Martha’s Doll

Written By: Joanne  de Simone
 ARF Thrift shop. Water Mill. I didn’t see her right away. She was sitting on a shelf in the back of the store alongside other dolls. Her arms were stretched out as if she was waiting for someone to hug her. She was a brunette, dressed in a turquoise satin dress, with a white tulle overlay. Her matching wide-brimmed hat was covered in somewhat faded and flattened flowers, but the jade ribbon stood proudly  under her chin. I was suddenly drawn to the doll, and without hesitation, made my way through the stacks of clothes and shoes and chipped dinnerware. A memory stirred as I noticed the embroidered initials on the cuff of sleeve— M.K.
Memories are often triggered by the senses. Sometimes a scent whisks by us on a breeze and we are brought back to a time and place long forgotten. It moves us, briefly, and then it is gone.
This memory came alive with all the senses. I saw the doll. I touched her dress, I smelled the dank hallway of our Brooklyn cold water flat, heard Martha’s voice slam against the plaster board, tasted ice cream—and all at once, I was five years old again.
Our flat faced the el train. Karl and Martha lived in the apartment above ours. Martha never left the apartment, so I had no idea what she looked like. There was a persistent foul odor in our hallway which can only be described as very old cheese boiling in even older sock water. When we opened the front door on the downstairs landing, we held our breath until we reached our door, quickly dashing inside.
Karl and Martha were survivors of the Holocaust. On their mailbox were two names, Kraus and Deutsch. We didn’t know who was who, and my mother said they were married but Martha kept her own last name because it was a common law marriage. Frances never completely evaded a question; instead her answers were meant to close the subject immediately. Karl had a number tattooed on his wrist, which we were able to study in detail when he didn’t make it up the two flights of stairs and lay on the steps in a drunken stupor, the front of his trousers soaked in urine. He also had three fingers missing from his right hand, so that the remaining forefinger and pinky formed an absurd U effect. Sometimes he made it home in one piece, but it was a slow, agonizing, staggering journey from the train station three blocks away, with frequent stops to lean on cars or fire hydrants. When he’d finally reach the top landing of our building, we could hear Martha’s voice bellowing, “Get out! Get out! Get out, you drunken bum, you!”  My brothers and I would laugh and laugh. “Martha’s at it again!”  Frances would give us all a smack in the back of the head. “Have some respect! That man was in a concentration camp. He was tortured by Nazis. He used to be an artist! He has the right to drink if he wants to. You little ingrates would drink too if you went through what he went through!”
At five years old, I had no idea what a concentration camp was, except that people were put there by Nazis and got tortured and tattooed. When they got out, they were entitled to a little respect and earned the right to get drunk and pee in their pants.
We never went passed our landing. Up those stairs, and behind that door were unspeakable horrors— the nasty smells, the battles in a foreign language, the overall gloom. My brothers and I called it the Inner Sanctum. One day, as I was just about to go into our door and exhale, I heard a familiar, gravely voice from above. “Johanna, Johanna?” I was frozen with fear. It was Martha!  Oh, God, that sounds like my name!  “Come up here for a moment,” Martha said softly in her German accent. I couldn’t speak. My legs were like jelly, but I obeyed and forced my feet to move up the stairs. Martha was standing at the door of the Inner Sanctum, waving her hand, encouragingly. “Come in, come in.”
I entered on wobbly legs. I exhaled as if someone had punched me in the stomach. She closed the door behind us. Inside, the place smelled like a mixture of moth balls and mildew. And, I just knew she was going to kill me, boil me up, and that I’d end up smelling like old cheese in even older sock water. She led me into the middle room, and I was surprised to see that the windowless space of the Sanctum looked a lot like ours, but instead of a single bed and a stick lamp, there were shelves and shelves of beautiful dolls, poised like a chorus line of beauties. There were blonde, brunette, auburn, and raven-haired dolls, all different, all costumed in lovely dresses, capped in fancy hats over curled tresses, and all wearing friendly smiles painted on their faces. Some were propped on stands, while others sat, arms outstretched and inviting.
“It vaz your birzday, yes? I heard ze zinging ‘happy birzday to you, happy birzday, Johanna,’ Martha imitated, clapping her liver-spotted hands. I remember thinking that this doesn’t sound like the same woman who gave frequent choruses of “Get Out You Drunken Bum, You!” Then I noticed Martha, herself. She was wearing a kerchief around her head, like the actress Olivia de Havilland wore in the Rosey the Riveter ads during WWII, and her silvery blonde rolled bangs sat at the top of her forehead. Her dress was like one I saw in pictures of my mother when my older brother Richard was a baby. On her feet were open toed, ankle strap shoes ala Joan Crawford. Martha looked like she was frozen on VE Day. I also couldn’t help but notice that both her toe nails and finger nails were deep yellow and extremely long. Her face and teeth were a little yellow too, but her eyes were sparkling blue, and crinkled with kindness, as she spoke.“You like ze dollz, yes?” I nodded mutely, still confused by the images of the monster upstairs I had imagined Martha to be, and the reality of this gentle old lady who lived in Toyland. “Take one, take a doll for your birzday.” She smiled at me while she panned the shelves with her open hand. That’s when I saw the numbers inked on her wrist, but turned my attention back to the dolls. “Really? I can have one?”I found my voice. She gestured again. I surveyed all the dolls, closely, and knew I would never have this chance again—to stand in front of rows and rows of beautiful dolls and take one for my very own. They were all so lovely. Which one? The redhead with the plaid pantalets? The rosy-faced brunette all done up in lace? They were all so different, with the exception of the same initials embroidered on either the hem of the dress, the pleat of the skirt or the cuff of a sleeve. M. K. I pointed to a blonde, banana-curled doll that was dressed in a purple satin dress and a matching hat with a pink feather in it. She took the doll from the shelf and placed it in my arms as if it was a newborn baby. Martha ushered me toward the front door with a gracious smile. “You come again, Johanna, we have ice cream next time.”
Visits with Martha became a regular treat. I even ate the dreaded boiling cheese in sock water, which turned out to be cabbage soup. She told me stories of growing up in Austria. She showed me the only remaining photos of the family she lost in the Holocaust. At the time, I had no idea what she was talking about, though the war was only eight years in the rear view mirror. As the years passed I began to learn about that terrible time in our history and I came to understand that my mother was right when she told us little ingrates to have some respect.
And, here I am, in the ARF Thrift Shop, Water Mill, the Hamptons, far from the el and lifetimes away from the Holocaust, looking up at one of Martha’s dolls, surviving, thriving, with Martha’s very own beautiful branding. How did it get here? How does anything or anyone get anywhere? Time and Tide.