In late winter, I sift through cupboards and closets for items to give away, and tackle indoor projects I can finish before the garden calls (and doesn’t end the call till September). This past month, I completed a project I’d put off, both because of its immensity and because of the hours of exercise and rest I was forced to give my healing knee. I know, too, that I’d delayed facing this task because of the emotional journey it would invite, the memories I’d encounter, and the long hours of reflection such experiences deserve. These weren’t sad or painful memories, but when we travel to the past we never who will be there waiting …the older I get, the more the winnowing projects that entangle my emotions become a gathering of ghosts, and our time together is bittersweet. I miss the lived presence of these people in my life. It’s easier at times, to avoid the journey.
I don’t mean that going through my clothes or household items is challenging or drama-laden, but when it comes to sorting through family bits and pieces–in this case, boxes of my childhood dolls and the finely-crafted clothing my Grandma Hannah made for them (and a few dresses she made for me)–the winnowing accrues layers and layers of meaning. Considering beginning such jobs is sometimes too much of a muchness. So I postpone and focus on simple chores that I can cross off the endless list.
But my younger brother has a new granddaughter, and girls are rare in our family. I knew it was time to pass on these lovely pieces of our family heritage, to gather them, clean and press and mend them, and to likewise gather photos and write their stories down for my sweet grand-niece to one day (I hope) know and cherish.
I was able to locate photos of dresses Grandma Hannah had made for my mother and her sister: the wedding dress they shared, the maid and matron-of-honor dresses they wore for each other’s weddings and in the wedding party of their elder brother…and then I took photos showing how all those fabrics had been used in later years to create these beautiful doll dresses, too.
When I was about 8, I also received a handmade quilt from Grandma, who used the pattern called Sunbonnet Girl, and it features so many other fabrics I recall seeing in Grandma’s creations over the years that studying it is like walking through a hall of memories. My mother wisely stored the quilt till I was grown, and now it decorates our guest bed. I sent its story on to baby Abigail Joyce and her parents, too, but–for now–I’m keeping the quilt with me. Just for now.
And my original Raggedy Ann is also staying with me. Grandma and sweet Pa Louie gave her to me when I was a newborn, and that was the day Hannah suggested my parents call me Kitty. My mother had to give Raggedy so many new faces and yarn-hair makeovers over the years that there’s not too much left of the original doll, but the “I Love You” stamped over her heart. My favorite dress for Raggedy Ann was too faded and worn to send on to Abigail, but I patched the tears, and dressed Raggedy in it once again (with the original matching pantaloons), and my first darling will stay with me. No more facelifts; she’s perfect just as she is. We’ll both be 67 in a couple of months, so I think we’ll accept our faces for what they are and be glad that our hearts still share mutual love for each other. We share one story; how could we ever part?
So, off went the boxes of carefully wrapped dolls and dresses, and my handmade clothes with all their stories. I felt like I was dropping my childhood off at the Post Office. But I also felt relieved that the job was completed and that Grandma’s Hannah’s artistry and story are safely in the hands of those who I know will cherish and protect them.
What I did not expect to derive from this project was such a deep resonance of the love Hannah must have felt for me. Now that I’m older than my grandmother was when she created these works of art, I’m stunned to realize how amazingly beautiful and detailed they are. The stitching, embroidery, trim, puffed sleeves, smocking, crocheted lace for edging hems and pantaloons, tiny buttons and snaps…it really left me in awe of the time and care she put into these. And then I found photos of the dresses she made for me, too. My goodness, they were beautiful; the photos don’t do them justice.
This looking back with new eyes is a gift of aging. Of course, I objectively knew I was loved by my grandparents and I appreciated their gifts, but what a revelation to witness the talent and expertise Hannah evidenced in making all of these doll clothes, to imagine her delight at my own joy in receiving them, and to recall the years I played with them developing my own creativity and imagination. This longer view gave me such deep pleasure and summoned a far greater gratitude than I likely offered her as a child. What does a child know of hours sacrificed in love? How can a child perceive the value of handmade treasures?
I felt my grandmother’s love so profoundly during the days I worked to restore her handiwork and get all of my childhood dolls ready to share. I felt her presence with every piece I mended and pressed. And, in preparing these gifts for Hannah’s great-great-granddaughter, I felt the ties that bind me to my mother, my grandmother, and further back, through all the creative, loving women I follow in my time, and how my life leads to Abigail’s, and beyond. A procession of women trailing their gifts and love through time.
A chore that seemed daunting became a lesson about the things we come to know as we age and sift through memories in the company of ghosts. When we come to know again, and with greater understanding and wisdom, how deeply we’ve been loved by others, it reignites that love’s power and light for us, no matter how old we are. And then we know our one important task is to pass it on.
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