One summer, on a street corner in Prague, I stood transfixed in front of a store window filled with dolls. There were flaxen-haired princesses in silk dresses, raven-haired beauties in blue velvet frocks, newborn babes swaddled in buntings, wizened kings, and a multitude of hand-painted Snow Whites and Sleeping Beauties. What was a grown woman doing with her nose pressed against the glass and a feeling of compulsion to buy one of the dolls and carry it home? My daughters had long since grown up and moved on. Still, something about the possibility of buying a brand new doll kept me lingering.
When my girls were young, I admit to indulging them with the best dolls money could buy, even when it was far beyond the budget of a young medical intern and his wife. For the oldest I bought a Chatty Cathy, with a pink dress and a string you could pull to make her talk; for the youngest there was a Betsy-Wetsy with her own supply of diapers; and for the middle daughter, a set of perfectly dressed Little Women dolls made by Madame Alexander, the Cadillac of doll makers.
My own first doll was Johnny. She cost twenty-five cents, and how she got her name is something I don’t remember, but, what I do recall, is the day I got her and the day, fifty years later, that I gave her away.
When we lived at 703 Walk Hill Street, every Saturday afternoon from the first chill of fall until Memorial Day, my family visited the Dover Street Public Baths in downtown Boston. There was always the promise that after the baths we would go to the “Morgie.” where perhaps I could get a new doll. We were six females and my cousin “Label,” otherwise known as “Leonard.” Before my Aunt Helen and Uncle Morris acquired their green Studebaker, this was a weekly, major family excursion.
First, we took the Blue Hill Avenue trolley car and rode to the end of the line, Egelston Square. There, we climbed the stairs to the elevated trains. The tracks stretched, in those days, from Forest Hills to Dudley Street in Roxbury, and on to downtown Summer Street, and finally to Sullivan Square, the last stop. Sullivan Square could have been in Beverly Hills for all we knew, we never went that far. Dover Street, our stop, was only midway on the line.
The best part of the journey took us through the rooftops of Boston. As we traveled the tracks, sitting on our knees and staring out the window, the rooms of the box-car flats floated rapidly by in front of us. We could see the residents holding onto their beds, tables, and dishes for dear life, their wash dangling on pulleys between buildings. There was men’s underwear, ladies’ bras, sheets, aprons, and flowered dresses. I wondered how it felt to have your life exposed like that and at the same time hoped our train would be stalled just long enough to get a better look. We may have been poor, but never as destitute as those people sitting in their windows watching us go by. At least we were going somewhere.
In the name of cleanliness, godliness, and our then infamous mayor, James Curley, the City of Boston ran the Dover Street Public Baths. To our family, the baths’ purpose was clear. We went there to “take the waters,” just as some people went to Saratoga, because hot water was in apparent short supply in our three-decker house.
Years later, when I questioned my mother, she told me it wasn’t the lack of hot water at all. “You mean we had enough the whole time?” I asked. “Yes,” she told me. It was simply that my grandmother didn’t want to “use up the hot water.” It took coal to feed the furnace and heat the water, and coal cost money. With three families to bathe, that was a lot of cash. The Coal Man delivered his load only once a month, sliding his precious black stones down a chute, straight into our cellar coal bin. It was my job to shovel the coal into the fiery furnace, but that’s another story.
At the front desk of the Dover Street Baths, we were issued a towel and a bar of brown soap. This soap could take the skin right off an elephant. Our instructions, seeing that the soap was free, were to “scrub like our life depended on it.” In my family, whatever bounty fell our way was to be used. Why else had God given it to us?
The Baths were divided into Men’s and Women’s. Men went to the left, women to the right. When I was old enough to learn about the Holocaust, the similarities in organization did not escape me. Because we were six women and my cousin Label, we went to the women’s side. According to the rules, children under eight were allowed in with their parents, whatever the sex. Once my cousin was nine, the real fun began. From that time on until way past puberty, we snuck him into the women’s side with us, outfitted in one of my aunt’s housedresses and a kerchief over his head, all the while rolling in laughter.
Today, Label, otherwise known as Leonard, is a prominent periodontist in the Boston area. I have never asked him how this cross-dressing period of his life affected his social development, but I do know he has a wife, many children, smokes a pipe, and is a devoted son, which proves absolutely nothing.
Once inside the Baths, we were given a floor to ceiling locker, all the better to stash our belongings, allowed and otherwise. Our favorite locker was 102 because it was farthest from the gaze of the matron who guarded the place with eagle eyes from her perch on a high wooden stool. One false step and you were o-u-t, out.
Despite no food being allowed, my family was not one to be deterred by rules in their new, hard won democracy, especially if it meant going hungry. My future refusal to take “no” for an answer, can directly be traced to this seminal experience at the Baths. We would cleverly sneak our lunch in; thermoses filled with slightly soured milk and scrambled egg sandwiches made from breakfast leftovers. We were never allowed peanut butter and jelly. “Those sandwiches, on white bread,” we were told, “were devised by lazy parents.” Even more savory than the egg sandwiches, however, was a whole chicken, usually concealed in Cousin Label’s underpants. There was nothing better than a good roast chicken to show love.
The bathhouse was damp and smelled of Lysol disinfectant. These were the days of the polio scare, when germs were as great an enemy as the Germans, the Japanese, and our local Mulvey Street Gang. The war was being fought in far away places with names like Normandy and Iwo Jima. The Mulvey gang, in contrast, was alive and well, with their own club jackets, right down the street from us, waiting like buzzards stalking their prey.
After we undressed, we searched out a shower, or one of the few prized genuine porcelain bathtubs with white knobs that extended like four bulbous thumbs marked “Hot” and “Cold.” These faucets are now considered “retro” and found at pricey hardware stores that sell the past to the present.
How I loved to sneak a glance at the old women, their breasts hanging down to practically their navels. My aunt claimed my grandmother could sling hers over her shoulders, but I never witnessed it, and doubt my aunt did either. The women’s buttocks were permanently lined from their corsets, and they all had a bush of glorious hair growing between their legs. Such a trophy would mean you were one of them, with secrets whispered through shower curtains; secrets being the currency that was always abundantly available.
After bathing, with our hair braided and faces shining, my sister and I, our cousins, Aunt Helen, my mother, and Grandma Edie would troop across the old Dover Street Bridge to what we knew as “The “Morgie.” That’s the only name I knew it by. Many years later, I would learn that the large brick building we visited every Saturday afternoon was the headquarters of the Morgan Memorial Goodwill. To us kids, it was our house of dreams, our own “Toys ‘R Us.”
The Morgie was divided into three floors: clothing, household goods, and toys. The toys were on the top floor, reached by a set of wide wooden stairs. So, while the grown-ups picked through bins filled with the remains of other people’s treasures, the children were sent to the third floor to amuse themselves.
It never occurred to me that the Morgie was filled with cast-offs. It was rumored that elegant stores like Bonwit Teller contributed leftover clothes at the end of each season. According to my Aunt Helen, who knew everything about everything, including the price paid by Mrs. Van for her mink coat, rich people never wanted last year’s fashions.
There were wagons and bicycles, sleds and ice skates, toy soldiers and tea party sets. There were shelves of puzzles and games, most of them missing some pieces. But, for a quarter, my mother would say, you couldn’t argue. I once got a puzzle of the United States for ten cents, which served me through junior high school geography. How I loved to fit the edges in – Washington, California, Texas, Florida, and Maine. That it was missing Tennessee was hardly a problem, because with Kentucky always on one side and North Carolina reliably on the other, the gaping shape between had to be Tennessee. It was, in fact, distinguished by its absence.
Only one toy was allowed each Saturday, and nothing over twenty-five cents. The big items like bicycles or dollhouses were out of our category. For us girls, however, the biggest draw was the dolls.
We had to search for them, hidden like buried treasures in the mountain of discards heaped into wooden bins higher than we were. I remember how we hoisted ourselves onto the horizontal boards that ran between the legs of the tables, and then buried our heads into the piles of dolls. And this is the thing. They were all naked. Not one came with any clothes. They were stripped when they arrived, then scrubbed clean, same as us.
We would spend hours picking out our choice, including my cousin Label, who would search desperately through the heaps for a boy doll. One time, though, he managed to convince my aunt to buy him a set of Bongo drums, which ended up driving Grandma Edie through the roof.
One time, I found Johnny, a girl doll. I’m not certain how I knew she was a girl, but I did. She was almost as big as a newborn, and was bald, except for a few lines drawn on her head, meant to simulate hair. Dolls at the Morgie never had hair. They had long since lost whatever locks they had when new. Johnny did, however, have porcelain blue eyes that opened and shut and the sweetest smile. When you tipped her over and patted her, she said “Mama.” She was the “realest” doll I had ever seen.
That day, I ran downstairs, ecstatic with my prize. It was rung up at the cash register and wrapped in brown paper and string for the trip home. We arrived at the house on Walk Hill Street, tired, clean, and happy. Johnny was laid safely in her cradle, fashioned from a shoebox lined with pieces of old blanket.
In the coming months my mother sewed clothes for Johnny from odds and ends of cloth, her feet treadling away on the Singer sewing machine. Her scrap bag was filled with exotic pieces of fabric and in its depths you could pick out the remains of my father’s Hawaiian shirt or my grandmother’s pink chenille bathrobe, a sapphire blue bathing suit from last summer, or the yellow and green tablecloth with a pattern of red tulips and windmills. The bag contained the remnants of our lives and from its contents were fashioned entire wardrobes for our dolls, including party dresses, nightgowns, and even the occasional lace bonnet. Once my mother made Johnny fancy shoes out of aluminum foil with silver buttons sewn on. Nobody’s dolls, she insisted, were as well dressed as my tribe of orphans.
Still, sometimes, on Sundays, when my father would take me alone to my Aunt Alice’s house, we would pass Murray’s Toy Shop near Franklin Park. He and I would stand there hand in hand, looking into the window at the rows of dolls. There was one in particular, in the front row, with long golden curls and a sparkling red satin dress trimmed in white fur, with a muff to match, and tiny genuine patent leather shoes. How I longed for that new doll, nose pressed up against the glass plate window separating us.
My father, who looked like Clark Gable, as even my peevish Aunt Jeanette agreed, promised me that for some birthday he would get that doll with the long gold curls and the white fur muff. He was saving up. He even squeezed my hand as he said it, placing his other arm around my shoulder. He was so close I could smell his Old Spice.
I believe he meant to, but desire shapes memory and makes heroes of ordinary people we need to worship when we are small. He never did, which was no fault of his, but I never stopped dreaming of her. My father was a shoe salesman working on commission and sales were down. “People,” he would say, “were too darn fussy for their own good.”
Years later, when my husband and I sold our house in the suburbs and had to sort out everyone’s childhood, I came across a box filled with dolls, their homemade clothes long since lost. Among them, way down at the bottom, was my Johnny, naked as the day I found her at the Morgie. I cradled her in my arms and patted her on the back, but no sound came out. It was logical that a long ago voice box sewn into her body had given out over time.
And that’s how I came to be in front of that window in Prague one summer day, transfixed by the display of expensive dolls. In the end, I chose none of those “rich-girl dolls.” What I really wanted was locked behind the glass of the storefront I pressed against during my childhood. It had been something new and shiny and first class, something I could call my own. Now, looking at the window in Prague, it didn’t matter, because there was no going back. Not one could be as enchanting as that doll with the long golden curls and the red satin dress, trimmed with white fur, I saw that Sunday morning long ago in the window of Murray’s Toy Store.