My Papa stood looming over me with that jovial smile of his, a burst of sunlight behind his balding head and a brightly gleaming twinkle in the midst of the smile I adored. I was still unbalanced with a trowel in one hand and a pile of dirt in the other which prevented me from jumping immediately into his arms, but it didn’t seem to matter; a warm wind blew straight through the curl hanging down the front of my right shoulder and moved it behind me to rest on the back of my sweater. I was sure of it. My Papa was always telling me to get my hair out of my face. No surprise to me now.
“Well you know she had to have things just right. Two purple here, one pink there, large petaled, small-petaled and a very straight row or you had to start all over.”
I fixed my eyes upon the face of the man who held the key to my heart ever since the day I took my first breath. I put the trowel down, the dirt fell from my fingers and I found myself sitting in the fall sunlight, listening to leaves drop playfully from the trees that surrounded me. I watched them fall almost on command at his huge overgrown feet that were firmly planted in front of me. Steel-toed shoes, huge shoes, painful shoes, important shoes.
It would take him forty-five minutes in the mornings before work to lace them up. Rheumatoid arthritis claimed his quality of life, pain a constant companion, everyday tasks a monumental chore – and yet he rarely missed work (thirty-three years in a furniture plant) and most days he tilled the garden out back in the evenings. For today, I was content to sit at his feet and plant flowers. He was there to give me a warm breezy hug. Of course, I knew he wasn’t really there.
Resigned to never again help him unlace the knotted shoestrings that strangled too tightly across his tender feet, I turned away to wipe a tear.
I miss him still.
“I’ve been watching you – you and the peace globes” he said.
I smiled and stood up. He was right.
Pansies could wait.
“I know, Papa. I’ve known for some time. You always give me courage when I need it, inspiration when I’ve lost it, and the biggest laughs….I get the most joy from your far-flung sense of humor. It is with me still.” He roared a belly laugh I thought I’d never hear again this side of Heaven. It nearly rocked me off balance, causing me to drop the flat of pansies on the deck, so deep it was, so rich. So Papa.
“I need to ask you! Papa! I have so much to ask you. I don’t know what to do about…..
Will you stay?”
“Mimi,” he said with that tsk tsk expression, “I need to ask you a question.”
I sat back down, wondering somehow if I’d done something wrong. Had I gotten it all wrong? Does he want to talk about the marbles? Yes, that must be it. The marbles. He wants to tell me how he made them. He’ll tell me and I’ll tell my readers and they’ll tell people and he’ll explain it all.
His eyes to me looked young, as young as he must have been the day he married my pansy-stricken grandmother. They were in the prime of their lives and so in love, both prepared to begin a new life. And now, they were both gone. I had her pansy pots and her azalea bush and her quirkiness. He had memories not to be shared with a granddaughter but memories I saw playing behind the youthful grin. I did not let on. But I knew there were stories he must – he surely must – somewhere – somehow – still share with her.
“Ask, Papa. I’ll tell you anything you want to know,” digging a new opening in the dirt for one more yellow pansy.
“Why? Why Mimi?……….why do you need so many?”
“Because she said if you planted enough of them really close together it would make the bouquet brighter and…..”
“No, Mimi. Why do you need so many peace globes?”
I stopped digging, puzzled.
“I don’t need them, Papa, they just keep coming. Through my mail and in the back way. In the middle of the night. In the morning. In the evenings. All colors, all creeds, all walks of life. All species, all reasons, some frivolously made, some seriously woven and others with a single signature. Those I like, too.”
Had I disappointed him? Was that the wrong answer? What does he want me to say?
If there’s one thing about my Papa that was always the best thing – it was his deliberate ability to cut through my facade and get to the truth -usually without a word, never with a scold, and any “serious conversation” he made with me always came on the palpable presence of one who loved me so unconditionally I could never have doubted his intent for my good or his wish for my clear understanding. Laden with well-worn common sense wisdom, I soaked it up often, playing carefully at his painfully laced shoes which criss-crossed in front on me in the living room floor at the bottom of the old leather recliner he loved.
And today, I felt much like that seven-year-old.
Papa had one more story to tell.
“Do you remember the dolls, Mimi? The 100 Dolls?”
“Oh yes, Papa. I still have them. I keep them in the box for safekeeping. They are in perfect condition though the box is yellowed now and torn on the edge. I still see your address, your name, the paid postage stamp and the tape.”
He suddenly got a serious look. “I remember the day you asked me for them. We were thumbing through a catalog and you squealed with delight. “One hundred dolls!! How could 100 dolls come in one box?” you asked.
“I remember,” I said. “They costs one dollar and we had to send away for them all the way to New Jersey and add our postage fee. I was so excited and couldn’t wait to get them in the mail. I think I was seven? Yes, just about that age.”
“Open them, Mimi. They hold a secret. Open the box.”
I’m writing this story at my usual perch at the table but of course, in my mind’s eye I am there, on the porch with my Papa and we are planting pansies and the sun is hot and the leaves are falling and I don’t want to leave. We are having such a lovely day. All is right and he has chosen to visit me now. I don’t want to break the spell. I don’t want to open the box…..but it is there. It is there in front of me, on the table.
I picked it up, put my reading glasses on, trying to make out the fine print. I reach for a magnifying glass to help but for some reason, I put it down. I couldn’t. I couldn’t look. I just couldn’t.
And when have you ever been able to disobey him? Never. And when have you ever disappointed him? Sometimes. And will you do that today? No.
I picked it up again.
Bulk Rate. US Postage Paid. Newark, N.J. Permit No.4396.
100 Dolls Dept R
285 Market Street
What’s so special about this old box of dolls? They’re plastic and probably a few are missing. Pink. Flimsy. Tiny little things. Not at all like I…..
“Right,” said Papa, ” you were disappointed. You were disappointed when they arrived a few weeks later. I could see it in your face. I never forgot how cute it was when you said, “NOW I know how they got so many dolls in one box. They don’t look like the picture in the magazine at all. They are very small and I think I might even break them.” “So you sat at the kitchen table night after night and lined them up. Trying to figure out which was a cook and which was a nurse and which was a girl and which was a boy. I told you that they all have a face and they all have a voice, even if they are on the small side. You made up stories to go with them and then, once you’d brought them to life, there was a sadness about the way you stored them away. Back in the box. Back in the box. Always back in the box.”
He shook his head.
This was not going to be easy. What does he want me to see? There won’t be an obvious blue world globe-like marble sitting there this time, we’re talking about prissy dolls for a prissy girl who turned into a prissy woman who has no idea why she’s crying at her keyboard in the middle of this unfinished story.
I decided to open the box.
Something I’d forgotten about. On top of my dolls in the lower right corner was a matchbox size toy. He’d sent away for that too. It came with my dolls. “Tricky Dogs” They were magnets. One white dog. One black dog. When you start to play with them, they always gravitate toward each other. After forty years the magnet is still strong. I turned them over in my hands I read the back of the box.
Directions: Place one Tricky Dog on a surface (polished wood or glass) Push the other Tricky Dog up to it from behind, or sweep the second Tricky Dog in a half circle around the first one. Watch them twirl!
My tabletop is made of glass. I took the black one and put him up front, made a sneak attack by the white one and voila! the black dog began to spin in a circle – in an energetic frenzy – and aligned itself with the other one smashing into him, wagging their magnetic tails and gravitating together: smooching, the way only magnets can. Most of the time I played with the dolls, but Papa……he would rather I lay aside the Barbie doll brain and chase my dream around the glass top. He was like that. Always dropping life lessons in my lap, at inopportune times like today, when I’d rather be planting pansies.
I laughed. I’d forgotten the hours of entertainment we’d had trying to make the dogs do something else. I tried to separate them so many times – so like me to want to even argue with electrons and atoms – but they always ended up smacking into each other no matter what I did and the twirling little dance always ended with a dog collision. Inevitable. Worked every time. Without fail.
The globes, Papa. They all spin their own way and yet they eventually make their way towards one another spinning together and with one purpose. Is that right?
Now my grownup mind understands such things. I know there really is no “trick” – I know they’re just heavily plastered metal toys with magnet skates on the bottom – but I’m not a grownup today. I’m a seven year old on the floor with my Papa and we are playing from the box he mail ordered for me in the 1960’s. And I am laughing. The dogs still make me laugh.
I sighed. This observation is just too obvious. Magnets. Globes. Spinning earth balls. Earth Science. I get it. I get it. I turned to him and said, “I know all about this little analogy. I went to college and got a degree since you’ve been gone ya know. And anyway, I need to finish planting these pansies and get them all in a straight line the way she would….the way she would…..Papa?”
He was gone.
And I was left with a tabletop full of little pink dolls piled on top of each other, delighted to be free of the box, crisscrossing on top of one another and laid crosswise in the jumbled life of another doll, too many for a seven year old to count, too tiny for a middle aged woman to see in great detail and yet…..somehow I knew they’d been waiting for just this hour to make their second debut into my life. Pink. Plastic. Fragile. Soft spoken. And yet….when I put them all together they make an enormous pile.
Like my globes.
“Why? Mimi, why? Why do you need so many?”
I never answered his question. That must be why he left. I suppose he is angry with me. I’ll have to tell him another time about the blogger from Hong Kong and the man from Singapore and Idaho met Japan and tomorrow Italy promised to email Turkey….Israel and Poland and Tennessee and Michigan is helping Ireland make a globe and it doesn’t matter how small their blogs may be, they all have a face and all have a voice and they just want to speak their ….oh never mind.
Hmmm…..It’s been forty years and I still haven’t played with all those dolls. No time like the present.
So, I took them out of the box.
One by one
A nurse, a dancer, an Indian man, two clowns, Spanish people, a ballerina, a little girl, a man speaking, a roping cowboy, a smiling cowgirl, a Buddhist monk, a Chinese man, a Mexican hat dancer, a Gypsy girl playing a tambourine, Bolero dancers, Little Bo Peep, all nationalities, all creeds, all expressions, all costumes of origin and a world of imagination at my fingertips that now played alone without the fumbling arthritic hand of the man who gave them to me so long ago…….a Peruvian girl, a small child playing ball, a colonial doll with a full skirt taking a bow (My favorite. She bowed a lot in those pre-pencil skirt days). I remembered how his hands were so large and gnarled, fumbling with the small creatures as they fell in his lap. I would laugh and we would start the dance again. The Buddha man would twirl with the Peruvian woman while the little boy with the ball – perhaps it was a jack-in-the-box – sat quietly in the middle of it all. They all got along in my peaceful box universe. The dolls in my box lived in one world, dancing and spinning around. “I’ll get that for you, Papa,” I said, “ the lady from Spain would like to dance with the Russian ballerina now if you don’t mind……..Papa!?”
I looked up from the land of pink twirling peace and saw a tear roll down his cheek and land on his steel-toed shoe. I could tell he longed for our pink doll world of friendly global dancers and I so wanted to never see him sad again. “My life went sailing by,” he said, “like a thin silk pansy leaf falling on the wisp of a breeze. I blinked and it was gone. Not much older than you are today. So much left to do. So much left to say. Many more flowers to plant. Many more stars to catch. More dances to dance. My work was not done…… But you knew that, didn’t you, Mimi?
“All I know, Papa, is that I wasn’t there that day. I canceled our outing and you left without me. You and grandmother went to the doctor and after that day, I never saw you again. Not ever again. I was angry because you did not say goodbye. I was angry that I did not say goodbye. And I longed to tell you all my tales and all my stories. I’ve waited for you to tell me what to do. “
I put down the dolls and looked at his wisdom-worn face, anxious for the answers that I needed. But he had a way of making me figure it out for myself. This day was no different.
“You do not need me to tell you what to do. I am proud of you and you are doing just fine. Just remember one thing: It takes all the dolls in the box to make the world a beautiful place, Mimi. . They can’t hear what the other one has to say unless you introduce them to one another and set their feet to dancing. Take them out of the box.”
Just take them out of the box.
That’s it? That’s the secret? Take them out of the box? But what about the globes? And the marbles? I jumped up to give him a hug the way I always did but he was gone.
In the bottom of the box I found a piece of yellow paper. It had my name on it, folded, in my grandmother’s handwriting. I opened it. It was a speech I’d made in church for a Christmas program when I was 3 years old. He’d tucked it away in the bottom of my doll box. I smiled as I remembered that the best part of that day had been running down the church aisle and jumping into his white-sleeved arms for a hug and a kiss. If I ever doubted what my grandfather gave to me, and continues to instill in me even now, it is the simple power of love and a respect for all creatures large and small –
pink and Peruvian.
And that, my friends, is all we need.