Thursday, April 28, 2011


My Grandma Cecilia has fascinated me all my life; depending on who you ask, she died just days before or days after my birth. I prefer my mom's version, of course, which insists that her mother held on long enough to make sure I, her 49th grandchild, was okay. Growing up, I slept under a quilt Granmda had made. I even lived in her house, with Grandpa, during the last years of his life (he was amazing, and so much fun--my memories are really vivid, despite the fact that I was about four when he died, but that's a story for another day). I played with Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls the Grandma made. I learned to sew on a foot-powered sewing machine that she had once used. (For any relatives reading this, it was not The Sewing Machine that plugged into a wall and seems to have taken on an almost religious significance. I don't remember who has The Sewing Machine, but I'm sure it's someone who would not allow a ten-year-old to take it apart to see how it worked/why it did not work consistently.) Eventually, I knitted with wooden needles she had owned. I wrote poetry about her in college, after learning that she read insatiably, even textbooks, despite having ended her formal education somewhere near the eight grade, although I can't remember exactly when she is supposed to have left school to do chores for a stepmother who was, by all accounts, actually mean enough to qualify as a "wicked stepmother," and looks the part in ancient photographs. I doubt that Cecelia would ever have said anything like that herself, but it's pretty easy to glean from the stories her relatives told during my Aunts' family history project (again--another story).

I'm writing about my grandmother for three reasons--1) I recently told my four-year-old niece about her, 2) Peggy Orenstein wrote a blog post that made me think so intensely that my "response" turned into this and 3) I will interview my mom at New York City's Story Corps booth on Mother's Day, and she's gathering information about her mother so that she'll be able to answer my questions.

1) My niece is only four, and the idea that Mommy and Tia had a nana, too, which means that her Nana Rose had a MOMMY is totally mind-blowing. I started telling her about it, though, because I took her to a fabric store with me for the first time to pick out a pattern and fabric for a new dress (I've been sewing dresses for her since she turned 2, and I knit her a sweater when she was born). I then had to explain how one goes about making a dress, unfolding the pattern and showing her the shapes of all the pieces. She deserved a good answer to the question "Tia, can you make my dress today?" Since we were talking about sewing, I decided to ask her:
"Mira, can I teach you to sew one day?"
"Sure." (Not really listening.)
"It's really important to me, because Nana Rose taught me how to sew, and her mommy taught her how to sew." (Now I had her attention.)
"Nana Rose's MOMMY?"
"Yep. My nana. Her name was Cecilia. I don't really remember her, but your mommy does."
"Where is she?"
"She died, sweetheart."
"She was old and she got sick."
"That is just something that happens when people get old."
"Okay. Why?"
"I don't really know."
"Okay." (Pause.) "Tia? Did Nana Rose have one mommy?"
(Confused.) "Yes... everyone has a mommy."
"Well, my friends Eleanor and Katie have two mommies and no daddies."
(Ah.) "Oh, I get it. Nana Rose had one mommy and one daddy."
And we moved on to an art project that could, in fact be completed TODAY and not in a future that hardly exists for a four-year-old.

2) Peggy Orenstein is a journalist and mother whose recent book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, examines childhood, especially girlhood, as it exists now. That's a terrible summary of a really gorgeous book, so you should just go read it. Her blog continues many of the conversations her book begins, including several threads about toys, specifically, dolls. Her most recent post inspired a wave of wonderful nostalgia for me, and my response grew to ridiculous lengths for a comment, and is now here:

My sister (Holli with an "i") loved Holly Hobby and Raggedy Ann, and her kids will grow up with the original images of both: Holly Hobby and her male friend/brother? What's his name? They are, respectively, on a mug I found, vintage, made in the year Holli was born, affordable because it had once been cracked on the handle and repaired (I've never even been able to find the repair). Mirabai eats snacks out of it regularly (it's plastic, not ceramic, and therefore not too heavy).

But Raggedy Ann is our family's Queen of Nostalgia. My grandmother made dozens and dozens of Raggedy Ann (and Andy) dolls by hand (fewer Andys survive--I think fewer were made). Red yarn for hair, inexpensive blue fabric dresses, red and white striped legs and big lovely black cloth vaguely boot-shaped feet. These days, they're harder to find, especially for us younger cousins, most of them having been played with until they fell apart. Cecilia would eventually have 52 grandchildren, although I was the last one she knew about (there are 3 after me), and it seems like she made a set of dolls for just about everyone. We can date the dolls by their faces: earlier dolls have perfectly embroidered features, while later editions have faces painted on with fabric markers, evidence of aging hands. My sister lost hers during a lifetime of moving around (she attended either five or six elementary schools, back when Dad was a musician), and then, almost like a miracle, Raggedy Ann came back to her. Holli's teenage friend Nancy had been our grandparents' neighbor all her life and had received a precious Raggedy Ann from our grandmother. Her own mother obsessively kept everything in their house perfectly preserved, even the toys, which I distinctly remember not being allowed to touch when Nancy and Holli were in high school and I in preschool, tagging along over to Nancy's house whenever Holli was forced to babysit me. Over fifteen years later, word reached Nancy that my sister had had a daughter. The news traveled all the way from Australia, where Holli was living at the time, to Minnesota, where Nancy still lives, and this excellent friend lovingly packed up her perfectly preserved Raggedy Ann, and oh so generously sent it to my sister, despite having had daughters of her own. Raggedy Ann now sits on top of a bookshelf in Mirabai's room, and my niece can tell anyone who asks that she is very old so we can't get risk getting her dirty. She may or may not remember that Mommy's Nana made the doll, given that the concepts of Mommy having a Nana and her own nana having a mommy seem absolutely absurd and impossible. I made a connection just now, though, between something I learned yesterday and that doll who watches over our baby girl: my aunt said in an email "Mom [my Grandma Cecilia] wanted as many children as she could have" and something along the lines of "because she thought motherhood was her vocation." I also learned that my grandmother felt guilty if she wasn't doing something with her hands at all times. I firmly believe that she poured all of her love for each one of those children (15) and grandchildren (52, now), and great-grandchildren (we gave up counting) into the things she made, especially those dolls.

3) After I interview my Mom, I'll write another post about what I learned. I can't wait to record so much of our family's rich oral history. And now, I will make sure to ask about the toys Grandma made. Were there others, besides Raggedy Ann and Andy? Does anyone know how many she did make? And, finally, how on earth did she find the time?!