A romantic Christmas memory.
My sixth Christmas we spent at my Grandmother, Lala’s house with Mum, my great grandmother, who lived with her. We rode from Chicago on a train arriving on Christmas eve. The house was decorated for the holiday, a lit tree, the fireplace mantel decorated with fresh pineapples and festooned with swags of evergreen. A fire helped to perfume the house with heady fruit and forest.
That Eve, before dinner, I cut out a string of paper dolls. Lala pointed to one and said, “That’s me.” Her gnarled finger moved to the left and she said, “That’s Mum, and that’s your great great grandmother all the way to the distant past, the first Eve.” Then she skipped over the figure that was hers and moved to the right. “That’s your Mommy, and you, and your daughter and grandchild off to the unimaginable future.” I stared at the paper figures holding each other’s hands so tight.
What I wanted for Christmas that year, I could not have. Curly hair. Ringlets like some of the girls in my first grade class. Not my straight hair that fell out of the sparse ponytails or crept away from the barrettes that Mom pinned in a vain attempt to keep it neat. But real curly hair.
My aunt, who was only nine years older, tried to help me out. She wet my hair and wrapped sections in socks, tying the cuff and toe together. I was skeptical of my aunt’s endeavor when I saw my sock curlers scattered across my head.
“It’ll work,” she reassured me.
“Your hair is curly.”
‘I’ve done it for friends.”
That night, I struggled for sleep in my grandmother’s attic and watched car lights from the street sweep across the room revealing the gigantic red roses splattered on the wallpaper. I listened to their sound as they approached and then whooshed away, willing myself to sleep so that Santa and morning would arrive. At least the socks didn’t poke me like bobby pins.
The next morning I was more interested in my curly hair than Christmas. I crept into my aunt’s room and woke her to untie the many socks. “See, I told you it would work.” We stared at each other in her mirrored vanity. I had soft coils all over my head.
When I came downstairs, proud of my curls, dazzling wrappings greeted me. The entire living room and dining room were crowded with red, green, and white boxes tied with glistening bows, adorned with pinecones, vivid miniature fruit, Christmas ornaments. Piles as tall as me. Several crowded together. After all there were presents to be given out and received for over twenty people.
And my presents in their own special stack, off to the side not wrapped in red and green, but gold!
I don’t remember everything I got. I know the adults were eager to see my reaction and I always smiled even though I thought the baby dolls were strange and lifeless. I later spent hours building log houses with Lincoln log but could not appreciate it in the chaos of the day. I loved the pencils with my name on them. I carefully saved the bows and pressed the paper.
The adults listened to the radio. I helped Lala set the table for dinner, helped her pass out her pecan butter balls and Stollen.
After dinner, after the roast beef, and green beans, and homemade mashed potatoes, and trays of pickles, olives, spiced peaches and candied crab apples, after the desert we called ‘a kiss’ which was a baked meringue filled with ice cream and maroons, I grinned and opened the rest of my presents.
And then my last present- a box wrapped in printed paper with a hand tied bow.
“This is from Mum,” Lala said. Mum sat on a Queen Anne chair, her hands cupping the arms, her back straight. Wisps of white hair struggled out of her hairpins. Blue veins mapped the backs of her hands, rode up her sinewy arms. Each joint of her fingers was tipped with bulges, her nails blunt. She smiled at me and nodded, her lips curved as she worked her hands massaging the knuckles of one with the other. My last present. The last one for an entire year.
I opened the box to a doll’s wardrobe covered in wallpaper of plump red roses and sprigs of lilac. I opened the top drawer on the left, pulling the ivory knob, and laying like fallen rose petals were a doll’s peach slip with a ruffle, an eyelet pinafore. The next drawer held a dotted dress with sash, trimmed with tiny lace around the collar and a ruffle at the hem. Next to it was a matching bonnet banded with tiny yellow velvet flowers.
The middle drawer was divided. Pajamas. Bathrobe. A little Red Riding Hood cape. A pink silk dress, a flowered dress. Pantaloons. Slips. All old fashioned clothes.
“Mum made this, made this by hand,” my mother said. I squinted at the tiny stitches no bigger than the machine ones holding my dress together.
The bottom drawer was turned into a doll bed with pink quilted sides, a pillow and blanket of white trimmed in lace. The doll was made of china, a red painted circle mouth, long wavy hair, eyes that opened and closed with painted long eyelashes. She was dressed in pink silk dress, the collar, ruffle at the hem edged in minuscule lace. On her head was a pink crocheted hat with pale roses and ribbons. Over her shoulder was a matching purse that opened with a pearl button to reveal a hand crochet handkerchief.
Mum blinked her eyes behind glasses that magnified her pupils.
I carefully examined the clothes and hugged her, smelling lavender and talcum. She worked her hands against each other as she kissed my cheek. “You like it?” she asked.
“Oh, yes.” The love proven by the tiny stitches, the spectacular wardrobe belied the somewhat taciturn woman. Perhaps it was the exhaustion of age.
Later, Lala pulled me aside and told me that Mum had been a famous seamstress with people pleading with her to do their fancy clothes. “This is her last. Her fingers ache and her eyes have trouble seeing her own stitches.” Lala’s hands rested on my shoulders. “You have received the last gift, her last sewing.”
At six, I didn’t understand the treasure I’d been given. I only sensed the love and hard work and talent.
“You must be very careful.”
I was. I did not play with dolls much, but I appreciated the honor of the present.
“They’re museum quality,” my father said, almost half handedly.
“Save them and your children can enjoy them, too,” my mother suggested.
Only occasionally, would I open the flowered chest, carefully remove the doll and dress her in different underwear, slip, dress and bonnet of a by gone era. I always remarked on the delicate precise stitches, the clever crochet, the stiffening in the brim of the bonnet. Carefully, I unbuttoned the tiny pearl and examined the detailed handkerchief inside. I imagined the doll walking across bridges and meeting boys. Going to parties and being the belle of the ball. I imagined Mum sitting on that Queen Anne chair with petals of fabric fashioning the wardrobe. And then I slid her back in her drawer to sleep. She was a sleeping beauty.
Other dolls were added, one that my brother won that could wear the clothes. A china doll who almost instantly got her head smashed.
And then I was a mother with daughters of my own. On special occasions, birthdays, holidays, or when they were sick, I pulled down the treasure chest, take out the doll with the clothes made by their great great grandmother. Yes, they had their Barbies but there was something magical about the old fashioned, hand stitched clothes. The clothes fit a Madame Alexander doll perfectly, and she snuggled in the bed next the one Mum had given me whose hair was now mostly worn off, but whose eyes still blinked. And then my granddaughters carefully dressed the doll with clothes that their great great great grandmother had made. All those years. All those loving times spent between the generations. The worn china dolls still the most fascinating.
There they still are, evidence of a great grandmother’s love and efforts for her progeny. Like that string of paper dolls stretching from the past into the future. And of my presents as a child, all those toys, all the clothes only this and a few books remain. This and a book that Mum also gave me of Snow White when I was only three. I know this, because it is signed to Baby Ann and dated.
There’s a picture of me taken that night. I sit in front of the fireplace with the doll in my hand. She wears the flowered dress and bonnet. I’m already in my pajamas. If you look closely, you can see that I still have a few curls left in my hair.