Amy was my first.
Her blond, twisted curls were fixed and her little pink-and-white gingham dress was stiff and yellowed with age. By the time she finally became mine, she was twenty-seven years old. Pretty ancient for a doll. And, by ten, I was old enough to know she wasn’t to be played with.
So, until I reached my first decade, I enacted my primal childhood dramas on my Barbie and baby dolls instead.*
There was one other doll who bore the brunt of little girl adventures in our extended family: Grandma Laura’s walking doll.
This doll was an antique, but, she was never treated like one. Built with a stiff cardboard body with wooden limbs, she was meant to be played with.
If she ever had a name, I never knew it. She was just called ‘the walking doll’ because she had creaky hinges at her knees which caused the leg to swing back and then forward as you walked behind her.
She sat in a chair in my grandparents’ living room, waiting for one of the grandchildren to come play with her. She was much loved and it showed.
The walking doll’s hands were worn to indistinct nubs and the plastic along her arms was cracked or missing. At one point, someone loved all the hair off of her.
My grandmother must have cut down a wig to cover her bald head. The walking doll’s new style was choppy, black speckled with grey, and in no way resembled a typical baby doll. I never knew she had any other hair color.
Until I took her to the doll hospital that is.
It was always my intention to take good care of my bequests, but time, family expansion and inattention takes a toll on the mechanics of people and toys.
Many years ago, Amy’s rubber band broke, leaving her looking much like an extra special victim from a crime drama.**
I found Patricia Buckert after a quick search online and contacted her to see if she could recover my long-time companions from the benign neglect of thirty-some years in storage.
A professional with certification through the Doll Artisan Guild, Patricia studied at Seeley’s in Canada and traveled to West Virginia to learn advanced secrets of doll restoration. Patti Ann’s Teddy Bears and Dollies provides a rare service—not just doll repair—it’s more like finding doll nirvana.
When she talks about the dolls she’s made—with kiln baked porcelain crafted and painted by hand—you know you’ve found a kindred spirit.
Her doll hospital is located in Oshtemo, MI along Stadium Drive in a small, green house.
Even with the big white sign out front, you might miss it. But once you’ve entered, you’d never forget it.
The front room is overflowing with dolls, prams, strollers, a crib filled with wide-eyed babydolls, and shelves where lady-like figures pose, en deshabille, with porcelain-dipped lace to trace their décolletage. Nearby, a wire carousel houses miniature accessories: shoes, socks, and delicate unmentionables with froths of lace enough to choke a Clydesdale.
This dolly sanctum sanctorum is a veritable paradise for your inner child.
When I show her Amy, Patricia immediately recognizes her as one of the series of Little Women dolls created by Madame Alexander. But she’s entirely surprised by her second patient.
“I’ve never seen a doll quite like this before.” Patricia says, as I place the doll on her counter.
“She’s been in the family for a long time. She first belonged to my grandmother.” I explain.
As I remove the doll’s outer garments, her poor condition is revealed. A spring falls off her leg as I remove her bloomers.***
We also learn that originally, she was a redhead, similar to my grandmother’s brunette shade…that she kept in a bottle under her bathroom vanity.
“I’ll see if I can find anything in my records to help identify her.” Patricia promises.
She crowed in a later email with a link to a Doll Reference website:
“Look what I found! As I was going over your doll I found the Babs marking. This helped me identify it.”
According to the site linked, the Babs Walking Doll was made between 1917 and 1921 by the Babs Manufacturing Corp. Since my grandmother was born in 1909, she was between eight and ten years of age when she was given her. Knowing my doll is over a hundred years old, makes me treasurer her even more. But, she was in pretty sad shape.
I asked Patricia to do what she could to recover her lost charms. This no doubt destroyed whatever value the doll might have possessed, but, I would never sell her and I felt that she deserved her own personal make-over.
It took a lot longer than I would have imagined. But I suspect you don’t undo a century of aging in a day.
Amy came home first.
You can’t see it in this photo, but she now has two satin shoes covering her feet. The mar on her cheek is gone and, with restringing and repairs to the dress, she looks as good as new.
I asked my mom if each of her sisters had their own doll from the series.
She seemed surprised to learn there were other dolls.
“Oh, yes. She is one of the daughters from the March family, from the book Little Women?” I tell her. “Did you read it?”
“Oh, well, I’ve seen the movie.” Mom says. “But no, I was the only one who got a doll like this.”
“I thought, because you were one of four sisters and the book is about four sisters, maybe you each got one to represent your relationships.” I say. “But you were the oldest, and that would make you the ‘Meg’ doll instead of ‘Amy’ who is the youngest of the March sisters.”
“I really don’t remember that much about the story.” Mom admits. “But I had blond hair like this as a girl.”
It is always a shock to find someone doesn’t cherish the same books you do. I love Little Women. But if I were to pick a March sister, I would be Jo. Brave, adventurous Jo who writes and dramatizes her life. That, and the fact she has brown hair, just like me.
I finally got to pick up Grandma Laura’s walking doll this fall. I then learned that PattiAnn’s is closing; after so many years spent learning the art of doll craft, Patricia is retiring.
“Is this because people aren’t buying dolls as much?” I ask.
“Yes, partly. Children just don’t play with dolls the way they used to, not with the invention of iPads and electronic games.” Patricia sighs.
I look around and have to ask, “What will happen to all of this?”
“I’ll be selling it off as I close-up. You can check my Facebook website for details of the upcoming sales.”
I have my camera with me and I ask her if I might take a picture of her with a doll, “Which is your favorite?”
“Oh, all my real favorites are back at home, packed up for the move.” She looks around for a bit and then picks up a laughing babydoll. “But, I made this one for my mother before she passed away. So, I’ll be keeping her.”
We keep what matters to us. I don’t know if I would have a doll collection if it had not been for the one’s given to me. I have quite a few. My first years of independence during my tour in the Army were incongruously spent collecting dolls while stationed overseas. But those tales will have to wait for another day.
For now, I will be grateful I got my dolls repaired by someone qualified in a craft that is dying out.
And for those of you who are interested in the results, here is my walking doll, in her new dress cut down from a dress my mother made me:
I think you will agree, you wouldn’t recognize her from her former self!
If you love dolls too, check out Patti Ann’s Teddy Bears & Dollies before it’s gone for good.
And if anyone wants to get me a complete set of Madame Alexander dolls, I found an autographed collection available at Theriault’s (self-described dollmasters) website:
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnotes:
*Based on my tendency to beat my dolls with a broomstick at the slightest imaginary infractions, I’m surprised I ever became a mother.
**You’d be astonished how many times creepy dolls come up in connection with serial killers on those cop dramas!
***Seeing as my own hip is held together with pins, I am now convinced my panties are all that is keeping my leg attached!