WINNIE THE POOH AND BETTY LOU
I began the week by repairing a rag doll. The cloth was so old and rotted I couldn’t stitch the tear. I had to find a square of cloth to prevent the stuffing from falling out. The doll had been given to me when I was five. I remember the occasion because I was in tears at the time. The day was Monday, laundry day, which meant I was tied to a wash line. My only freedom was to traverse the distance between the two poles.
In those days, that’s how my mother kept me safe while she did the laundry by hand, bent over a cement tube and rubbing her knuckles raw on a washboard. Washing machines existed for the wealthy, not for a father who worked as a mechanic.
I hated Mondays and that clothes line. I’d run the length of the overhead wire a hundred times until I’d worn wore a rut in the ground; then I’d throw myself in the dirt and roll and kick and scream until I looked like a tearful lump of clay. My mother took my behavior in stride. She wanted me where she could see me (I confess I had a wanderer’s lust). Tying me to the line made her feel secure.
The rented house where we lived was on a flag lot. Behind the clothes line was a second house occupied by a woman who looked like Mrs. Sees of the famous candy company. She must have grown tired of my Monday tantrums because one morning she came out of her house carrying a rag doll. She bent down and gave it to me, saying she’d made it and hoped I’d give it a good home. Surprised, I stopped crying and reached for that patchwork figure splendid in its red bonnet with hair made from brown embroidery threads. Lucky it wasn’t a puppy. I hugged it so hard I almost squeezed the stuffing out of it. I named it Betty Lou and for a year or two, she was my constant companion.
In time, I forgot about her, but my mother didn’t. She packed and unpacked Betty Lou whenever she moved. Maybe she held that doll in affection because of the peace it had brought. Or maybe she was being a sentimental parent. I don’t know. But when I turned forty, she gave Betty Lou back to me in pretty fair condition for a doll that had seen a lot of traveling. I admit a lump formed in my throat to see her again after all those years.
Another thirty years have passed and Betty Lou is still with me. She sits on my bed during the day. I’ve taken a needle to her many times, but she never complains. She wears the same smile she wore when I first took her into my arms 68 years ago.
It’s hard to know what objects will be important to us as we grow old. For me, a rag doll is one. My mother saved my Teddy Bear too. Now days, he keeps Betty Lou company.
Dolls have played a large role in my life. I’ve published stories about them over the years. One can be found in Heart Land: “Angel McBride and the Sonja Henie Doll.” In part, it’s a true story, about a doll I fell in love with at Newberry’s drugstore. I may have been 9 or 10 at the time. Anyway, it was love at first sight. I used my weekly allowance of 25-cents to buy her on layaway. A lifetime seemed to pass before she was mine, but the day finally arrived. I walked home, clutching that long box to my chest, and crying. People who passed me on the street must have thought a family member had died. How could they guess I was so happy?
Toys are a part of our personal history. When we are young, we tell them our secrets, imbuing them with our joys and our fears. Reclaiming them as adults, those memories come flooding back. For a moment, we are children again. I like to think Winnie the Pooh sat on A. A. Milne’s bed as the author grew old.
(First published 8/4/2010)