The first doll I remember being given was of a sturdy vinyl construction: a big baby doll with molded plastic hair rather than lifelike hair and eyes that opened and closed. It was about the size my baby sister had been when she was new, but I decided my new doll was a boy. When my mother sat down on the bed beside me that Christmas night and asked what I would name him, I said, “Hunt—because he will be a great hunter when he grows up.”
At this time I shared a bedroom with my older brother downstairs in our big farmhouse, so I know I wasn’t more than three or four years old. Soon my two youngest siblings would come along, displacing us. This was in the logging country of Lewis County, Washington—about 1959 or 1960. Our bedroom had a window that opened onto a long front porch of the house. Across the road, Elk Creek ran noisily over a small series of falls. There were train tracks on the other side of the creek for bringing logs out of the woods. Years later, as an older teenager wanting privacy, I would be allowed to move back into this bedroom. By that time, the porch and front windows had been sacrificed so a second bathroom could be added to the house. The train tracks had long been taken up. I could hear the creek when I opened the smaller window that faced the garden, but its song was no longer so loud.
“Hunt.” I’m not sure where this idea about a great hunter came from as I don’t remember hunting being of special importance to my dad. He did have guns, and when my brothers were older he took them deer hunting: a rite of passage quite different from a littler girl being given a doll.
When my two oldest nephews were perhaps seven and five, someone asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up. The seven-year-old said, “A deer hunter!” The five-year-old stood back, a finger in his mouth, and when asked again he said, “I’d like to be a deer.”
- Chatty Cathy
I had several dolls as a child, and I still have one of them. I named her Tracy after one of my baby cousins. I think I was given Tracy when I was twelve. When an older cousin made fun of me for playing with her, I put all my dolls away, so Tracy is in pristine condition.
I also remember a Chatty Cathy that my sister Kathy was to be given for Christmas when she was probably four years old. This was before our farmhouse was remodeled. There was a nook behind the kitchen stove where I liked to sit on the heater and read my books. In that nook I whispered to my big brother that I had seen the doll in Mom’s closet. Kathy cried because I wouldn’t tell her my secret. Our mother, not knowing what I had shared, said not to leave her out. So I told her. Kathy wailed. Then I was spanked. I was almost seven years old and I knew better, Mom said.
We were sometimes spanked with a wooden spoon, but Mom’s weapon of choice was an alder switch.
Our dad earned his living as a logger, but we lived on a farm of about 130 acres, predominantly of second-growth timber. It had belonged to my maternal grandparents before it was ours. They moved in with six children and their next nine children, including my mother, were born in that house. After Dad died, we sold the timberland, but my nephew and his wife and daughters now live in the farmhouse. The farm, as we persist in calling it, is a hilly place of creeks and streams and gullies, swamps and trees. The trees were alder, big-leaf maple, and evergreens—Douglas fir, grand fir, hemlock, pine, yew, and cedar—but when I was a child, the farm also had barns and cows and hayfields.
The hillside next to our house was occasionally cleared of the weedy red alder that grew there and shaded the house, but the alder always grew back. When one of us misbehaved, Mom would give us a knife and send us to the hill to cut our own alder switch. A thin switch stung most. I remember once cutting a thick one, hoping to avoid the sting, and Mom held it out and said, “You’ve brought me a club.” We both thought this was funny, and I think that day the switching went undone.
- My Mother’s Doll
My mother’s mother was a fervent Pentecostal and considered Christmas to be pagan. They never had a Christmas tree in the house and the children were not given presents. But one Christmas, Mom’s older sisters gave each of the youngest girls a doll. The following year they gave them handmade doll dresses. At some point Mom’s doll underwent a hideous accident. Her arms and legs were broken. Her forehead was cracked. The eyes were lost. My mother always said that she thought the doll had ended up in the cows’ hay. It looks more like the poor thing was run over by a truck.
Mom liked dolls even when she was grown up. When I was first married, I took her to visit a doll hospital near where I lived. Alas, they couldn’t fix Mom’s doll, but we found another that was a dead ringer for her former, undamaged self, and my sisters and I gave it to Mom for Christmas. The old doll—eyeless, lopsided, and dressed in a baby gown—continued to sit on Mom’s chest of drawers, a place of honor among perfume bottles and a rose pink talcum powder case. I never thought of the doll as scary even when I was young, but considered her an archaeological relic of a past age.
My mother’s youngest sister was the same age as a niece who lived with them when she was small. Whenever this niece was given a doll for Christmas, one was also given to Mom’s youngest sister. “Do you still have them?” I recently asked her. She shook her head. She remembers her brother Billy, two years younger, slamming a doll into a table and breaking its head. “That’s probably what happened to all of them,” she said matter-of-factly. I wonder if that was what happened to Mom’s doll.
I feel compelled to add that Billy grew up to be an indulgent and loving father, and he is now a doting grandfather. But as the spoiled darling—and scourge—of eleven older sisters, that’s no doubt something of a miracle.
Of my three daughters, only one was interested in dolls. Her twin sister went along with this infrequently, playing with dolls only if she couldn’t talk everyone into some other game. The youngest had no interest in dolls whatsoever. Before she was born, I bought her a cloth doll at a spendy boutique and packed it in the bag I took to the hospital along with an embroidered white gown. We are an adoptive family, and we weren’t 100 percent certain we would be bringing this baby home. That doll wasn’t for her, of course, but for me: a good luck token or a sort of voodoo to protect me from the power of whatever emotions this birth released. It strikes me that this is what all dolls are. If this doll was ever cuddled or played with or named, I don’t know about it. When my daughter recently left home, I found the doll thrown into a corner with a lot of things to be given to Goodwill. .
Before my youngest daughter was born, I wanted to name her Prudence. As it turns out, she is about the least prudent person I have ever known. The name she eventually landed with, Emma, means “life force.” Emma makes a lot more sense.
- Naming Them
Here is another family story, not about naming dolls, but about naming babies. My grandmother—who was a considerable and dominating force throughout my childhood—was a thoroughly unsentimental person and her babies often went unnamed. Her second daughter was called “Babe” for so long that even in adulthood there were people who persisted in calling her so. The sixth daughter was called “Little Babe.” When my oldest uncle was born (finally, a boy!), the family submitted five birth certificates to the state at once.
Little Babe at age five asked if she could have the names of her grandmothers, Minnie and Jane. Her mother said, “Go ask your dad.” She went out to the shop where he was tinkering at something, I imagine some logging implement or a hay rake, and he said, “Sure.” Minnie’s husband used to marvel at this: “You could have named yourself anything you wanted, and you chose Minnie Jane.”
Unlike her sainted mother, my mother loved Christmas and she loved to name things. She told me once that when she was a child she would go into the woods and name the trees. “And when the saplings came up from their roots, those were their babies.”
- The Carrot Dolls
I couldn’t remember what Mom’s doll had been named. One of my sisters thought it was “Sally,” but she wasn’t sure. She suggested I call our aunt Darlene, who was twenty months younger than Mom.
Darlene said, “Maybe Sally, but it doesn’t ring a bell, you know?” Darlene was sure that Mom would have named it. “Your mother loved dolls.” Darlene, on the other hand, didn’t care about them and didn’t keep the doll she was given that Christmas of 1936 or 1937. “I wish I’d kept her,” she told me.
Then, despite her not liking dolls, she said before they had the real dolls, they used to make their own. They would put sticks together and wrap them in cloth from their mother’s sewing chest. “We played with them for hours. Oh, to be a child again on Elk Creek. That was innocence.” She also remembered carrot dolls.
“Carrot dolls?” I asked.
“We may have had only one real doll, but we could have all the carrots we wanted,” she said. They scratched in faces on the carrots. The green stem was the hair. When a carrot doll shriveled up, they buried it and held a funeral. If my mother ever shared this story, I have no recollection of it. Even so, listening to my aunt, I could see them: three little girls and maybe a toddler stumbling nearby in his white gown. My mother and her sisters closest in age are sitting in the garden and one of them is cradling her carrot baby while the oldest of them makes a grave and lays her carrot baby inside. They all help to cover it up. They stand up and they brush off their hands and say, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. They sing “The Old Rugged Cross,” and the creek that lies across the road and through the trees sings along.
Bethany Reid has four books of poems, including Sparrow, which won the 2012 Gell Poetry Prize. Her most recent book is the Kindle short, You Are Very Upset (DLG, 2020), originally a creative non-fiction piece about reading, teaching, parenting, and laundry. Bethany lives in Edmonds, Washington, where she takes long walks, writes poems, and is hard at work on a mystery novel. Read more at her website, https://www.bethanyareid.com