T. and I did some summer cleaning of the screened-in porch the other day. With rubber gloves and a bottle of cleaning spray and several trash bags we swept and dusted away summer cobwebs and upended dead bugs and moved furniture and sorted through the plastic craft bin I keep in one corner. We always find things when we clean the porch: several dried-up paint brushes, an unopened container of play-doh, some beads, a few pom-poms ("let's save them for our doll," T. shouted when she found them). And, surprisingly, under one corner of the futon we keep on the porch we found an old doll--not just any old doll, but a small, vintage baby-doll my grandmother gave to T. when we saw her that last summer she was alive in this world. She's a small, hard plastic doll, not particularly charming-looking, but clothed in a navy blue crocheted dress. I seem to remember her from my own childhood--in fact, I know the doll existed then. I can see her, on the shelf behind my grandparents' bed, propped up next to a stack of books and magazines. My grandmother used to crochet wonderful things, and the navy dress was something she made herself, with her her own hands, which more than makes up for the doll's plainly molded features.
My heart did a flip-flop. What was the doll doing there, under the futon frame, on the porch, covered with dust? How did she get there? When did we lose her? The thing about treasured material possessions is you love them fiercely when you have them, yet when they are gone sometimes you forget how much you loved them--until you see them again, and then you are filled with cold horror that the thing had been lost in the first place, and you didn't even know it was gone.
T. and I dusted the doll off, and I told T. the story of when my grandmother gave it to her, when she was two. Then I told T. much more, because now it's only through stories that T. knows anything about my grandmother. But I know that if I keep telling the stories, I'll give her the memories. They will take root in her, twining themselves around the material things that link T. to my grandparents--the doll, a book, the food I cook, the photographs. Like pieces of a puzzle they'll form a patchy impression, a vague memory, built on senses, of that person she only met once in her life, during that summer she barely remembers, but still knows, deep inside of her, the way we just know some things.
I lost track of T. for a good thirty minutes while I finished cleaning. I found her again upstairs in her room. She had moved onto other pursuits, and was snuggled into her bean bag chair, reading books out loud to herself. On her bed, dwarfed by the huge fairy decorated pillow T. sleeps with was the little doll, her round, molded plastic head squarely in the center of the pillow, and her body all tucked in with T.'s comforter drawn up around her little chin.
And my heart did a flip-flop again.