Tante Nan made ragdolls by hand. She lived on a family farm in the country, near sugar cane fields. She once had been busy outdoors, a self-sufficient wife and mother with eggs to gather, animals to slaughter, and crops to tend. My great-great aunt was elderly when she sat down with fabric and thread to create the toys.
My young parents visited her now and then. One day, my mother chose two dolls for me.
Smitten with whimsy, she selected Raggedy Ann and Petunia. Mom could have bought the former in a toy store or from a catalog. Hers was a familiar face. Petunia’s was not. She was one of a kind.
I liked Raggedy Ann, but she didn’t have my Baby Beans’ allure—sweet plastic face, soft cloth body, and string-activated voice—or Petunia’s uniqueness.
I don’t know why I loved Petunia. Another child might have been uninterested in her difference—her brown body and fuzzy yarn hair. I liked that she was special in that way. Petunia seemed calm and centered. She wasn’t meant for antics. That could have been my imagination. Possibly, Tante Nan imbued a little more life into the doll, a subtle magic between creator and creation, which attracted my mother, then me.
Poor Petunia was left outside in a rainstorm and suffered from a terrible case of mildew. She did not survive. She endures through memory, proof of her existence in a photograph.
* * * * *
My maternal grandmother could make anything out of fabric. Anything. She made clothes, costumes, curtains, slipcovers, and quilts. She had the right-brained creativity and left-brained precision to turn textiles into objects of comfort and art.
When I was eight, she taught me to sew. I inherited her manual dexterity and knack for spatial relations. Since then, I’ve made clothes, curtains, pillows, and slipcovers as well as hemmed countless cuffs and sleeves.
My favorite projects have always been toys. My first attempts were clumsy and comical. There were many ragged edges, crooked hems, and seam lines drawn in indelible ink. I’d work from patterns in books and magazines, sometimes using a technique but not following instructions.
François came to be in that way. I attempted him in soft sculpture. This method involves making stitches under and around tufts of stuffing to create facial features or make a raised design. Although I was only nine or ten when I made him, I was well aware of cultural stereotypes. François was a French chef, complete with an aloof expression, thin mustache, and red-checkered apron and neckerchief. The clean, used sock that served as his skin gave him an ashen complexion. I can’t account for why my proclivity for detail prompted me to give him round little toes but no shoes.
Not long after Petunia’s demise, I rarely played with dolls but I liked to look at them. My preference went toward stuffed animals. By the time I was 12, I could make dolls or animals with some degree of mastery.
That was also the age when I began to babysit. Suddenly, there were small children for whom I could sew. The children clutched their handmade surprises with spontaneous, smiling embraces.
Love at first sight.
* * * * *
In The Velveteen Rabbit, a child’s love made the toys real. In the material world, this love can be brutal and destructive, affectionately both.
I made a rabbit for Kathy* when she was an infant, a welcome gift. I’d babysat for her older sister for two years, but I would not get to see either of them grow up in person. I went to college, the family moved to the Midwest, and we kept in touch every Christmas.
When Kathy was eight, her mother wrote a note in the annual card that the rabbit was still cherished but in dire condition. Unsure whether a surprise replacement, or supplement, would be accepted, I found the old pattern and a large remnant of the original fabric. New Bunny was completed, then mailed to Kathy.
Days later, I received a letter with photographs. Kathy’s mother wrote on the back of a picture of the two rabbits:
“Old Bunny has been patched on patches. The blue velour covers Bunny’s naked tummy and back. The cape is to keep Bunny’s head on. Two holes were cut for the ears and we tied the cape with a blue ribbon. The only place you could tell where the blue rosebud print was—the lining of the ear. (Which were barely connected!)”
I laughed. It had been loved to shreds. The only thing left intact was its soul. I was touched that something I’d made had been so special to a child.
* * * * *
When we were friends and not yet a couple, I made a giant ant—to scale—for Todd. The inspiration came from a Monty Python skit we’d seen. The ant has traveled through our lives together and resides now on a high shelf in the hall.
Todd likes his giant ant. Loves it. So charmed has he been by toys I’ve made for others that I’ve had to make more for him—several bears and birds. A childhood filled with Tonka trucks and action figures didn’t condition him to value only the plastic things.
It could have, I suspect.
We’re susceptible to temptation. Desire, and its fickleness, is part of human nature. We want, want, want. Anyone who grew up with magazines, catalogs, and especially television knows this all too well. Advertising makes attractive promises. There is implied value in having what everyone else has. A sense of belonging, status, identity. Subtle as it is, children learn this young.
Mysterious forces compelled millions of children to ask for hula hoops, Davy Crockett hats, Barbie dolls, and G.I. Joes. Their parents complied. A generation later, those children grew into adults transmogrified into herds in pursuit of Cabbage Patch dolls, Tickle Me Elmos, and the latest game stations.
Children aren’t buying and creating the demand themselves. I wonder how their true needs and wishes balance in relation to the creativity, greed, or opportunism of adults.
I question the meaning as much as the merit. Hour after hour, thousands of toys are manufactured and shipped all over the world. These toys are often cheap to make, in material and labor, plastic and people worth pennies a day. So many end up tossed aside within minutes—the pacification, novelty, or amusement exhausted. So many get lost, forgotten, thrown away.
This cycle is, by design, impersonal. There is no direct link between the people who produce the toys and the children who get them. Some magic is lost. As much as I loved my Baby Beans, and other children love their mass-produced toys, something ineffable was missing.
What Tante Nan created and what I learned from my grandmother taught me about deeper connections. There is interplay, potentially sacred, between object and maker, but especially between the giver and the receiver.
* * * * *
Three years ago, I felt a distinct shift in myself when six friends announced they were soon welcoming babies into their families. I wanted to be part of the celebration but in a more profound way. It was convenient to select a gift from a registry, and I still did that, in part. However, I decided to sew again, which I hadn’t done in years.
I returned to a tradition older than assembly lines and garment factories. I sewed soft organic cotton knit onesies and gowns and made infant-friendly stuffed animals. As I worked, I thought about each child-to-be and the love waiting for him or her. There was an intimacy to the work, an awareness that a child would sleep and play with what I made.
I took this seriously.
When my friend Alison awaited her Ethiopian daughter’s adoption, I pondered what to make for my new niece, who wasn’t by blood or law my niece. I decided on a mobile that could be dismantled and played with when Ella was older.
To honor the ancestral and cultural heritage of both mother and daughter, as well as Alison’s interests in international peace efforts, I sought out the translation of three simple words. I sewed, stuffed, and embroidered five birds. They floated on their lines, declaring in English, French, Arabic, Hebrew, and Amharic my wish for Ella: love, joy, and peace.
The hours I spent on the birds were a meditation of hope for her new life.
Months later, an aunt asked me to make a present for her godson. She was touched by a little stuffed toy I made for her the previous Christmas and wanted something unique for him. She told me he was pre-school age, being adopted from Central America, and spoke no English yet. She learned that he liked trucks and bright colors. She wanted symbols and colors related to his native country a part of the toy. I was left to design and make it.
The final product was a bright boxy soft delivery truck with Guatemala’s national bird on the sides, various symbols on the hubcaps, and a pocket on the back. I asked Todd to draw a little man to slip in the pocket, assuming a small boy might find that amusing, a place to put an action figure.
The child adored the truck. My aunt said he exclaimed “Senor, Mama, senor!” when he discovered the paper man. He pushed the truck and its two-dimensional passenger along the floor for hours.
I will never meet the child who received this toy, but my meditation for him was as heartfelt as the one I did for Ella.
* * * * *
Since I dusted off and oiled my sewing machine, I’ve made several baby outfits and many toys for children and adults. What I do is a novelty in this day and age, not a necessity. There’s a great deal of meaning in the effort for me and in the unexpected gifts that come.
When it came time for Ella to learn how to button, zip, and tie, an option was to buy her a Dressy Bessy doll. However, they are manufactured with a pinkish skin color only, even in the 21st century, and that wouldn’t do at all. I offered to make something like it.
I followed an old tradition of reusing discarded items and natural materials. The dress was fashioned out of vintage curtains, the body from a linen blend skirt, and the stuffing from sheep’s wool. Real baby shoes from the 1950s covered her feet.
Alison said Ella loved the doll immediately. When asked what she should name it, Ella invoked what she calls me. My nickname is Tantie, which at its root is the French word for aunt. Thus the doll was christened Tantie Baby and now ranks among her favorites, handmade and Made in China.
But before I shipped the doll 1,000 miles to Ella, Todd insisted that I photograph her. I was tired the night I stitched the last details and said I’d do it the next day. He went to get the camera, sat me on the sofa, and told me to smile.
What appeared in the image was a role-reversed time warp. I was the aunt holding the doll which would go to a waiting child. In this embrace was the nature of legacy and love, soft and priceless.