Glad tidings and season’s greetings, dear readers. Today’s story is a stroll far down memory lane.
More years ago than I will ever truthfully acknowledge, I was a student at Retirement Acres preschool. My teacher was Ms. Frances. I’m still not certain whether this was her first or last name, and my parents have indicated their memory is a bit vague on this as well. She was original equipment for the school, which was built during the Depression. I’d say to do the math, but it’s possibly best if you just have a glass of holiday cheer instead.
To continue, Ms. Frances frequently read a aloud to us to help build our little characters. One story she read us was about a little girl whose family moved. Once they were too far away to turn back, the family discovered they had left her One Doll behind. She was bereft until they reached their new home and discovered a doll and a letter from the previous occupant of her new room saying the previous tenant could not possibly take all of her dolls, so could the new family please take care of this one? I have no idea what message we were supposed to take from that story, but I was horrified and more than a little traumatized. And completely freaked out when we moved a few years later.
In roughly this same time period, we visited my great grandmother for what would turn out to be the last time. She celebrated her 90th birthday, and the entire family came to the farm. My grandfather had 12 brothers and sisters. My father, his son, has four sisters. There were well more than 100 people in attendance. The food…
Anyway. We had never lived close to my father’s family, but I did know the girl cousin closest to my age. She was a bit of a pain in the ass, but faced with the choice of meeting a *lot* of new people or just sucking it up for a day and sticking together, we acted as if we were the best of friends. (Side note, not for credit: my father was related to all of these people. He spent most of the day asking my mother who they were. She is not from there, and my aunts were all more familiar with their mother’s family. There was a great deal of guessing. It was a long afternoon for everyone.)
One of the most fascinating things in my great grandmother’s house was her parlor. In it sat an old upright piano which held dozens of pictures of everyone: children, grandchildren, great grandchildren. They were not arranged in an order I could discern, but possibly they were arranged in a way she found pleasing. Among the many pictures were the WWII service pictures of my grandfather and those great uncles who were eligible to serve. And overseeing everything was a magnificent Cinderella doll in a box with a see-through cover. My cousin and I begged to be allowed to play with her. We were shooed from the house.
Time passed, as it will. My great grandmother passed on. Her estate (such as it was. She had a farm. It was a farm with some property, some cows, and the houses of most of her children. It was not a plantation, nor was it stately, despite many who have tried to represent it as such. To the north there was a tiny church, to the south a highway. And on the property, there was a screaming fight about how anything was to be divided.)(seriously. Some of them died not speaking to each other over this.)
Eventually, the estate was settled and an auction was held among the heirs. In the case that her child had preceded her in death, that child’s oldest child was declared the representative. Which is how I ended up at the auction.
“I’ll be back,” Dad said. “And I probably won’t want to talk about it.”
“If you think you’re going to escape, think again old man,” I said. “There’s not a chance I’m going to miss this.”
Realizing that arguing would chew up the day, he gestured towards the truck.
“I already don’t want to talk about it,” he warned me. “And don’t go stirring up a bunch of stuff that’s better left unstirred. Most of them carry.”
When we reached South Fork, Dad departed for the barn with one of his uncles and a warning glance for me. I went inside to find one of the few great-aunts who reliably remembered my name.
“Tea?” She offered. I responded enthusiastically, having heard tales from Dad about the tea served at the farm, which was sweet enough to pour over pancakes and strong enough to stop a bull.
“Karo syrup over ice,” my mother said.
“You’re just mad because you can read the paper through that stuff your mother serves and calls tea,” Dad answered. “My grandma wouldn’t water plants with that mess.”
This argument happens a lot even to this day at Chez Auto. For the record: I prefer sweet tea that will dissolve your fillings if you aren’t careful.
“Here,” my great aunt offered. “I just mixed it up.”
Alas, it was instant.
I wandered through the house, listening with interest to the stories my relatives were telling on each other, including one about soy beans that I can’t repeat here due to legal reasons. Dad thought I must have heard it wrong, but after a few phone calls and a lot of shouting discovered that I had been correct. His private opinion was that the banker had known them all forever and deserved what he got.
I returned to the kitchen.
“Where are all the family pictures and that big doll that used to be in the parlor?” I asked, interrupting a story about medical supplies and the acquisition thereof that was about to take a nasty turn. My aunts subsided to different parts of the kitchen.
“The what now?” Aunt J asked.
“Everyone’s service pictures,” I clarified. “And the Cinderella doll in the big box that was on the piano.” I paused. “And the piano.”
“Your dad isn’t going to haul that old piano all the way back to Retirement Acres,” she said with a finality that I really should have recognized. “Besides, your Aunt M sold it without asking anyone. I don’t know anything about the rest.”
“You most certainly do,” I snapped, earning a subversive grin from Aunt M2, who had been concerned there was nobody like my grandfather in the family now. “There were dozens of them, including the only picture of my grandparents before they got married. I’ll pay for them if I need to, but I want them. And I’ll also buy any pictures of my aunts and cousins that are in there.”
Possession is nine tenths of the law, okay? And I needed some chips with which to bargain with my aunts for some things they had no other incentive to trade.
“And the doll, because I don’t want my cousin to have it.”
“There are no pictures, and you can take up why with your grandfather’s sister. The doll was never here. You must have imagined it. That’s all I have to say.” She slammed the cabinet shut on the jar of instant tea. I retreated to the truck to call my cousin.
“What do you want?” She asked.
“I’m older than you, so you better act like it,” I reminded her.
“My brother is older than you by nearly a month, and he remembers our grandfather. But please, go on.”
In a pig’s ear he remembers. Neither of us were 1 yet when my grandfather passed away. Which is not really important.
“What kind of doll did Great Grandma have on the piano?” I asked.
“Cinderella,” she answered curtly. “Did you go to that auction just to bid on that doll so I couldn’t have it? I’ll tell Mom!”
This is a legitimate threat; Dad says I wouldn’t like his oldest sister nearly so well if I’d known her before Prozac.
“Do that,” I said. “Because it isn’t here, and Aunt J says there never was any such thing, and that I imagined all those pictures and Aunt M sold the piano.”
My cousin paused, ruminating on what I had related.
“If she took Grandpa’s service picture, Mama is gonna turn inside out. And we did not imagine the Cinderella doll.”
“Do you swear your mom doesn’t have it?”
“I swear,” she sighed. “And now it looks like neither of us will either. Any idea who got it?”
“I can’t even get them to admit it exists. And all the service pictures are gone. I even went through the closets.”
“The last time I was here, I was 7. It was pretty easy the first three times to pretend I got lost looking for the bathroom.”
“That bunch of old biddies must be really furious to believe you can get lost in a house with four rooms.”
“If anyone could find Great Grandpa’s field knife, you could slice the tension and serve it with tea.”
“Mom’s going to bust a gut over this pictures. I gotta go call her.”
I was left holding a disconnected phone, which was how my dad found me a few minutes later.
“Do you want anything?” He asked. “Not that we’re going to win it.”
My family’s weird thing is auctioning off the items of the estate to the heirs, then distributing the collected money to the exact same heirs who bid on the things. It’s an excellent way to start fights that will carry on for generations, until nobody really knows any longer what the fight was about, except that it involved something like a potato chip can and dynamite.
“I wanted the Cinderella doll, but it’s gone and nobody knows where. Although it might be with the family pictures.”
Inside the house, the phone rang. Aunt J answered, an action she immediately regretted. My aunt was already shouting into the phone.
“You called Terry?” Dad asked as he pinched the bridge of his nose and wondered what an aneurysm felt like.
“Oh, hell no. I called her daughter.”
Long story short: none of those items have been located to date.
So what, you wonder, does any of this have to do with anything?
I returned to Retirement Acres for Christmas. As a gift, I received an original Shirley Temple doll in her original box. I had seen it earlier this year at a friend’s estate sale, but reluctantly decided not to buy it. So Mom bought it for me as a surprise. The doll was not, in fact, the property of my friend or her mother; she said the estate seller just brings items that didn’t sell from previous estates and combined them into her current sale. So the doll could have come from any one of dozens of places. The woman running the estate sale was torn between not wanting to sell her (based on the price) and wanting the doll to go to someone who would appreciate her.
She’s beautiful, although she has clearly never been played with. I have some experience with antique dolls. If I had to guess (I do) she was a gift to a little girl who desperately wanted a Shirley Temple doll but who also thought she was too old for dolls. So she kept it where she could see it, standing up in its box, always in sight.
And the years passed.
To the family who still wonders what happened to the original Shirley Temple doll in the box who sat on Grandma’s shelf for sixty years: I have her. She’s standing in her box in my room, out of direct sunlight, where she can see everything. I talk to her. We’re going to be good friends. And I’ll take care of her for you.
Merry Christmas, readers.