I remember my six-year-old self when she unwrapped the present and pulled out the beautiful doll in an aqua velvet dress. The doll had white-blond hair and blue eyes that blinked. Her hat was rimmed in soft feathers. A petticoat and tights and tiny shoes hid under her skirt. I loved her.

It was Christmas Eve and we were at our grandmother’s house where she doled out gifts in shifts to her multitudes of grandchildren. Some years she’d hold up skeins of yarn and tell us to pick a color, and then promise a scarf or hat for us when she had time. While we tangled up her yarn pile my grandmother showed us finished homemade gifts for our cousins. But that one year, I among all of my siblings got an actual gift, that beautiful doll.

I don’t know why the doll came to me and not my sisters, and I don’t remember if other years they got a gift and I did not. But as a small girl, I felt special holding my gift. As a grandmother now, I can’t fathom giving one child a beautiful doll and leaving out her sisters. Also now as a grandmother I cannot fathom having more than 20 grandchildren to make gifts for. It was not possible for our Gram to keep up with all of us on Christmas and our birthdays.

My grandmother worked as a seamstress. She made her daughters’ wedding gowns and prom dresses. I kept the doll she gave me forever–even giving her to my oldest daughter–always protecting that doll in her homemade velvet gown, cloth-covered buttons, and wide skirt. My granddaughters and niece all played with her too when they visited. For 50 years, every girl loved that doll, including my niece when she visited when she was eight.

I’ll always remember how special that curly-haired doll was to me, not only because she was lovely, but because my grandmother found hours to make her outfit just for me. Then, one day a few years ago, I saw this tag on the inside of her skirt. My story and memory crumbled. Zoom in and read it.

My Gram did not sew this doll’s outfit with tireless hands and her legendary seamstress skills. This doll’s beautiful dress was made in Hong Kong.

I laughed. It was too ridiculous to cry over. I thought my grandmother made her outfit just for me. Now I imagined Gram finding this doll as a solution to her time-crunch and to-do list. I don’t remember anyone saying Gram made the dress; I just assumed she did because she made everything. It didn’t matter. I was fooled and happy. I thought about my young niece and my two granddaughters and knew I wanted them to feel as special as I had, only with a doll actually dressed by me. So I got out my seam ripper and dismantled the dress made in Hong Kong. That was therapeutic. Then I used the pieces as a pattern to make new dresses.

I made three outfits out of crushed navy blue velvet left over in my sewing box from a costume from a play decades before. (I keep boxes of old fabrics beside my yarn bag. I am related to my grandmother.) I found old dolls in the thrift store and dressed the little ladies. Here are pictures from my project in progress.

I sent one doll to my niece for her half-birthday. The other two went to my young granddaughters for Christmas. Here are the sweet dolls before I sent them out to those three littlest girls I love. I used my trusty Sharpie to sign the inside of each skirt so they’ll remember I sewed for hours just for them.

These dolls will all coexist with one-year-old puppies so they might be demolished long before they are 50 years in the possession of my girls. Grandmothers understand that. Maybe that’s another reason why my doll was store-bought, and when I have 20 grandchildren maybe I’ll learn that lesson, too.

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6 thoughts on “The doll

  1. What an amazing project! I hope your granddaughters dolls make it to 50, like yours did, and that they love them the way you loved your doll. Funny thing about “stashes” of fabric, yarn or other crafty materials, eh? My mother came through the Great Depression and habitually saved all kinds of bits and bobs like small pieces of fabric or yarn and collected buttons like she was planning to button the universe one day. I kept those things when she died (almost 30 years ago) until very recently and finally let them go in a big spring purge. I noticed you repurposed the aqua blue buttons for one of the dolls – you are not just your grandmother’s relative, but every person who lived through that uncertain time in the 1930’s!

    1. Thanks, Susanne. Interesting point on an era of survivors and how they influenced their children. Makes me wonder what they’ll say about survivors of this pandemic in 100 years…they smiled with their eyes and hoarded TP, they never touched handrails and nodded instead of hugging, they cut their own hair and ate too much cheese, they changed food distribution from restaurants to delivery and remodeled their kitchens for family meals, they stopped wearing make-up, jewelry and socks, they walked their dogs incessantly…?

      1. I’ve no doubt this pandemic is going to mark the current generation in some manner, though increased exercise isn’t a bad thing, is it? One of my daughters is an Olympian couch potato but even she has joined the ranks of the Covid walkers out for their daily constitutionals. I wonder if all the screen time will finally (please, God) turn some away from the steady consumption of knowledge/crap from the internet? Or will they be even more afraid of human contact?

  2. I’m hoping the natural need for human contact wins out. The energy in my lecture halls has been stolen by COVID and, though my interpersonal (and grooming) skills are fading fast, I want that energy back. I think my students feel the same way.

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