This story is by Tonya Colson and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I threw my younger sister’s Raggedy-Ann doll out the car window thirty-nine years ago.
It was an accident.
We were on our way to Disneyland. Dad drove the family sedan down I-5 while Mother scanned the road for danger, her reflection pinched and anxious in the vanity mirror. Our car had air conditioning, and my parents battled endlessly over whether to use it. To Mother, an open window invited trouble in California. Dad countered that running the A/C wasted gas, so he’d put the windows down anyway. Charlotte and I played with our dolls in the back seat, whispering under the wind noise.
Bored by the long journey, I snatched my sister’s doll. As I made Raggedy-Ann and Raggedy-Andy dance in my lap, Charlotte muffled giggles with her hand. Then I pressed the dolls’ faces together, making them kiss.
“No kissing!” Charlotte said, reaching across the backseat for her doll.
Mother’s head snapped around at the sound of Charlotte’s voice, her expression acid. Before she could swat me, I pitched Raggedy-Ann in Charlotte’s direction. My sister, cowering, watched as the doll sailed over her head and out the open window.
“Pull over!” Mother shouted. “It’s okay, honey; Daddy will get your doll.” “God Bless America,” said Dad, through gritted teeth. “It’s not safe to stop here.” He pulled the car to the freeway shoulder, parked, and walked upstream to where Ann would have landed. While he was out of earshot, Mother rotated in her seat to face me.
“Look what you’ve done! What kind of child throws her sister’s doll out the window? An awful one, that’s who.”
“But…it was an accident! I was just giving her back.”
“Accident? So now you’re a liar too.” Mother lit a cigarette and took a deep drag.
“I forgot the window was down… I thought…”
Charlotte gave me a look that said, stop talking. I closed my mouth and crossed my fingers, hoping Dad would find Ann. The doll was likely a couple of miles behind us, but we were too young to know about freeway speeds. Dad pretended to search anyway, temporarily escaping Mother’s raging orbit.
“Look at your father out there. Everyone knows it’s not safe to stop a car in California,” Mother said, her eyes welling with tears. She flicked her ash out her open window. Dad walked in the dead grass along the roadside, his back to us. Our car shook as the traffic whizzed past; the still air thickened with cigarette smoke. My bare legs were sweating now, sticking to the seats. Despite the dangers lurking along California freeways, I wished I could trade places with my father.
Mother turned around a moment later, her eyes dry and her expression icy calm.
“Give Raggedy-Andy to me,” she hissed. She reached into the backseat and clutched Andy by his head, her fingernails digging into my wrist. “If your sister can’t have her doll, neither will you.” Raggedy-Andy disappeared into her purse as Dad returned to the car.
“Sorry, honey,” he said with a shrug. “I tried.” He started the car, put up the windows, and switched on the A/C before merging back into the traffic.
I didn’t see Raggedy-Andy again until after we’d returned home. He was unrecognizable. Mother had removed his white cap and stitched long, red yarn braids to his head. Instead of his sailor suit, he wore a flowery dress with an apron. In her zeal, Mother had made Andy an entire wardrobe of dresses. We hadn’t even known she could sew.
“Here’s your new Raggedy-Ann, honey. Isn’t she beautiful?” Mother beamed as she placed the doll in Charlotte’s arms. I leaned forward, longing to touch the yarn braids. Mother noted my interest and smirked with satisfaction.
“You aren’t allowed to play with Raggedy Ann. Ever.” Mother stared at me until I nodded my agreement. I burned with jealousy as she held up each new outfit, pointing out its merits before placing it on the pile. When she finished, Charlotte took the new Raggedy-Ann to her room and stuffed the doll in the bottom of her toybox.
In the following years, my character flaws festered in Mother’s mind until they eventually became the cause of all my sister’s struggles.
“A boy bullied Charlotte at school today; you probably put him up to it.”
“Charlotte’s best friend isn’t talking to her now; I know it’s your fault.”
“Charlotte got fired from her summer job; I’m sure you got her in trouble.”
My presence ignited Mother’s combustible moods, so I spent less and less time at home until my absence became the cause of everything wrong in the family. There was no shelter from the eye of Mother’s storm. Then, the most unexpected thing happened- Mother left us. She walked out of our lives without warning, leaving us alone and unprepared to navigate the emotional rubble that remained behind. We graduated, got married, had children, divorced, and then married again. She missed all of it.
Charlotte watched as I made us a pot of coffee, a futile attempt to calm our emotions. She’d received word that Mother was on her deathbed. Neither of us had spoken to her in 30 years.
“We should go see her,” Charlotte said.
“What? No.” The suggestion unmoored me, and I leaned against the counter to steady myself.
“This is probably our last chance.”
I could think of a hundred ways that meeting would go, and none had a good outcome. I clutched my coffee mug for moral support.
“It won’t go well, Charlotte; she’s mentally ill. I’m sorry.”
Charlotte looked unconvinced. “You don’t think we should get some closure?”
Things were closed. The last thing I wanted was to open old wounds. I looked at Charlotte; her lips pressed together in a thin, determined line.
“Okay, Charlotte. If you need to do this, I won’t let you go alone.”
In the end, Mother refused to see us. She died days later, and Charlotte and I returned to our hometown to settle her affairs. The funeral home was at the end of a faded strip mall, next to an antique shop. It was pouring rain as I parked the car.
“I want to see her body,” Charlotte said.
“I need to see her. I have some things to say.”
“I’ll see if it’s possible, okay? Wait here.” Rain splashed my face as I opened the car door. The funeral director met me at the entrance.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” he said.
“My loss? Oh, yes. Thank you. We want to see our mother. Is that possible?”
“Umm, well, she’s not…ready. Our records indicated cremation.” He paused and shuffled his papers. “I think we could have her ready by the time we finish the paperwork. A viewing is $150, though.”
“Done.” I slipped him my credit card and waved my sister inside.
The director walked us through the forms with practiced calm. We didn’t want to make funeral arrangements, purchase memorabilia, or run an obituary. I could tell we were unusual clients, but he kept in character and didn’t ask questions. He repeated his condolences in a low, whispery voice as he ushered us to a small viewing room.
Mother lay under a quilt with her head on a pillow as if she were napping. Her fingers were interlaced, resting on the belly of her pink nightgown. Charlotte burst into tears as the door closed behind us.
“She looks… she looks like someone I could have loved,” she said.
“She looks small.”
“She’s just a little old lady. I had things to say to her, and now I- I just can’t.”
“You were coming here to tell her off?” I hadn’t seen that coming.
“Yes, but… I can’t,” she said, sniffling. I passed her a tissue box. Thank God we didn’t visit while she was alive.
“I want to touch her.” She touched Mother’s hand, then drew back. “Oh. She’s cold.”
“Her hands are exactly how I remember them, long nails and all,” I said. I recalled her reaching into the backseat to take Raggedy-Andy from me, then squeezed my eyes shut at the memories of her hands swatting or hitting me in the years that followed.
“Let’s go,” Charlotte said, blowing her nose. We’d only been with Mother for a couple of minutes; I wondered what the director would think of our rapid departure. I grabbed a few more tissues from the box, took hold of my sister’s hand, and we left Mother for the final time. It was over.
Charlotte wanted to call her husband, so I sought shelter in the antique shop to give her some privacy. As I stepped inside, I caught my breath. A vintage Raggedy-Ann doll sat by the register. She was stained, floppy-jointed, and well-loved, just like Charlotte’s original Raggedy-Ann. I dug $22 out of my wallet with trembling fingers, then slipped the doll into my purse. Thanks, Mother. I smiled at the store clerk, then stepped out into the rain.