Monday, November 7, 2016

®Made in Montgomery: Growing Up with Dolls and Honoring the Craft Work of Mrs. Essie Thomas

My grandmother's cousin's wife Pauline's porcelain doll collection in the late 1990s

Pauline, Megan and Me with Pauline's doll collection

Me with Pauline's porcelain doll collection

My cousin Megan with Pauline's porcelain doll collection. Some of the dolls were literally as tall as she was!

The soft-sculpture doll that I made at age 15 in 1987 for the Alabama Association of Federated Youth Clubs talent competition, that Mrs. Essie Thomas painted the facial features on

The soft sculpture dolls I made at ages 15 and 18, along with one of my first quilts in the Daughters of Africa Series.

Above, Images of My Soft-Sculpture "Adoption" Dolls Designed and Created by Our Neighbor Mrs. Essie Thomas, Made in 1986

I have loved dolls since my childhood. Though I have seen myself with dolls in pictures from my toddler and early childhood years, Baby Alive was the first doll that I remember playing with. However, my time with her was cut short when I naively fed her Play Doh once her packaged food supply ran out and her chewing mouth mechanism ceased to ever move or work again. My uncle and his wife bought black "life-size" walking dolls with blinking eyes and long floor-length dresses for my cousin and me the year when I was 6, my next major gift from them after the Sunshine Family Dollhouse the year before. The Bionic Woman was my other doll for Christmas that year, one I enjoyed for all of her accessories. I took her little red shoulder bag to school as a change purse one day, though not the doll itself. I was forbidden by my grandmother to take toys to school because "You go to school to learn, not to play."

Among all my toys and games, I received 4 baby dolls for Christmas in 1978 when I was 7 and in second grade. They included a black ballet dancing doll, Dancerella(see photo above), Baby-That –Away, who could crawl, and Baby Come Back(see photo above), who could walk, along with another one whose name and function I can’t recall. We got busy putting the batteries in all of them to see what they could do. We even got my aunt's walking doll that Uncle Richard and Aunt Mae had bought her as a child out of the closet, put batteries in her and put her down beside Baby Come Back for a little walking competition that the whole family watched and enjoyed for a few minutes, which was fun. I also liked the Fashion Plates and the Christie Fashion Face doll (pictured above), but did not open it or play with the latter for several years because it was still a bit over my head with all of the makeup and hairstyling accessories that came with it. In spite of the Play Doh debacle with Baby Alive, it was also great to have Fuzzy Pumper Barber and Beauty Shop among my other toys and games that year.

The next year, for Christmas when I was 8 and in third grade, I received several more dolls among my toys and games. I remember that Happy Baby was a big hit in my family and it was fun to demonstrate her laughter as she was bounced. There was also a doll with a stroller that was fun to play with by pulling a mechanism and seeing her zoom across the floor, and my family enjoyed watching her go, too. My Play Doh supply continued to go strong that year with Dr. Drill ‘N Fill. The baby doll collection continued to expand some as time went on, and eventually included another Baby Alive, who was black this second time around.

By the time I was 10, I became interested in Barbie dolls. I asked for 5 things for Christmas that year, 1981, including Golden Dream Christie, a basic doll trunk for her clothes, a Corvette car for her, a Quiz Whiz game, and a knitting machine. I received all of those things, plus lots of other toys and games, including a Quiz Whiz Challenger and various other electronic and board games. From that year on, I was mainly invested in dolls that expanded my Barbie doll family. I got the first black Sunsational Malibu Ken when he came out, which I learned about from my best friend with whom I mainly played with this collection, along with a Sunsational Malibu Christie, at age 11. It continued to go in new directions the next year.

Around this time, one of my aunt's friends established foundations for the small collection of dolls that I have from Africa and the Caribbean when she brought me 2 straw dolls from the Bahamas, with my name sewn on them in straw (including the accent mark!). It was interesting to learn of my family roots there years later, so those dolls turned out to be a blessing in more ways than one.

I won't ever forget the Barbie doll crisis I thought was building in the days leading up to Christmas of 1983 when I was 12, a period during which my aunt got married. In the midst of all of my family's final preparations for the Christmas-themed wedding, which from my end included my final fitting at Gayfers for my emerald green dress and matching tinted shoes that I was wearing to be a part of the wedding as a candle lighter, I took a look at the Christmas tree daily. My heart dropped day after day because I did not see a one box shaped like a Barbie doll box under it. I looked at the tree day by day in disbelief for not seeing one box that could remotely be a Barbie box. My cousin Lamar, who loved his collection of Hot Wheels cars, got a big kick out of my situation and had a ball laughing at me and teasing me about the looks of things, for it seemed clear that I was not receiving any Barbie dolls that year. But within days, I got to laugh at him, too, when he ended up in the same boat because my uncle and aunt threatened not to buy him this electronic race car he wanted. To cover our bases, we cut a deal so that he would suggest that they give me a Barbie doll for my gift, and I would suggest his race car to my mom. Finally, Christmas morning, I prepared myself to face the day without receiving one Barbie doll to add to my doll family. I was so surprised and happy to get several Barbie dolls as I opened my gifts; my mom had thrown me off by putting the smaller Barbie boxes inside larger shirt boxes!

Soon after that, like everyone, I became fascinated with Cabbage Patch Kids and was amazed to see news stories about parents clamoring for the precious boxes in stores. They were clearly a cultural obsession. The official Cabbage Patch Kid that my mom bought me at age 12 was a black one with 2 ponytails whose name was listed on the "Certificate of Authenticity" as Lilly Elizabet, as in a "bet" in a card game. So that wasn't a typo. Before I got mine, my other best friend had received a boy whose name was "Bertram," a name I had never heard before. I felt that I already knew something about their history and origin because my grandparents had bought me the book on Xavier Roberts's Little People Pals at Gayfers, which I read and treasured, including all of its beautiful pictures that helped to tell the amazing story of his soft sculpture dolls. I studied the pattern that the book included and longed to have one of my own.

My mother ran off the pattern and my grandmother bought beautiful brown fabric and the black yarn for the hair until we could find the right person to make them. Every now and then, I'd take the fabric and yarn out of the plastic bag in which we stored them, look at them and try to picture how the dolls would look. I'd then carefully put all of the materials back in the bag and put it away. I hoped that the yarn would be enough to cover both dolls' heads. I could not wait until the day that I finally had my own "adoption dolls." Meantime, because I knew the basic composition of the dolls from studying the pattern in the book so well, I pulled off a few miniature ones and filled my Barbie doll kingdom with several as decoration for the beds, replete with ribbons and rooted hair.

One day, we had a visitor who said she could sew and promised to make them, and I gave her the bag of materials. But I never saw it again and the dolls never materialized. This was so disappointing.

I had gotten over it by the time I was 14, and so was surprised when my grandmother, Emma Lou Jenkins Richardson, mentioned that a neighbor down the street was making and selling the dolls for $60 and said that she intended to buy me one. I was a bit older by then but still very excited to finally have my doll. A few days later, my grandmother and I went down to Mrs. Essie Thomas's house to meet with her and put in our order. Mrs. Thomas showed us the fabric options that allowed her to make dolls in 3 shades, including white, light and brown skin shades. She dressed them in dresses and bloomers with matching shoes that she also made, thickly rooted their hair with yarn ponytails tied with ribbons, then painted on the eyes as features. Her workmanship was outstanding. I admired it and found it to be inspiring. Her dolls were absolutely beautiful. We decided to place an order for 2 that evening, a brown one and a light one with black yarn hair. Around that time, another neighbor and her sister ordered one with a white skin tone and brown hair for their daughter and niece, who was half my age. It was nice to know about and witness Mrs. Thomas's creative work as she filled several orders for girls on our street and to see the final results. The dolls were beautiful and I proudly displayed them on my bed at home, among stuffed animals. One was dressed in a red checkered dress and the other in pink polka dots. My mom suggested that I name them "Adrienne" and "Nanette," to echo the names of my great grandmothers, Ada Jenkins and Nancy Richardson.

In general, many women on our street made things or sold products to supplement their main income, so I also thought of Mrs. Thomas’s doll crafting in a continuum with those enterprises. For years, my grandmother had bought our Lucky Heart hair grease from Mrs. Thomas's next door neighbor, Mrs. Thompson, along with the tar-based hair shampoo that my grandfather liked. We regularly bought cakes and rolls from our cousin Eddie Mae, who lived in the house on the corner and who babysat me growing up, along with her mother, "Mama Berta," short for Lueberta. Miss Emma and her sister, Miss Sara, both sold Cokes, and had real refrigerators from the company in their homes where they mainly sold them to loyal teen customers, including my aunt and other teens, as they were growing up. Next door, Mrs. Mitchell, who was a hairdresser, was well known for making delicious rolls and regularly filled orders for them. Another neighbor sold Avon, and another Mary Kay. My own grandmother did private duty nursing and did not sell anything on her own time, but took up a collection annually on behalf of the March of Dimes on our street. She would usually also assume the responsibility for going around to take up a collection to give to any neighbor who had experienced a loss, on behalf of the neighborhood. I usually accompanied her. Annually, she also always took other neighborhood children and me Trick or Treating. Mrs. Thomas's dolls were yet another illustration of how entrepreneurial many of our women neighbors were.

When I was in tenth grade and at age 15, as a member of the Dora Beverly Federated Youth Club in Montgomery, I made a small soft sculpture doll and dressed her in a purple jumper and white blouse (pictured above), the organization's official colors, to enter her in the talent competition at the state convention. When I finished, I went and showed Mrs. Thomas my work. She painted on the eyes for me, then drew on a mouth. It was a great honor to have her add the finishing touches to my work. I was happy when it won a Second Place Prize in the competition at the convention.

It is astonishing that Mrs. Thomas did her extraordinary work to design and make soft-sculpture dolls on top of her full-time job; I usually saw her from a distance coming or going and wearing her white uniform. She and her husband had 2 sons, John R. Thomas, a dentist, and Ricky Thomas, a lawyer (he lived in Jacksonville and passed away in 2012), who continue her legacy through their beautiful families and all of her grandchildren. I wish her generations many blessings now and always. I am so thankful to have known her and for her impact on my life. I will always treasure the dolls that she made, including the ones for me, and the story of her outstanding and beautiful doll craftsmanship. I am sharing its impact on me because her work made a difference in my life and she provided an important artistic example when I was growing up. It is a story that the world needs to hear about, one to which I proudly bear witness. The 2 soft-sculpture dolls that she designed and made are also featured with the smaller ones I made myself in the 2008 short film about my art quilts, A Portrait of the Artist.

As I graduated from high school, I also became interested in building a porcelain doll collection and have a box of beautiful ones packed away, like my Barbie doll collection. But my porcelain doll collection does not hold a candle to the extensive collection from places like Home Shopping Network and QVC that literally filled the living room of my grandmother’s cousin’s wife Pauline, which she began in her senior years. My cousins and I enjoyed seeing her doll wonderland in the late 1990s, which my grandmother had described, and posing with them one night (see photos above). It was as extraordinary as my grandmother had described, and one really had to see it to believe it. All kinds of dolls were literally lining the walls in every room with the porcelain ones showcased up front, where the living room doubled as a gallery for their display. I was saddened to hear of Pauline's passing earlier this year and will never forget her extraordinary collection.

My favorite doll story from my grandmother herself is the one about her and her sister Janie Mae Reese, Aunt Mae, accidentally finding these black “bald-headed dolls” that their Aunt Vinnie had bought them for Christmas when they were children during the 1920s, taking them out of the trunk to play with them for a little while, and then putting them back. Aunt Vinnie also gave them China tea set pieces of her daughter Amanda, who was born during the 1800s and whom she had lost years before they were born. We still have and treasure the ones that she gave my grandmother. In my grandfather's family, I love hearing the stories about "Cousin Ludie," who went and participated in the March on Washington, and who had a very extensive and beautiful collection of antique porcelain dolls, which my mom loved seeing when she was growing up. I also love the photos of the beautiful black dolls that my grandmother, who long collected whatnots, bought my mother and aunt during the 1950s and ‘60s, which can be seen among our vintage family photos in other posts on this blog. I am from a family in which many other women have also loved dolls and related things.

I treasure all of the dolls that I have ever owned through the years and still have the vast majority of them, but the ones that our neighbor Mrs. Thomas made for me in Montgomery and so close to my home will always have a special place in my heart, along with her. Thank you, Mrs. Thomas, for making my dream of having those “adoption dolls” come true. Hugs and blessings to you eternally in heaven.

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