Visions of dolls from long ago dance in their heads

True Tales From Everyday Living

Real life

December 24, 2006|By Madeleine Mysko | Madeleine Mysko,Special to The Sun

It's a week before Christmas, close to suppertime, and dark already outside the window of the train.

Across the aisle from me sits a young woman with a shopping bag so large she could carry a 3-year-old child in it. The logo on the bag says it all: She's been to the American Girl store in New York; she's carrying home a fully outfitted doll that probably cost more than the round-trip ticket on Amtrak.

I've been known to scoff at parents who buy their children expensive toys, but for this woman I have only kind thoughts. And I'm dying for a look at the doll.

The train pulls into Philadelphia and now the woman is standing in the aisle at my elbow, waiting to disembark. I manage to catch her eye. "Which American Girl did you buy?" I ask.

"Nellie," she says sheepishly, but she doesn't lift Nellie out of the bag.

The train lurches to a stop and the woman gets off. I make a mental note - Nellie - because you can look these dolls up online. You can read their biographies and view the entire contents of their closets.

After Wilmington, Del., the darkness glitters here and there - distant rooflines strung with lights - and suddenly I'm awash with nostalgia. I dig out my cell phone and call my sister.

"I'm thinking of Mary Sue," I say. "Are you thinking of Mary Carroll?"

My sister sighs. "It's that time of year."

And so, as the train carries me home to Baltimore, we talk our way back to the Christmas we remember best - the Christmas of Mary Sue and Mary Carroll, the most remarkable dolls ever to appear under a tree.

Did we name those dolls ourselves? It's odd we don't recall. But "Mary anything" made them Catholic dolls, and we're sure that "Carroll" was spelled peculiarly like the Maryland signer of the Declaration of Independence. Mary Sue was brown-eyed and blond like me, Mary Carroll blue-eyed and brunet like my sister.

Despite identical placid expressions on their pretty faces, no one would ever mistake these dolls for homebodies, for they each arrived with a trunk papered with decals from Paris and Rome and packed with all sorts of clothes.

Even our little brother - who got a red wagon - was taken with those trunks. He liked the working drawers and tiny coat hangers on the inside, not to mention the exquisite latches that closed with a satisfying snap on the outside.

"Remember the ice-skating outfits?" my sister says, her voice breaking up as the train approaches the bridge over the Susquehanna.

Of course I do: Mary Carroll's outfit was blue satin and Mary Sue's red velvet. "But it wasn't ice-skating," I say. "It was roller skates."

"Oh - You're right! And remember the raincoats?"

"Yellow, with a hood. Fully lined. What color was

yours?"

"Yellow. We both got yellow."

The belted bathrobes, the winter coats with piping around the collars and cuffs, the corduroy skirts and Peter Pan blouses - my sister and I talk on, ticking down the list as though we're packing for Paris or Rome ourselves.

"And don't forget the bonnets," my sister says. "They matched the coats."

I get a lump in my throat. I'm glad to be reminded of those bonnets.

"And the slips and underpants," she adds dreamily.

In what Baltimore department store, back in the 1950s, did my mother find those dolls and their sophisticated trunks, and how did she manage to buy two of each?

What really matters is that she imagined unparalleled wardrobes, and then set to work tailoring each diminutive article at her sewing machine, with the help of our Aunt Jane, who was living then in the apartment upstairs.

"And a lot of it by hand," my sister is saying, as the train approaches Penn Station, Baltimore. "All those little buttons and snaps." And then the train slips into the tunnel, and I lose the connection.

These days, it's an effort to keep the holidays simple. "Simple and meaningful," I tell my children, who are grown now.

And yet, as I climb the stairs into the station, it strikes me how truly extravagant my mother's efforts were that one Christmas - Mary Sue in her red gabardine coat and bonnet, and Mary Carroll, equally smart in gabardine the exact color of my sister's eyes.

And oh, those trunks open wide under the tree, the promise in the finely tailored clothes - the memory now both stirring and melancholy, like the far-off whistle of a train.

To listen to podcasts of Real Life essays, go to baltimoresun.com/reallife.

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