My wife Claudia and I were never good with our dolls, as children. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons we have toys populating the bookshelves of our living room at home. We’re old enough to look after them better now (as Claudia periodically reminds me). We have a dark-looking doll of Johnny Depp playing Tonto, an Obi-Wan Kenobi and a phalanx of Star Wars Lego-like characters from Hong Kong. Claudia has some strange toys, like the tentacled neon silicon worms that light up inside when you shake them. And, of course, sitting congenially on the side board are the remarkable dolls she’s made with her own hands.
Don’t get me wrong. The house is not a museum to childhood. We do have grown-up things. But you can tell that a couple of indulgent aunties live here. When I was young, one of my aunts did make a doll museum in her house. I was lucky to visit and was utterly enchanted as a child. Adults tend to marginalise those who cherish, and make visible, the child inside them. Whereas children never forget a place where their perceptions are given priority.
Mass marketing of toys hit Australia about the same time that I did. Barbie dolls came to Australia the year I was born and were as big a craze as the Beatles. By the time I was heading for my fourth birthday I wanted a Barbie very much. I can remember discussions between my parents and our broader family about it. Barbie dolls were very expensive and my mother’s older sister Maureen (the first in the family to go to University) argued persuasively that Barbies were bad for little girls. At least that’s how I remember hearing it, with my sharp little girl’s ears. The second wave of feminism peaked high and long in Australia.
I didn’t get a Barbie doll. But the doll I was given, named Mary (because all of my nursery rhymes were full of Marys), had dark curly hair, eyes that closed when she lay down. Best of all she spoke — in a robotic voice that came out of her kidneys — when you tilted her. Ma-ma she said. It was fascinating.
Of course, the voice broke in a year or two and one of Mary’s eyes became permanently closed thanks to that common disease that afflicts long-living dolls treated roughly by toddlers. I did have to take her head off once or twice to see how she was made inside.
Later I had another doll, a soft little baby called Thumbelina, with a music box inside her. The tin box in her belly played a tinkling version of Brahm’s Lullaby. I was a very verbal child, so the repetition of the song saying “Go to sleep, go to sleep, go to sleep little baby,” probably usually worked. (That was our imagined version of the lyrics). Thumbelina’s head was a polystyrene ball covered in a stocking, each eye a single stitch of brown cotton. A mechanical whirring accompanied the tinkling song as her head moved in a slow circle. But she endured.
Little Claudia did get a cheaper imitation of a Barbie doll. Like many girls that get called naughty, she cut her doll’s hair. The way Claudia tells the story, her doll’s head looked too small for the rest of her then. So, with an aesthetic sense that might have pleased Aunty Maureen, five-year-old Claudia tried to sculpt imitation Barbie’s chest. How was she to know that those pneumatic bumps were hollow? Later, her dolls needed plaster casts on their legs (as young Claudia herself did many times) and Claudia found the perfect materials in her father’s workshop. The plaster casts she made from gap-filler were smoothed with her father’s handy and authoritative tools. Claudia still recalls her father, crying out in despair, on finding his expensive files and rasps all but ruined.
When she was about eight years old, Claudia’s parents, living in a village in the European Black Forest, worked long hours at the local factory. They set out to build the children a dollhouse. It was built in the small hours of the night while Claudia and her little brother slept. Months of work went into the project and, no doubt, many dreams of the children’s happiness.
And it was a beautiful world, that dollhouse. Claudia will tell you how amazing it was, with electric lights wired to a battery, paintings on the walls with handmade wooden frames, a chamber pot by the little bed that was furnished with a puffy quilt and bright pillows. Originally it had a plush red carpet. The dollhouse was a big wooden box divided into two rooms with an exquisitely well-fitted wooden door, impressively door-handled, between them. Different walls on the outside of the house were furnished by wood-patterned and brick wallpaper. At the side of the house there was a broad staircase to a higher level, where there was a bounded gallery like an allure along the top of a castle wall. Downstairs, lace curtains furnished the windows. A graceful floor lamp expressed the sophisticated style of the house’s inhabitants with its corrugated shade made from a cupcake paper or cocktail umbrella.
Claudia and her brother loved the little house and set about playing with enthusiasm. The house was the perfect size for their pair of pet guinea pigs, still small then. (That was before the two guinea pig ‘girls’ had 21 babies and moved to more spacious dwellings in a mobile lawn-mowing pen in the back yard). The cute rodents must have enjoyed running up and down the stairs, scratching around in the velvet carpet and knocking over the nicely upholstered wing chair. The dollhouse truly was full of life. I imagine chatty guinea pig meals served on the little dining table with the furry friends persuaded to sit momentarily in the cosy chairs. There was also a lovely sofa.
Nowadays, the sofa is gone and the carpet in the dollhouse has been replaced for the grandchildren. The electrics don’t work anymore but the funky chandelier of tiny plastic cylinders still overhangs the dining table. Perhaps it only needs a battery. The little wooden house is occupied by a variety of dolls and animals. A cow stands on the allure. There are a few granules in the chamber pot that look like guinea pig poo, but they’re actually little dark brown sweets, thoughtfully placed by a resourceful child.
Claudia’s parents and mine worked long and devoted hours to give us security and delight as children. It didn’t always work out as hoped, but we adventurous girls were forgiven at least a thousand times.
Now that I am grown up, I know that there is pleasure and satisfaction in making something as a gift or creating an artwork. Cooking a meal that will be eaten by a loved one or even putting years into a garden that will not necessarily live on can be its own reward. We can’t all be working on les jardins de Versaille. There’s pleasure in the doing of things. By developing skills and by growing the patience to create something, we make more of ourselves. When others are able to appreciate and enjoy the product of our labours, even over years, that’s exceptional. But the real reward is the learning we carry within us and the knowledge that we are makers.