you.” The sentences didn’t come out her mouth, of course, which never moved, but rather rumbled up from a voice box tucked away in her chest and discreetly concealed by a pretty little frock.
Chatty Cathy was nearly two feet tall with bright blue eyes that blinked open and closed, an upswept bob of blond hair, and a saucy little nose sprinkled with freckles.
I wanted one so badly. It’s all I ever talked about. Whenever I visited Linda’s house I asked to pull her doll’s chatty ring so I could listen to what she had to say. Linda was reluctant to let me hold her, though, preferring to let Chatty Cathy sit on her knee and stare at me, while she murmured sweet nothings about cookies and walks.
When I saw Chatty Baby waiting for me on my chair Christmas morning, I was smitten. Sure, she was smaller than Chatty Cathy. After all, she was still just a baby. But, she was perfect with her pixie cut of brown hair and her bright red pinafore. She was Chatty Cathy’s little sister. A little sister just like me.
She also talked when you pulled her chatty string. Her voice rumbled up from her chest with phrases like “Cookie all gone” and “Doggie bow-wow.” Chatty Baby hadn’t gone to school yet. She still had a lot to learn. And, I was eager to show her the world. Literally, as it turned out.
In 1963, when my parents announced they were taking us to India, Chatty Baby was up for the journey. On the way to our destination, we toured the United Kingdom, Germany, Greece, and Israel. Chatty Baby was always by my side. It wasn’t until we were safely tucked into our Pan Am flight to New Delhi that I discovered Chatty Baby was not with me.
I don’t remember if I cried. I must have. I probably pitched a fit.
Whatever I did though, nothing would bring Chatty Baby back.
And then, on Christmas morning 1963, there she was on the rattan-webbed chair my parents had set aside for me. How did she find her way?
For a second I really DID believe there was a Santa Claus.
But then my mother told me my aunt and uncle in Israel had found her in their home after we had left and had packed her in a box to mail to us once we settled in India.
The passage had been hard on Chatty Baby. During the voyage her little legs broke and she lost her chatty ring. Her voice box rattled around silent inside her. Mother very cleverly wound white adhesive tape around Chatty Baby’s hips and legs, fashioning a permanent diaper that managed to lock her legs into place. From then on out, Chatty Baby was always standing at attention.
It was wonderful to have her back with me.
I used to have photographs of the two of us but I lost those in the flood of July 2022. I still have one grainy picture of my brother, Luke, and me in the rickshaw on Christmas morning.
Munawar, the teenage driver our parents employed, poses in the saddle. Chatty Baby is perched on my lap. The photo is so over exposed, she is nearly a ghost.
As the years wore on, she grew more and more ghost like.
Back in the States, I soon stopped playing with dolls.
Or, at least I didn’t play with them as lovingly as I had. When I turned ten, I gave Chatty Baby a crooked haircut. By twelve, I had pierced her ears, to match my own.
When my family moved from the big ramshackle Wake Forest house to the cramped split-level one in Oak Park, Chatty Baby found her way into a box along with my teddy bear Teddy and the doll-shaped pillow my Grandmother Lessie made me.
I was interested in other things. Soon my room was festooned with candles, a dumb-cane plant, Janis Joplin albums, and the neon-colored “Endless Summer” poster.
When I left home to attend college, the box of toys traveled to the attic.
Years later Mother and Daddy decided to sell the split-level and move into a condo. By then I was married and on my way to Japan to join my husband, who had recently taken a job in Tokyo. I offered to help Mother and Daddy pack.
“Don’t you want to keep your Chatty Baby?” Mother asked, eyeing the pile of things I had set by the trash.
“Oh, Becky, really? She traveled the world with you?”
“Mother, remember what you said, we need to be diligent in throwing things away. Your new place is small. Besides, I’m nomadic at the moment. I can’t have things following me around.”
I had become ruthless in my quest to divest myself of unnecessary belongings. I would take only what I could carry.
Mother picked Chatty Baby up and for a moment I thought she was going to rescue her. I almost wished she would.
She sighed and set her back down on the trash pile.
That’s the last I saw of Chatty Baby—her bright red pinafore faded to pink, her brown hair standing out in all directions, one eye without eyelashes permanently closed, her half-opened lips forever silent.
Later that year I happened upon the Kiyomizu Kannon-dō Temple in Ueno Park just as they were preparing a ningyō kuyō or a memorial service for unwanted dolls. Rows upon rows of dolls—some decorative, others toys—sat alongside stuffed animals just outside the temple building. Reluctant to blithely toss them into the trash, their former owners brought them to the temple after the dolls were no longer wanted. There they would be ceremonially burned, their spirits released into the atmosphere to merge with all the dreams and delights they had once inspired. As I looked out over the faces of the many dolls, I thought of Chatty Baby.
I wish I’d given Chatty Baby a ningyō kuyō. I wanted to thank her for all the joy she provided.
Well, Chatty Baby, wherever you are, thank you. You were a brave little doll.
For a beautiful discussion of Ningyō kuyō, see “The Afterlives of Dolls: On the Productive Death of Terminal Commodities,” by Fabio Gygi.
For more general discussions of Ningyō kuyō check out these sites:
And click this link for more on Mattel’s Chatty Baby