I was eighteen years old when my daughter, Belinda, was born—a kid having a kid. I didn’t see myself as a kid, of course. That understanding came later.
I wasn’t ready to be a father. “You’re too young, son,” my mother told me more than once. She also knew marrying Serafina would bring me heartache. But I went ahead anyway. Serafina was pregnant with Belinda, and I felt marriage was the manly thing to do.
“I know what I’m doing, Mom,” I told her again and again.
We were married at St. Luke’s Church in the South Bronx, the parish in which I grew up. Photos of the ceremony show me facing the priest with my head down.
But I was unhappy with my marriage, from day one. I became a part-time dad. After working nine to five in a mailroom, I hung out with my friends. When Belinda turned one, I joined the Navy. I lasted ten months, and returned home to a marriage that was over, and to a daughter that was a stranger.
“Now what?” I thought in a panic. How could I get to know Belinda when I didn’t really know myself?
Then a miracle occurred. On Christmas, Serafina bought Belinda a doll named Thumbelina. At first, there was nothing particularly special about the doll—blond hair, blue-eyes, the norm in those days. She was dressed in pink pajamas; the kind babies wear to sleep. When you pulled the string at her back a little music box sewn into her body played “Hush a Bye, Baby.” All in all, a pretty standard doll. Belinda liked her, though, and that’s what counted. She made the doll her close friend and renamed it Tumby for short.
One day, when Belinda was staying at my parents' house, my mother noticed that Tumby was dirty. So she put her in the washing machine. When Tumby emerged, she was clean, sure, but her blond hair had become short—so short that it made her forehead look huge, like a small cantaloupe—and coarse. Her formerly bright pink pajamas were faded and dotted with lint balls.
Belinda was upset. “Abuela, look what you did to Tumby!” she cried. My mom felt terrible. To make it up to her, she crocheted a pink hat for Tumby. The hat was the size of a small saucer and fitted the doll like a skullcap.
When I saw the new Tumby later that day, I smiled. I honestly thought the doll looked better with her new look. It gave her character, a touch of spunk. “Hey, honey, Tumby doesn’t look ugly at all,” I said. “C’mon, let’s hear her music.”
When Belinda pulled the string in the doll’s back, we discovered that Tumby had acquired an extraordinary “talent.” She no longer played a lullaby; instead her head swirled as if she was stretching her neck muscles! And that wasn’t all. When we held Tumby's head to prevent it from moving, her body would gyrate as if she was doing the hula-hoop. That cracked us up.
Then and there I made a game out of “being” Tumby. I took her in my hands, gave myself a high-pitched voice and spoke as if I was the doll. I infused Tumby with a sassy personality. “Hey, Grandma, what’s up with my head? Are you responsible for my Hollywood looks?” I had her say. And, “Hi, Belinda. Want to see me shake my booty?”
Belinda started clapping and answering the doll back. “Yeah, shake your booty.” I pulled the string again, and Tumby did her jig. My mom was delighted. I had rescued Tumby from possible banishment.
Playing Tumby quickly became our game of choice. Every time I visited Belinda she would ask, “Daddy, wanna play Tumby?” We would go to her room, and I’d grab the doll and improvise. I became quite good at making her real, I must say. One time Tumby (me) got Belinda's mother so flustered that she actually screamed in anger, "Tumby, will you stop it!"
When Belinda, my mom and I went to Puerto Rico to visit our relatives, Tumby came along. Despite Tumby’s resurrection, Mom thought it made Belinda look like a poor kid whose parents couldn’t afford a better doll. When Belinda proudly displayed Tumby to our family at the airport, they smiled politely. “Esta muñeca es especial,” I told them—this doll is special. And I meant it. One day, we all went to Luquillo Beach, one of the most pristine beaches on the island. As we played in the water, Belinda suggested we throw Tumby in the air and let her fall in the water—“just to see what would happen.” I threw Tumby high in the air and let her crash into the water. We did it again and again, so that all of Puerto Rico could see this one-of-a-kind doll sailing through its impossibly blue skies.
Whenever I look at the pictures taken those days, I remember how much fun my daughter and I had. At the same time, however, I feel a tinge of sadness; it was the best I could do with Belinda. My visits were still erratic, and I showed little interest in her schooling. I didn’t really know Belinda, her joys; her pains. And I doubt she knew me. There’s a lot more to being a father than playing with a doll, no matter how inventive and funny it is.
When Belinda reached adulthood, the Tumby games were long gone. On her eighteenth birthday, Belinda and her mother decided to spruce Tumby up and give her back her original hair. They took Tumby to a doll doctor.
I felt sad for Tumby, and sadder for myself. Belinda said it was no big deal, that it was really her mother’s idea. But to me it was a very big deal. I had forged a bond through that doll. Now its silence proved I had much to learn.