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Dolls of the World

The revelation behind a houseful of aging belongings

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dolls, illustration by Kirsten Harper
Illustrations by Kirsten Harper

The move was scheduled for late June, but the calls started coming in April. My parents had retired. Their new home—three thousand miles away; a condo in a San Jose retirement community—was a fraction of the size of the house in which I’d mostly grown up. There would not be room for, say, a collection of evening gowns spanning the four decades of my parents’ marriage—from a New Look-style red satin to a sleek, dolman-sleeved shift, loaded with linebacker sized shoulder pads—or an elaborate set of Waterford goblets, five-piece service for twelve, which would not have looked out of place on Edith Wharton’s most formal table. In California, life would be casual. My mother would buy new clothes, new dishes, new furniture, all trimmed and modern. But before she did so, she needed to get rid of the old stuff, a lifetime’s worth of anniversary presents and birthday presents and Mother’s Day presents, of Nambe vases and silver handled fruit knives and needlepoint renderings of Oriental style flowers, of fondue pots, iced-tea spoons, and toothpick holders, of Braun electric hand mixers, banquet sized coffee percolators, and automatic foot massagers.

All of these things—and, of course, many more—had for years been neatly stowed in kitchen cabinets, in the rows and rows of built in closets my mother installed in our massive basement, in the squat Ethan Allen buffet in our dining room. After Passover, my mother began removing them. And the phone calls began: Did I want the Balinese bark prints we’d picked up at Cost Plus when I was four? What about Grandma Pearl’s love seat? The gallon-sized turquoise thermos we occasionally took to the lake? Those fondue pots? Twenty four miniature cocktail forks carved out of ivory? The etched glass martini glasses my mother had registered for in 1951 but had never liked and had rarely used? The sheets I’d slept on as a young child, imprinted with a repeating image of Raggedy Ann and Andy at play? Or those I’d switched to at eight or nine, a Laura Ashley print of pink, nearly abstract rosebuds? The lamp in the family room with the pear shaped glass base?

Sure, I said, nervously, wondering where I would put all this stuff, wondering if I really wanted it. I was twenty five and made $265 per week as an assistant at a literary agency. Most of my belongings came from the enormous Salvation Army in Astoria. It would be foolish to refuse anything, and yet, as my mother named thing after thing, I felt increasingly inclined to say no. I could not, somehow, imagine a future in which I gave dinner parties elaborate and large enough to necessitate several identical sets of crystal and silver salt and pepper shakers, after which my guests would lounge on my mother’s cream colored sofa, delicately sipping aperitifs from the smaller siblings of those maligned martini glasses. My mother sold the crystal, a souvenir from a trip to Ireland, for $15,000. I suggested that my sister might like the living room sofa.

The calls kept coming. At work, I swiveled on my chair and glanced at manuscripts as she listed the things she’d unearthed in the cedar closet. Years ago, when B. Altman’s went out of business, I bought two glass plates—one for Amy and one for you—and I completely forgot about them. Oh, Joanna, they’re gorgeous. Yours has a print of irises.

I’ve packed up your room, she told me in May.

I was planning on coming home and doing that, I told her, in carefully measured tones.

Well. I couldn’t wait, she said. Anyway. And I’ve packed up some other silver odds and ends for you. The little candy dish. The fish trivet. But what about the menorah? I struggled to picture my parents’ menorah. Was it brass? It hadn’t figured prominently in my childhood mythology. Before I could answer, she said, You have Grandma’s, right?

I had recently moved into my grandmother’s apartment on the Lower East Side, which came equipped with a small, mildly confounding array of Judaica, including, actually, three different menorahs.

I do, I told her.

Okay, then I’m going to give ours to Amy. I think she lost hers in the move. This was a polite reference to both my sister’s difficulty with maintaining ownership and upkeep of physical objects (including, but not limited to, her house, which had recently been covered in a volcanic spray of sewage, the result of neglecting their rural septic system for as many years as they’d lived in the place) and the fact that she’d recently left her husband and their three children—temporarily, we were told—and moved into a one bedroom apartment in Poughkeepsie, somehow misplacing various family objects on the five mile journey.

Sure, that sounds good, I told her. All I really want are the books. Whatever Amy wants is fine with me.

What Amy wanted, in the end, was most everything—or, at least all the big stuff—and this was, indeed, fine with me. Her house as it happened, was not actually hers. My parents, I’d just discovered, owned it. And they’d decided to sell it, to cut my sister—eighteen years my elder—and her husband off.

We’re going to be on a fixed income, my father explained. We can’t keep up that house anymore. We can’t support them. They can save up and buy their own place.”

An entire house worth of furniture wouldn’t fit in my sister’s little apartment, so my mother arranged for it to be transported to a storage facility nearby. And I, on a chilly night in early June, drove a dilapidated van out of the barbed-wire-rimmed-U-Haul lot on the Bowery, picked up the man who would, a few months later, become my husband, and drove upstate. The next day, I began slicing open box after box—my second bedroom was a sea of brown cardboard—and unfolding protective sheets of bubble wrap and newspaper and tissue. A white Wedgwood vase. Two copies of The Joys of Yiddish. A pewter pitcher with a pattern of vines snaking up and down its face. One grandmother’s flatware, then another’s. (My sister, I was told, had received yet another set.) The steel canister set—stamped sugar, flour, tea, coffee in the sans serif font popular in midcentury—that had sat on our kitchen counter, supplying the ingredients for hundreds of cookies and cakes and brownies. Worn wooden spoons. The painted glass lamp that had sat by my bedside through childhood. The green enamel pots my mother had bought when she moved into our old house, twenty miles south, in Nyack, a town I much preferred to our own. Four yellow pillowcases, never used, in a Marimekko ish butterfly print. (Where were the matching sheets? I wondered.) A sari fabric dancing dress with a handkerchief hem. My beloved ice skates—Riedell silver stars and my skis and ski poles and ski boots, the latter still in the original box, with its stark black and white design. Linen tablecloths and damask tablecloths and cotton tablecloths embroidered with flowers. The heavy glass candy dish that had sat on the coffee table in our living room, the sole spot of color in my mother’s palette. My parents’ vast and wildly colored collection of liquor, which dated back to the earlier years of their marriage, when they entertained avidly: Chartreuse and Cherry Heering and Sabra and blue curaçao and Harveys Bristol Cream and Vandermint and amaretto.

By the time I came along, these bottles had been banished to a dark recess of the stereo cabinet, which ran along one side of our living room. Come Thanksgiving—when the extended network of Rakoffs and Avruts and Merlises and Senators tended to gather at our house—my father might pry the door open and, under the wary eye of my mother, gather the ingredients to make martinis for the various cousins who liked to hit the sauce. But at Hanukkah, the cabinet remained firmly shut. Barring the occasional invitation to eat latkes at, say, the Siegels’, we spent the holiday alone, with minimal to no merrymaking. Blue and silver wrapped presents were piled under and on top of the grand piano just north of the stereo cabinet; a blocky electric menorah was placed in the large front window. It was my job to twist the blue, ovoid bulbs into their sockets each night, as dark fell. Our real menorah—which was, yes, I was remembering, definitely brass—stayed in the kitchen, candles having been deemed too messy for the living room. Each night, before dinner and after lighting both menorahs, I sat in the dim, chilly room and quietly opened one gift, slitting the tape along the seams, just as my mother did.

Nearly twenty years later my habits hadn’t much changed. As the day grew dark—and I grew sweatier, dustier, my hands darkened with newsprint—I found myself surrounded by a swarm of neatly opened boxes, their flaps yawning. There were things that were missing: the tall, delicate pot that completed my Aunt Fritzi’s chocolate set (not that I had any use for a chocolate set; not that I was even sure what a chocolate set was); a Mexican blouse, embroidered all over with flowers; set of pastel portraits that had hung in our family room, that had probably—and deservedly—gone to my sister; and, most heartbreakingly, my dolls, which had sat, glassy eyed and squat legged, on the top tier of my white bookshelf for as long as I could remember. I’d expected to find them tucked into the corners of boxes, swaddled in stray pillowcases: the Russian peasant doll with real human hair; the china lady-doll with crumbling hoop skirt and parasol; the Japanese fabric doll, in elaborate kimono and obi; and, my favorite, the set of peachy-skinned, shiny-haired, plastic-bodied creatures known as Dolls of the World,” which had played key roles in my multipart Barbie dramas. But there were no dolls to be found, save a battered rubber Kewpie in a faded orange dress.

When I creakily rose from the floor—ready to shower; not ready to find a place for the thousand objects I’d just unpacked—I saw I’d left one box unopened, a box labeled large silver. Once again, I pulled out the Swiss Army knife-itself a relic, survivor of umpteen summers at Camp Tel Yehudah, rescued from my dresser by my father—sliced open the packing tape, and began unwrapping soft, brown swathes of Pacific cloth. Serving pieces piled up around me, clattering on the worn parquet. There was the little candy dish—as a child, I’d filled it with halvah and jelly rings before company came—and the trivet shaped like a fish. The covered serving dishes, with their ornate curlicued handles, that had held boiled vegetables as recently as this past Passover. A set of small, tailored candlesticks. And then I found one last cloth bag, which contained something solid and heavy and large enough to fill the bottom of the box. The menorah, I thought for some reason, before remembering that no, that had gone to my sister. With weary hands, I pried the thing out and unzipped the bag. Inside was a round platter, with a solid center and a thick filigreed edge, at the center of which was a lengthy inscription. It had, it seemed, been given to my mother by the Sisterhood of a synagogue called Sons of Israel to commemorate her five years of service as the president of said organization.

Sons of Israel? I thought. There were exactly three synagogues in the vicinity of the town in which I’d spent most of my childhood—the town we’d moved to when I was three; the town my parents would soon be leaving and none of them were called Sons of Israel. President of the Sisterhood? The mother I knew had no interest in religion—less than no interest. Her most potent memory from early childhood had to do with the tyranny of Orthodoxy: one of her aunts accidentally mixed up the milk silver and the meat silver; their father, her Grandfather Abraham, became so enraged that he threw both sets through the kitchen window. ( Through the window, she liked to say. Not out the window. ) When my father fondly recalled his own father’s small shul on Norfolk Street, my mother said, Oh, come on. Your father took you out for shrimp chow mein on Saturdays. She was not, as far as I knew, a believer.

* * *

Our town was the sort of Jewish enclave that springs up, mysteriously, outside of New York—and, I suppose, D.C., Boston, and Chicago but my friends were not Rachel Weissman and Jillian Altchek. They were Sudha David, Zinnia Yoon, and Susan Conachey. At their houses I ate samosas and kimchi and, most remarkably, that cliché of clichés: anemic sandwiches consisting of one slice of bologna, another of American cheese, and two of white bread. None of this struck me as odd—or struck me at all, actually—until my eighth year, when the majority of my classmates began attending Hebrew school. Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, as the rest of Mrs. Cohen’s third-grade class piled into cars, en route to Pomona Jewish Center (Conservative) or Temple Beth El (Reform) or Monsey Jewish Center ( Conservadox ), I boarded a near-empty bus back to Tamarack Lane, where I sat at the kitchen table and ate Danish butter cookies with my mother. That I preferred this activity to any other—certainly to any involving the other attendees of Lime Kiln Elementary School—made me vaguely uncomfortable, but I squelched such concerns with military-style force and retired to the family room, where, beneath those aforementioned portraits of beautiful, big-eyed children—the sort popular in the 1970s—that sat atop the Danish modern bookshelf, my vast collection of Barbie dolls served as actors in an elaborate saga involving a costume ball, a grandmother trapped in an attic, and a private production of As You Like It (a play within a play!), the précis of which I’d recently read in Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare.

But come December, it became clear that something was very wrong. My Jewish classmates were, this year, talking about Hanukkah in a new, enticing way. They were going to parties at which doughnuts were served and dreidels were spun and songs were sung and gifts were picked blind out of big bins. And they were also—how had I never noticed this?—recounting their families’ celebrations, which involved grandmothers and aunts and uncles coming in from out of town and making big batches of latkes, and which reminded me of passages from one of my favorites series of books, Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family, a chronicle of a big Jewish family on the Lower East Side at the turn of the century. The sisters—Ella and Henny and Sarah and Charlotte and Gertie—bought pickles and penny candy and ate them on their stoop, when they weren’t curling their hair with hot tongs or making costumes for Purim or helping their mother prepare for Shabbos dinner. Even while dusting, these girls had fun—true, boisterous fun of a sort I’d never quite experienced, living, essentially, like an only child in our pale, quiet house—and it occurred to me that they, like my classmates, went to Hebrew school.

Cautiously, I broached the subject with my mother. She explained that to attend Hebrew school one had to belong to a synagogue, and we did not belong to a synagogue because my parents—my mother—didn’t like any of the options. Pomona Jewish Center, she felt, was materialistic : their dues were unbelievably high, their members the sort of women who would soon come to be known as Jewish American Princesses (their children were my most popular, and poisonous, classmates).

Services at Temple Beth El were, she said, akin to going to church” Monsey Jewish Center was located dangerously close to the Hasidic neighborhood of New Square. Of this, my mother could only shake her head in horror.

The real problem, of course, lay not in the synagogues, with theft various flaws, but in my parents’ faith, or lack thereof.

We’re not sure we believe in God, my mother finally explained.

Things have happened, my father chimed in, turning his face toward his shoes, as he did whenever difficult subjects (like my sister) arose, that made us think there might not be a God.

They were, I assumed, talking about the Holocaust. This made sense to me. I had read Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl and was working my way through every other Holocaust- or World War II-themed novel I could find at the library—and while I didn’t begrudge Anne’s right to believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart, it seemed to me, with my knowledge of her fate, that a God might have allowed some wandering in the desert, some enslavement, some slaying of sons, but He or She would not, could not have stood for the attempted extermination of his allegedly chosen people. Oh, I told my father. Okay.

All of this went a ways toward explaining my family’s interpretation of Hanukkah, which struck me, by comparison, as rather like those bologna sandwiches Susan Conachey’s mother served: thin, anemic. Not just because my parents didn’t even feign an interest in Judah Maccabaeus, not just because no blessings were mumbled as we lit the candles, but because—and you have already guessed this, no doubt—they lacked the gaiety that I seemed, recently, to be hearing much about. Occasionally, latkes made an appearance on the holiday table, but only occasionally; my mother didn’t love to cook, in general, and, in particular, disliked anything that made a big mess. Standing over a frying pan for the better part of an evening, getting splattered with an ever graying batch of batter and hot spurts of corn oil, was definitely not on her list of favored tasks. But what baffled me was that while our family was large and mostly clustered in and around New York and Palo Alto, we never gathered at Hanukkah, the way, it seemed, other families did. Even my sister was generally off doing, as my mother said, who knows what.

That year—my eighth year, the third grade—as the holiday was nearly upon us, my mother noticed that something was bothering me. I was quiet, reserved. She attributed this to feelings of alienation (though she didn’t use that world) from the dominant culture of our nation. One night as I lay on my bed reading, she knocked on my door and came and sat down beside me. It’s hard to be Jewish at Christmas, she said, in the low pitch she used for serious talks. Everyone is having fun. It’s seductive— This word embarrassed me, with its sexual connotations (I had read Beverly Cleary’s Fifteen and the entire Judy Blume oeuvre). It’s really seductive. I know, trust me. The trees, the lights, the carols. It’s beautiful. You want to be a part of it. I nodded and stuck my finger in my book. She must, I supposed, have been thinking of the tall fir in Susan Conachey’s living room, or the Bing Crosby on the radio, which my father liked to sing along to, or the elaborate, buttery pastries we’d eaten a few nights back at the rustic home of some German immigrants, friends of friends.

But I, of course, didn’t care about any of that. Christmas as practiced in contemporary America—the overly shiny ornaments, the illuminated Santas perched on rooftops, the synthetic red stockings with names inscribed in glitter—had little interest for me. The news reports of parents standing on line all night outside of Toys R Us to secure Atari consoles and Rubik’s Cubes made me flush with shame. Worse still was the idea of compiling lists—of asking for what you wanted. But Christmas as it was lived in the books I read obsessively, over and over, filled me with a sick longing, rooted less in the specifics of religion, and more in the general ethos of the holiday, as embodied by various nineteenth-century novels, first and foremost Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.

What I wanted was a Hanukkah as redolent of—as informed by—ingrained, unself conscious tradition as the March girls’ Christmas. I could imagine nothing better than to be a March girl—preferably my namesake, Jo (and in an alternate universe, in which she, not Amy, marries Laurie)—eating roasted chestnuts and donating my dinner to the poor family down the road and trading scrappy, heartfelt gifts, each chosen specifically for the intended recipient, with careful thought given to what she wanted, what she loved, what she might, in her heart of hearts, truly need.

But what was an authentic Hanukkah for an American family? The truth is, there was no such thing. We grown-ups are now all too coolly aware of Hanukkah’s minimal religious significance, that it was a minor holiday, artificially boosted to Christmas-level status in the 1920s by a double-team effort on the part of Jewish leaders—who had watched the latest wave of Jewish immigrants rushing to partake of Christmas ( The purchase of Christmas gifts is one of the first things that proves one is no longer a greenhorn. a reporter asserted in the Forward in 1904)—and canny marketers, who began advertising their wares as ideal Hanukkah gifts (and, in the case of Aunt Jemima flour, ingredients) in the then-booming Jewish press. Tellingly, the All-of-a-Kind Family books are filled with vivid descriptions of Purim and Passover and Sukkot but scarcely touch on Hanukkah. My parents, born in the 1920s, had barely celebrated the holiday. My classmates, well, their parents were closer in age to my sister—they were baby boomers—and they were, in a way, the first generation to take for granted the import of the holiday as a consumer occasion and, to be fair, one for gathering family, Noel style, or, in my dream life, March-family style.

But I was not Jo March and, perhaps more importantly, my sister was no Meg March (though it occurs to me now that she bore certain similarities to her March namesake, the artistic, bratty Amy). For starters, she barely knew me. She’d left for art school soon after my birth but had quickly dropped out to marry, then divorce, a blond, mustached man with the improbable name of John Johnson and a charming tax-free business involving the sale of mood-altering chemicals. At my parents’ behest—and with their financial backing, of course—she went to nursing school somewhere in the vicinity of our house, but she was rarely around. Throughout my childhood she would occasionally appear on our doorstep, her hair a different length or color—now choppy and short, one strand dyed blue; now tawny and long and permed—jumping furiously into my parents arms, pouring herself one of my dad’s Cokes, hunching tensely in an armchair while my father sat at the secretary in the living room and scrawled out a check for her, then racing off again in whatever little car she was driving at the time. I was always relieved to see her go, and ashamed of my relief.

Occasionally, her visits coincided with major holidays—and one year, my birthday—and this year, this eighth year, she would, it seemed, be around for Hanukkah, or one night of it. In the spring, she would be getting married again (though we all pretended that her first marriage had never happened), this time to someone deemed acceptable by my parents: an X-ray technician and would-be doctor, Jewish, from Bricktown, New Jersey. His name was David and he liked to cook. This year, there would be latkes.

As Hanukkah came closer, the gifts began to appear under the piano. Eight boxes of identical shape and size, with my name on each of them. This was unprecedented, and I was curious. On the first night, we lit the candles—my mother allowing me to hold the shamash by myself, for the first time—and the electric menorah; then my mother said, Are you ready to open a present?

Strangely, I felt nervous. What could be inside those identical boxes? Um, okay, I said.

She looked them over carefully, squinting at some incomprehensible marking in the corners, then handed me one. I think this one should be first.

Carefully, I peeled off the wrapping paper and found a thin cardboard box with a clear plastic window at the front. dolls of the world it said, in black letters above the window. poland it said below. Behind the window stood a small doll with honey colored braids, a dirndl skirt, and a funny peaked cloth hat.

Wow, I said. Cool.

My mother beamed. I saw them and I just couldn’t resist, she said. I would have loved these when I was your age. Amy had something like them, but they’ve disappeared, I think. Removed from the box, the Polish costumed doll blinked at me. I thought you should open Poland first, my mother explained, because—well, you know—your Grandma Pearl’s family was from Warsaw. I nodded but felt deeply confused. My grandmother and her sisters all had deep black eyes and blue-black hair.

One by one, the dolls emerged: Spain, dark-haired, in a red-and-white polka-dot flamenco dress. Greece, with a black velvet vest and a wildly striped skirt. Italy, in a thin red, white, and green ensemble that seemed more a nod to the country’s flag than its indigenous costumes. Being the diligent, dorky child I was, I brought each new doll into the family room and compared her dress to the portraits of native peoples in my Encyclopaedia Britannica set. To my surprise, they appeared to be fairly accurate.

On the eighth night, my sister and David arrived, full of chatter about the wedding and my sister’s new job, in a psych unit at Cornell Medical Center. I showed her my dolls, the last of which I’d just opened: Sweden. I was still dismayed by their physical characteristics: Why was it that the Spanish doll was the one that most resembled me, when our family had come from Russia and Poland?

Well, Polish people—actual Polish people—are generally fair, my mother said. And Jews can be from Poland, but they’re still Jews. They don’t look like Poles, usually. So maybe if there were an Israeli doll it would look like you. Or an American doll.

I nodded. Or a Jewish doll, I said confidently and was surprised when my mother laughed. I don’t think they would make a Jewish doll, she said. It would be an Israeli doll.

My sister folded the dolls’ legs and sat them in a row on the floor of the family room, as if they were watching television.

I can’t remember if I still played with dolls when I was your age, she said. I was never that into them. I always wanted to play outside. I nodded solemnly. My mother had said the same thing. Amy had scars all over her legs from falling off roofs and out of trees, while I had to literally be pushed out my front door when the warm weather hit. But dolls are cool, she said. I love these dresses. They’re really pretty.

I thought about asking her why there couldn’t be a Jewish doll but instead found myself pointing to the pastel portraits on top of the bookcase.

Who are they? I asked. It had not occurred to me, until the words left my mouth, that they were anyone—anyone other than anonymous, beautiful faces, like the faces of princes and princesses in fairy tales. And as soon as I finished the sentence, I saw that this was the wrong question to ask—and also the right one. My sister’s face had gone blank and slack.

You know who they are, she said.

No, I said. I don’t.

You do, she insisted. I shook my head. Sighing, she pointed to the girl on the right, with dark hair and green eyes under thick brows. That’s me, she said.

You! I almost shouted.

Yes, she said, and drew her lips in a thin line. And that’s Anita —she pointed to the blond girl, my favorite of the three, with her shy, wide smile and kind eyes— and that’s Mark. My brother and—our brother and sister.

I wasn’t sure what to say, what else to ask. Suddenly, many things made sense. The questioning of God. The sudden sadness that came over my parents, like a summer storm. There was an accident, she said. I was there, too—” And then she turned away. Mom and Dad can tell you, she said. They’ll tell you when you’re old enough. I nodded. I’m going to find David, she said. Okay? Okay, I said. Okay.

But it was never okay. They never told me. There was an accident, I knew, and my brother and sister had died. My sister, a cousin eventually revealed, had been in coma for weeks or months—the cousin couldn’t remember; It was a horrible time, he said—and awoke changed. She had brain damage? I asked. No, my cousin said. She couldn’t live with the guilt. She was the one driving the car.

* * *

In California, my parents thrived. Our rapidly multiplying Palo Alto relatives the cousins with whom my mother had been raised, like siblings, and their children and grandchildren—gathered weekly for potluck dinners and held big, unruly Seders. You would love it here, they told me. So would Evan. At our wedding, in October, they gave us a large, shiny brass menorah in a traditional style of interlocking arches. It was a grand-looking thing, and Evan—who preferred silver to brass, matte to shiny, modern to traditional—looked at it doubtfully, then tucked it in the linen closet, behind the million sheets and tablecloths I’d unpacked three months prior, and next to the monstrous silver platter, the origins of which I’d still not figured out. But in December, I pulled the menorah out and placed it on top of our piano, a mahogany baby grand with a cracked soundboard, inherited, along with the apartment, from my grandmother. Each night we lit the candles—I had learned the blessing as a teenager, at camp—and the glow, brighter each night, reflected back the warm sheen of the Wurlitzer, casting long shadows on our pristine walls. By the last night, Evan was won over. The menorah stayed on the piano through the new year, then moved to the old yellow bookcase in the foyer, the first thing visitors see when they enter our apartment—the first thing we see when we come home.

Exactly a year after their move, my parents returned to New York for a visit. For a few days they stayed with Evan and me on the Lower East Side—the vases and fruit knives and fondue pots they’d bequeathed us now neatly stashed in our crumbling kitchen—before heading upstate to visit with my sister, who had returned to her family. My sister and her husband had not, of course, been able to buy a new house—or even an apartment—and after a brief, disastrous stay in a friend’s cottage (they’d flooded the place; the friend was suing), they’d moved into a residence motel, of sorts, with a two story medieval knight in its parking lot. My parents were not pleased. Amy’s a blonde, my mother sighed, wearily, into the phone at the Poughkeepsie Holiday Inn (they’d dismissed the knight-guarded motel as sleazy ; a fair assessment, I would soon discover). Not just a blonde, a platinum blonde.

storage, illustration by Kirsten Harper

That weekend, my husband and I drove up the Taconic and checked into the Holiday Inn. Moments later, my mother burst into our room, suggested that Evan play a round of golf with my father, and hustled me off on some invented errand. As soon as we hit Route 9, she said, It’s all gone. Everything is gone.

I didn’t understand. What’s gone?

Everything, she said. Everything. She didn’t make the payments on the storage facility. Not even one. They sent her three warnings, then they auctioned everything off.”

You’re kidding, I said, for this seemed a real possibility to me, more possible, somehow, than my sister’s losing everything, the material sum of my parents’ life together. (Later, when I told a close friend what had happened, she was shockingly nonplussed. Amy fucked up again, she said. Big surprise. )

I should have given you Grandma Pearl’s love seat, my mother said.

And the menorah, I said. She gave me a funny look.

What menorah?

Our menorah, I said, with a hint of impatience.

I didn’t give Amy our menorah, she said. What would Daddy and I use? We still need to the light candles, don’t we? I assented that they did. I love that menorah, she said, with a smile. We’ve used it for years. And you know what’s funny? I can’t even remember where it came from.” This was indeed funny, coming from a woman who could recall the provenance of every dress she’d ever placed on her back. Why would we give Amy our menorah? she asked again.

You said— I began, then stopped. What was the point? Then, suddenly, I remembered the portraits—the pastel portraits of Amy, Anita, and Mark. Had she given them to Amy? I felt slightly panicky at the thought of this. Hey, I said. What’s Sons of Israel? I asked instead, surprising myself.

Sons of Israel? she said, all trace of laughter gone. It’s the synagogue in Nyack. Why?

Nyack, our Nyack? Where we lived when I was a baby? She nodded. There’s a platter. It was in one of the boxes you gave me. From the sisterhood— Suddenly, I felt uncomfortable. This was not, I was sure, something she would want to talk about. Not now, certainly, but maybe not ever. And I had known this; this was why I’d waited so long to ask.

She nodded again and swallowed. We were founding members, she said. Back before you were born. Way back. Mark had his bar mitzvah there. Before the accident— I nodded quickly to cut her off. If you had asked me, at the time, I would have said I wanted to spare her the pain of talking about my brother and sister. But now I suppose it was a selfish move: I was terrified of what she might say. She went on anyway. Afterward, we just couldn’t go back. With everyone feeling sorry for us. We were always reminded of them. Everywhere we looked. We had to move away.

For a moment, we sat, and then she unbuckled her seat belt and, with a grin, pointed to the T. J. Maxx. Should we go shopping? It seems like we deserve some new stuff.”

Sure, I said.

As we walked across the cracked pavement, along the rows and rows of nearly identical cars, she put her arm around me and I remembered:

My dolls, I said. Amy had my dolls.

No, she didn’t, my mother said quietly.

She did, I said, hating the slight whine that crept into my voice. I was supposed to be the strong child, the mature child, the wise child. I was the child of their old age, the child who would take care of everything, who would right all my sister’s wrongs and replicate every joy of those I was conceived to replace. I was the child who never asked for anything. But I wanted my dolls. You accidentally gave them to her. Just like the butterfly sheets.”

No, I didn’t, she insisted, her voice rising, and I knew, for sure, that she was going to cry. We were approaching the sidewalk, the threshold of the store, where rack after rack of clothing awaited her gimlet eye, her expert knowledge of cut and drape and fabric and make. I would never give Amy your dolls. How could you say that? You loved those dolls. They were your friends.

But I didn’t find—

I packed them away in a box, a ski box, a square box with a handle—

A ski box? I asked.

A ski boot box, she said. A Salomon box. Wasn’t there a Salomon box?

There was, I told her, and guided her inside.

That night, we made an attempt to eat dinner together as a family at a steak house favored by my youngest nephew, then six. But my mother was furious and couldn’t even look in the direction of my sister, who was indeed as blond as Madonna, with bangs like Sandra Dee’s. After the waitress took our order, Amy began sobbing. My teenaged niece looked like she wanted to hide under the table. My brother-in-law pretended everything was fine. Eventually, Amy left the table and never came back. We spent the rest of the night searching for her. The next day, Evan and I drove home in silence, through a hot, heavy rain. In the front closet, on the highest shelf, next to my ice skates and Evan’s basketball, I found the black-and-white box—I’d saved it, as a teen, because I’d liked the design—brought it into our bedroom, and opened it up. The dolls were packed in layers, like candy. I pulled out the Japanese lady, the china lady with her parasol, a black-haired flapper doll, the Russian doll, her wiry hair disintegrating. And there, below them, were the Dolls of the World, their bright costumes a tangle of rickrack and ribbons and wide brimmed hats and black Mary Janes, their blue eyes still blinking, their cheeks still dewy and fresh, their hair still shiny and thick. One by one, I pulled them out—their plasticky scent still strong, still familiar after all these years—and read off the names of their countries, imprinted in gold on the bottoms of their shoes. Spain, Mexico, Holland, Poland, Greece, Italy, France, Sweden.

Hello, I said to them. Hello, I said.

You’re still here, I said. You’re home.

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Dolls of the World

The revelation behind a houseful of aging belongings

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