I never knew the doll existed until my cousin Caryle came to a family get-together recently. I took the occasion to ask about our mutual grandmother, Irish-born, whom we all called Nana.
“I can’t remember her voice,” I told Caryle. “I can’t remember anything she said.” This is bothering me more, the older I get.
I should have more memories, since my large family lived in Nana’s house in Queens, but she kept to herself, and bustled around to visit her old Irish lady friends in the city or Lake George, Sometimes she visited her sister in Brussels, where that family had been decimated for sheltering Scottish soldiers during World War Two.
Caryle said she had only vague memories of Nana, since her own family moved around for work, and she rarely saw Nana.
“But she gave me a present once,” Caryle added, brightening.
Tell me about it, I said.
After one of my grandmother’s post-war trips to visit her sister, Nana gave Caryle a doll that had belonged to our aunt, Florence Duchene, who died in Bergen-Belsen.
Send me a photo when you get home, I asked Caryle. She did better, adding her lovely memories of the gift:
“My parents and I went to see her off on the ship, when she was going to visit her sister in Brussels,” Caryle wrote. “She said she would have liked me to come with her. Which was not possible, but meant a lot to me.
“When she came back from Brussels, she brought things back with her, one of them a doll that her niece Florrie made. I have always loved dolls, I don't know if she knew that, but she gave me the doll. I still have her, she is tattered, shows her age. But she is very special to me.
“I am putting her picture on this little story. See her as I have always seen her, through my eyes with love.”
The doll in the photo is porcelain, a beautiful woman. Florrie, who ran a millinery shop in the good days before the war, made the frilly dress.
I was stunned to see a treasure from an aunt Caryle and I never met, an aunt who has taken on epic importance to me, along with her brother Leopold, who died soon after being rescued from a Nazi prison.
Leopold lived long enough to receive a king’s medal for his heroism; Florrie’s name is engraved on a monument to the Belgian Resistance, in the Ixelles area of Brussels. (I wrote about Florrie and Rue Sans Souci in March, when contemporary terrorists brutalized Brussels.)
As a young woman before the war, Florrie had fussed over the doll, created her wardrobe, perhaps smoothed her blonde hair, told her secrets, her hopes and dreams.
Florrie and Leopold did not live long enough to marry, to have children. Nana has been gone over 60 years, and I cannot remember if her accent reflected her native Ireland, or her husband’s native Australia, or England where they lived, or New York, where they settled.
There is so much I don’t know because I was too self-centered to ask, to listen.
I do remember an old lady -- formidable, capable -- with white hair and black widow’s dresses, who took me to church and the luncheonette and sometimes to the movies and we would walk home together in the wintry darkness. That’s all I remember.
Now I know the doll lives in Caryle’s home. Her children know the history, Caryle said.
“They may hate the cultural context they now find themselves teaching in, but they love their work. The Achilles’ heel of schoolteachers, one all too easily exploited by politicians, is that they love their students.”
(One of the best reads in the NYT these days is Margaret Renkl, in Nashville. In her latest post, Renkl describes the dedicated core of “born teachers” – the majority, she submits.)
(From Madeleine Albright in one of her final interviews in February):
“Putin is small and pale,” I wrote, “so cold as to be almost reptilian.” He claimed to understand why the Berlin Wall had to fall but had not expected the whole Soviet Union to collapse. “Putin is embarrassed by what happened to his country and determined to restore its greatness.” – Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, recalling her first meeting with the relatively unknown Vladimir Putin in 2000. – The New York Times, Feb. 23, 2022.