I don't know when the doll collecting started. One of the standing dolls has a note on the base that reads "from Brad, Japan, 1975," which tells me it was a gift from one of my brothers the year I was born. Another bears a piece of tape on her foot reading "Lali and Eppie, Norway, 1988" -- a gift from my grandparents when I was thirteen. Some are porcelain dolls, some are plastic. One is a carved wooden man in a garment of rabbit fur -- I think he is Inuit in origin, and must have come from a parental trip to Alaska -- but the rabbit fur disintegrates in my hands when I pick him up.
There is the big porcelain doll in an off-white muslin dress whom I remember naming "Suzette" when I was a child, because I thought that sounded French; did my parents get her for me on a trip to France, or did I just think the name sounded sophisticated? There are two cloth dolls that my parents got for me when visiting China in the mid 1980s. There are two cloth dolls that we bought in Amish country when I was nine, as we were driving to New York for our big year in the city -- they wear simple garb, and their faces are blank because of the Scriptural prohibition on graven images.
Four of the dolls, in varying sizes, are wearing Czech traditional dress. My mother was born in Prague, and returned there several times. Did she bring these dolls in hopes of giving me some kind of connection with the folklore and heritage of the place where she was born? When I was 18, we went to the Czech Republic (by then no longer called Czechoslovakia) with my grandparents. It was their final trip abroad. Their memories were already beginning to fail, but we visited the street where their apartment had been when Mom was born, and my grandfather's medical school alma mater.
Both of my parents were collectors. My father collected matchsafes, and my mother collected silver napkin rings. I suspect this doll collection was started for me when I was born, though my father won't remember, and I can't ask Mom now. I know that everyplace where they went, and everyplace where my grandparents went, they would bring back a doll for me -- ideally in local folkloric costume -- and sometimes a children's book. I still have some of the children's books on my bookshelves: fairy tales in French, The Little Prince in Polish, a bright sturdy pop-up book in Czech.
Some of these are dolls that seem intended to be played-with. They are made of fabric and stuffed, or made of plastic that is soft to the touch. Some have fragile, breakable porcelain faces and hands and feet: dolls meant to be admired rather than cradled or dragged around by a child. Seeing them all assembled together, I'm struck by their assortment of faces, by their eyes and expressions. They represent probably twenty years' worth of my parents and grandparents thinking of me when they were far away, choosing something to bring home to show me where they had been.
My parents shipped me the dolls shortly after I married. It didn't feel right to display them in my marital home, so they were relegated to the basement. They've been boxed up for more than twenty years. I wish I could look through them with Mom again now. I wish I could ask her where each one came from, what she was thinking when she chose them, what she wanted them to teach me or to say to me: about the richness and diversity of world cultures, or about the fact that even when my parents were traveling the globe, they were thinking of me at home. But that time has passed.
We never know what questions we will wish we had thought to ask until it is too late to ask them.
Title borrowed from John Berger.