“I want to show you my newest dolls I’ve made, Patti Duke,” said Grandma as she took my hand and led me into Grandpa’s woodshop.
The smell of bass wood and pine greeted us as we opened the door. Wood shavings covered the floor and I could almost feel the wood particles entering my lungs as I breathed. A stack of about a dozen rough cut wooden heads and torsos sat in a wicker basket near Grandpa’s table saw. Grandma had sketched the basic shape of the dolls on 3 x 3 bass blocks, then Grandpa made the initial cuts in the wood. Grandma used a small knife to whittle their features, spending several days on just one doll. A small tub filled with whittled hands and feet sat on a shelf in the wood shop. Each joint, crease and fingernail had been painstakingly detailed on every hand. Some feet were bare, but most wore boots showing each eyelet, string and buckle.
“These will be my girl dolls,” she said as she picked up a form with more defined curves. “And those over there will be boys,” she said pointing to a stack on the shelf.
“How come your dolls are always old people?” I asked. All of her dolls wore white cotton hair and showed signs of aging on their faces, with deep wrinkles accentuating their foreheads and mouths.
“Well, that’s a very good question,” she said. “I’ve carved younger dolls before, but it’s hard to get their faces completely smooth, so I just use that to my advantage and make old people instead,” she explained. “Now let’s go on out to my dollhouse so I can show you my new ones.”
The dollhouse was shaped like a wishing well, with stacks of limestone rock forming its foundation. Two-by-four posts, painted red, served as frames for the windows encircling the treasures inside. The oversized roof was large enough to protect onlookers peering through the windows. Hanging on top was a big swinging sign that read, “Mary’s Pioneer Dolls.” The shop had been strategically built atop a ledge on the cliff in the perfect spot for cars to see from the road below. The house was about five feet in diameter, just big enough for two or three people to shop at a time. It was lined with shelves, all the way around which displayed scenes from Grandma’s retirement community. Some dolls were playing checkers, complete with tiny black and red game pieces cut from quarter-inch dowel rods. Spittoons and a scruffy dog sat at their feet. Others were fishing from wooden boats, quilting, playing banjos, sitting in an outhouse – pretty much any hillbilly activity you could imagine. One female doll held a rolling pin above her head, chasing her husband who carried a whisky bottle in his hand and wore lipstick on his cheek. Grandma chuckled as she described each scene to me.
“Can I have one, Grandma?” I asked.
“You will get your very own dolls the day you graduate from high school,” she said. You must get your studies done and when you do, you’ll get your dolls.”
“But that’s ten years from now,” I complained.
“It’ll be here before you know it,” she said as she patted my head. “I tell you what, I’ll give you one of these peanut dolls if you promise to work hard in school,” she compromised.
“I will Grandma,” I said and smiled.
“Good, now which one do you want?” she asked.
“I looked closely at all the peanut dolls lined across the shelf. Most were young girls with long yarn braids and ankle-length spring dresses. Their arms and legs were made of pipe cleaners and small oval pieces of black felt served as shoes.
“I think I’ll take this one,” I said as I picked up a girl with orange hair and a mint green dress with tiny white polka dots. I studied her closer and saw that Grandma had stitched tiny lace on the collar and arms of her dress and she even wore a white slip and cotton pantaloons under her green dress.
“Thank you Grandma. She’s perfect. She can be Checkers’ and Callie’s owner,” I said.
“You know…I could teach you to whittle your very own dolls one day,” she suggested. “I know you could do it.”
“Okay,” I said as I searched for something to quickly change the subject. I didn’t want to tell her, but I just had little interest in sitting barefooted in a rocking chair on the porch, whittling old people from wood. Besides, I would probably cut myself.
“Did I tell you about the wart I had on my foot this summer?” I asked. “We had to get some medicine and Mom cut it off with a razor blade. She cut on it for three weeks and when we finally got to the middle of it, a million seeds scattered all over the floor. It was gross.”
Grandma raised her eyebrow, getting the picture that I would rather talk about my wart than my future as a doll maker. I smiled and said, “It’s gone now.”
“Let’s go show your momma your new doll,” she said.
We stepped out of the dollhouse and Grandma locked it behind us.