And the Hundred-Year-Old Doll
Updated: Feb 10
Marisa Guerin, PhD – February 9, 2021
I realized recently that I live my life surrounded by things that are really quite old. Sure, once in a while, in a fit of yearning for a simpler life, I complain that our house feels kind of like a museum. But the truth is that I like being able to see and touch history -- our personal histories. Both Mike and I have held on to many reminders of our families’ past. The old things we care for are alive with memories... a piano, a china cabinet, a doll.
One of these heirlooms is my Aunt Mary’s baby grand piano, which dates to the turn of the century – the PRIOR one, around 1900. When I was small, we would gather with my father’s clan for family parties at my grandmother’s house, where she lived with her step-daughters Mary and Lillian. Almost always, after the dinner dishes were cleared, my grandmother would sit down at that piano to accompany everyone in an evening of singing. That was a “thing” then, and I loved it.
My grandmother could apparently play almost any song by ear. I marveled that my aunts and uncles and father – but usually not my Spanish mother – knew the words and melodies of so many American songs of the 30’s and 40’s. If my father had his guitar handy, he’d play a few string band classics from his own childhood growing up on South Broad Street in Philly, and my aunts would jump up to dance the Two-Street Strut made famous by the New Year’s Day Mummers Parade. It was par-tay time!
Music was just always a part of family gatherings, and I found that was equally true when we could visit with my mother’s relatives. My singing voice is nothing to write home about, but I have learned my share of traditional Spanish songs and harmonies. Thanks to Saturday morning music lessons at Mrs. Ruedy’s house, I can coax a tune out of a piano, a guitar, and a recorder.
These days I don’t play that old piano too much anymore, but when I do, I bring out the sheet music for the classic old songs that my relatives loved to sing. I don’t know this for certain, but I’m pretty sure all the cultures of the old countries involved music and singing, even for those whose journey to America was heartbreaking.
Other special things live in the dining room china cabinet and in careful storage upstairs. Mike and I have taken care to preserve for the next generation of nieces and nephews some of the treasures that belonged to the elders that came before… The two carved crystal bowls, chipped from many years of happy use. My aunt Ruth’s Irish porcelain vases. A timeworn copy of Don Quixote, with its old-fashioned version of the Spanish language. The delicately-hued Eastern European wine glasses that were prized by my mother-in-law, Mary Weaver Sweeney. And Mary’s own little costume from when she was a toddler member of the family vaudeville troupe, the famous “Weaver Brothers and Elviry” of the Ozarks. (She used to joke that her first retirement was when she had to leave show business to enter first grade!)
In the weathered barrister bookcase in our living room sits another cherished keepsake, my mother’s doll from her childhood in Pamplona, Spain. She’s about a hundred years old, a charming stuffed-cloth dolly with a pretty painted face. On her head are honey-brown curls of real hair, clipped from my mother’s own childhood locks. The doll wears a little camel-colored winter wool coat, carefully hand-tailored for her by either my mother, Conchita, or perhaps her own mother, my abuela Mercedes.
I cannot for the life of me remember this little doll’s name. My mother had told me her name, of course, but whenever that was, I didn’t think was important enough to write down somewhere. I’m sad about that. I didn’t anticipate that I’d forget a lot of things as I aged. But who knows? Maybe it will surprise me someday, popping out of the memory-chamber where it is buried. (Sisters, brothers of mine – did Mom ever tell you her name? I’d love to know.)
With or without her name, this sweet doll with the big eyes connects me with the child my mother once was, before Civil War in Spain, before marriage to an American and before all the adventures involved in being a mother to eight. I like this little muñequita who has seen all those years, and I hope I remember her name someday.
The piano, the treasure cabinet, the doll – these are reminders of innocence, of dreams, of happy times, of warm and vibrant life as it was once lived by people we loved. The memories endure in the quiet presence of dear, old things. I am grateful for them and the time travel they make possible. I only wish I had been more attentive when I was younger.
But then, that’s how youth is – life stretches ahead like everything will always be possible.
And this is how age is – life is appreciated as a gift even when some things are no longer possible.
And you…what might you have nearby, that speaks to you of days gone by?