I was standing in the aisle of a large store with my mother when I looked up and saw the doll. A row of identical dolls, actually, standing in their cardboard boxes on the shelf. I looked way up, as I was only five and not a very big kid.
It was a rag doll with golden braids just like Mary Ingalls' from the Little House books, a favourite series I'd just been reading with my mom. Mary's sister Laura had brown hair, like mine; and like Laura, I had often wished my hair was blonde, too. The doll's dress was perfectly prairie, and everything about her was just right. I loved her almost immediately.
I had a baby doll at home, aptly named "Baby", that I'd taken everywhere since I was small. Other than Baby, I didn't really play with or feel very attached to dolls.
But this beautiful rag doll with her sunny hair caught my attention and held it.
I don't remember being the type of child to ask for things when we went shopping. Even at five, I was aware enough to understand that we had no extra money. My father had finished his Bible college studies and lost his right to student housing. My parents, my brother, and I were squeezed into a tiny, mildewing rental home in the middle of an urban neighbourhood, and a third child was on the way, anytime. My dad was working two part-time jobs to make ends meet.
"Mom, I like that doll."
Mom looked at the doll. She examined the price tag. "That's a nice doll," she said. "But, Erin, we don't have money right now to buy new toys."
I knew that. But I had to tell her anyway.
I didn't feel as if I was missing out. I was happy at home, playing with the toys we had and being creative. I was more interested in the fact that we were having another baby join our family, and looking forward to seeing my new brother or sister.
However, I could not forget that rag doll. Whenever we visited that particular store, I remember seeing it again. I'm not sure if my mom took me down that aisle specifically to look at it, or if it was coincidental. But the image of it came into my mind often, and I prayed about it, feeling slightly selfish as I did so, because I attended Sunday School and church regularly and knew all about how much better it is to give than to receive.
Christmas Eve arrived, six days after the birth of my tiny little sister with skin the colour of honey.
My brother and I went to church with my dad, and there was an air in our house of celebration, even without tons of food and piles of presents. In the corner of our living room stood a small Christmas tree with sparkling lights, pure magic to a five-year-old, and I had a baby sister!
There was a knock at the door, and I stood in the hallway, cold air rushing in from the dark outdoors, as two people --a man and a woman whom I did not know-- carried in brown paper grocery sacks. Taking in this new turn of events without question, as you do when you're five, I began peeking inside the bags. I could see vegetables, potatoes, fruit juice, a ham. After the door was shut and the people were gone, we unpacked everything. All of the bags contained food, apart from one.
It was full of folded, used kids' clothes. My mother began looking through the clothing, most of which appeared chosen for us as it seemed appropriate for our ages. My younger brother exclaimed in excitement as he noticed the pair of little boys' "hard shoes" in the bag. He had always worn tennis shoes --"soft shoes"-- and had been wanting a pair of real shoes. Around the same time, I glimpsed something familiar.
My heart fell into my feet and I felt as if my eyes were growing too large for my face.
That doll --the beautiful golden-haired rag doll-- was there, in the brown paper bag!
"Erin, I think this is for you!" my mother said, lifting it out. She smiled at me and I looked at her, wondering. How did those people know I wanted that doll?
There was no packaging or tags with the doll. It's quite likely that she was an unwanted toy, packed in with the used clothing, a nearly-new cast-off.
But to me, she was a present straight from God. I felt, for the first time in my five-year-old life, that Something bigger than me was at work. That Something was a Someone who knew everything. Someone who knew that a skinny little girl with muddy brown hair really wanted a golden-haired cloth rag doll.
Without the clouding logic of adulthood, I knew, for the first time, that He was there. He really was there, and He cared about me.
And He wasn't much of a grown-up, either. He didn't show me that He loved me by giving me a children's religious book or something holy.
He spoke right into my life in a way that would open my eyes to His existence.
God loves us so much that He speaks to us right where we are. For a five-year-old me, that happened with the simple gift of a doll.