WHYS

A few years before her grandmother died, Sheila, now married but without any children, felt stunned, like a sparrow crashing into a window, when her mother said that Grandma had given The Doll away to some neighbor’s granddaughter who came for a visit. These two were served coffee, milk, and cookies; then this girl played with The Doll, and ended up leaving with her.

“How could Grandma?” Sheila stared outside from her mother’s kitchen, ignoring the crowded feeders and up-close, petunia-filled beds, concentrating on the tangle of undergrowth covering a hillside.

Grandma had told Mother that there were two granddaughters, and she didn’t know who should get The Doll. So, she decided to give it to this little girl.

“To this unknown someone, who never even cared about The Doll, someone who knew nothing about her history—my history—with her?” Sheila tried to bellow, but instead, squeezing her eyes tightly shut, she whispered, “It’s absurd.”

Mother gave a pained shrug, unable to further explain her mother-in-law’s peculiar decision. Grandma always said she loved Mother like a daughter, and they understood each other like best friends, but it didn’t hold true this time.

Grandma also used to tell how the real grandfather sometimes got angry, his dark eyes becoming black, and left the house. He went for walks of several hours, all by himself. “When he came back, everything seemed better,” Grandma said, with a lost expression. Sheila knew a long walk wouldn’t help how she felt.

* * *

At only seven years old, she could tell this Minneapolis apartment had to be exactly like the last, except in this building’s gloomy-as-a-cave basement. Daddy said it was going to be better, but Daddy always said that, just like he always told Mama each job would be better. Sheila knew differently. It had two bedrooms, the biggest for Mama and Daddy, with a window that overlooked a sidewalk so you could watch legs of people walking by; the smaller, in back of the kitchen, for Sheila and Tommy, her four-year-old brother. It smelled like day-old fried bacon.

“Where will I put my stuff so he doesn’t ruin anything?”

“I’m going to hang a curtain, right down the middle of the room,” Mama said.

“One side for Tommy, the other side for you. That’ll keep him out of your belongings.”

Sheila watched her mother draw a line in the air with her finger, then studied the rest of the room. On her side, a window, way up by the ceiling, showed a row of garbage can bottoms; and on another wall, a door opened to the kitchen. Tommy didn’t have a window or a door. “He’ll come on my half to go in and out.”

“We’ll have rules. No touching Sheila’s property.”

Sheila looked skeptically at her mother. She didn’t believe that Tommy, who tore up her books and pulled out the arms on her dolls, would ever follow any rules.

“You and I can paint a mural for him. It’ll make him like it here.” Mama smiled enthusiastically. “Won’t that be fun?”

“What kind of mural?” The one at school had letters and numbers. Tommy would hate it.

“With animals. What kind do you think?”

“Monkeys.” The jabbering, running-around, scuffling, wrecking-things monkeys behind bars at the zoo. Sheila wished for a cage to keep Tommy trapped in.

She had only two huggable toys left. One was a white, turning greenish, teddy bear. The green came from Vicks put on him when she lay in bed with a cold, being rubbed down regularly. When Mama said she had to keep braids and couldn’t get a ducktail, Sheila chopped out a chunk of her own bangs, then victimized poor Teddy by cutting some of his hair down to the fabric. Worn holes around his neck let clumps of cotton spill out. Sometimes Mama, trying to salvage Teddy, stitched his head back in place.

Sheila’s other toy, a rubber baby doll, drank water from a tiny bottle before wetting its diaper. With a ballpoint pen, she colored black circles in Baby’s blank eyes. Dingy gray splotches from pressed-in dirt mottled Baby’s pink skin. Crevices along its arms had worn through to crumbliness.

About this time, Sheila’s grandmother won a doll from the Rebekah Lodge’s raffle. Sixteen inches tall, with wavy, dark brown hair, blinking blue eyes, and moveable arms and legs, she didn’t wet her pants. Accompanying The Doll came a varnished, wooden, two-section latched wardrobe case with a handle on top. Inside, drawers held shoes and boots and purses. A hanging area held outfits. Women of the Rebekah Lodge, sister organization to the Odd Fellows, where Grandpa Burt belonged, outdid themselves creating ensembles, while some handy Odd Fellow crafted the case. There was a wedding gown with little white satin slippers and a billowing veil; an Annie Oakley cowgirl costume—brown and gold with holster, pistols, hat, and boots; as well as a turquoise and white crocheted set with figure skates and beret complete with pom-pom—at least 25 costumes in all.

Grandma acted as excited as a little girl at winning this doll. She had grown up in a Catholic orphanage, with an absence of toys. “It held down jealousy,” Grandma said.

Naturally, Sheila wondered why Grandma didn’t give The Doll to her, being the favorite of many grandchildren, all the rest boys. But Mama said that Grandma wanted to keep her on the farm so Sheila would have something to play with on visits. Even at that young age, Sheila knew Grandma’s life had been much harder than her own, and The Doll represented something very important—the only time Grandma ever won a prize.

Some of the upset women from the Rebekahs complained, “Why should an old lady, without any children at home, get The Doll?” Grandma, perched on her chair at the dining room table, told the family this, shaking her head. “I said to them, ‘I have a granddaughter. She can play with my doll.’” Then she huffed off to the kitchen after more mashed potatoes and gravy.

For years, the best treat was to go down to Grandma and Grandpa Burt’s farm, away from inner-city pavement and a different apartment every year. On the many acres, Sheila ran free, and during quiet times played with The Doll, whispering all her secrets and plans. A picture in the bedroom where she slept showed a Victorian girl on a chair embroidering. She reminded Sheila of girls who took ballet and piano lessons at all her different schools. With The Doll, she pretended to stick pins from the Victorian girl’s cushion in soft spots on her body.

Sheila was the firstborn grandchild, the one born to heal her grandmother’s broken heart when the real grandfather unexpectedly died. That next spring, there came Sheila, Grandma’s make-up gift from God. She never doubted how much Grandma loved her, because of her words, spoken every time they were together.

After the real grandfather died, Daddy and Mama lived with Grandma for a couple of years, at her old yellow house in Chambers, Minnesota. Sheila learned to walk in this house. Nearby was Grandpa Burt’s farm, where she later played with The Doll. And Grandpa Burt’s farm was by the real grandfather’s farm. He had lost it, and every time they passed by on the way into town, Grandma said, “There’s where we used to live, before your grandfather became a butcher.”

Mama told about how Grandma was the only one who could comfort Sheila, a colicky infant. Her grandmother snuggled the baby against large breasts, and within minutes, Sheila fell fast asleep. She came to think of them as Grandma’s pillows. A miniature woman, no more than 4′8″, with a little beak nose and arthritic knees that made her look like a barnyard hen, rocking back and forth as she walked, Grandma blamed the size of her bosom on the binding cloths forced upon her by the nuns when she developed too soon and too conspicuously. “All my muscles broke down,” she said. “Mean things like that made me run away from that awful place.”

Once when Sheila was about ten, living in another apartment with another shared bedroom in shambles, a Camp Fire Girl group Mother had signed her up for planned a program where each member would bring a favorite doll or stuffed animal to put on exhibit. All the toys she’d received at birthdays and Christmases, demolished by Tommy, had found their way to the trash on the next move—all except Teddy and Baby. She looked at them, feeling her cheeks redden with humiliation. Mother said, “Don’t worry. I’ll write your grandmother and ask if you can have The Doll, for this one occasion.”

They drove to the farm and brought The Doll back to the city. She and her paraphernalia made the best display, and Sheila won a blue ribbon. Tommy carried a threat from their father (Grandma’s difficult child, the one who broke her pretties and caused her much grief) of a beating like never before if he did one thing to hurt Grandma’s doll.

“Do you promise?” Dad said.

“I promise. I promise. I really, really promise,” Tommy chanted.

He tried extra hard, and, for once, Sheila owned something special, even though it was temporary, that Tommy left alone.

All too soon, they brought The Doll back home.

Another granddaughter joined her family this same year, altering Sheila’s status as the only girl grandchild. Being the oldest, and Grandma’s favored replacement, however, made it easy to rationalize an ongoing importance. Besides, her little cousin ran with the boys all the time outside. Having plenty of her own well-cared-for toys, she never played with The Doll.

Eventually, makeup, and hairdos, and boyfriends entered Sheila’s life. Dad had finally found a job he liked as an electrician, and moved them to a house to live in forever. And she had a private bedroom, where Tommy and his problems couldn’t intrude. Sadness over broken, discarded possessions got pushed to the back of her mind. On visits to the farm, she sat in the corner, leafing through teenage magazines, trying to generate as little attention as possible. Too grown-up for swinging from ropes in the barn, or chasing sheep in the pasture, she also quit playing with The Doll, leaving it put away with Grandma’s other treasures.

At dinner, Grandma still recited stories of how the real grandfather had unexpectedly died and left her bereft beyond belief. She continued to question (with reassurances from her children) if this was punishment because she’d left The Church. Still, God gave the baby girl to ease her pain.

Sheila fought back tears, trying not to embarrass herself in front of the whole family, a cloud enveloping her body, her throat feeling like it was stuffed with a bunched-up hanky. Dad had said, so many times, that “Sheila’s bladder is too close to her eyeballs,” making the boys laugh and tease. Much later, she figured out that he said this because of his own tingling, unshed tears.

Even during adolescent self-absorption, Sheila wondered about Grandpa Burt’s good-natured acceptance of Grandma’s need to take out all her woes, display them to the others, and then tuck them away for next time. She didn’t see Grandma cry, either, but listened to her many words, always said in the same way. A kind and gentle man, Grandpa Burt shrugged at his wife’s jibes about his favorite pastime—chuckling over a Reader’s Digest, sitting in the wooden rocker with its scratched arms, where the real grandfather had solemnly dug lines with a matchstick.

As Sheila grew into adulthood, occasionally she thought of The Doll, smiled, and imagined a time when she would share her with a daughter, something that was never said to Grandma, just assumed…

So, she never understood. Too hurt, too afraid of crying, she never asked why Grandma hadn’t thought how she would feel when The Doll was given away.

Eventually, Sheila had her own little boy to care for, and was too preoccupied to give The Doll much consideration. When he was six months old, she brought him 1,500 miles from Seattle to visit Grandma and Grandpa Burt, who had retired and now lived in Chambers, in the old yellow house. An easy baby, mostly smiling and charming the world, he took a bottle, willingly, eagerly, from Grandma. Afterward, he snuggled up to her pillows and drifted off, while Sheila marveled at the never-ending technique. She also noticed that since Grandpa Burt’s heart attack, Grandma had quit talking about the real grandfather.

By the time of a baby girl’s birth, Grandma had died, and Sheila again started missing The Doll. Consequently, her own daughter had as many toys as any little girl could ever want, in a beautiful pink-and-white room—the room she came home to as an infant and left from when she went to college. Even now, even though the daughter has lived in many different cities, shelves in that old room are laden with dolls in various elaborate costumes. She liked them, but mostly cherished her Barbies, spending endless hours changing their clothes and combing their hair. By modern standards, maybe The Doll wouldn’t have been that remarkable. From Sheila’s little-girl perspective, she was loved so much that, of course, she became real.

* * *

Sheila hopes the neighbor’s granddaughter cared for The Doll at least half as much as she did. And she hopes that, maybe even now, that grown woman tells stories about the little old lady friend of her grandmother’s, the one with the pillowy bosom, who not only gave her cookies and a super-soft hug, but also, a wonderful toy.

Sheila believes that Grandma let go of her need to know, a need far greater than Sheila’s own question. It started the day she found him, dead of a gunshot wound. No note. No reason. No answer for her “whys?” And, many years later, after speaking of him hundreds of times, she decided enough words had been said.

Sheila feels the familiar cloud and closed-up throat set in, but this time they go away, with wet cheeks and a sob, as she grieves for the lost doll and her grandmother’s sorrows. Looking out through blurred eyes at her own garden, bordered by cascading petunias, with the sun shining brightly, she knows this: Today is a good day for weeding.

 Published by RiverSedge

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