Friday, September 18, 2009

Sweet Tooth



Mae: Are we going to have bessert now?

Grandpa: Laughs. But we just finished breakfast! And don’t you mean dee-ssert?

Mae: That’s what I said, bee-ssert.

Grandpa: Ah, I see. Bessert is something sweet after the meal.

Mae: Laughs.

Grandpa: Dee-ssert is something we have after dinner, yes?

Mae: Nods.

Grandpa: Maybe bee-sert is something we have after breakfast.

Mae: Grins.

Grandpa: Well, if bessert is after breakfast and dessert is after dinner, hm-m-m . . . I wonder what lessert would be.

Mae: That’s bessert after lunch?

Grandpa: Laughs. Yup! Bessert, lessert, dessert.

Mae: Dee-ssert.

Grandpa: Oh, my . . . you said it perfectly! But now, since we finished our cereal and fruit,I guess we need some bee-ssert. Would you like jam on your toast?

Mae: Smile breaks into a head-thrown-back, open-mouthed laugh. Sure!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

CINDY Part II

Cindy, the life-sized doll, went everywhere with me for a while. In her blue soft wool hat and coat, she looked almost real sitting next to me. She sat in the backseat on the car seat, and I would turn her so she could look out the window. Sometimes I made her wave at children who were looking out their backseat windows from in cars in adjacent lanes. Sometimes I held her on my lap and narrated the scenery.

Our family was invited to the Olympic Peninsula for a weekend with friends. I asked Mother if Cindy could come; the answer was yes. Part of that trip was a ferry ride, and after we drove our car onto the auto deck, we went above to the cabin for the thirty-minute crossing. I lugged Cindy up the ferry’s stairs with her face looking over my shoulder, carrying her as if she were a real child. Her legs and arms were stiff and straight because her knees and elbows were not jointed.

As I reached the top of the stairs and entered the sitting area, a woman passenger looked up from her magazine with a look of horror. Then she began to laugh. “Oh,” she said, “I thought your doll was a real child with polio.”

I explained the reason I wanted to get such a big doll was because she was life-sized—like a little sister—and “she wears the same size clothing a two-year-old would wear,” I added proudly. I propped Cindy up to look at the water and other boats while we crossed Puget Sound, conversing with her the entire trip. My real sister, four years older than I, didn’t want to be seen with her childish ten-year-old sibling who was talking to a doll on the ferry. How embarrassing my behavior was for her.

As fifth grade wore on, my interest in Cindy receded slightly. My teacher engaged her students from day-one, in what turned out to be the most dynamic year of my schooling before or after. I would lug Cindy into the breakfast nook to share weekend breakfasts and lunches with our family, but I don’t remember playing with her as much. I did change her clothes often before propping her up in a chair in my room. I never wanted to give my mother an occasion to say “I told you so.” My grade school friends admired her, but we rarely played dolls together.

All through junior and senior high school, Cindy stayed visible in my room, the only doll so honored, although she shared a spot with several stuffed animals on the small studio couch in my bedroom. I still believed her to be the most beautiful doll manufactured in my lifetime. When I moved into my own apartment as a university junior, Cindy took a place of honor in my vacated room—on the bed. Lying on the bedspread with her head on the pillow and gathering dust, she looked like a miniature, blond Sleeping Beauty. Once in a while Mother would ask if I was ready to give her up. My answer never changed: No.

My mother sold the family house in 1967, and at her insistence, my sister and I purged and removed anything we still wanted. Free storage of surplus belongings was no longer available. Cindy, my life-sized doll, was one of many items I dragged to my husband’s and my modest duplex—we had three children by then. This big, floppy blond-wigged doll was instantly interesting to them. Initially, I was reluctant to let them play with her, and then thought—why not? She would add a new dimension to the toy box as “a girl” for my daughter to play with and a willing wagon-rider for the boys to pull around outside or down the basement.

Because of my three live ‘dolls’ (not just life-sized, but growing), I no longer needed a pretend doll to dress up a doll for amusement. My three wiggle-warts needed dressing each morning and sometimes again later in the day, as well. From the first day at our duplex, Cindy was the new favorite toy for all three children. They held her hands and made her dance; they made her ‘walk’ around the house to see things; they pretended to feed her lunch; they put her to sleep in the laundry basket. Seeing Cindy flopped in a laundry basket actually pleased me. She had more than paid back her initially high investment price, I thought—she had been around for twenty-five years and was still bringing enjoyment.

When my husband came home from work that first day and saw her flopped into the laundry basket, he dubbed her Ophie . . . after Ophelia in Hamlet, a play he was currently working on at one of his moonlighting jobs. Ophie seemed like a perfect name for her. Calling her Cindy instead of Ophie helped make a transition for me, too—her sentimental value immediately diminished.

The amount of amusement she provided—from being stuffed into a wagon and hauled around to being tossed high in the air with her limbs flailing about, from being pushed in a swing to becoming a stand-in patron at the pretend shoe store—was invaluable.

After a few months her shoulder tore, and one arm began to dangle, which gave her a strange, uneven look. When dressed, that arm hung longer at her side—when undressed, she looked broken. One of the children suggested they should just spare her further discomfort by ripping off her arm. They did the deed. It wasn’t long before her wig disintegrated, pulled loose by too much attention. She was soiled, fingertips blackened by too much outside play, and the brand imprint on the back of her neck was filling in with soil. After a while she lost her novelty and became just another toy, occasionally invited out of the toy box, but less and less frequently.

The time came for a massive weeding out of all possessions in 1972. We were selling our house and moving to the Midwest. I spent weeks sorting through every piece of clothing of the children’s, every toy, every book, every possession I’d accumulated over my lifetime. The remains of Ophie were put into the thrift-store donation pile. By then no one remembered to play with her, but I hadn’t been able to bring myself to discard her.

One night as I was hauling more stuff to the giveaway pile, I saw her arms and feet sticking out from the other toys and in a sudden sentimental urge, I pulled her out. I realized it was Cindy peering out at me, not Ophie. I looked at her beautiful face and well-made vinyl (remaining) arm and legs. It occurred to me that she probably could be restored to her original luster. I also still had her original dress and shoes tucked away.

Carefully I snipped away at the filthy fabric body—now with red Kool-Aid spilled on it and marks of ballpoint—removing her head, legs and the one arm still attached. I put the body fluff and stuff in the trash can. Then collecting her limbs (I still had the loose arm) and her head (now resembling one of the heads depicted in Glenda of OZ book where Glenda chooses the head of her choice to wear), I tied a pink satin ribbon around them. On a 3x5 card I wrote:

This is a Madame Alexander doll, circa 1950.
With a new body and some loving care,
she will be, once again, a beautiful doll.

I put her into tissue with her dress, panties, shoes and socks and put everything into a plastic bag and marked her price as five dollars. She was now in the garage for the rummage-sale instead of the thrift store pile. The sale would be held the following Saturday.

Shortly after nine o’clock when the garage door opened, two old women with a push cart walked up the street toward our house. They were joining many others who came in by the carload—people who were crowding around to take the best of the junk, to capitalize on one family’s change of fortune by scarfing up their treasures. The two old women entered the garage and looked around carefully. One of the them spied the package doll pieces and parts. “Look,” she said to the other one as she nudged her gently. “Look at that. “Is it what I think it is? A Madame Alexander?”

The other woman’s face lit up. “Oh, yes indeed. No doubt about it.” They picked up the plastic bag and turned the parts over inside. “What do you say . . . should we? . . . oh, let’s!”

“How much for the doll parts?”

When I told her five dollars, the other one looked ecstatic. “You know,” she told me, “My sister, Effie, here, has a large collection of dolls who have their own room in our house. They sit in their rocking chairs and chatter all day long. . . and we know how to fix them.”

Was this an omen? A sign of providence at work? These women would turn Ophie into Cindy again—my beautiful doll restored . . . and loved. She would have a wonderful new life.

Effie opened her coin purse and pulled out a wrinkled five-dollar bill, then lovingly opened the plastic bag, took out the doll’s head, arms, and legs and arranged them carefully in the push cart. I watched the two women walking down the street wheeling their precious cargo. They were talking to Cindy as they pushed. Her face was staring back at them, her arms raised up in alleluia praise.

The perfect ending for my doll—and the beginning for theirs.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Not the End

A summer and an era—endings of both were celebrated yesterday by Karen’s family at its summer home on Hood Canal. My hubby and I were lucky enough to be included, and I’ve thought of little else since. This was the opportunity to hug, and be hugged by, the people Karen held dearest—to console, and be consoled by, each one singly and collectively: her sons, sister, brother, and neices, as well as their partners and children. This was their first family gathering at the canal since her death last month.

In its second generation of owners, the summer-house is a kaleidoscopic kind of place, cozied up with comfy furniture ranging from overstuffed chairs and sofas to an assortment of stools and benches. It feels like a family quilt with its jumble of levels and rooms added over the years and unified with paneling and wall art in the same way quilt pieces are overlaid with stitches. And it’s as comforting as a quilt, too, with its nooks and crannies. The front windows and generous deck face the serenely beautiful fjord known as "the canal."

Yesterday’s gathering included about two dozen people, ranging in age from two to seventy. We were the only people not related by blood or marriage. Adults and the older children roamed (depending on the weather) from beach and dock to the house, to the house two doors away belonging to Karen’s nieces, and back again. Blustery rain continued to blow in, but periods of hopeful clearing brightened the sky throughout the afternoon. Conversation abounded, accompanied by commensurate laughter and tears.

With the house as the setting, this reminiscing and talking about Karen felt exactly right. I haven't been at the house a lot, and never without her being there, or, for that matter, her mother, Kay—the matriarch who ruled over events with power and presence. Kay died in 2008. I could feel them both. The house seems organically to lodge the spirit of the clan. Everyone brought food and beverages to share, with many of the items made from Karen’s favorite recipes. Everything about the afternoon reflected a family who is at ease with itself even in grief.

On our way back to Seattle (my hubby drove, which allowed me to became a pensive passenger), I reflected on the conversations I’d had. Although I’d had a chance to talk with almost everyone, there were so many things I had wanted to say, especially to her sons. But for some reason I didn’t. Either time ran out or I wasn't listening closely enough to my heart. So although satisfying, the afternoon felt unfinished, too.

As I stared out the window, I noticed color in the sky. “Look,” I said to Hubby, “straight ahead . . . a rainbow!” Right there, visible through the front windshield and glowing from the gray, turbulent clouds, colors were getting brighter by the moment. Within a minute or so, we could see the entire arch. We could see both of the rainbow's ends and quipped that we might be able to drive underneath it.

As if bumped off a shelf, another memory plopped itself into my consciousness: Karen’s reaction to hearing “Over the Rainbow” in a broadcast of Tim Russert’s memorial service in June 2008. She told me how moved she was by the singer’s beautiful voice and simple ukulele accompaniment, and wondered who the artist was. I immediately knew: the song was recorded by the late Israel Kamakawiwo'ole (“Iz”). I sent her a link to a YouTube video of his rendition of the song.

Several times she profusely thanked me in the days that followed. Maybe because she knew it wouldn’t be long before she followed Russert and, for that matter, Iz himself, or maybe because it offered her hope and beauty in the face of her own dwindling health, she purchased the album so she could play it as often as she liked.

As I looked at the rainbow last night, I found myself wishing I had taken a copy of the song to the canal house to play to in the presence of her family. I felt inordinantly sad about having forgotten such an important thing: she loved "Over the Rainbow" by Iz. But as the colors faded, I realized that’s how it is with those who’ve gone on ahead. The littlest thing can trigger a memory of a shared conversation or event and we relive the moment. That’s how we keep those dearest to us in our hearts. It's OK, I thought. There'll be other chances to share, and I felt grateful and content.


To listen to Iz sing “Over the Rainbow,” click the title of this post, or paste http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ltAGuuru7Q into your browser.

Friday, September 4, 2009

CINDY Part I


She stared back through the window, lips glistening, eyes wide open looking directly at me. I couldn’t tear myself away. Her perfect blond curly hair and rosy cheeks were an eye-magnet. Everything about her, from her impeccably ironed organza dress to her dainty little shoes called to me—Are you the one? Will you rescue me?

My parents slowed their pace but didn’t stop. “Come along, dear, we have a lot of errands to do.” Begrudgingly I followed them into the record store next door, but even the brightly colored posters and strains of music leaking out of the glass listening-booths didn’t distract me. I couldn’t stop thinking about her.

“All right,” Mother sighed an hour later after several errands had been accomplished, “we’ll stop by the store on our way back to the car . . . to ask how much she costs.”

Once inside Fifth Avenue Toys, I hastily made my way past mounds of alluring items—stuffed animals and Teddy bears, Lincoln logs, Parcheesi games, Erector sets, and model airplane kits—to the doll corner where her twin sat with a price tag of $25.

“No, absolutely not!” said my mother when I started to ask the inevitable. “Don’t be ridiculous! You’ve almost outgrown playing with dolls, so you’re not getting a doll that costs that much,” as if a doll’s value could be amortized over the months it was played with. Wisely, my father stayed out of our discussion, although I sneaked peaks at him to see if I could detect a glimmer of empathy. No dice. This was girl talk and he had intentionally disconnected.

All the way home from the backseat of the car I jabbered. “She’s so big, almost the size of real a two year old,” I speculated. “Isn’t she beautiful? Her cheeks are so rosy, her hair is so blond.”

“We are not spending that much money on a doll, period,” said my mother again. Her tone wasn’t mean, just decisive.

By the next morning I’d devised a scheme. Trying it out first on my father, I asked, “Will you go halvsies with me? If I save my allowance until I have $12.50?”

Maybe because my math was impeccable, more likely because he was an entrepreneur himself, he smiled. “That’s a possibility,” he conceded. “Better talk to Mother, though.”

Now that I had Dad in my camp, I approached Mother with confidence. “We’ll see,” she said.

As an old woman sixty years later, I don’t think of myself as a person with a lot of drive, staying- power, focus, or determination. But that summer I was one-track-minded and consumed with focus. Stashing about three dollars a week in allowance and chores, I decided I would name her Cynthia and call her Cindy for short. She would be my playmate, my best friend, my confidante and my little sister. By mid-July I had twelve dollars. “You still need fifty cents more and there’ll be tax,” reminded my mother. “You’d better save at least thirteen dollars.” Even though I was so close to achieving my goal, she must have hoped I’d still change my mind.

When I finally had enough money, a new worry overtook me. What if Cindy wasn’t still at the toy store? What if she had been bought by someone else? But miraculously, she was still there, on the shelf, not in the window.

“I have come for you, at last, Cynthia,” I whispered as I lifted her off the shelf. She was as beautiful as I remembered, radiant in her human-like softness. I patted her crunchy nylon hair and ran my fingers over her smooth vinyl cheeks into the crevice of her mouth. Her fingers and elbows were dimpled, her body was cuddly, made from soft flesh-colored fabric. I carried her carefully to the counter and opened my wallet. My father opened his, as well.

For an entire week I thought of nothing else. She slept next to me during the night and came to the breakfast table. My mother, softened considerably about the doll once she was sharing her roof, located some old baby clothes for Cindy to wear as pajamas. The doll was too sophisticated to be wearing toddler overalls or V-necked T-shirts during the day, but those items were perfect as sleepware. After breakfast, I changed her out of her pjs and put her in her store-perfect organdy dress, delicate shoes and lacey socks. When I brushed her hair, a few shiny strands of her nylon wig (glued to her head) came loose, but it didn’t matter. She was still the most alluring doll I had ever seen—and she was mine! She sat by the window when I went out to play with my neighbor in the next-door vacant lot. Cindy couldn’t play with us outside because her body was cloth. I was not going to let her get dirty.

Every night she joined the family for dinner. Her straight, unbending arms thrust out beside her or rested on the table edge. Although her feet stuck out straight ahead of her when sitting in a chair, I made sure she was included in the conversation. My parents and my sister must have become exasperated as they waited out my obsession, hoping I’d lose interest in her and discover something (anything!) else. But nothing made me waiver from my inordinate affection for Cindy.

One morning in late August, just days before fifth grade was going to start, I put Cindy in a patio chair on our veranda. When my neighbor came over, we ran off to play. (We had formed a gang called “The Monkeys,” which did mischief—things like helping ourselves to a Coca-Cola from the basement storage room at her house.) While I was gone, a summer storm blew in and when I arrived home for lunch, I was dismayed to see a fine layer of soot all over Cindy’s face. Although she was damp from rain, she desperately needed a washing.

Carefully carrying her to the upstairs bathroom, I pulled my washcloth down from where it hung over the bathtub. I soaped up the cloth and began to scrub her vinyl face. My mother was calling me for lunch. As I hurried my task along, I noticed slivers of red on the washcloth. When I looked closely, I saw . . . paint! Her mouth color was flaking off in front of my eyes. Little bubbles were rising up from her lips, then popping and peeling off.

Tears welled up in my own eyes, and I let out a yelp. My mother, assuming the worst—perhaps I had fallen on a knife—was up the stairs in moments. “What’s wrong? What have you done?” She was ashen. The combination of the horrifying disintegration of Cindy combined with my mother’s reaction set off my sobs—bellowing sobs. I scared myself they were so loud.

I gasped through spurting tears, “I washed off some of Cindy’s lips.”

My mother who had, until that moment, been the epitome of a caring mother, was no doubt so relieved it was only the doll and not her daughter who was losing red substance from her face, and brusquely snapped, “What? You’re crying over your doll? Oh, for heavens sake! Stop crying and come to lunch,” which made me blubber all the harder. Now my mother was shouting, something she rarely did. “She’s just a doll, for heaven’s sake, Sallie! Get a-hold of yourself.”

The more Mother reacted, the more I cried. I couldn’t stop, I didn’t know how. “Take a breath and hold it—or you’ll have hysterics,” she commanded. By now I felt as though I was in another place, inside someone else’s body. I no more knew how to stop crying than I knew how to fly.

Finally, Mother suggested that I lie down in the guest room. She pulled the shades halfway down, making the room calm and shady. “You have to get a-hold of yourself,” she said as she left the room and closed the door. “No one but you can stop your crying.” I heaved big sighs and started all over again, terrified by my inability to stop.

A few minutes later, my father came into the guest room. “We can fix Cindy, I’m sure, Sallie. She’ll be as good as new.”

Then I heard my mother say to my father, “She’s having a case of hysterics,” which frightened me even more. As I lay there, someone put a cool wash cloth on my forehead. Eventually I must have slept because the next thing I knew, it was nearly dark outside. I woke up exhausted. When I went downstairs, both parents were very solicitous. Mother gave me supper and brought my pajamas downstairs, then offered to read to me until I was sleepy and ready for bed.

Within moments of awaking the following morning, I remembered something unpleasant had happened the day before. When I entered the kitchen, Dad was sitting at the breakfast table. He looked up from his plate. “We can buy nail polish in exactly the same red,” he began, “and paint Cindy's lips with that. I think it will look quite professional.” Thinking about Cindy made me feel queasy, but I trusted my dad’s assessment. He could probably repair her just fine.

After breakfast while Mother did the dishes, my dad and I went to the local dime store to select nail enamel. I picked out a deep coral without worrying if it matched her current lips because—my dad explained—it would be best to remove all the original lip paint so the color would be smooth. After we bought the polish, he spent the rest of the morning gently washing off her flaking lip paint, picking off the splinters with a wash cloth. Eventually her lips were unadorned and pale.

Dad repainted her mouth with a great flourish, the way a surgeon would prepare a patient, carefully covering the rest of her body so as not to get a speck of unwanted nail enamel on anything else. I watched. He decided to let the paint dry for at least an hour. "Come on, Sallie--let's go to the arboretum to feed ducks while we wait."

When we got back, Cindy’s lips looked fine, but I knew we could never go back. We were both scarred. Cindy had sustained lip damage; I had had my heart broken. Although Cindy looked like herself . . . I knew she wasn’t. She was no longer the most beautiful doll in the world, she was just a doll, my doll. And I was a girl who knew what it meant when mothers lowered their voices and whispered about someone, “Then she became hysterical.”