61. A Doll Dilemma

61. A Doll Dilemma

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Matters

A Doll Dilemma

Christmas is not as much about opening our presents as opening our hearts.

~Janice Maeditere

It all began with a well-meaning gift from my mother-in-law, Mary, to my mother, Marilyn. Soon after spending Thanksgiving at my parents’ house—during which she noted my mother’s numerous collections—Mary instructed my husband, Mike, to give my mother a box that contained her childhood doll. Or, rather, what remained of the doll.

Peering in the box, my mother’s jaw dropped as she studied the pitiful remains of the doll. Sawdust spilled from the torn and frayed kid leather body, twisted arms and legs were disconnected from the body, and a deep crack disfigured the smooth porcelain face that stared back from a hairless head.

It was nothing more than remnants of what had once been a beautiful Floradora doll created by the well-known doll designer, Armand Marseille.

Mary had decided she no longer needed it—small wonder—and thought my mother could add it to her modest doll collection—providing, that is, that she could fix it or locate someone with the skills to restore it.

Whether my mother saw its potential, or just the remains of a now rather unattractive doll, is difficult to tell. But soon after receiving the gift, the box and its contents disappeared into an upstairs closet, a potential black hole for any items that entered it. Childhood toys of mine had been stowed there years ago, never to be seen again.

Over the next six years, the doll was shuttled around the house in its cardboard box abode, from a closet to a bedroom and back to the closet again, all the while collecting dust and occasional cursory glances from curious passersby.

It was impossible to imagine how the doll had once looked. It was equally difficult to imagine the tragedy that had befallen the doll to leave it in this pathetic condition.

This past Christmas, when Mike and I were at my parents’ house, we eyed a large box beneath the tree with our names on it. Cryptically, my mother repeatedly said, “The store only had one of these left, so if you don’t want it, I’ll keep it.”

I was prepared to be the recipient of another appliance, like the coffeemaker she gave us five years ago that we had yet to open. Silently, I imagined the possibilities. A food processor? A bread machine? Expecting yet another gift that would see little or no use in our kitchen, we saved the large, cumbersome package for last.

Finally, Mike unwrapped the box and lifted out a long object wrapped in plastic. As he carefully peeled back the wrapping, I recognized it the instant the face was in view. Mike held the object aloft in amazement—his face expressionless—apparently wondering why my mother had seen fit to give us a doll.

A moment later, he, too, recognized Floradora.

She had undergone a truly amazing transformation, from the pitiful pile of remnants to the breathtaking, almost child-like doll now reflecting the soft glow of the sparkling Christmas tree lights. The porcelain face, with its real-hair eyebrows, glowed in the semi-darkness. Her piercing brown eyes were incredibly lifelike.

We passed her around the room for everyone to admire. We all stroked her long, soft curls and studied every last detail of her new outfit. Nearly an hour elapsed before the doll was finally laid gently back in its box.

My mother explained that a neighbor’s mother, who once owned a doll hospital, agreed to take on this doll as a project, even though she was retired. Perhaps she saw it as a supreme challenge to attempt to restore this doll to even a semblance of its former beauty.

Later that day, we went to Mike’s mother’s house for yet another Christmas dinner. On the way, we decided to show her the doll and surprise her.

Before removing the doll from the box, Mike explained to Mary that Marilyn had given this to us as our main Christmas gift. Lifting the doll carefully from the box, he held her up in front of his mother. Suddenly, Mary clutched her hands to her chest, her face contorting as tears trickled down her cheeks.

“It isn’t…,” she stammered. “Is it? Is it? Is that my doll?”

She reached for the doll and carefully sat it on her lap. She continued crying as she caressed the doll’s curls, stroked her dress, and studied her cherubic face.

The doll, in all its glory, closely resembling its original appearance, had been reunited with its former owner.

The roomful of people couldn’t help but be touched by this unexpected reunion. Several were teary-eyed, while others simply looked on in amazement.

After admiring and exclaiming over the doll for another fifteen minutes or so, Mary held up the doll and instructed Mike, “Put her to bed. She’s tired.”

As he held the doll, he hesitated as we exchanged bewildered glances. I stared at him in stunned silence. A disturbing mixture of emotions swept over me.

Perhaps she had misunderstood that the doll had actually been our gift. As Mike placed the doll in a chair across from Mary’s bed, I panicked as I imagined my mother’s reaction to this unexpected turn of events. How was I going to explain this? My mind reeled as I contemplated the options.

Since I knew my mother was also understandably smitten by the doll, I had planned to leave it at my mother’s house for her to enjoy, knowing one day it would return to us. After all, she had housed it for years until she arranged for its remarkable repair job. The doll would certainly be right at home there in my mother’s extensive collection of old toys and antiques.

Suddenly, this situation resembled some twisted version of The Gift of the Magi. My mother’s gift to us had been appropriated by a third party—albeit the doll’s original owner—which prevented us from returning the doll to the person responsible for the doll’s transformation, my own mother.

Such a bizarre ending to an otherwise memorable Christmas!

During the trip home, the future residence of the doll was discussed as we tried to determine our next move. It was decided to let the matter rest temporarily and hope that Mary would make the next move.

She didn’t, however.

Nothing more was said about the matter until one day when Mike carefully broached the subject after sufficient time had elapsed.

Apparently, Mary had misunderstood who the recipient of the doll was. Once she found out, she said, “Well, that takes some of the glow off.”

She insisted she never would have given the doll away to anyone, even in its poor condition. She maintained she had given it to my mother in the hopes she could fix it or find someone who could, which wasn’t at all the way the other three parties in the transaction remembered it.

Things were becoming even more complicated, and we needed outside advice. Several people suggested doll-napping, while others simply said, “It’s yours. Just ask for it.” None of those options seemed viable.

Things, we knew, would eventually be settled… somehow, sometime. But there would certainly be someone who’d be less than thrilled with the outcome. But that, too, would be worked out sooner or later. Patience was required until the rightful owner of the doll was determined. Adults, after all, should be grappling with matters more weighty than the ownership of a doll.

But this particular doll evoked powerful emotions, particularly in its original owner, which made it much more than a mere plaything. To Mary, it symbolized poignant childhood memories and a means to recapture her youth.

To my mother, it was symbolic of an abiding respect for, and preservation of, beloved objects from the past, part of her overall appreciation of antiques.

Mike, in turn, was torn between joy in his mother’s reunion with her doll while appreciating my mother’s repair efforts and wanting her to have it. The newest owners were contemplating drafting a custody agreement between the two mothers.

The urgency of the situation dwindled with time. But, one day, the true magnitude of the situation became apparent. It’s often said that things happen for a reason, even though the reason may not be obvious at the time.

Almost three months to the day of the doll incident, Mary was declared legally blind.

All of a sudden, everyone, especially me, had a new perspective on what had so recently been a particularly thorny issue. It was sobering how a mere three months could so dramatically alter one’s opinions on an emotional issue.

At first, I was struck by the miraculous nature of my mother’s decision to choose this particular Christmas to get the doll repaired after it had been lost in oblivion for so many years. In so doing, she had allowed Mary one last chance to see her childhood doll as she once was. Certainly, plenty of fond childhood memories had been revisited as Mary awoke each morning to the sight of the doll sitting in a chair by her bed.

Perhaps my mother expressed it best when she said, “Thank the Lord she got to see her doll one last time.”

After all that had transpired these past few months, none of us will ever “see” Floradora in quite the same way ever again.

Not long ago, Mary suggested that Mike take Floradora to our house since she could no longer see her. He shrugged off her suggestion, knowing the time was not quite right for the doll to finally come to live with her adoptive family.

After all, Floradora was home.

~Debbie Dufresne

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