“Life will not let you take root just anywhere. You’ve got to make your own ground and always hold to it.”
My grandmother always told me that. Wrinkled with a big nose and nestled in as many layers of shawls, scarves, and head wraps, Bubba looked like a cartoon character or an old witch out a fairy tale. Her hands were gnarled and continually looked like they were clutching at something that threatened to slip away at the slightest moment. All in all, she was not the typical white-bread grandmother that was plump and pinched cheeks of young, unsuspecting granddaughters. But I probably loved her more for it. She made rich babka, not apple pie, and called me Meydele, not sweetheart. She would scold my mother for never feeding me enough and seemed to prefer that I would roll from place to place rather than walk, based on how many desserts she would sneak me before dinner.
After my grandfather passed away, she seemed to shrink and sink into her burgundy scarves and evergreen shawls. My mother went to her and nearly begged for her to live with us, but Bubba insisted that her little cottage suited her just fine, and not to worry over one little old lady. “If I can survive a revolution, this would be nothing,” she calmly told mother every time she asked.
We worked out a solution: I would visit her after school until Mother was done with work, to help pick up and clean and cook. What we really did was tell stories, me with my school days and she from her childhood. She would talk about the little pond next to her house, with stark white sand, of the dried flowers that hung in her house from the hills. She spoke of only the good things, the things that made her smile. In between her stories, we would dust the cabinets, sweep the floor, and make desserts for the neighborhood.
Her house was a little one bedroom, one bathroom, one room living space, barely the size of our garage. It was sparsely decorated, save for the few treasures she managed to smuggle out of Russia with her. Folded neatly on her bed was the quilt that her mother had sewn, a veritable tapestry of forests and animals poking in and out between the squares. On her bedside rested the family bible, torn and scorched with pages pulled out. But the treasure that captivated me the most, all eight years of me, was the doll, sitting beside the wearied book. She was pockmarked with chips and her paint had been worn away in patches, but large, wise brown eyes held my gaze with hands folded across her waist. I picked her up, turning her in my hands as the sunlight rippled across her golden band. White hair was braided down her front across her black dress, the only color being her gold belt. “Be gentle with my Babushka, Meydele,” my grandmother called from her kitchen. “She is very old, just like me.”
Nodding, I began to twist the top and bottom as gently as my chubby hands could manage. They separated smoothly to reveal the next doll, a warmly smiling mother with soft brown hair curled around her. In her hands, she clutched a scroll and a baby’s rattle. “What does the scroll say, Bubba?” I asked as she bustled around her work space.
“It says children ought to help their family prepare for dinner,” she called back, a varied answer for each time I asked the question. I giggled softly, and began to twist the mother and open her.
A bright, grinning daughter greeted me, with jet black hair that flowed across her back and front, untied and uncovered except the white ribbons that snaked through her locks. I grinned back at the figure, bedecked for a dance with a blue dress that seemed to ripple and flutter with movement. A bouquet of wildflowers were clasped in her hands, but some floated on the wooden breeze, encircling her in violet and marigold.
I knew what awaited me before I twisted her open. I ran my fingers through the empty space, large enough to fit at least one more doll but she was never there. “Where is the last one, Bubba?” I inquired, like I had so many times before. I could hear her tap the sides of the bowl to shake the flour as she stirred, quietly humming to herself.
I picked myself up, taking the two halves of the daughter with me and presented them to Bubba. She sighed kindly, wiping her powdery hands on her apron. She took the split doll and looked into her lively eyes. “Can you believe I was the model for this doll?” she asked, still staring deeply into the wooden face. I would never say it aloud, but it was hard to imagine that Bubba, brushing her tissue paper fingers across the doll, squinting to see the flowers with sharp, dark eyes, and nearly hunched over as she held in in her hands, could have one day been this young and vivacious.
“The last one I hold close to my heart. Perhaps one day I might just show you,” she said, handing the two halves back to me. With slightly furrowed brows, I enjoined all the halves together, setting the doll right.
I didn’t have to wait that long to see the last doll. Like the winter winds that stripped the leaves from the tree, she was stripped and whittled away by the first snow fall. Then there were no more cleaning days, no more baking plates to give away, and no more stories. My mother, eyes red and swollen, placed Bubba’s doll in my hands as we walked away from the cemetery. I clutched it as close as I could to my chest, my fingers grasping for the last reminder as the tears plopped over the old face.
She sat in my bedroom for many years, quietly sitting post on my desk as I grew and changed, serving as a wooden memory. I soon forgot her as simply a doll, precious only because it was something from the past. It wasn’t until I was packing my bedroom that I first considered her again after years. I plucked her from underneath the books and paper, rolling her in my hands. The same wise eyes looked up at me, patient and controlled. For the first time in years, I felt the familiar yearning to unlock her, and learn her secrets. Twisting her in half wasn’t nearly as smooth as it had been but underneath was the mother, soft as she had always been. My eyes began to blur as I opened her as well to reveal the daughter, her twinkling smile gazing into my now blotched face swimming in tears. Even though I knew the emptiness that awaited me, with shaking fingers I opened her up.
But what was inside wasn’t empty space. With wide eyes, I saw the last doll, a child, with arms outstretched to the sky, cheeks rosy red against a white dress. Painted around her waist were the words: “She made her own ground.” Even though this was the last doll, she had the belt around her waist to be opened, cutting the words straight across in half. Holding my breath, I split the very last doll.
Impossibly white sand spilled out and over my hands, with a single red petal.
Have a story you want to share? Let us share it with our audience: Share Your Story