I have a doll. Her name is Rosebud.
She was given to me when I was ten years old after my Great Aunt Elizabeth passed away. Elizabeth, known in my family as Aunt Wooba, lived in Hazard where she taught school. She was a teacher who ruled her students with an iron fist. I know this because over the years, whenever I return home, someone occasionally tells me a story about her devilish antics directed towards children. Wooba was born in Pineville Kentucky in 1893. She had seven sisters and one brother, including my grandmother, Charlotte. My grandmother’s family was comprised of eccentric musical women. The sisters played instruments and went to college with the exception of my pianist grandmother. Wooba never married, although my father told me she was once courted by a taxi cab driver from Asheville, but other than her taxi driver suitor, she was a spinster who followed my grandmother to Hazard in the 1920’s.
As a child, I remember many times riding in the car with my mother and brothers and gazing out the window and seeing Wooba walking around town with her arms full of groceries or sometimes pushing a dilapidated shopping cart, heading up the ivy wrapped hill to her house on Sunset Street. When my Mom saw Wooba walking, she would breath in deeply, stop and give Wooba a ride home. My brothers and I watched Wooba with fascination as she talked about her afternoon adventures, which usually included an altercation with someone such as the check out girl at Bell’s Grocery Store. At the end of the ride, Wooba tried to give money to my mother for the trip home. My mom always refused. It was a choreographed interaction I observed so many times until one afternoon when we picked Wooba up in front of Jerry’s Restaurant. It was a humid summers day, the kind of day where my bare thighs melted into the vinyl seat of my parent’s Buick. In the torment of having three children fussing in the car, the drive to Wooba’s house up the hill felt like an eternity to my exhausted mother. So when Wooba pushed the wrinkled dollar bills into my Mother’s hand, she accepted just for the sake of getting her screaming children back home as soon as possible. Taking the money was never Wooba’s intention and fairly soon Wooba was on the phone calling every business in Hazard, including the insurance agnency where my mother worked, telling everyone that her nephew’s wife stole her money.
During these many rides to Wooba’s house, she talked about Rosebud. I had heard stories about this doll but never saw Rosebud while Wooba was alive. The doll was packed away somewhere in one of Wooba’s closets among old clothing and shoes but she talked about Rosebud and how one day she would be mine. A few months after Wooba died, as my mother was cleaning out Wooba’s house, Rosebud was unearthed from the chaos of clutter. She lay in a ragged rectangle cardboard box secured with a rubber band. As my mother peeled off the rubber band and opened the box, there she was, a doll stripped down to the cloth of her body. Tattered and slightly chipped. Rosebud didn’t have a hair on her head.
I was a child who had watched one horror movie too many involving demonic toys, including an episode of Twilight Zone featuring a wind up doll called “Talking Tina”. I was frighten of Rosebud but also fascinated by this naked creature. As I reluctantly lifted Rosebud up into my arms, I saw that the doll had been lying on a bed of human hair inside the the box. My Aunt Jeannette told me this was Wooba’s hair, hair that once was long, chestnut and probably had grown well past her waist. A photograph of a woman with her back turned to the camera was also in the box, a young Elizabeth with her beautiful cascading tresses. Wooba’s hair cradled Rosebud, probably embracing the doll for decades, but tucked inside the nest of hair was something else. I gently moved the locks away and saw hidden under the layers of hair was another doll, a small Chinese man who wore a red embroidered jacket and pants, two ponytails loosely hung off his head.
Opening the cardboard box that held Rosebud and the Chinese man was like opening a sealed tomb. Magic, oldness, the spirits of my grandmother and her sisters were unleashed that day, a doll that opened me up to my ancestral past and memories. I imagine those little Bell County Kentucky sisters gathering around Rosebud the day Elizabeth received the doll maybe for her birthday.
That night after we discovered her, I dreamed of Rosebud. I dreamed of my great aunt holding her and playing with Rosebud as her long hair moved in waves. I imagined my great aunt as a child and not just as the strange and eccentric old woman I knew. I also think about the passage of time and the events in life that carve out our paths.
Still and possibly because I knew my Aunt Wooba so well, this doll continued to have an eerie aura, even after my mother had her restored to her original beauty with new clothing, a curly wig and a touched up face, I was afraid to have Rosebud stay in my room. Rosebud was a relic of my family’s past.
Just a few years ago my parents sold the house I grew up in and moved to a smaller home and along with so many other trinkets, Rosebud was packed away in a random box. She is somewhere among the boxes that have never been unpacked. So once again Rosebud is stowed away, and I can’t help but wonder where she is among the chaos of my family’s own clutter. I want her back and I want to reunite her with the little Chinese man.
Holding onto a doll from the past feels good in my hands because I know I am touching something someone in my family before me has touched. Family memories embodied in the form of a doll.
My Grandmother and her sisters. Elzabeth is holding the baby
Elizabeth’s hair inside the box that held Rosebud