by Margaret Mendel
In the last couple of years, Mother’s Day brings dolls to my mind. It’s not like I was a little girl with lots of dolls. In fact, I remember only a couple of occasions where dolls were part of my life. But as the years passed, and I transitioned from daughter to mother and now to grandmother, dolls have sweetly slipped into my life. Perhaps it’s the fictionalizing of my past as situations sometimes get fuzzy, and I suppose this is when the mind mixes and matches reality with invention. But for whatever reason, lately dolls have become one of my preoccupations.
The funny thing is that I do not remember playing, not really playing, with dolls. They were not ‘my babies,’ though I do have a first memory of receiving a doll. It was Christmas. She, because back then all dolls were ‘she dolls’, came in a very large box. The doll was made of hard plastic. Her arms and legs were stiff, and she was so finely dressed I worried about messing her up. Mom sat next to the Christmas tree, watching, smiling, the soft glow of the Christmas lights spread across the chenille bathrobe I remember her wearing when she prepared breakfast on holidays and weekend mornings.
Several years ago I came to the realization that Mom must have liked to play with dolls when she was a girl. She was not much more than a girl, really, when she got married and began to have real babies. I think she must have missed playing because she would make paper dolls for my sister and me. She would draw clothes for them, give them curly heads of hair and sit with her daughters at the kitchen table playing make believe.
One day, Mom took a doll out of an old dusty trunk. My sister and I had no idea she had that doll. It was from our mother’s girlhood. The doll’s head was hard, made from wood. The face was painted in soft, pale tones. On the top of the head there was a protrusion with a hole where a ribbon could be laced through making it possible to tie a bow atop the doll’s head. Her hands and feet were hard, like the head. The body was made of cloth and she was stuffed with very fine sawdust that slowly leaked from a little hole in one of her legs.
Mom gave my sister and me the doll to play with. There were no special instructions, she just handed it over to us. The doll was different from our other toys. This doll was very old, and quite mysterious because it used to belong to our mother. But we treated this cloth baby as carelessly as we did our other toys. Then one day the doll was left outside to spend an overnight in the back yard. The unfortunate thing is that there was a heavy downpour that night.
We brought the doll back into the house, but the damage was done. The finely painted face began to peel and crack as soon she dried out. The sawdust in her body turned brittle. The fabric soon began to tear and sawdust leaked from other parts of her body. If there were any repercussions for carelessly leaving the doll outside, the punishment is long forgotten.
My daughter never much cared for dolls. She liked to draw on them and preferred chasing after the cat to dress him up in doll clothes. That never turned out well. But she did like her cabbage patch doll. The poor thing always looked so out of place, with that strange, other-worldly, grinning face. This doll was well cared for, but then my daughter always did have a bit of a social worker in her.Now I am a grandmother and I have a friend who has a huge doll collection that she’s whittling down to a manageable number by selling her dolls on ebay. I asked if she had any dolls of color, knowing that they would be a wonderful gift for my granddaughter. As it turns out my friend had two such dolls, seven-inch tall, 1970 vintage Ginny dolls. I didn’t have to think twice and I bought them.
Having those little dolls in my hands triggered something in me. I’m an excellent seamstress, Mom taught her daughters at an early age how to make our own school clothes. I can crochet, knit, and do just about any kind of needlework, though I’ve never made doll clothes before. Each Ginny doll came with a couple pieces of clothing, and I set out to make the dolls a new wardrobe and I could not get over how much fun it was to make clothes for them.
Then it came time to hand over the dolls and their new clothing to my granddaughter. It gave me great pleasure to watch her dress and undress her new possessions. The dolls got names, and it was decided they were sister dolls. Much to my surprise I was sad to see them go. Well, but then, I told myself, I’m too old to play with dolls.
But I missed the dolls. I’d had so much fun fiddling with a dress pattern and then rummaging through my fabric scraps and picking out just the right pieces for the dresses. I asked my friend with the dolls if she had any more dolls like the ones I bought for my granddaughter. She didn’t, but said she’d look on ebay. I told her that the doll didn’t have to be perfect, just something that could be used as a model so that I could make more clothing for my granddaughter’s dolls.
A couple days later my friend called. She had found something, a slightly damaged Ginny doll for ninety-five cents. Perfect. However, with shipping and handling in the end the doll cost ten bucks. But never mind. She was exactly what I was looking for. My cheap Ginny arrived stark naked, her hair all awry and obviously styled by someone with a pair of scissors out of curiosity rather than care.
I’ve made several dresses using my own little Ginny. They’ve turned out pretty nice, too. And the more I observe this doll’s face, her one crooked eye, the poorly coiffed hair, the more affection I feel for her. It’s funny, I look at the doll and I think of my mother. Mom might not have seen the crooked eye or the poorly cropped hair as imperfections, but I think perhaps, like me, she would have seen them as character building traits.