Little Woman

Written By: Will  Ehrenreich

In the process of cleaning out my parents’ condominium about five years ago, my mother unearthed a doll from my childhood. My daughter Lily, a toddler at the time, was too small for such a fancy doll, so I stashed her away in a closet shelf, planning to give her to Lily when she was big enough not to crayon her face or cut her hair. The doll was Josephine March from Lousia May Alcott’s Little Women– a Madame Alexander doll from the 1970s, long before American Girl dolls took over the fancy, expensive doll market.

I was somewhat surprised when my mother gave me back my doll. Mom was not what you’d call a “saver,” preferring to purge most of my old toys quietly while I was at sleep-away camp. I’d come home and exclaim dramatically, “What happened to Mr. Potato Head?!” despite being several years out of the Potato Head age range. If she didn’t get to my playthings while I was at camp, once I went to college, many toys furtively disappeared, including hand-me-down Barbies from the early 60s that would have been collector’s items. Knowing this, I secreted away my treasured stuffed Snoopy whose head I accidentally ripped off at age four. To keep him from Mom and a city landfill, Snoopy– ace-bandaged neck, grey, no longer plush fur, and all– went to sleep-away camp and college with me, even following me to my first apartment. Snoopy lives on, somewhat slumped, on a shelf in my son’s bedroom, right next to my husband’s frayed, equally loved, button-eyed Gentle Ben teddy bear.

Unlike Snoopy, Jo was one of a few special dolls that my older sister and I were often warned were “just for show.” Most of these fancy dolls were gifts from our grandmother, Helen, who loved grand gestures and fancy shopping trips to FAO Schwarz and Bergdorf’s. She was a frequent visitor to Elizabeth Arden and had her hair “done” weekly at a Madison Avenue salon. Helen, unlike my mother who bargain-hunted in Loehmann’s, was perfectly willing to pay full retail. My older sister received the somewhat frillier Amy doll, with her blonde curls tied in a black velvet bow, and yellow dress adorned with a lace pinafore. Aside from the Little Women dolls, Grandma Helen gave my sister a beautiful Alice and Wonderland doll, and me a baby doll that looked real in an exquisite, “perfect baby,” sort of way. The baby doll had plump, rosy cheeks, blinking, ethereal blue eyes with long, black eyelashes, a pink, satin coat with matching bonnet and a wooden carriage that I pushed wildly around the playroom floor of our house in Brooklyn. For some reason, the baby doll didn’t make my mother’s cut.

Still feeling the maternal pressure that Jo was not for play, but for admiring from afar, poor Josephine March then moved into my storage closet for several years. When I finally released her from closet captivity when Lily turned seven, something happened to the structure of the now thirtysomething year-old doll. Her head, arms and legs loosened from her body and would no longer stay put. Perhaps warped from the chill of my mother’s basement and my closet, she then cracked in a very private doll place. And her once lush brown curls that tied perfectly in a red satin ribbon, seemed to have a slight bald spot in the back of her head. Was there Dolly Rogaine? Even her red hair ribbon now looked a bit rusty.

Nonetheless, Lily, a lovely combination of girly-girl, (though not the hypersensitive, weepy type), and tough, strong-willed, future CEO, was smitten with Jo. Delighted that she wanted something from my childhood that I could pass down to her, I became a mother obsessed with putting Jo back together again.

My first thought was to head over to the famous doll hospital on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan. I’d heard about that place since I was little when my parents had suggested bringing Snoopy over for an expert neckotomy. Thankfully, my father (a surgeon for humans) agreed to stitch him up pro bono. And although the New York Doll Hospital had been accepting patients for 45 years, Lily and I just missed the chief dolly surgeon, Irving Chais, who passed away in 2009. More time went by, when I strapped Jo’s loose legs with a thick pony tail holder, gingerly packed her in a tote bag, and we headed to Long Island for a summer vacation. After telling my husband’s nephew about poor limbless, headless Jo, he discovered a doll hospital on the North Fork of Long Island, not too far from us, in Southold.

I knew a little bit about Southold because my parents rented a house in Cutchogue one summer when I was about Lily’s age. This was long before the area became “wine country” and, aside from the Sound beaches, the North Fork still was mostly farmland–potatoes and corn. I remember reading a lot that summer, including Little Women, Little Men, and Jo’s Boys, in part because the split-level ranch house we rented did not have a television. During the week, it was just me, my mother, my older sister, our grey Alley cat, Pokey, who killed crickets and june bugs on the patio all summer, and our somewhat hysterical Sheltie, Bo, who nearly ran off the cliff on which the house was perched above Peconic Bay. My Dad would drive up the Southern State from Brooklyn, in a 70s Cadillac/Batmobile, to be with us on weekends.

That summer, my taste buds were introduced to delights including fresh out of the water steamers, white, sugary corn, local tomatoes, and Wickham’s strawberry rhubarb pies that we would warm up in the oven and devour with vanilla ice cream. I also met a girl named Lily while taking tennis lessons and mosaic art at Mattituck High School, and we became fast friends. Her kindness, and the beauty and old-fashioned quality of the name Lily stuck in my mind for years after that and my husband and I agreed to give it to our daughter.

My family stayed in Cutchogue in 1979 right around the time Jan Davis opened her Doll Hospital in Southold, the town next to Cutchogue. I decided to take Lily on the hour or so trip from our house to the Doll Hospital in Southold. The hospital is only open in the summer and on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays for limited hours. Buckling Lily and Jo into the back seat of our car, off we went.

We met Jan and her husband, a retired NYPD Police Detective, at their 1856 country store/doll hospital which was filled with dolls from vintage German bisque, to a 1980s “I Love Lucy” Vitameatavegamin doll, which I bought on impulse for $75. Jan gently inspected Jo and her injuries as my daughter watched, looking concerned. She reassured Lily that the surgery would go well and Jo could be rehabilitated within about two months (Jan gets backlogged with patients waiting through the winter).

Lily and I patiently waited to hear back from Jan, and around Labor Day, made the drive back to Southold. Jan had reattached Jo’s limbs and head and repaired the crack in Jo’s (ahem) lower torso, added some lush, brown hair to her bald spot, washed and re-curled the hair, plus cleaned Jo’s red dress with it’s faux ruby pin at the collar and her white, eyelet lace pinafore. Dr. Jan washed Jo’s face so it was no longer tinted grey, but once again was peachy and clear-complexioned. We thanked Jan, paid her medical fees, (Obamacare did not cover this visit), and went on our way with a “like new,” more than three decade old, Madame Alexander doll.

In the end, Lily seemed thrilled to have a doll that was just “for show,” and, like my seven year-old self, she put Josephine March on her shelf to be admired. Occasionally, she takes her down to play with Jo’s antiquated clothing and brush her hair, but warns friends to be gentle with her. My old Madame Alexander doll may not have been the politically-correct gift to give my daughter who is equally comfortable blasting a Nerf gun at her older brother. However, the experience of giving Lily my Jo doll bonded me to her in many ways. It brought back the thrill of receiving fancy presents from my extravagant Grandma Helen, and the joy she must have felt in making my sister and me happy. Taking Jo with Lily to the North Fork for surgery made me remember who I was around Lily’s age while bringing back a happy, relaxed memory of summer with my family away from the city. And in an era when children seem to be constantly stimulated by screen games, the Internet and media, it’s wonderful to see my daughter just sit quietly, comb the doll’s hair, think, daydream, and imagine, as I did that summer on the North Fork with no television.