She was the first doll I ever had. A gift from my maternal grandmother. A philosophy of life in a child’s hands. A child whose life would evolve into a pilgrimage of restlessness, self-discovery and change. U-hauls, cars packed to their headliners, change of address cards, midnight escapes, emergency rescues, climbing socio-economic ladders, embarking on flights of fancy, janky motels, marvelous mansions, careening unintentionally into cavernous expeditions, many missteps, many mistakes, and many achievements. 7 states, 13 schools, 33 houses and thousands of books. Liquor store boxes, moving company boxes, self-packed in frenzies boxes, meticulously packed, white-gloved packed and insured boxes, only the clothes on her back, 1 suitcase, $68, and no boxes. But that’s a whole other story.
All those moves, all those boxes, all the tossing away, the leaving, the selling, and the losing, through all my 56 years, my first dolly has remained. In the course of aging, she’s lost her eyes but not her powerful ability to communicate. She’s a longstanding testament to one who always taught by showing, not just telling, because as all children know, that’s never quite the same. It’s been said that a gift tells more about the giver than the recipient. In my Grandma Mary’s case this is true. A little girl’s dolly, to hug, to mimic mothering with, to practice the art of living with, to love. How could that gift be rife with philosophical connotations? How could a 12 inch rubber doll be an unspoken treatise? How could a dolly teach a 1-year-old child how to look at others and approach life?
Grandma Mary showed me how to snap beans, sew buttons, shuck corn, catch fireflies, peel a potato in one long continuous ribbon and to cook without the need for measuring cups or spoons. She showed me how to turn what seemed like nothing into something. That everything comes from something, and that nothing comes from nothing. By her actions more so than her words, she taught me that all that exists between the constellations and Earth’s core is connected. She showed me how to care for and about others. She showed me how to look at people and the world.
When she brought me “Dolly”, racial segregation in our country was still a way of life. Dolly showed me that racist boundaries were created in minds that lacked the vision, understanding and capacity for love that my grandma had. Dolly showed me that neither “niceness” nor “goodness” has ever been a color. I have no memory of Dolly’s color ever being mentioned by myself or Grandma Mary. Like the colorful bounty of flowers and vegetables that made their way from garden to table, like the variety of hues of the remnants Grandma brought home from the sewing factory where she worked, or the mixed shades of fur in her mama cat’s litters of kittens, Dolly’s color was a natural part of our beautiful world. Dolly’s color didn’t “mean” anything. What meant something was how Dolly interacted with the rest of the world. If Dolly was “bad” it meant she had acted inappropriately, causing injuries or endangering herself or others. If Dolly was “good” it had nothing to do with her appearance, her skin tone or quality of clothing, but everything to do with how she related to the physical world and life forms around her. 4 years before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech, Dolly and Grandma Mary showed me how the only “right” way to judge someone was by the content of their character and their actions. That lesson has lived in my heart ever since.
Sadly, and far too regularly, today’s headlines feature members of our society that unfortunately and tragically didn’t have a Grandma Mary to give them their own “Dolly” character lesson, to show them how to approach all people and life with respect, open minds and colorblind hearts. Nine beautiful human beings who never intended to be known as “The Charleston Nine” are now forever joined to the woeful ranks of those whose faces remind us of what a world where people are judged by their skin tone looks like. 9 coffins, 9 lives taken and forever linked to senseless hatred and ignorance.
As a mother, teacher and now a grandmother I’ve strived to “show” all of the children in my life a form of the lesson my grandma taught me with Dolly, that every skin color belongs and every living thing is an integral part of our cosmos. That there are no “bad, wrong, or evil” colors, only bad, wrong and evil choices made by people acting in ignorance with hearts filled with hate. In the words of Maya Angelou:
“Hate, it has caused a lot of problems in the world, but has not solved one yet.”
Call me naïve, but I have always shared Martin’s dream. My sincere, albeit utopian wish is that our homes, schools, and places of worship are saturated with Dolly-like content of character lessons and that “The Charleston Nine” be remembered forever as the last human beings in our country (and our world) to EVER be massacred by someone with racial hatred in their heart.
Peace and Love