Archive for October, 2009

The Doll Clothes, Part 1

October 20, 2009

A story my grandmother told me…

Annabelle could hardly believe her eyes. She was afraid to close them, in fact, for fear that she might be dreaming.

She cradled in her arms a china doll with rouged cheeks. beautiful blue eyes, and silky blond hair just about the identical shade of her own. “Susan,” Annabelle said to her doll in almost the same voice she used when she was saying her prayers. “Your name is Susan.” The dolls were the only things she and Kate had wanted for Christmas this year. Mama had said, “I don’t know… we’ll see” they way she did when she was trying to say yes without letting them get their hopes up. But somehow it had been done, and to Annabelle it seemed like a miracle.
“What’ll you call your doll, Kate?” she said to her sister.


“I think I’ll name her Jenny,” Kate said, when she could tug her eyes away from her own doll. “Yes, I believe I’ll name her Jenny and she’ll have the most beautiful clothes anywhere. Since her hair is the same brown as mine, I’ll make her a dress just like my blue gingham one.”

Annabelle eyed Kate and her doll, a wish trying to get started somewhere inside her. It was true; Kate could sew all by herself, and she would make Jenny a dress that would make everyone forget the plain muslin shifts the dolls had worn home from the store. Annabelle looked hopefully at Mama, hoping she would notice, hoping she would offer to make a trousseau for Susan, but Gus had gotten into a quarrel with Teddy over one of their barely unwrapped toys, and Mama was busy handing out thumps and jerks to make the little boys stop squabbling amid the wrapping paper.

Maybe a little later, I can ask her, Annabelle thought, and as she held Susan in her arms and gently stroked her shiny blonde hair, she forgot about everything except how much fun she and Kate were going to have, playing with their dolls.

As winter began to yield grudgingly to spring, the bare switches of the trees standing in the soggy bottoms and along the steep hillsides began to swell at their tips with buds straining to burst. The ash, hickory, oak, and sassafras started to show the hints of green so faint that Annabelle thought they were only her imagination. By the time the tender, new leaves were big enough to flutter in the cool breezes of spring, Papa had started leaving the house with the sunrise, turning the soil of the bottoms in four-foot widths as he followed Tom and Sally up and back, up and back.


Each day, when the morning’s chores were done, Kate and Annabelle would play dolls. Kate was the older and usually dictated the terms of the day’s play, but Annabelle didn’t mind that so much. Sometimes they would climb with Susan and Jenny into the apple trees behind the barn and play at having a millinery shop. Jenny and Susan would be their customers and the girls, proper, attentive shopkeepers, would assist the ladies in choosing the perfect apple-leaf-and-morning-glory hats to set off their outfits to best advantage. Other times, they would shop for groceries, helping Jenny and Susan select the supplies they needed to cook meals for their families.
True to her word, Kate had made several outfits for Jenny, using the same material Mama bought for her to make her own clothes. Jenny had a blue gingham sundress and a lovely blue-and-white polka dot skirt with a matching jacket. She even had a little white bonnet Kate had fashioned from a scrap of silk Mama had left over from making a wedding dress for a neighbor girl. Susan had nothing to compare with Jenny’s wardrobe. She still wore the plain white muslin frock, now grimy from frequent handling, that she had worn the day Annabelle unwrapped her.


Each time Annabelle tried to approach Mama about sewing Susan some nicer clothes, something pulled Mama away. She was always busy, it seemed. Nor could Annabelle convince Kate of the necessity of clothing the doll. Kate was wrapped up in Jenny, and when she did have some spare time, she could always find something more important to do than work on a dress for Susan. “I don’t have time to do that right now,” she’d say. “Mama says I have to help her finish the quilt she’s making for Gus’s bed, so don’t bother me with that now, because I don’t have time for it.”

Except for when she and Kate had finished their chores and could start playing dolls, Annabelle’s favorite time of day was in the evening, when she waited by the pasture gate for Papa to bring in the team. The horses would be walking slow, their heads down as they dragged their trace chains with Papa walking behind them. He would reach her, softly call out “Whoa” to Tom and Sally, then pick Annabelle up and put her on Tom or Sally’s broad, sweaty back. She could talk to Papa without having to share him with anyone else. Bathed in the salty, warm smell of the lathered horses, she could almost forget about Kate bossing her around and Mama never paying her any mind.

One day, swaying atop Sally on the way to the barn with Papa walking along beside, she decided to say something about the doll clothes.

“Papa, you know Kate’s doll has lots of nice clothes.”
“Yes, honey, she does, I guess.”
“And you know I can’t sew like Kate.”
“Yes.” Papa was using his slow, thinking voice.
“Could you talk to Mama and get her to make me some clothes for my doll?”
“Well, now, sugar.”

For a minute, Annabelle thought Papa had forgotten she was there.

“I don’t rightly know,” he said, finally. “Your mama has an awful lot of things to do right now, and I’m not too sure. We’ll see…”

When Papa said “We’ll see” it was different than when Mama said it. Annabelle did her best to be patient, though; she waited all through supper that night, listening carefully to see if Papa would say anything to Mama. But he didn’t, and Annabelle knew better than to ask Mama directly at the supper table. Besides, when Mama was busy, which was all the time, her patience was in short supply.

The next day was Sunday, and what with going to church and Sunday school and visiting, there wasn’t time to talk to Mama or Papa. But sitting on the quilt in the wagon on the way home, Annabelle decided to make a deal with Kate. That night, as they dressed for bed by the flickering light of their coal-oil lamp, Annabelle said, “Isn’t it your turn to wash dishes this week?”

“Yes. I guess so. Why?”
“Well, I was just thinking. If you’d sew me some doll clothes for Susan, I’d wash dishes for you all week, and you’d have more time to play.”
“Then when would you do your chores?”
“I’d get my work done, and wash the dishes too. And you wouldn’t have hardly anything to do. Come on, what do you say, Kate?”
“Well… I guess it would be all right. As long as everything got done… and I do hate washing dishes so. I’d rather do almost anything than wash dishes… All right. I’ll do it. But you have to wash after every meal, and for the whole week.”
“I know it. So … do we have a deal?”
“Yes. I guess so.”
“You promise?”
“All right. I promise.”

Annabelle went to bed that night with visions of beautiful doll clothes dancing in her head.
The next morning after breakfast as Mama was clearing the table, Kate skipped toward the door, cradling Jenny in the bend of her elbow.

“Mama, Annabelle said she’d do the dishes for me,” she said over her shoulder as she ran outside. Mama looked at Annabelle, saw her quick nod, and turned back to her work.
Annabelle, a dish cloth wrapped around each hand, dipped hot water from the stove reservoir into the tin pail, then carefully carried it to the kitchen table, where the two dishpans sat side by side. She had to stand on a chair so she could raise the pail up high enough to empty it carefully into first one pan, then the other, trying to keep from splashing herself with the near-boiling water.

When the dish pans had water in them, she began stacking the breakfast dishes beside the pans. She put the dishes, a few at a time, into the left-hand pan to begin soaking. After rubbing lye soap onto a wet dishrag, Annabelle carefully scrubbed the plates, saucers, and cups from breakfast, rinsed them in the right-hand pan, and set them aside on the table. After all the dishes had been washed and rinsed, she dried them and replaced them in the cupboard.


When this was done. she paused a moment to push the sweaty strands out of her eyes, then poured the hot, soapy water from the dish- pans into the tin pail and lugged it out behind the smokehouse. She set it heavily on the ground and tipped it over, letting the steamy, greasy dishwater soak slowly into the soil, leaving a residue of bacon rinds. bread crumbs, and the brown, lacy edges of fried eggs. Puffing out her cheeks and wiping her face again, she carried the pail to the cistern and refilled it, took it back into the kitchen and , heaving with all the muscles in her arms and shoulders, poured its contents into the stove reservoir. She wiped the table and swept the floor.

Now that she had finished Kate’s chores, she could take up her own assigned task for the morning, which was to scatter the grain-and-table-leavings mixture for the chickens. In the evening, she would go into the henhouse to gather the day’s eggs. Egg-gathering had to be done only after supper, but for the other two meals of the day, Annabelle would have to haul water from the cistern to refill the stove reservoir after dish-washing, besides making sure the stove had adequate fuel to keep the water hot. Right now, though, her work finished until shortly before noon, Annabelle was free to join Kate in play.

This pattern repeated at each mealtime for a week. Along about Thursday, Annabelle, while wearily struggling with the heavy pail full of water on her way to the house from the cistern, happened to glance toward the barn to see Kate chattering at Jenny under one of the apple trees. For a moment she doubted the wisdom of the bargain she had made. Kate had practically had a week’s vacation from chores and had not failed to make sure Annabelle knew just how much she was enjoying the extra time she had to play. Each evening at bedtime Annabelle had to listen to Kate’s account of that day’s adventures with Jenny.

As much as Kate’s ways annoyed Annabelle, she knew her older sister too well to act put out; Kate might change her mind about the deal they’d made. So Annabelle quietly bided her time, swallowed the words she felt like saying to Kate, and kept on doing her work and Kate’s, too.

At last, the end of the week came. Annabelle reminded Kate, as they dressed for church, that she had held up her side of the bargain. Although Annabelle still had to wash dishes for the corning week in her normal turn, Kate would again share the chores. And besides, Kate now owed her some doll clothes.


Kate said nothing. She wore a sulking look as she finished brushing her hair and slouched outside to board the wagon.

That morning at church, when the sermon was finally over, the congregation rose and began to sing: “ Beautiful robe so white, beautiful crown of light…” All Annabelle could think of were the lovely dress and bonnet she had planned for Susan.

After lunch, as they lay on their feather-stuffed ticking mattress, where they were supposed to be napping, Annabelle, whispering so Mama and Papa couldn’t hear, reminded Kate again about the doll clothes.
“When you make the dress for Susan—”

“Oh, for goodness sakes, Annabelle! It’s Sunday! We’re supposed to rest on Sunday. Can’t you leave me alone about your doll clothes at least until tomorrow?” Kate turned her face away from Annabelle and tried to act like she was asleep.

When Annabelle finished sweeping the kitchen the next morning after breakfast, she ran outside to find Kate sitting on the fence beside the henhouse, fiddling with Jenny’s hair and staring down the slope behind the house toward the tree-lined creek.

“Kate, I did what I said I would do, and now it’s your turn. I want you to make Susan a dress and bonnet out of that scrap of yellow Mama saved for me.”
“Well, I’ve changed my mind,” Kate said. “I’ve decided I don’t have time to make your silly old doll clothes.”
Annabelle stared at Kate. “But you promised! And I washed dishes for you a whole week besides doing my own chores. You promised.”
“I told you I changed my mind, and besides that, you can’t make me do it, ‘cause I’m the oldest, so there!” Kate jumped off the fence and ran away.

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So Fair and Bright (a weblog) by Thom Lemmons is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.