"Link of Courage" by (c) Larry Poncho Brown 2003.
Burying the Dolls
by Michele Simms-Burton
For my grandmother, mother, aunts, and all women whose stories help us find our way.
“Rosaline. Remember the dolls?”
“What dolls? Sheryl, what are you talking about? There’s so much static on this line.”
Sheryl kept probing, pushing Rosaline to recall instances from their childhood that she’d buried, misplaced, or forgot. Yet, fringes of those remembrances that Rosaline dare not extinguish or let go, a bokeh illuminated of Sheryl wrapping a brown baby doll in a cloth and placing it in a cardboard box.
“Yes, the dolls,” Rosaline chuckled through the telephone receiver. “The dolls,” she murmured to herself.
“Yes. Every fall, just before the ground froze the five of us would bury our dolls. Remember?”
The image revealed itself with tack sharpness. Sheryl suggested that Rosaline and the other three sisters help bury their dolls. An idea that Rosaline, Mary, and Ruth Ann thought absurd since they no longer played with dolls. But Sheryl, supported by Barbara Jean—the second youngest when they lived in Vandergrift—rationalized that if they buried their dolls, their mom and dad would have to buy them new ones for Christmas. Because Sheryl was the youngest then, Pauline having not been born yet, the other sisters let Sheryl have her way.
“Oh, Rosaline, do you remember the elaborate funerals we’d put on for our dolls?”
“A little bit.”
“Sister, how could you forget? We’d wrap them in black satin that we took from momma’s sewing room.”
“Sheryl, that wasn’t satin. Momma wouldn’t let us waste her satin on no dolls.”
“Whatever. It was satin to me. Don’t twist my memories now. Go along with them.”
“Okay, okay. You still must have your way,” Rosaline chuckled.
“So, you do remember.”
“I do. But, are you coming to celebrate my birthday in Vandergrift?”
“Of course, I’m coming. But, have you talked to Ruth Ann, Mary, Pauline, and Barbara Jean? Have they all agreed to come? You know, we haven’t been together since mom’s funeral. This will be good for us.”
Rosaline felt the heaviness dance across her heart hearing Sheryl reference their mother’s death. It had been less than a year since their mother passed. The loss tore Rosaline’s heart open. She could find no way to mend it, to end the heavy breathing, to stop the tears at night. She swallowed hard before the silence became too apparent.
“Okay, well I’m going to go. I need to call the other sisters. I’ll talk to you later.”
The gathering of the six sisters came together. All of them variations of their parents: two of the girls tall like their father, the other four like their mother. Six beauties with flowing hair that one-by-one each sister chopped off until their father exclaimed aloud that he’d never seen bald-headed women before he moved to New York. All of them gap-toothed, with Pauline sporting the widest gap.
The sisters sat in cousin Nanette’s living room, the stain-glassed window peering down on them, the ochre colored walls warm and inviting. The chintz of the sofa felt cool to their touch. Each sister had grabbed an afghan or quilt to wrap around herself. They weren’t large women, and they often bragged about how little their dates paid for them to get into the rent parties in New York City because the price of admission was the size of a girl’s waistline.
“You know, I can’t deal with that deer jumping in the snow.” Sheryl pointed up to stain glass transom window where six sisters sat before a roaring fire.
“Don’t tell me you still bothered by that deer?” Ruth Ann jeered. “Sheryl, how old were you, five or six when Rosaline took us to the picture show to see “Bambi?”
“Ruth Ann, I was five. I don’t know how that movie was appropriate for children.”
“Yeah, and then daddy came home, hauling that dead deer from hunting. And, you started screaming and crying when you saw it on the back porch, saying that daddy had killed Bambi’s mother. Sheryl, do you remember?”
Ruth Ann clasped her hands in her lap, hands made nimble by sewing and casting yarn.
“Please Ruth Ann. How could I forget? I still won’t eat venison to this day.”
“Sheryl, don’t tell me that after all these years, you still thinking about that deer,” Mary chuckled, the angularity of her cheekbones casting shadows on her face.
“Yep, and the reason why you weren’t traumatized is because you were asleep.”
“I won’t dispute that. I must get my sleep,” Mary smiled.
Sheryl, Barbara Jean, and Pauline’s cigarettes burned leaving lip stains of vintage wine, black brandy, and catwalk on the tipping paper. Rosaline, Ruth Ann, and Mary, the three older sisters, did not smoke. When the coffee cups exposed dregs, more coffee streamed from the percolator poured by Ruth Ann. The hours of sleep caught and passed them. They talked, and talked, as they always did when they got together.
Each scanned the other’s face for a tell-tale sign of mourning. Detected change observed with a furtive glance, a stealthy survey, and a side eye without reproof or criticism. Yet, silence prevailed.
“Cut me another piece of sweet potato pie.” Pauline handed her plate to Ruth Ann, who rose from the chair and made her way to the kitchen, her skirt swishing and her slippers clapping.
“As momma would say, we might be getting heavier and older, but damn we still alive,” Pauline said.
“Girl, who you calling older and heavier? I’ve just begun.” Mary laughed and fell back in the chair.
Rosaline sat, observing her sisters. All still petite, all still hanging on to their girlish grins. All beating back life’s aging hand. She noticed that her sisters exchanged variations of the same stories every time they got together. So as not to forget, she supposed. Sheryl liked to dominate the story telling.
“Remember the time Benjamin, Barbara Jean, and I went to the cellar and drank all momma’s grape wine, and filled the bottles with grape juice?”
“Oh, do I remember. I’m the one who had the brilliant idea of filling the bottles with grape juice.”
“Barbara Jean, are you sure? I thought that that was my idea?”
“No, it was me. You were too young to think of something like that.”
Pauline interrupted the volley.
“Ruth Ann, are you baking that pie, or what?”
“I remember, too. And Pauline, I’m coming with your pie. If you can’t wait, come in here and get your own pie.”
“That woman can’t take a joke,” Pauline said.
Rosaline broke from her reverie in the wing back chair with the quilt pulled up to her shoulders. “You know, Pauline, you are a bit spoiled.”
Yep, she came along and eclipsed my status as baby of the family.”
“Sheryl, don’t start. I was the not-planned-oops-we-made-a-mistake-baby. I mean really, how old was momma when she had me?”
“Too old. She should have stopped with me, then I would have remained the baby of the family.”
“I hear uns from the kitchen. Both of you need to stop. The eldest girls know what time of the day it is. Right Rosaline and Mary?”
“Ruth Ann, just please bring my pie and stop your foolishness.”
The girls laughed until their sides hurt. Except for Pauline who didn’t understand what was so funny and felt that she was the butt of some inside joke that the other sisters could never explain.
“Oh, this pie is so good.”
“Well, we must leave cousin Nanette a note and a gift. She made the pie for us as a homecoming gift. She said, ‘Rosaline, you and your sisters enjoy my house. You’ll be family always. No matter what’.”
“Back to my grape wine story. So, momma made me, Barbara Jean, and Benjamin drink all that grape juice that we had filled the bottles with.”
“And you can’t drink grape juice to this day,” they all chimed.
“But we can drink wine. Right Sheryl.”
“Yes, we can.”
Memories crowded the room, then settled, waited, rose from the warehouse of images and smells competing for primacy, and then spilled from full lips. The Hutcherson girls, as everyone in Vandergrift called them, laughed and rolled, and made a ruckus that the folks clear across in North Vandergrift could hear. The house shook with their glee, the windows sang, the snow parted and sighed. And they talked.
Rosaline rested her eyes and pulled the crazy quilt about her shoulders, the smoothness of the cotton comforting her.
“Rosaline doesn’t look good,” Ruth Ann whispered to Sheryl.
“It’s the scotch,” Sheryl laughed.
Ruth Ann wrote off her concerns, buried them in the laughter, snuffed them out in the tears streaming down everyone’s face. Mixed tears tasting of salt and sugar.
“And, Broo-k-lyn,” Pauline shouted. “You missed all of that.”
This pulled Rosaline’s eyelids open. She laughed and nodded her head in affirmation. Shortly after their mom and dad relocated the family to New York, Rosaline had made her way to Washington, DC to attend Howard University. For Rosaline, in particular, home remained nestled in the hills of Pennsylvania among Eastern and Southern European immigrants, her memories protected from the onslaught of the concrete streets and noisy trains of New York City.
“But, I was a kid, a little kid, a baby in fact, when you went off to Howard. I was born in Broo-k-lyn. Do or die in Bed-Stuy.”
“That’s why you so boisterous. Not refined like the rest of us. Right Rosaline, Sheryl, and Ruth Ann?”
“Mary, you always starting something. I’m not boisterous. I’m just a city girl. You gals are country. That’s all.”
“Well, we might be country. But Vandergrift, not Brooklyn, is home for us. Rosaline, Sheryl, Mary, and Barbara Jean, can I get a ‘yes’ to that?”
“Yes,” five of the sisters shouted in unison.
Outside the snow swirled obliterating everything further than a stone’s throw. The howling rushed from the mountains and into the valley, swirling down the chimney and unsettling the flames dancing in the hearth. Despite the wind’s assault, the fire burned as Barbara Jean tended to it. “We’re running out of firewood. Sheryl, you want to go out with me to get more?”
“No, when the last log burns, we’ll go to bed. And I’ll help you bring in more wood in the morning."
“4:00 a.m. Ladies, I have to call it a night.” Mary rose, gathered her cup, saucer, and plate and made her way from the living room, through the dining room, and into the kitchen.
“Always first to bed Mary?” Rosaline asked, more as an acknowledgement of the already known than as a recrimination.
“Yes, I haven’t changed,” Mary called over her right shoulder.
“Remember the time she slept through the air raid?” Ruth Ann rose and gathered the remaining plates.
“Yes,” Rosaline laughed. “It was just after we heard that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The sirens went off. And momma ran around the house and yard in all that snow trying to get everybody together. And she kept yelling, ‘where’s Mary?’ She shoved us in the cellar onto that cold, hard floor. Then she ran back upstairs and I could hear her yelling, ‘Mary, Mary.’ She sounded frantic. Because we thought the Japanese planned to bomb Vandergrift. What did we know? And finally, just when I couldn’t take her yelling your name any more, Mary, I heard your feet shuffling across the floor overhead.”
“And, I was rubbing my eyes the sleep from my eyes when uns saw me. Right?” Mary said as she returned to the living room.
They all laughed, pushing back the gulf that their lives apart had placed between them since they all lived in different cities, watching Mary’s thin frame make its way through the French doors, and up the oak staircase to the bedroom. “Good night, you night owls.”
Barbara Jean rose and placed the last log on the smoldering hearth. The oak crackled and smoked. Then the log broke through the red embers, crashing down on the grate, bursting into flames, warming the room, and beating back the blizzard raging outdoors.
The last pot of coffee percolated on the gas stove. The last cup poured and drained to the dregs. The remaining five sisters rose and went to bed just as dawn sent splays of red and blue from the stained-glass window onto the beige carpet.
They rose after four hours too excited to sleep. No time for showering, or putting on makeup, or primping without a good night’s sleep. A brush pulled through their hair, a comb puffed it up, or a brilliantly-colored scarf concealed curls smashed when heads buried into thick, down pillows; teeth brushed, comfortable clothes donned; and faces washed. Only Mary did not feel a haziness enveloping her from a lack of sleep. She arrived in the kitchen coiffed and dressed as if she had someplace to go.
The bacon sizzled in the oven. Sheryl poured the grits into a sauce pan of boiling and salted water. Ruth Ann mixed the salt, baking powder, and flour and cut the butter into the dry goods for biscuits. The sisters agreed that Ruth Ann still baked the best biscuits. Pauline beat the eggs while Mary sautéed the onions and green bell peppers for the omelets. Barbara Jean squeezed juice from oranges.
Rosaline sat at the head of the kitchen table, smiling at her sisters hustling about, giving her the birthday gift of waiting on her and acknowledging her status as the matriarch of the family.
Images of their mother crowded her memories. Their petite mother with lines etched into her face: lines of regrets, perhaps. Always pregnant, for twelve years she carried a pregnancy, eight of them making it, while the other twelve ending early or arriving stillborn. But, she never regarded their mother as a petite woman until menopause ended their mother’s pregnancies.
“Mom was always pregnant. Always working. Never sleeping. Bent over a washing tub, pulling pot roasts from the oven, stirring the collard greens. Sometimes, her belly would be so huge, I thought it would catch on fire when she stood at the stove. Ruth Ann, do you remember?”
“Yes. But, you remember mom always being pregnant because you’re the oldest, and you had to take care of each one of us as we were born. Rosaline, I bet our two brothers don’t remember mom being pregnant so much.”
“I’m sure they don’t.”
Rosaline’s rememories trailed to her mother’s wailing and how it frightened her. It happened after her junior year in high school when their aunt Alice had visited from Washington, DC. Rosaline recalled sneaking into the living room to witness their aunt Alice rocking and quieting their mother. She heard her say to their mother, “It’s gonna be okay, everything’s gonna be okay. That’s how men folks are. You will live with it like we’ve all lived with it because you got seven children. Where you going with seven children? How you gonna feed seven mouths?”
Shortly thereafter, their father moved them to Brooklyn, and Rosaline went off to Howard University where she boarded with aunt Alice.
Not too long after settling in Brooklyn, their mother announced that Pauline would come into the world.
“Rosaline what are you thinking about?”
“Mary, do you remember the time aunt Alice came to spend the summer with us?”
“Oh, do I remember. That’s one of the times when I hated to go to bed. She used to walk us to the soda fountain at Wrigley’s drugstore, and buy us ice cream Sundays. Ruth Ann, Barbara Jean, and Sheryl, do uns remember?
“Of course, we remember. Sheryl was aunt Alice’s favorite. I used to love how she’d let me get extra chocolate syrup on my sundae, and let Barbara Jean drink root beer floats. You know, momma would never let us drink pop. Sheryl, what do you remember?”
“I remember that she let me have whatever I wanted.”
“I should have been born when aunt Alice came to Vandergrift.”
Ruth Ann wiped her hands on her apron. “No, mom and dad spoiled you enough Pauline. You didn’t need any help. You came when you were supposed to come, and not a year or day sooner.”
“Uns, how did they do it? Rosaline asked. “Ruth Ann, how did you and Hank do it?”
“Do what, Rosaline?”
“Have all those kids.”
“All I can remember about my first ten years of marriage was being pregnant.” Ruth Ann folded the dough, rolled it into a rectangle, and pressed the biscuit cutter into it.
“Eight kids. You had eight kids, Ruth Ann. Just like momma,” Pauline shook her head.
“Yep. Every time I’d get pregnant, I’d just sit on the floor and cry my heart out. Then I’d get up ‘cause one screamed for a bottle and the other needed to potty. Couldn’t pity myself for too long before somebody needed something. But I made it. Hank and I made it with all them babies. I suppose, just like momma and daddy made it.”
“Well, all I can say is thank God for the pill. I only got caught once,” Pauline bragged.
Pauline failed to mention the stillborn baby. Clarence, the baby that survived, became the only one to occupy her memories of pregnancy. The baby she had gambled on to save her marriage. She lost that bet.
The biscuits browned. The grits stirred, thickened, and decorated with sweet cream butter and pepper. The omelets gleamed yellow from their plates. The orange juice swelled like the absent sun in their glasses.
Tines against plates and the wind outside filled the hollow that their speechlessness created. The sisters ate slowly. Each caught in her own memories, each burying or exhuming only tolerated thoughts. Tragedies skated away. Pain winced and then got trampled underfoot by the smooth side of recollecting those wonderful afternoons breathing in the mountain air, scurrying down the banks of the Allegheny river, and tasting ice cream made from snow.
“Let’s dig up the dolls,” Sheryl interrupted.
“Sheryl, as good as my biscuits taste, I’m telling you we buried no dolls in that yard.”
“Ruth Ann, you’re such a skeptic. We did bury our dolls. Well, at least me and Barbara Jean did. We might have left one or two buried. Who knows, I think we buried so many of them. It would be great to find one.”
“No, not me. I didn’t bury any dolls. That was mostly you and Barbara Jean, Sheryl.”
“That’s what I just said. We know you were in the house asleep, Mary.”
The sisters mulled over Sheryl’s idea between bites, sips, and each’s own memories of their childhoods. They finished breakfast, cleaned the kitchen, and Sheryl and Barbara Jean donned their coats, boots, and gloves, and hauled in more wood. Whiffs of burning oak snuffed out the smell of bacon, eggs, and grits.
“This reminds me of our childhood. Gingerbread houses. Sunday baked chicken. Dad bringing home fish for mom to fry up.” Barbara Jean stretched her arms above her head and pulled a green wools sweater across her narrow shoulders and chest.
“Yes, Barbara Jean. Do you remember that he used to sell fish during the Depression? That’s how we ate because the steel mill laid him off.”
“Rosaline, I never knew daddy lost his job during the Depression. With all those mouths to feed. Wow. Mom must have been fit to be tied.”
“Pauline, now how is it you were born in Brooklyn and you talk like somebody from lower Alabama. Besides, you wouldn’t have known. You hadn’t been born yet.”
“Rosaline, don’t start no stuff. You know granddaddy and grandma from Alabama. I’m just true to my roots.”
Sheryl snorted. “True to those Bed-Stuy roots.”
Their laughter swelled the kitchen, skating across the ceiling until it met a shaft of light refracting through the leaded glass window above the sink.
Suddenly Rosaline rose, grabbing her side, pain shooting through her face. The sisters looked up, but none of them saw. “Let’s dig up the dolls.”
The shovel broke through the knee-deep snow hitting the timid soil in the backyard where five of the six sisters had been born and reared. The house now unoccupied because the late baby boomers had high-tailed it out of this valley town before the ink dried on their diplomas from Kiski Area High School. No good paying jobs in the steel mill left to be had. Coal mine after coal mine shutting down, and the young folks witnessing capitalist’s utopia collapsing beneath black lung disease, imports, and sheer ennui. The rich and black dirt opened its mouth to the six sisters clad in heavy wool coats, mufflers, hats, and winter boots. It was all chance, digging in the yard where they used to live.
“Mary, is that Ol’ Mrs. Wilson staring at us next door?”
“Yep, Pauline. That’s her. Play nice and let’s wave.”
They knew that Mrs. Wilson only tolerated them because of her friendship with their mother. She remained childless, and could never understand how their mother had so many children.
“Mrs. Wilson used to ask momma, ‘how you feed all them chirren?’ Then when the Depression came, momma and daddy had to feed ‘all them chirren’ and her and her husband, too.”
“Rosaline, stop telling all them lies.”
“Pauline, I’m not lying. You should be glad you didn’t live through the Depression. Now, those were trying times. Besides, you know she’s nosy. Always was. She’ll make her way out here soon. Watch.”
Pauline swept all the snow from a metal chair, its green metal and specs of orange from the rust contrasting sharply with the whiteness of snow. Rosaline sat down. Barbara Jean had taken command of the shovel giving Sheryl a break, while Mary and Ruth Ann supervised. Heaps of black dirt and brown clay blemished the starkness of the snow.
“They can’t be buried here. We wouldn’t bury them this deep,” Sheryl said.
Barbara Jean leaned against the shovel handle, which she barely cleared. Sheryl surveyed the yard. She tried to remember how the yard looked some forty years ago or more when she left Vandergrift in 1945 at nine years old.
“Where did momma plant her rose bushes?”
“Sheryl, over there?” Rosaline pointed with her alpaca-gloved finger.
Sheryl, Mary, Barbara Jean, Ruth Ann, and Pauline moved to the edge of the yard near Mrs. Wilson’s rose bushes while Rosaline remained seated.
“Be careful. Momma and Mrs. Wilson used to compete trying to see who grew the prettiest roses. Mrs. Wilson bound to get her panties in a bunch watching uns moving toward her rose bed,” Rosaline called out.
They chose a place near Mrs. Wilson’s rose bushes, the only boundary still marking the yards.
“She’s watching us. Don’t break any of those limbs on her bushes. Or, she will grab that cane and hobble out here and box our ears like she did when we were children.”
“Rosaline, you remember that?”
“Ruth Ann, of course I do. She seemed to have it in for us. Always coming after us, or telling momma that we’d done this thing wrong or that thing wrong.”
“So, true. Rosaline, I bet she used to secretly bet that one of us would get pregnant before we could get up out of here.”
“Now, Ruth Ann, you know you wrong for thinking like that. But, you’re probably right.”
The wind bit their cheeks, chased the mucous from their nostrils, and chattered their teeth. The crunching of snow underfoot snatched their attention away from the digging.
“You girls. I made some hot chocolate for ya’ll. Come on in here and get some.”
Each one of the girls made their way across the yard and through the snow banks to Mrs. Wilson’s back door. Ruth Ann went followed Mrs. Wilson inside and returned with a tray of ceramic mugs and a stainless-steel urn of hot chocolate. They mouthed thank you to Mrs. Wilson as she stood at her kitchen window staring at them. The sister felt grateful to warm their hands and bellies.
“I’ve got to go. It’s cold out here.” Ruth Ann retreated inside Mrs. Wilson’s kitchen. The flurries rushed at the other girls, blinding them as they recommenced digging holes in the yard like gophers.
“You know we looking real crazy out here?”
“Pauline. Hush. Just act like you’re living the childhood in Vandergrift that you never had.”
“Sheryl, okay, okay, I get it. I’m not part of the Vandergrift childhood memories. Mary, Barbara Jean, and Rosaline, ya’ll gonna let her talk to me like that?”
“Don’t drag us into your mess. My name is Less, I’m not in this mess,” Barbara Jean sang.
Just as the flakes turned big enough to catch in their mouths and melt on their tongues, Sheryl reached down pulling black fabric from the hole dusted with white flakes. A brown baby doll fell into the snow.
Their gasps and glees danced through the barren and brown limps. Tears occluded their sight as they sat down in the snow and stared at the brown doll.
That spring, Rosaline died of cancer. Her sisters buried the doll with her.
Michele Simms-Burton (left) and her sisters. / Photo: Nina Simone Simms-Bentley
Michele L. Simms-Burton obtained her Ph.D. in American literature from the George Washington University. Dr. Simms-Burton has published book reviews, essays, and fiction in For Harriet, Joint Literary, Callisto Media, Callaloo, African Studies Quarterly, Other Voices, Studies in Short Fiction, The Hemingway Review, The Detroit Free Press, The San Francisco Chronicle, Kirkus Review, The Alexandria Times, School Library Journal, The American Studies Journal of Turkey, and at http://www.coloredgirls.com/ and http://www.africana.com/.