I began buying porcelain dolls after my daughter Megan was stillborn twenty-seven years ago. The first was a red-headed doll named “Megan,” designed by Jane Zidjunas. Then “Jennifer,” a blond doll by the same artist, followed by “Nicholas the Winter Baby,” designed by Joan Ibarolle, and “Amelia,” by Virginia Turner.
Most of the dolls are now packed away in the hall closet in their original boxes, with their “certificates of authenticity,” but the dolls Megan and Jennifer are standing about in the sewing room downstairs. I used to make clothes for them and dress them up for Christmas, but these days they wear their pastel overalls and flowered blouses and saddle oxfords year round. Occasionally I dust off their faces with a soft cloth and smooth their hair.
I did not buy these dolls because I thought they would be worth something someday; I bought them because I liked their looks, and they reminded me of things I had lost. I no longer have any of my childhood dolls, although I do have a doll that belonged to my grandmother’s sister Mary, who was born sometime around 1885 and died of typhoid when she was 18. I wonder if my grandmother, who was only five when her sister died, was allowed to play with this doll. Perhaps she was the one who broke the head and feet by accident one day.
The dolls sometimes remind me of an old woman I knew in Frankfort, Kentucky, a retired art teacher who volunteered at the library where I worked, recording books for the blind. She was one of those strong-willed southern ladies who donated thousands of hours to local charities each year and formed the backbone of society in those days. She had no children of her own but taught several generations of schoolchildren during her career.
She had been widowed at a young age but still lived in the house where she grew up, a large two-story frame house south of the river. Every Monday at four in the afternoon, she opened her house to friends and acquaintances who were welcome to drop by for tea and cake. She herself was diabetic and could no longer eat sweets but said that when she died, she was planning to eat her way around heaven—as soon as she kissed her husband hello.
One spring day about thirty years ago, my coworker Betsy and I decided to take off work early and go to Mrs. Frymyre’s house for tea. We explained to our supervisor that she was one of our most faithful volunteers and we ought to show our respect by accepting her invitation to tea, but really, we were just curious to see inside her house, thinking that an artist’s’ home would be filled with beautiful objects and bright bits of clutter that might end up in collages or inspire paintings someday.
She greeted us at the door wearing a simple dress and a brightly colored silk scarf fastened near one shoulder with a large brooch. When we stepped into her living room, we were amazed to see hundreds of dolls of all sizes, sitting in little wicker chairs or lying in carriages or standing in their ball gowns under bell jars on tables. There were dolls seated on the steps leading upstairs; in the dining room were more dolls everywhere we looked.
And on the dining room table was a large tree branch painted with white enamel, with hundreds of elaborately decorated Easter eggs and ornaments hanging from the smaller branches and twigs. Beneath the egg tree were dozens of Easter bunnies, pastel chicks, sugar eggs with dioramas inside, hand-painted ceramic cases shaped like eggs, bejeweled eggs on little stands. I felt like I was ten years old again, in the art room at my elementary school, dazzled by all the bright colors and beautiful shapes, inspired to create something amazing.