The Best Present Ever

This memoir took second place in the Aspiring Writiers December Competition.

Once upon a time, toys were few, and mostly handmade. Imagination was what made them fun. In “Little House in the Big Woods”, set in the 1800s, Laura Ingalls has a doll that is just a corncob wrapped in a handkerchief. She is envious of her sister Mary’s homemade rag doll. For lower income families, that type of toy persisted into the 1950′s.  Surveying ladies in their fifties to seventies, I heard a lot of stories about homemade dolls. Often the dolls were made from perishable, seasonal materials.

A twig with properly spaced branches became a doll with arms, to be dressed in leaves or flowers. Hollyhocks or daylilies made lovely skirts for these dolls. Some girls used old style clothespins instead of twigs as the base for their dolls. A handkerchief could be wrapped over a marble or cotton ball and a rubber band or wrapping of thread used to create a neck. Then the corners were knotted to make the hands and feet of a simple doll. Old socks were also made into dolls, like the infamous sock monkey.

In girls scouts, I learned how to make tiny dolls out of pipe cleaners. They were formed like a stick figure, then the head finished by filling the loop with a cotton ball covered by a scrap of hosiery. Embroidery thread was used for the dolls’ hair. I built houses for them out of shoe boxes. Empty spools were turned into chairs, matchboxes were stacked to be chests of drawers. I learned to cut and fold pieces of pasteboard to make other furniture.

When my chore was washing dishes, I used to pretend the flatware pieces were characters in a fairy tale. The spoons were females, the knives and forks were males. The tablespoons were the queen and married ladies of the court, the teaspoons were the princesses. The potato peeler was the hostage princess from another country, with the long and narrow face. I’d make up stories about which ones were friends and which were fighting, and place them in different slots of the dish drainer based on the story of the night.

If I had access to paper, then I made paper dolls. I was given a cardboard Barbie cutout for a birthday present. That launched a flurry of fashion design. My friends and I would trace the cardboard cutout to draw complete wardrobes, that we colored with crayons. We never bothered to cut out the clothing to put on the doll, we just had pages that represented the closet of the doll. We’d make sets of outfits, complete with accessories for imaginary trips.

When we didn’t have any blank paper, I’d page through the Sears catalog and make up stories about the models. Each page became a new chapter in their adventures.

Today, my brothers and I all agree that the best present ever was a big roll of paper Daddy brought home. The three foot wide roll was carbon-backed, with a second layer of plain paper. We did lots of tracings of comic book characters, reordering the images to make new stories. My brothers would cut out their tracings and have battles using the paper characters.

Only imagination could turn a simple roll of carbon paper into the best present ever.

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