My vintage roots: Aunty Doll

The sisters and their mom

From left: Adeline, Mim, Mary, Eleanor, Norma, Evelyn, Alice, Doris.

As I may have mentioned before, my grandmother was the youngest of seven sisters. She was born in 1922. Her father died just a few years later, leaving a widow with seven children under the age of 14 to fend for herself during the Great Depression. While that sounds like a recipe for disaster, the outcome proves otherwise. The girls came together at an early age to keep the family solvent. When the state wanted to place some of the girls in foster homes, my great grandmother brought home piece work from factories–all the sisters pitched in and the family earned enough money so they could stay together under one roof.

My grandmother and her sisters remained close for the rest of their lives. When she retired, my grandmother had a rotation. Mondays she spent time with Eleanor, Tuesdays she went shopping with Evelyn, Wednesday nights she went to bingo with a different sibling, Saturdays the sisters all played Pinochle at Alice’s house. These women laid the foundation for my vintage aesthetic.

They also all had odd nicknames. Doris, Eleanor, Mary, Adeline, Alice, Evelyn and Norma were Aunty Cootie, Peachy, Fatty, Red, Ki-yi, Doll, and Peppy.  (I just found out about Cootie and Fatty recently. Aunty Dee and Aunty Mary sensibly preferred their own names.)

Aunty Doll

Aunty Doll and Uncle Ed’s wedding.

Today would have been my Aunty Doll’s birthday. Evelyn was closest in age to my grandmother, possibly closest in other ways as well. My grandmother was Aunty Doll’s maid of honor–the photo here is one of my favorites. Seeing my grandmother and one of my favorite aunts both look so pretty,  so happy, so free makes me glow.

Aunty Doll was my mother’s godmother; her first name became my mother’s middle name.

Norma and Evelyn gallivanted together all the time. They made an interesting pair. My Aunty Doll came across as conservative and ladylike. She’s the first person I knew who wore a skirt and blouse every day, or possibly a sweater set. I don’t think I ever saw her go bare-legged, even in the summer. My grandmother was a bit more relaxed, a bit more mischievous. When one of our cats set a live mouse loose in the house, Aunty Doll was the one standing on a chair shrieking while my grandmother laughed and directed my mother in the fine art of mouse-catching.

Aunty Doll kept her small house immaculately clean and doted on her husband, Edward. They travelled together, mostly bus trips with other retired folks. Aunty Doll knew I collected rocks and brought me back something from each of her trips.

I loved her little kitchen with its crackle-top chrome edged table. I loved her piano and the photos all over the house. I loved how effectively she used her space: though the house was small, it never felt crowded. I loved that she sent cards for my birthday, Christmas, Easter, and my wedding anniversary, always signed “Love and prayers, Aunty Doll and Uncle Ed.” A few years before she died, she had surgery to clear blocked artieries in her leg. Despite the fact that this 80+ year-old woman had 90+ stitches, she demanded the hospital release her early because “I only left Edward dinners for three days.”

She loved tap dancing. When she passed away last year,  her family gathered at a local restaurant after the service to talk about her life and share our memories. I brought the wedding photo included here–her sons were surprised. They had never seen that photo before. They were also surprised that on the day she died, I drove two and a half hours to say goodbye and let her know how much she’d influenced me. When Aunty Doll’s sons offered me her tap shoes, I was honored. They sit on top of a book shelf in my office where I see them every day: a reminder of her energy, style, and grace.


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