There comes a time in every girl’s life when she puts away her dolls and moves on to grown-up pleasures. For most girls, that comes with puberty. For me, it took a few more years. OK. It took an extra half-century.
Yes, for 50+ years, I’ve kept a massive black steamer trunk full of dolls, ostensibly saving them “for my children,” but truthfully mostly just saving them.
And finally, this month, I decided it was time to tackle that hulky behemoth of memories, I mean, that trunk of dolls. Now, you need to understand, I have held on to these dolls not just for a lot of years, but through a lot of cross-country moves. When I was growing up, my family never lived in one place for more than three years. I went to 21 schools. So, these dolls were more than playthings. They were my constant companions, always by my side, no matter the house, no matter the city, no matter the state.
Unwrapping the layers of white tissue paper and unfurling my dolls felt like I was conducting a personal archeological dig. As a practical matter, several of the dolls are on their way to qualifying as antiques since they’re well past the half-century mark!
Come to think of it several are as old as I am! My mother was so excited to finally have a girl after three boys that she went out and bought all these “fashion dolls” to decorate my room as soon as I was born.
Among the “greatest hits” in my collection – two 2-foot tall bride dolls complete with veils and eyes that blink. This lace-clad twosome cries out “Mama” when moved. Even as a little girl, this struck me as an odd exclamation for a bride!
Three favorites are by the famous doll manufacturer Madame Alexander – Marmee and Jo from Louise May Alcott’s Little Women and Jacqueline Kennedy, looking quite elegant in a full-length white evening gown and a red satin coat.
At first, looking at the dolls brought back pleasant memories, but then the oddest thing kept happening. Almost every doll I picked up came apart; specifically, the arms loosened, then dropped off!
Poor Jackie Kennedy. Her chic pearl pocketbook sat displaced on her lap, not delicately draped over her now separated arm! The brides, even with veils in place, could no longer clutch their bouquets!
Apparently, many dolls from the 50s and 60s were strung together with rubber bands. At some point in a girl’s life, I mean a doll’s life, the rubber bands dry out and snap. The arm bands tend to snap first since little girls move doll arms more them more than the legs.
That might be the “manufacturing” reason for the limbless state of my dolls, but to my middle-aged mind, the real explanation was that my dolls – like me – hadn’t aged well!
Middle-aged Doll Distress
And the signs of aging weren’t limited to discombobulated limbs. While their plastic faces looked the same – still frozen in that odd and endearing mixture of childhood innocence and painted-pursed lips and rouged cheeks, their hair was flat, dull, and matted and their clothes were wrinkled, yellowed, torn in places.
Yikes. My dolls were no longer a sentimental symbol of my youth. They now embodied middle-aged decay!
Can these Dolls be Saved?
When I was a little girl and a doll needed repair, we went to the New York Doll Hospital in Manhattan. In business for about one hundred years, this beloved institution closed in 2009 when its chief doll “surgeon,” Irving D. Chais, died.
Desperate to save my dolls, I searched online and found doll salvation in Berkley, Michigan. After an exchange of emails and phone calls, I had detailed information about repair costs as well as about their (non-sentimental) value.
When I opened the trunk days before, I had vowed to reduce the amount of baggage – emotional and real – that I held. I had planned to keep just a few favorites, and then send several dolls to a close friend for her children and donate the rest to a children’s charity. But now, looking at the sorry state of my “sick dollies” (the doll repair person’s words), I was forced to calculate the intangible value of sentiment against the expense of shipping the dolls to Michigan, the cost of the repairs, and the depressing fact that the dolls possessed no real monetary value.
Fix Up the Dolls or Me?
Frankly, for what it was going to cost to freshen up my dolls, I could have perked myself up quite a bit – buying pricey face cream, going for facials and other fancy spa treatments, getting injectables.
And just like the dilemma of limitless human anti-aging, fixer-upper treatments, once you start spending on your dolls, where do you stop? Do you fix doll arms, but not hair and attire? That seems a bit chintzy.
Yet, one must set limits for self and toys. I don’t indulge in every fancy anti-aging option known to vain middle-aged woman. Surely, I could exercise similar restraint with the dolls. Yet, they were my babies, a little voice argued in my head. I was responsible for them. I was the one who had moved their rubber-banded arms to the point of stretching and breaking. And I was the one who had kept them squashed in a trunk for decades.
Oh, no! I was suffering from Maternal Doll Guilt!
You CAN Put a Price on Sentiment!
Finally, after too much ado about nothing, I got a grip on guilt. I decided it was time to “play God.” I determined which dolls would have the pricey “surgery” to re-attach their arms and which would not, which would “live” to enjoy new lives with happy children and which would instead – you know – pass to the great trash can in the alley.
But still … even though some of my dolls weren’t as lovely as in their youth, even though some were maimed and matted, they deserved a better fate than being trashed.
So, I hatched a new plan – identify a doll collector to adopt my childhood playmates, fix them up, and give them a new home. Thanks to the Michigan doll hospital ladies, I did that.
Dolls Away. Memories Retained
It was a struggle, but in the end, I kept six dolls. I didn’t pick that number on purpose, but later I realized it was perfect – one each to honor my mother, father, grandmother, and three brothers. They were the people who bought me toys and cared for me. They were the ones who gave me a childhood filled with love, fun, and wonderful memories. And that, of course, never ages.
Meanwhile, good riddance to those weird bride dolls whining “Mama!”