There near the "Queens Bear" booth is a huddle of women all holding "preemies" in baby blankets, chitchatting away. Off in the corner a woman from England pushes her newest infant in a white and red stroller. Another woman keeps leaning into the stroller and using the outside of her hand to brush the baby's plump cheek. In a nearby chair, a burly guy cuddles a preemie in a blanket, waiting for his wife.
Annette Hall, 55, turns the corner pushing a single stroller filled with her two little ones and carrying a third. Three young women run up to her.
"She got the one that we were holding," one of the women says.
"Yeah, I just got him," says Hall, a Baltimore resident, as she parks Martin, 2 months, and DeShawn, 2 weeks, off to the side.
"And what's his name?" the woman asks, the words coming out on clouds, almost dreamy.
"Amiryal," Hall answers, beaming like a proud mother.
"He is so cuuute," the woman says, and the other two women coo in unison.
Hall's niece, 34-year-old Annie Woodson, walks into the frame pushing her two: Sharyta, 5 months, and Tylisa, 6 months (whom Mom has nicknamed Tiny because she is so small.)
But Hall doesn't notice her. She is busy showing off her new baby.
"See, my boy has been circumcised," she says to one woman and takes off the baby's bottoms to show her. Another woman walks up.
"Ohhh, now he's embarrassed," she says and kisses Amiryal's tiny fingers while Hall puts his bottoms back on.
As you watch this scene of motherhood, it's easy to think of an early morning in Anywhere, U.S.A, in front of a Starbucks.
Except, although these interactions are real, the babies are not. They look, feel and smell like real babies, but they are dolls. Expensive, stunningly realistic dolls. Hall just got Amiryal on sale for $650. Some dolls in this genre cost nearly $2,000.
This is the Doll and Teddy Bear Expo. Over the weekend, some 6,500 people paid $15 each to stroll through the convention hall of Washington's Marriott Wardman Park Hotel and see all that is hip in the world of dolls and teddies (not dolls wearing teddies; that's another convention, usually held in Las Vegas.)
These realistic babies are not your Cabbage Patch Kids or Betsy Wetsies. These are eerily authentic works elegantly handcrafted by artists, such as Carol Kneisley, who used to be a schoolteacher and seamstress but now is a modern-day Geppetto. In the world of baby dolls that capture the realistic form and shape of actual babies, she plays God.
Kneisley's dolls, like those sold by a few other vendors here, look unsettlingly real, from their little fingers and toes to the wrinkles around the kneecaps and the curves of their cheeks. These babies weigh the same as actual babies, have the same neck-support issues as real babies, wear the same clothes as actual babies. To create the dolls, Kneisley uses pictures from hospital Web sites (which would explain the two babies with realistic-looking, freshly cut umbilical cords with the clips still attached), magazines and "my grandbabies." She works in Cernit and Super Sculpey polymer clays; other makers use silicone. For the hair she uses mohair. The eyes are made of glass. On average, it takes three days to a week to finish a doll.
Kneisley, 62, flew in 12 babies from Eugene, Ore. She placed them all in blankets, then in bubble wrap, and then stuffed them neatly into suitcases for her flight. And had it not been for a "funky" scanner at the Reno airport, they all would have made it here safely.
"The suitcase went through the machine over a part, hit a wall and then bam," says her husband, Tom, in front of their booth. "Hannah suffered a broken leg and David has two broken arms."
Both babies are preemies.
"When she opened the suitcases, she just cried and cried and cried," Tom says. "I tried to give her as many hugs as she needed. I am all for airport security, but . . ."
He doesn't complete his sentence; he just finishes putting David's fractured leg back into his gown. And sits him back up on the table next to Hannah.
Sitting near Hannah is a very unhappy-looking Andrew, and next to him is Sherry Berry, with a permanent sourpuss face. She's wearing a green jumpsuit and a beaded name bracelet. A small tag lets onlookers know that Sherry and her fussy face can be theirs for $1,000.
"I try to focus on dolls that are less than 2 months old," says Kneisley. "So they don't smile, they just kind of grimace."
When someone asks Hannah's age, Kneisley lifts the child's shirt and looks at the darkly tinted bellybutton.
"She is less than 10 days old when you see this," she says pointing to the navel.
"It isn't rare to have to do a double take when a stroller comes by," says Kathi Edelson Wolder, PR rep for Jones Publishing, which sponsored the event. Jones Publishing publishes the magazines Dolls, Teddy Bear Review, Doll Crafter, Doll Costuming, Fired Arts & Crafts and Popular Ceramics. This was its 11th expo in Washington.
To an outsider, the first word that comes to mind: weird. Women are carrying and caring for fake children, and even though these children are fake, the love is real. One woman is holding a baby over her shoulder tapping his back the way a mother would after a feeding. You want to walk up and say: "Hey, lady, you can keep patting, but he ain't never going to burp."
But that would take away from what's happening: the intensity of make-believe.
The doll-moms are not like the people who dress up like Captain Kirk and stand in line waiting for the next "Star Trek" movie to open. Or the grown men who make meticulous miniature towns for their model trains to pass through.
The baby people don't dress in weird costumes (a few did have fanny packs) and for the most part, they look like your average soccer mom. And they are moms (some have real children), even if these children don't wet themselves or cry -- and you can't make fun of moms. The only thing that might make them stand out, and this is really a minor detail, is the little piece of silicone that they treat like a person.
These little creatures with their tiny noses and their almond eyes somehow give something back to the owners. Spend about 10 minutes watching these proud mothers going around smiling and talking with the wrinkly little babies, and it becomes believable. That stroller is a necessity (how else would you push a baby around?), and these preemies do need baby blankets because it's chilly in here.
Sue Smith, 42, the woman from England, has been collecting for two years and has nine dolls. She says she has spent "thousands and thousands" of dollars on clothes and baby accessories. She has one doll that is 6 years old and wears a size 9 shoe. "It is hard when you are out shopping. When I've been out buying shoes, I had to explain that these were for a doll. People look at you funny."
She is married and has a spaniel, no real children. Her husband was home with the dog and the "babies," who sleep in cribs and bassinets.
"This is one of the places where I feel like I can walk around with my baby," she says. "I can't do this on the streets."
For her 14th birthday her mother got her a really nice doll crib, and she believes that is when the love grew. "I'm sort of careful because I only buy things that I love," Smith says. This is such an expensive hobby."
Kneisley started making the babies 41/2 years ago after she saw one in a store in New Orleans.
"I saw these babies and I knew that I wanted to do that," she says. "I told my husband that I was going to start making them. I put a high value on new life, I think it's so beautiful."
At the time, she was making Santa Claus dolls, but she had to get out of the St. Nick game. Too crowded, too many parts, too big, and all the people making them were really good. So she figured if she could master the art of making lifelike infants, she might be onto something.
"My first doll was terrible," she says. "I found out that it was not easy to capture what a newborn looks like."
"It took her about six months to make one that didn't look like a little man," says Tom, 62.
So far this year she has sold about 25 dolls, plus another half-dozen this weekend.
But this convention isn't just about the world of the infants; there are one-of-a-kind dolls dressed in everything from tweed suits to kimonos. And you haven't seen teddy bears till you have been to this expo. Of course, there are the conventional plain brown teddy bears. The rest can be separated into three categories: Bears Wearing (military uniforms seem to be big), Bears Doing (fill in just about any activity here) and Bears Sitting On or In (bears seem to like cars, motorcycles and, believe it or not, shoes).
Hall is ready to leave now with her new baby.
She has been holding Amiryal since she got him and now she wants to put him down in the stroller, but there isn't any room because Martin and DeShawn aren't budging.
"I can put him up front," Woodson says, and Hall hands her Amiryal. Woodson tries to squeeze him in the front of the stroller, but Hall leans in with a horrified look.
"Don't squeeze my baby's legs like that," she says.
They agree to rest the baby on top of the other two's heads.
"Girl, you know we are not supposed to put a baby in here like this," Hall frets.
And they stroll out of the expo and into the lobby, Woodson, Hall and five little precious bundles of silicone.