Yesterday's Magazette

5 – Memory Dolls

Memory Dolls

YM:MemoryDoll

By Madonna Dries Christensen


Years ago, when I began collecting dolls, rescuing nude, bald, and maimed orphans from yard sales and thrift shops, my husband smiled and said, “You must not have had enough dolls when you were a child.”

I suppose I had as many as the average child of the Depression era. For many families, dolls were a big ticket purchase, generally bought only at Christmas. The first doll I’m able to recall came at Christmas when I was three or four. Through memory’s gossamer scrim I see a child holding a doll. It is created from a white stocking, with a ribbon tied around the top to form a head and the rest of the stocking hanging loose, like the flannel nightgown I’m wearing. She has no body or legs underneath the gown. She has yarn hair, and facial features stitched with thread.

The next Christmas my younger sister, Shirley, and I received identical dolls. They had tightly stuffed pink cloth bodies with stiff arms and legs that stuck straight out from the body, making them awkward to cuddle. The backs of the heads were tightly stuffed, and floppy brims attached to mask faces completed the illusion that the dolls were wearing bonnets. They had no hair but for a painted curl on the forehead.

What’s that rhyme––“There was a little girl, who had a little curl, right in the middle of her forehead. When she was good, she was very good indeed, but when she was bad she was horrid.” Well, this doll wasn’t horrid, but she was not the doll I’d chosen from the Sears Christmas catalog. My disappointment must have shown because Ma raved over the dolls and said Santa didn’t always have the toys shown in the catalog.

At age six, a playmate shared her Penny Dolls with me. These bisque miniatures were available for a penny or two in five-and-dime stores. About two inches high, the dolls had solid heads, bodies, and legs, but the spindly arms were movable. Kathleen and I made simple dresses for the dolls.

Using a snippet of fabric, we cut tiny armholes and fastened the material in back with a safety pin. Kathleen’s mother told us to be careful with the dolls, that they were breakable. I must have wanted to test her warning or felt particularly defiant that day because I deliberately let a doll slip through my fingers onto the sidewalk. It shattered. I was sent home.

One year Santa got it right, again leaving identical dolls for Shirley and me. Made of composition, the arms and legs were jointed. They wore pink dresses and pink bonnets, white underwear and white shoes and stockings. Still no real hair; their curls were painted on their heads, but they were adorable. I was eleven, maybe twelve; a tad old for dolls, but pre-teens in that era were not as mature as today’s girls.

Perhaps Shirley and I were hard on dolls and they didn’t last long in our care, for by summertime we were in the market for new ones. We entertained ourselves with hollyhock dolls, an old technique probably taught us by our mother.

We each picked a blossom and a bud, leaving a bit of stem on the bud. Then we gently poked a hole in the hard part of the blossom and poked the stem into the hole. There we had ballerina dolls to dance across a stage. Their careers were brief; the blooms quickly wilted, their tutus limp from Iowa’s humidity.

I coveted friends’ dolls: a Kewpie with a small suitcase of homemade clothes, and a baby doll with curly hair that could be washed. And Ma kept a doll in her cedar chest that was off-limits. It had belonged to my older sister who died in 1943 at age 15. The doll later survived another sister’s house fire, and now lives with me.

One summer when I was about 10, Shirley and I discovered a pair of dolls in the Ben Franklin window. Identical but for hair color (blonde and dark) the composition babies with plump, dimpled, rosy-cheeked faces wore pastel dresses, petticoats adorned with lace ruffles, and white stockings and shoes. Their glassy eyes could open and close, and two pearly teeth sparkled in each heart-shaped mouth. Real curls peeked from beneath their bonnets and hung to their shoulders.

For all their perfection, the dolls were flawed. They were $7.99 each. We did the math, rounding off the figure to $8.00 each and coming up with $16.00 plus tax. A sign suggested a layaway plan for Christmas. Christmas? December was light years away. Not only that, with my father’s worn wallet already stretched to the seams, neither Shirley nor I was brave enough to approach him about new dolls in July.

Certain that the dolls would soon be sold, we stewed over what to do. “Let’s write Poppy a note and ask for them,” Shirley suggested. Together we composed a message. If he would buy the dolls we would be good girls forever. We would not expect new dolls from Santa at Christmas. These dolls would be so well-cared for we would never need another. “Let’s say we’ll give up going to the fair,” Shirley said.

Missing the county fair was nearly unthinkable, but we added the P.S. and placed the note in Poppy’s “Important Papers” drawer. Then we waited––watched––worried. He didn’t look in his drawer every day. What if he didn’t find the note for days, weeks, and someone bought the dolls?

Finally, one evening he opened the drawer. We ducked into the adjoining room and watched while he unfolded our note. His grin as he passed the paper to Ma was a glimmer of hope, but her weary sigh after reading the request sapped our optimism.

Poppy called for us. We inched forward, hands joined in solidarity. Sister Cecil had told us in Catechism class about standing before the Lord on Judgment Day, but compared to a summons from Poppy that would be a breeze. He snuffed out a cigarette and then lapsed into a coughing fit that seemed to last a full minute. I bobbled nervously, lifting one bare foot and then the other off the sticky linoleum. Shirley chewed her lower lip and dug her fingernails into my sweaty palm. Joined as we were, our hearts beat as one.

Poppy’s blue eyes bored through his rimless glasses. “You know, don’t you, that I can’t afford dolls that cost eight bucks apiece.” It was a statement more than a question, but Shirley and I nodded our heads. He slipped the note into his shirt pocket, somewhere between a comb, a mechanical lead pencil, a folder of cigarette papers and a can of Prince Albert tobacco. Dismissed, we slunk away.

I don’t recall how much time passed, but one day Poppy came home carrying a bag. He pulled out a box and, grinning from ear to ear, said, “You’ll have to share this. I managed to scrape up enough money for one doll.”

My mind cannot dredge up even a vague memory of playing with that doll. It didn’t survive our childhood and there are no family pictures of it.

Back then, I didn’t wonder how Poppy scraped together the money for the doll. I now know that he or Ma probably went without something for themselves to make it possible. And I know that my first doll––the sock doll––was born out of poverty; that there was no money that year for anything store-bought.

It was also born out of love and knowledge, for Ma knew that to a little girl, Christmas would be just another day without a doll under the tree. And years later, Poppy understood that sometimes girls simply can’t wait for Christmas.

[This story is included in Dolls Remembered, an anthology compiled by Madonna, available to order. Visit Madonna’s web site at: http://madonnadrieschristensen.com for further details.]

Vol. 36 No. 3 – Yesterday’s Magazette – Fall – 2009

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