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.
"Among the things that have long fascinated people about Jesus and explain his enduring appeal is his method of dialogue and teaching. "He asked a lot of questions and told a lot of stories in the form of parables. In fact, parables form about a third of Jesus’ recorded teachings. The Gospels were written decades after he died, so his questions and parables clearly left a deep impression on those who bore testimony to him....
"Some of Jesus’ questions were rhetorical; others were meant to challenge or even provoke. In some cases, Jesus used questions to parry attacks by religious authorities who set traps for him. In others, he used questions to enter more fully into the lives of others and to help people look at the state of their hearts. He asked people about their fears and their faith. Jesus used questions to free a woman caught in adultery from condemnation and to inquire whether people considered him to be the Messiah. He probed deeply into questions not many had asked before him, like “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
---(Peter Wehner, long-time White House consultant and writer, in the NYT last week about Jesus Christ’s method of teaching by asking questions.)
"Would that I could mention all the illuminating details in this biography, for example, why Wells praised Black Americans so highly, saying, 'I took a mighty liking to these gentle, human, dark-skinned people,' and 'Whatever America has to show in heroic living today, I doubt if she can show anything finer than the quality of the resolve, the steadfast efforts hundreds of black and colored men are making today to live blamelessly, honorably and patiently, getting by themselves what scraps of refinement, beauty and learning they may, keeping their hold on a civilization they are grudged and denied.''
-- "How H.G. Wells Predicted the 20th Century," Charles Johnson, NYT Book Review, Nov. 19, 2021. ***".
...the monsters arrive."
"They come in a deafening, surging swarm, blasting from lawn to lawn and filling the air with the stench of gasoline and death. I would call them mechanical locusts, descending upon every patch of gold in the neighborhood the way the grasshoppers of old would arrive, in numbers so great they darkened the sky, to lay bare a cornfield in minutes. But that comparison is unfair to locusts.
"Grasshoppers belong here. Gasoline-powered leaf blowers are invaders, the most maddening of all the maddening, environment-destroying tools of the American lawn-care industry."
---The great Margaret Renkl, from Nashville, one of my favorite NYT bylines, Oct. 26, 2021.
(She describes our Long Island enclave to every decibel, every stink.)