I wasn’t raised in a religious household, but the phrase “miracle birth” caught my imagination from the moment I heard it, probably in kindergarten or first grade. This was back when public elementary schools put on plays about Jesus and grocery stores had crèches, so even secular kids got their fill of iconography. The Christmas story for me then was a wash of images—some barns, balding men with staffs, a sheep—with the climax of a “virgin birth,” called a miracle. I understood that a miracle was better than a granted wish, and more real than magic—and that Baby Jesus was a miracle because he just appeared without a real, human dad. To me, this translated into: someday, maybe, if I was very good, as good as Mary, I too could have a miracle birth and my very own baby.
At this point, I had an infant brother, and I already knew he wasn’t a miracle. I hadn’t been present for his actual delivery, getting shuttled off to the neighbors’ house and a few nights of watching Benji movies under some musty comforters, but my dad had explained to me where babies came from when I was six years old. We were in our Chevy Impala when he told me and I nodded solemnly and picked at the car’s red plastic piping, but inwardly, I was disgusted by what men and women did together. I guarded my secret plan for the miracle birth; I would have one of those.
Christmases in our house were sparkly and overbright. We hung so many strands of tinsel on the tree that the branches looked entirely silver and hairy, refracting the blinking lights in disco colors. We brought in two extra lamps when we opened presents so the photos would look well-lit, and our house took on the feel of a stadium at night: dark all around but piercing white in the middle. Once or twice I even remember a video camera with a high watt bulb at the top, and I pretended to be a child actress, combining grateful! and overjoyed! and extra-surprised! as I pulled one toy after the other from my stocking, each one eliciting a practiced, happy gasp.
The toy I really wanted on the last Christmas my parents were married, when I was seven, was a doll called “Baby Alive.” She was made by Kenner and she had a round helmet of yellow hair, coiffed like a baby secretary, and a pink smock that was a sort of cross between an apron and a vest tied with two bows in the front. She had eyes that closed and fingers curled into pudgy, Buddha-hands and I thought she was beautiful. But the most important thing about Baby Alive was what she could do. Baby Alive could eat.
Unlike the other nursing dolls that featured an internal tube that shot from their mouths to their diapers to instantaneously drain out whatever you poured into them, Baby Alive could chew. She could, with the aid of some ungodly number of double D batteries, purse her lips and open her mouth. With only a slight grinding sound at the back of her jaw, she could simulate a mechanical suckle, like she was rotating a marble in her tiny mouth. New Baby Alives came with a spoon and a bottle, because Baby Alive was at that precious, delicate age where she was just accepting solids, and you could feed her either water or one of the three powdered baby foods she came with: yummy banana, cheery cherry or delicious lime. When she was full, Baby Alive would quit her mewling lip motion for a while, ostensibly to digest, and then, thanks to the Double D’s, squirt the whole mess into her diaper. This was the thrill: You never knew when Baby Alive was going to soil herself—in a minute or an hour. Just like a real baby.
My Christmas Baby Alive wasn’t new. She came from a garage sale. I could tell because she didn’t come in a box, she didn’t have any of her powdered baby food, and some other kid had written on her back with a pen. But I didn’t care. She made the motions with her mouth and she had a bottle. For a while, I satisfied myself bottle-feeding Baby Alive water, and changing her diapers, but pretty soon I wanted food, with colors. My friend, who had a new Baby Alive, was wisely rationing her twelve packs of non-toxic fruit goo for herself, but said I could scrape the Yummy Banana from her doll’s diapers and use that. I declined, and started pilfering the refrigerator . I began with soft, delicate foods that I thought a real baby would actually stomach. Like applesauce. Baby Alive took right to it. I moved on to foods with more heft—cottage cheese, lemon yogurt, ham. Whatever I fed her, Baby Alive would chew-click! chew-click! chew-click! and swallow in her charming, mechanized way. She was indiscriminate in her habits, and I found that, if I chewed the food first, like a mother bird, Baby Alive could swallow most anything, even Hamburger Helper or fig newtons. She looked at me gratefully with those bland blue eyes, and closed them soundlessly when I put her down for a nap. An hour later, there everything would be in her diaper, looking pretty much as it had when I slipped it to her on the spoon. Not quite like a real baby, but close enough.
When my dad left, all our Christmas presents started coming from garage sales. The presents, at least from my mom, got weirder . She knew I liked reading so she would pick up any kids book for me from one of those ten cent bins, even if they had horses in them, which I hated, or if I had already checked them out from the library a hundred times. My brother got used Star Wars figures and battleships, even though he was too young to appreciate them and the toys were definitely choking hazards. This was when we also started spending Christmas Eve in bars.
We’d go to this place my mom liked because she thought it was fancy. She said the waitresses were elves, but really I knew they were sluts. They wore high heels, which was a tell-tale sign of a slut, short dresses, and hosiery much browner than the rest of their bodies, like they’d been dipped, feet first, into a toaster. They all wore Santa hats on Christmas Eve, which was the only elf-like thing about them. There was a section of the bar where you could eat, which is where we sat, but most of the patrons slouched in vinyl club chairs next to one of the several curved bar tables with neon blue tubing along their edges or next to the giant fire pit that my brother called a volcano. I would go off to the bathroom, which was behind the fire pit and flanked by fake slot machines and watch all the men, there by themselves, call out to the waitresses, who leaned in close and laughed at whatever they said. I wondered if these elf-sluts were their girlfriends. We always stayed at the bar for a long time and when we came home, the tree was still hairy with tinsel, but the house was dark. In the morning, my brother and I would go to my dad’s new apartment and have a different kind of Christmas there.
I almost forgot about Baby Alive after my dad left. I turned eight and then I turned nine and I got to be too old to be playing with her every day. I still kept her in the crib my dad had built for me, along with a toy monkey with a bendable wire in its tail. The Christmas I was nine, I took Baby Alive out after we got home from the bar and held her close to me, I don’t know why. I ran my fingers through her sticky, plastic hair and I spit-shined a dirt mark on her cheek. She looked hungry. I laid her gently on my bed and went to the refrigerator.
I found applesauce and yogurt, which I remembered Baby Alive liking back in the days when I was a more attentive parent. I mixed the two together in a little bowl and took a spoon from the sink. Back on the bed, Baby Alive had fallen back asleep, but I knew that was just the way her eyelids worked, and I turned her over and flipped the switch on her back. Her lips pushed out, like she was discharging a pebble, and she made that familiar grinding sound. Her mouth closed. She clicked. She did it again. Baby Alive could still eat.
After I fed Baby Alive, I went downstairs to look at the tree. I liked it best when all the other lamps in the house were off, and the reds and greens and yellows of the Christmas lights blinked their stoplight colors, stamping ferocious tree shadows on the ceiling.
I remembered to change Baby Alive’s diapers just before I went to bed. I didn’t think of it as anything special anymore, but I knew I had to do it. I took off her apron-vest and undid the diaper tabs. The foods I had just fed her would normally appear in the same consistency, color and form as they had been in their bowl. But this time, there was no applesauce. There was no yogurt. There, on the inside seat of the diaper, was an unmistakable smear of brown. Baby Alive had excreted what looked to be real, human doo-doo.
My heart raced. I gently set Baby Alive back in her crib and sat on the floor. Could this be possible? I held on to my knees and rocked back and forth. Think, I told myself—think! By this point, I had changed my brother enough times to know what a real baby’s diapers were supposed to look like. Dolls who ate applesauce were supposed to poop applesauce. Applesauce wasn’t this shade of brown and neither was yogurt. I looked again. Brown! And no sign of the original meal anywhere.
Could this be a miracle birth? Could this be what I had wished so hard for? Was Baby Alive…alive?
I picked her up. She didn’t look alive. She didn’t seem to be breathing. But do children of God breathe? I didn’t know. I had never been to church. What if Baby Alive was a special kind of alive where she only did some things that other babies do—like, for instance, poop—but not others—like, for instance, sleep, breathe, cry or move? Or what if, more likely, I just wasn’t ready (being a mortal, and only nine) to accept the full wonders of a Christmas miracle child in my very own bedroom, so I could only see the one, most basic bodily function as evidence of her existence? What if I was being prepared for greatness, one step at a time?
I remembered that the real miracle birth happened in a manger without a human father, and suddenly, everything made sense. Of course my father had to divorce my mother so we could get the miracle birth on Christmas. Virgin births don’t happen in houses with fathers. For one weird minute, I thought the marvel of Baby Alive could bring my dad back, but then I realized that was stupid. That wasn’t part of the story. Besides, I could build a happy enough life with my baby and me.
In the morning, I fed Baby Alive some Jell-O and I could hardly wait until I could check her diaper. I distracted myself with an old typewriter I kept in my room, sticking one hand into where the paper should be, trying to make the keys type words on my skin. Finally, it was time. I yanked the diapers straight down Baby Alive’s injection-molded legs, not even bothering to undo the tabs. There, again, was a smudge of brown! It was smaller this time, but there just the same. And not one sign of the bright red Jell-O I had fed her minutes before. Baby Alive was digesting. Baby Alive was alive.
I decided not to tell my mom about Baby Alive’s transformation. I knew it was selfish, to keep a potential new world religion to myself, but my mom now got so sad at Christmas that I didn’t want to announce anything that might bring news crews to our door. She didn’t like people visiting, and at Christmas she just stayed inside and cried all the time for no reason. So I continued to feed Baby Alive vanilla pudding and mac and cheese, tuna fish and more applesauce, and to change her wondrous diapers, which continued to fulfill their original promise.
Some days after that Christmas, when my brother and I had returned from my dad’s house and we were taking down the tree, my mom and I got into an argument. I can’t remember what it was about, but she told me if I was going to behave that way, fine then, we just wouldn’t have Christmas any more. It was one of those idle threats parents throw at their kids and I knew it.
“You can’t take away Christmas,” I said. “I have a Christmas miracle you don’t know about.”
“What?” she said.
“There was a miracle birth here,” I said, enjoying my power. “Just like the Christmas story.”
“What are you talking about?” she answered.
I took a deep breath, as though I had to prepare my mother for something far too grandiose and mysterious for her to understand. “Baby Alive came alive.”
My mother scrunched up her face and tipped her head. “Show me,” she said.
I proudly marched upstairs, my mother in tow behind me. I picked up Baby Alive from her crib and pulled down her diapers. There, as if on cue, was the brown smear. My mom’s eyes bulged. I rocked back on my heels, proud. She tugged off the diaper and sniffed it. She sat down on my bed, confused. I reached behind the cradle to pull out more diapers that looked exactly the same. I had been saving them, for proof, for the news crews, for when Christmas was over. My mother looked at my stack of evidence, looked at me, looked at Baby Alive, and stood up, holding Baby Alive rakishly by one arm.
“It’s battery acid,” she said. “We have to throw the doll away.”
She reached down for the extra diapers and scrunched them all into her other hand, like she was some kind of giant picking up meaningless scraps, and marched out of my room. I was too stunned to say anything, or to follow her. Later that night though, I went out to the side of the house where we kept the garbage bins. I was barefoot, and the ground was wet from a hose that had been left trickling. I lifted the lid and saw her, my Baby Alive, shoved in sideways with the sticky bags of kitchen trash. I closed the can and went back inside.