Since my father closely documented the lives of my nuclear family with photographs, I’ve been using them to compose an outline for a memoir, separating them out into themes and chronologies and posting them on Thematic.co, which concentrates on sequential photos. I run onto problems and insights that are a little disruptive.
The times were much more innocent and so there are photos of us nude, quite young, from the back, cavorting at pajama time before the pj’s went on. If I publish them, am I inviting accusations of pedopornography? They were used by the family as markers of growth, freely shared, posed in front of my father’s cherished phonograph console which -- in a kind of metaphor for the times -- seemed to have drawers but in fact had a lid which opened to the turntable. That is, since my father was an aficionado of classical music and had a respectable collection of 78’s which he stopped playing at some point in the late Forties, it represented Culture but never explained or developed. We danced madly to the Khatchaturian Sabre Dance but didn’t know what it was. Only my father had any idea what he was playing on his records. He had no formal music education.
We used the radio buttons alongside the turntable which had little stickers on the keys to denote which station it would bring up. We loved the sensation of pushing them, even when the radio was off. There were two seeming “drawer pulls” on the front which we kids would turn and turn, in hopes that they would at last do something. At some point that piece of furniture disappeared but I have no idea the circumstances, so I must have left by then. The records had been moved to an inaccessible set of shelves he created under his desk in the basement between the wood pile and the laundry with stacks and stacks of orange crates full of genre paperbacks. The “literary” books were upstairs.
My father was a fond man, unless opposed, and in the early years liked to play with us and read to us. He had a lot of little parlor tricks about paper wads and illusions involving silk scarves and pocket toys like a black Scottie and a while Sealyham with magnets mounted on the bottom that would make them repel or attract each other. A similar magnet trick involved King Tut and his sarcophagus. His tricks were a defense, to keep things from being real, make people laugh. He was a traveling man in rural Oregon and used his tricks with the farmers he dealt with as well as with his family.
I cannot recall either of my parents ever holding my dolls as though they were real babies, but my mother would sometimes make doll clothes. I was given a “Cherry Ames, Student Nurse” book, one of a series, sort of a medical version of Nancy Drew. In it, the intrepid student nurse on night duty finds a bedridden little girl crying. She has no doll, so Cherry goes to fetch the demo doll the nurses use to learn things. It’s life-sized, inflatable, and there is a funny sequence about Cherry wrestling the creature down the hall to the ward, meeting someone and pretending to be dancing with it. I had no idea that the doll the writer was really thinking of, entertaining himself with the thought of, was a sex surrogate doll. But I read the sequence over and over, feeling that there was something behind it.
One of several family-darkening forces was my maternal grandmother’s cancer, which killed her over a period of years. I have no memory of her but my mother said I used to play alongside her bed where she would watch me with my paper dolls. I do remember an episode when we stayed with my grandfather in Roseburg so my mother could do the canning. My grandmother must have been in the hospital. We left in such a hurry that neither I nor anyone else thought to bring any of my dolls. Today’s middle class families would simply go buy another doll, but then money was tight. My grandfather asked me to draw a doll on a thin piece of plywood and he cut it out for me with a jigsaw.
By then my dolls were transitioning towards adulthood. There were no sexy Barbie dolls on the market yet. I didn’t draw a baby doll but something more like a paper doll. Paper dolls are all about clothes and posing. A little girl in that Roseburg neighborhood invited me to play dressups in her mother’s old nightgowns. My mother wore plain flannel dress-length nightgowns, but her mother wore slippery satiny full-length nighties with embellishments. We were Betty Grable and Lana Turner. I had never heard of them, but that sophisticated little girl assured me they were the most sexy women in the world. Her mom read movie mags. My mother didn't allow them.
She and her family lived in the basement of their house while her father built the rest of the rooms above them, so that the first floor was like a stage on which to prance around, throwing our skinny hips back and forth and patting the back of our hair. Her young veteran father thought we were very amusing and her mother rolled her eyes but smiled. My mother was too involved in a row with her father to notice. My father was, of course, missing, working.
Back in Portland, in good time, I had a “Toni doll” with hair as red as Maureen O’Hara’s -- a slightly larger scale figure than Barbie and not so busty. You could set the hair with sugar water. The girl across the street had a Madame Alexander doll, which was too splendid to take out of the box. It was Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara in the famous green dress impossibly made from drapes. Fortunately, the package had a cellophane front so we could at least admire her. A few houses down lived a girl who had an untouchable collection of small Story Book dolls: Little Bo Peep, and Cinderella and Snow White. They were like six-year-olds with beauty contest hair who wore elaborate fussy costumes.
My last doll was a realistically squalling infant which my mother thought I was too old to want. I never did play with it much or even cuddle it very much. By then I was sewing my own clothes, but never made any clothes for the doll. My eighth grade graduation present was a kitten and I transitioned to a living creature that slept stretched against me in a mixture of child and lover. Somehow I got stuck at that stage. Or circled back.
Today the remnant of my dolls is in a box out in the storage shed that I used to call my “bunk house.” I can’t quite bear to just throw them in the trash, but the heat and moisture of storage has made them neither collectible nor desirable as toys. Anyway dolls now are far more sophisticated.
Included in the box is “Dottie Dimples,” my mother’s cherished doll with a bisque china head. She entrusted me with DD, but I dropped her and broke her head. After a trip to the doll hospital (in those days one got a damaged doll fixed rather than buy a new one) she was restored. But I broke her again. Another doll infanticide. The look of pain and contempt on my mother’s face has never left me. This time she refused to fix “Dottie Dimples.”
The truth is that I didn’t care a whole lot. She wasn’t MY baby. I didn’t want babies anyway, I told myself.
What does this have to do with my father’s nude photos of his children? I can’t quite get at it. Do I want to?