The Ghost of Christmas Doll Past
Every year, my daughters can count on receiving three gifts from me as “staples,” regardless what else I buy or make; they will get new pajamas, slipper socks, and a doll. I’m kind of conservative when it comes to buying lingerie for daughters, so the traditional two-piece flannel ensemble suffices, though in different color or pattern every year.
Obviously the greatest variation over the years has been in the doll line. The first ones were homemade dolls of cloth fabrics appropriate for infants. Then, as toddlers, the girls received plastic newborn doll babies that drank from “magic” bottles. Then came the Barbies. One year I made them each a prairie doll out of a pillow case, embroidered for extra meaning, but I’m not sure they fully understood those. And, of course, they received numerous porcelain dolls with various shades of velvet coats and various shades of fur muffs.
Last year, I redefined “doll” to mean “large mermaid Christmas tree ornament” — something Summer and Brook wouldn’t re-gift to a woman with a young daughter (since they both are now mothers of sons). Something they might hang on to for awhile. Maybe.
Is it time to abandon the doll gift altogether? I don’t want to give gifts just to put another wrapped package under a tree. I do believe in redistributing wealth from one generation to the next during the holidays, and I like the idea of giving memories. Other than that, it’s just more stuff, and who needs more stuff? Even if the stuff has become tradition?
Certainly sophisticated young women like my daughters do not want stuff. They save their money for carefully selected pieces so when they do buy a collectible, it is Irish Balleek or Waterford pieces — no angels or “Cows on Parade” porcelain for them. No beer mirrors, sports paraphernalia, no dolphins. (And, apparently, no dolls, since I haven’t seen hide nor hair of any I’ve given them through the years since they moved out of my house.)
Here’s the generational rub: I do believe in tradition and (I admit it). I feel like mom again, buying dolls. I won’t be denied my own Christmas delights for their practicality and sensibilities! So … this year I bought each of them a corncob doll with a buckeye face and pipe cleaner arms, with a little piece of cloth sewed on to be a dress and headpiece. Paid 50 cents apiece for them at New Salem, Illinois, where they were in a clearance bin (normal price, for tourists, had been $7.95, if you believed the tag under the clearance tag).
I have a feeling that they were in bin because they aren’t really politically correct anymore — the faces are painted in the old southern style, and since the buckeyes are black, as are the pipecleaner “hands” — you get my drift. They’d definitely look a little racist to today’s tourists.
But I’m not young and unschooled about Yesteryear, nor was I born with a silver spoon in my mouth. I was born to a mother who put those very dolls under the tree for me when I was a young girl, because it was all she could afford. A corncob doll and a red net stocking with oranges and nuts: That was the sum of my Christmas loot before she married my step-dad and moved us up a notch financially.
I was seven years of age when they married, and only realized the difference in income when, that Christmas, I received my first-ever store bought doll. We didn’t have a television set in our home, so I hadn’t seen all of the commercials for doll babies and Barbie — I only knew homemade dolls until I opened that first package (of three! All for me!) under the tree that year.
The following year was transformation in more ways than getting a new (real) baby brother. As we moved to a “better neighborhood” with new friends, I learned to covet plastic — and believe me, I did covet plastic, after getting that first doll that actually looked like a person instead of a corncob/buckeye imposter.
And, honestly, I’ve never looked back with any measure of nostalgia for those first dolls — until now. And now I remember that (prior to plastic) I truly loved those first corncob concoctions, most of which were made for me by my Uncle Herb. He told me he’d picked the very best buckeyes in the fall, and saved the very best cobs to make my dolls. My Nana would provide the scraps of pleated, hand sewn fabric and my mom probably painted the faces. Likewise, my family would present me with hollyhock dolls in the spring — they’d stick two blooms together to make the first dolls of the summer.
The dolls I give my girls this year will come with a piece of my heart attached to them. They won’t know this, of course, unless I explain it. They’ll first be shocked that I would have purchased something that looks so … wrong? These buckeye dolls are still being marketed in New Salem because they were the first pioneer dolls, made when the price of new cloth was too steep — these “prairie dolls” are not white or aged yellow linen pillowcase dolls I made and embroidered for my daughters. These were the predecessors — the black or dark brown hard nut faces with round white eyes and painted red mouths, the only colors to show up well on buckeyes.
My adult daughters won’t know that I used to hug those hillbilly atrocities close to my skinny little chest, or that I once carefully blanketed my sleeping corncob babies with leaves. They won’t know that I made them little houses of twigs and gave them names like “Josephine” and “Virginia” and “Belle.” They won’t easily comprehend that I was too young and appreciative to throw one away before it fell apart.
I’ve covered a lot of ground since those first dolls, and I do celebrate progress like in-house plumbing (another bonus after Mom remarried), just as my daughters have come to expect “new” and “better” every year since getting their first cloth dollies. If I could resurrect their First Christmas toys now, they’d probably look pretty pitiful, too — made of the scraps of material I could afford at that time … but made on a sewing machine instead of by hand … and that was progress then.
My daughters’ (boy) children were born to cribs already filled with talking electronic cuddly bear toys that simulated a mother’s heartbeat. Since my grandsons are expected to be “only children” (my daughters now insist), my adult girls will not likely ever know the thrill of buying a daughter a doll. And I’m sorry for them, because that’s still special, even in these gender-neutral enlightened times.
I don’t know how they will feel when they open their doll this year (Annoyed? Delighted? Amused? Will they force an indulgent smile for their “losing it” Mom or first give me a chance to explain?). However, finding “Belle” and “Josie” was special for me. And if they don’t truly cherish the doll they receive, I’ll be very clear that they can re-gift those antique memories back to me, where they belong, and then next year, I’ll start a new Balleek tradition more meaningful to them.
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