The Marvelous Toy

Now nearly 100 years old, the wooden baby doll crib has survived for another generation.

One of my mother’s finest qualities was her absolute lack of racial prejudice. Troubled as she was in many ways, Betty had not a racially biased bone in her body. She always attributed her attitude—so unusual for a person born in Indiana in 1930—to having been, while a very young teen, the babysitter for a Black infant. The neighborhood in which Mom grew up was racially diverse, and the baby’s mother was forced to go out to work as a house cleaner for wealthier families. She paid my then-teenage Mom a very welcome pittance to watch her infant. My mother always explained that the experience of caring for that Black child made her realize that skin color was merely that—color—and that we are all, each of us, just members of the human family.

Mom had been born right at the start of the Great Depression; her family of nine children was poor. There was no money in their household for any luxury. When she was a very small child, though, the local fire department sponsored a Christmas used-toy drive for children in need. One of the gifts they collected was a wooden doll crib. Refurbished by the firefighters, the doll crib became my mother’s Christmas gift that year. She and her sisters each played with their few dolls in the crib.

In due time, when I was a tiny child myself, the wooden crib (given a fresh coat of gleaming white paint by my Fire Chief paternal grandfather; firefighters are handy people!) was passed along to me. In keeping with the beliefs that my mother wished to convey to me, two dolls lay snuggled in that crib in the corner of my bedroom: Lisa, my life-size baby doll, and Amosandra, my Black Amos ‘n Andy doll (whose unfortunate name was my Dad’s contribution—he thought it was just funny as hell. That was Dad for you.)

When I outgrew dolls, the little white crib was abandoned forlornly in the attic. But years later it came down once more, to be played with by my own daughter, who, yes, had a Black babydoll nestled there with her other dolls. As she later marched off to middle and high school and college, the crib went to rest in Mom and Dad’s attic once again.

Decades passed, and the circle of life turned. First Mom, and later Dad died, and my brother, cleaning out the attic of Dad’s home, discovered the doll crib.

Now nearly 100 years old, the crib had survived the harsh hot-and-cold environment of the attic quite well. The wood was not warped; the metal screws had not rusted. The crib had been greatly beloved and well-treated by multiple sets of childish hands; it was in excellent condition, although badly faded and yellowed. Even the little quilt that my mother had hand-pieced for the crib had survived.

And so I brought the doll crib home once more, to be given to my own little granddaughter. Her tiny bedroom was so stuffed with toys already that there was no room for the crib; but she was in my home every week for childcare—my living room looked like a Toys ‘r Us!–so I parked the doll crib unobtrusively in a corner, where Morrigan joyously discovered it. I had washed the quilt and sewed a pillow, and now her three baby dolls—two white and one brown, in keeping with family tradition—cuddled under one of her own discarded baby blankets.

But there was no denying that the crib’s paint was badly yellowed. What color, I asked her, would she like me to paint the crib?

It was a silly question. Morrigan played constantly with her African American Doc McStuffins doll, and with all the Doc’s pink accoutrements. There was no question but that the crib must be “pink like Doc McStuffins!”

docmcstuffinspink (2)

Pink it was. Two full cans of flaming hot pink spray paint later, the entire crib was, for the first time in its long history, no longer shining white, but gleaming, bright Doc McStuffins’ pink.

I found myself humming as I added coat after coat of paint to the crib—humming a song I had not heard in decades, the words rising to my mind as if I had just listened to the music yesterday: “When I was just a wee little lad/full of health and joy/my father homeward came one night/and gave to me a toy…” The Marvelous Toy, I now recalled the song was titled, the lyrics recounting the tale of a wondrous toy that was passed from one generation to the next.

My painting completed, I snuggled all three baby dolls back into the restored crib, smiling at the little white and brown faces nestled together.

Mom would be so pleased.

If you’d like to read the story of “Amosandra”, my wonderful Black baby doll, you can find it by scrolling to the Archives, below. It was published June 1, 2018.

My Blue Willow Tea Set

A few years ago, I gave a young relative a china tea set for Christmas. It was a darling thing, with holly-bespattered cups and plates, and even tiny cloth napkins.  And when I saw her later on New Year’s Eve, I told her this story.

As I grew up, I gave away all my childhood toys. They were nice toys and dolls,  well-maintained; in our family, we were expected to take good care of our playthings.  I was never allowed to drag dolls about, unclothed, with rooted hair pulled out, or to leave my toys out in our backyard, exposed to weather and wind.  Toys were picked up every evening and put in their proper places in my room.

I had some lovely dolls—Amosandra, of whom I’ve spoken in a previous blog post, and Lisa, my realistic baby doll. I had an heirloom doll crib that had been my own mother’s toy, and a gorgeous ballerina doll.  Being raised Roman Catholic, I even had a nun doll in full habit, with a rosary dangling from her fingertips.

But of all my toys, one of my favorites was my Blue Willow tea set. A dark wooden hutch held tiny china cups, plates and saucers, tea pot and sugar bowl and creamer, all in the well-known Blue Willow pattern.  The little plates and saucers stood balanced in rims along the shelves, while the cups depended from tiny hooks; there was a little drawer at the bottom of the hutch, and there I stored the tea bags my mother allowed me to have.

I played with that tea set constantly. I brewed tea using hot water from the kitchen faucet and drank it laden with sugar stirred into the cups.  I snuck a can of chicken rice soup from the pantry and took it down to our basement play area and served it to myself, cold, in the little cups, using a baby spoon that I liberated from the silverware drawer. I placed unwrapped Hershey’s kisses on the plates as canapes.  My playmates being older, they were uninterested in tea parties, but I gathered my dolls about me and played hostess to them.  Only once did I ever break a plate in the set, and my father carefully glued the two split halves together again, warning me to always be careful with it.  That plate sat always to one side on the hutch, unused.

And then I grew up.

My tea set sat, untouched, in the corner of my room as I moved from ballerina and baby dolls to Barbies, and then away from dolls entirely, to teen magazines and Monkee records and teen-heartthrob posters and lip gloss and all the paraphernalia of adolescence. Finally, embarrassed to have such childish things in my room, where they might be seen by my friends and mocked, I gathered together all my remaining dolls and toys and distributed them to the little girls in my neighborhood, or handed them over to be taken by my father and stored in the attic.

And one day after school, I gave my Blue Willow tea set to the little girl who lived in the house behind ours.

This, then, is the story I told my little relative on that New Year’s Eve a few years ago. Mimicking the look and voice of a young teen,  I told her how I became “too big for a silly tea set!”  I described how I gave away my beautiful Blue Willow china, to be played with by another little girl.  And then, feeling the tears gathering behind my eyes, I offered her the advice–words to which she probably did not listen at all, but which I felt it necessary to say:  “So, when the day comes that you are ‘too big’ for your holly tea set, don’t give it away!  Keep it.  Put it away someplace safe.  Because now I am an old woman, and I would give anything, anything at all, to have my Blue Willow tea set once more.”

I have seen Blue Willow tea sets many times since on sales sites like e-Bay and Etsy, but never the full set in the dark wooden hutch, and always at prices far beyond my reach. Sometimes I wish that I could find one just like my own lost set.  It would never be quite the same, of course; it would not be the set I played with; it would not have one carefully-glued, broken plate.  But perhaps,  just perhaps, I could touch those tiny cups and plates and saucers, gracefully lift and pretend to pour from the tiny teapot, and thereby recapture just a little bit of the woman-child who I once was, playing hostess with watery, sugary tea and soup; serving up dreams  of a future filled with grace and elegance and charm.