The only way to tell this story is to start here: my mother and I had a difficult relationship. She wanted a daughter as deeply rooted in southern life – in all of its expectations, rituals, and complicated charm – as she was. I wanted a mom who found comfort and meaning in domestic life, in the daily rhythms of creating a home, the same way I did. Neither of us got what we wanted. The moment I was old enough to see myself as more than “Susie’s little girl,” my mom and I have always struggled to get along.
But deep down, my mom adored me. And I, her.
I never doubted this. Beneath every weighted silence, every terse response, was an undercurrent of unwavering love and devotion. No matter how much my mother drove me crazy, I could not stand to hear someone else criticize her. I’m certain that no matter how much my mom muttered under her breath about me, she was just as loyal. We loved one another deeply. But we never could understand each other, and found it difficult to connect.
And so, right up to her last breath, my mom and I searched for the paths that would lead us back to one another. When we found them, each one became sacred. A mutual addiction to a good cup of coffee. A shared love for my children. A common passion for doing good work. A singular fascination with literature, especially American poetry. These were our ties, the areas where we knew we would always agree. We clung to them. When tensions threatened to break us apart, we would follow each topic like a rope along the edge of a mountain trail, pulling and scraping our way up the cliff, and back onto solid ground.
Our very first rope was baby dolls.
Back when our arguments centered around messy rooms and ladylike manners, my mother and I both loved dolls. She had an entire book shelf in the living room where she displayed her collection of porcelain dolls . If I was careful, I could take one down and carry it back to my room for the afternoon. When I was around 7 or 8, she started giving me a porcelain doll of my own each year for Christmas. As I outgrew them, mine were added to the shelf, too.
Then, the year I was 10, I fell in love with a beautiful, lifelike boutique doll the week before Christmas. I discovered her while out with my aunt over the holidays. I played with that doll until the last possible second, then went back to my aunt’s house and drew pictures of her all afternoon. The next day, my mom unwrapped all of my Christmas gifts, returned them, and used the money to buy the fancy doll I loved. Christmas morning, when I unwrapped the baby, whom I named Amy Diane, my mom was as delighted as I was. As I write this, Amy Diane is still asleep in her crib in the guest room at my parents’ house.
Over the past few weeks, as I’ve prepared for Christmas, my daughter’s birthday, and the first anniversary of my mother’s death, I’ve thought a lot about dolls.
My daughter likes babies well enough. Maybe if she had sisters she would love them, but as the only girl in a house full of boys, she’d rather jump on the trampoline or roller skate down to the cul-de-sac than sit inside and play. Every now and then she’ll pull her dolls out of her closet, but most of the time, she can think of better things to do.
For weeks I’ve returned to that simple fact: she doesn’t love dolls. Why would I spend a lot of money on something she doesn’t really want? Why do I really need to continue the doll tradition with my little girl? My daughter and I have other shared loves, and to be honest, she’s so young she hasn’t started down the road of breaking away from her mom, anyway. She still loves what I love: traveling, hiking, cooking, books, movies. Aren’t we already forging our own paths of connection? Won’t a doll be meaningless to her? Plus, all of her Christmas gifts are already bought. She never even mentioned wanting a new doll. Why would I push this? Why can’t I let it go?
It didn’t work. Today, I bought a fancy doll to put under the tree.I kept thinking about how much my mom and I both loved our dolls, and how, if my mother was alive, she would tell me to quit being so practical. Spend the money, buy the fancy doll. Invite her into the tradition.
I already know this gift isn’t for my daughter, it’s for me. Rather, it’s for us. When I wrap it, it will be addressed to my daughter and me, from my mom and me. She’ll hear the story of how much her grandmother loved dolls, and how important they were to both of us when I was young. I’ll keep her in a special place in my room, and if she promises to be careful, I’ll let her take her out for the afternoon. Knowing my daughter, she will love the tradition more than the baby, but that’s irrelevant. What matters is that my daughter knows, without a doubt, that I adore her. I’m pretty sure she feels the same about me. And, as she gets older, she will understand the fancy baby doll she got for Christmas the year she turned six is not just a baby. It’s a reminder. No matter how different we may be, we will always, always, find the sacred paths back to one another.