The Pleasure and Pathos of Paper Dolls

I was dismal at crafts, never liked them much, beyond decorating a shoe box with doilies for Valentine’s Day.  That was easy, as crafting goes, and it was my limit.  The little Sunday school lambs made with glued-on cotton balls, the bean and macaroni art in Vacation Bible School — I am  pretty sure Joseph didn’t wear a beard made of pinto beans—I completed them, but was never proud of them. 

And Girl Scouts, oh, how I hated crafts at troop meetings.  Those pleated  Reader’s Digests folded into fat Christmas trees, the green paint all over my hands, ending up smeared on my cheek.  Popsicle sticks stuck to my fingers, or dropped and glued to my shoe. Glitter everywhere but in the spot I aimed it.

No, I was built for other things.  But now, it seems, I have the rare opportunity to teach one of my craftiest friends a thing or two, and it has gone straight to my head. 

You can barely move in Alice’s work space for all the scissors, colored pencils, pads of watercolor paper, and stacks of Flow Magazines, magazines that seem to be filled with nothing on earth but wallpaper samples, although I am told it is art paper.  That’s it.  Just a magazine full of brightly printed paper.  And here, there, and everywhere, shoe boxes and fruit boxes full of ephemera, ribbons and feathers and buttons and I don’t know what all. 

Yet, for all this, Alice does not know how to cut out a continuous strand of paper dolls. 

And I do. 

Because my grandmother, a child of the prairie, taught me.  With her off-limits fabric shears she sat on the floor and folded newspaper and grocery bags, and with fingers flying, cut in one intricate but smooth motion, ten, fifteen little girls, all holding hands, dress hems touching, hair turned up on the end, their tiny feet pointing in opposite directions.  She and her sisters entertained themselves for hours doing this.  She entertained us for hours likewise. On winter days she folded typing paper and with her sharp little embroidery scissors fashioned beautiful snowflakes as big as our heads.  Well, our faces. 

Alice doesn’t know how to make these, either. 

I have promised to teach her, and was practicing over the weekend to see if I still remembered and I cut a string of paper dolls.  They looked so cute I posted a picture on social media.  You can’t believe how many people responded, many wanting to know how to do it so they might make them with their own grandchildren.  A smaller number remembered making them themselves when they were children.

My niece, Hannah, commented on my Facebook page, saying they were “cool,” and I couldn’t believe in all the times she and her sister, Katie, were at my house, we never made paper dolls.  I felt like quite the wretched and neglectful aunt.  It seems now it should have been an essential part of our time together, that sweet particular bonding activity which was sadly forfeited for other, lesser things. 

When I was little, maybe six, I loved Betsy McCall paper dolls, a page of creamy paper with Betsy standing demurely in her underwear and shoes, dresses and coats and sometimes hats, framing her delicately drawn figure.  Each little dress, little sweater, pair of snow pants had white tabs protruding, tabs to fasten the clothes at critical junctures — shoulders, waist, ankles.

My mother had to cut out Betsy, all those frills around her petticoat or panties, but I attacked the dresses with the peter pan collars, the pedal pushers, the sweater sets.  And always, always I got in a hurry, or got distracted for just a second, and snipped off a tab, sometimes more than one.  And I am pretty sure I cried.  Not so much for having botched it for Betsy, but in frustration for the perfect thing, now not.

Mother tried to repair the damage but the make-do-ness of it just killed me.  I wore my  brother’s hand-me-down corduroys, wore sweaters with turned up cuffs, bought at the end of a season to “grow into,” had socks that bunched at the toe or chewed down into my shoe, always too big or too small.  But Betsy McCall was perfect, holding a little doll in front of her while standing in her undies.  A summer dress and she is holding a bunch of flowers.  A winter coat, and she holds a muff.  And I was Betsy, wearing those pretty clothes, perfect on the page, until the cutting began.

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