Last weekend, I attended a small Women’s Retreat led by Sweet Medicine Nation at Dear Haven, near Sisters, Oregon. I brought out my little tent after 13 years (!?) of not camping and spent two lovely nights by myself under the stars and the moon, under a Juniper tree, and with a lovely little round eared brown rabbit as my morning companion on both mornings.
Sweet Medicine’s teachings are gentle, yet profound. The ceremonies, which included 18 unique and magnificent women, were imbued with insightful Native American spirituality. I am anticipating with much joy the scheduling of a Grandmother’s Retreat. Though I do not yet have my own grandchildren, I am of the right stage in life for this one.
An aspect of one of the ceremonies was an altar where each woman placed an object that had special meaning for her. It would not be hard for you to guess that the object I placed on this altar was an antique china doll. My little dollhouse sized flat top, Rowena, came with me, wrapped in a quilt scrap. I will tell you why I chose her as my altar offering. But first, I will tell you a bit about her.
Rowena is a German antique china shoulder head, almost 8″ tall, with flat top hairstyle, and no markings. She was probably made by the AW Fr. Kister factory around 1870. Rowena has two petticoats that button with white glass buttons. One is plain muslin, and one is large patterned cotton eyelet lace. She wears a new dress that I made, all hand sewn, in an 1860’s style from a blouse I used to wear. She has an hourglass firm stuffed cotton body with china arms and legs with flat low black shoes. The right side of her shoulder plate is broken off in a crescent moon, and this was sewn onto her body after the break occurred.
Dolls have been part of the human experience as far back as history can recount. Made of clay, stone, wood, bone, ivory, wax, and cloth, dolls have been found in Egyptian tombs dating to 2000 BCE, in Japan dating to 800 BCE, Greece, and Rome, with Roman rag dolls dating to 300 BCE. “Traditional dolls are sometimes used as children’s playthings, but they may also have spiritual, magical and ritual value. There is no defined line between spiritual dolls and toys. In some cultures dolls that had been used in rituals were given to children. They were also used in children’s education and as carriers of cultural heritage. In other cultures dolls were considered too laden with magical powers to allow children to play with them.” (Fraser, Antonia (1973). Dolls. Octopus books.)
(Venus of Willendorf, estimated to have been carved 24,000–22,000 BCE)
I brought Rowena as my altar offering because dolls represent humans, they have spiritual, magical, and ritual value, cultural value (though I relate more to my Celtic and Native American heritage, I am racially mostly German, like my china dolls), she is dressed in something that I stitched by hand, in something that I once wore, and, like me, she is broken.
Many doll collectors want only pristine, perfect, and if possible, un-played with dolls to collect. This is the type of antique doll that brings the highest price, and retains value the best. But it is not usually the type of doll that finds its way into my collection. There are several reasons for this. First, and not least, is the fact that my income is near poverty level as counted by USA standards. If I am to collect antique dolls, I must search for bargains, and not perfect dolls. But there is another reason that I like dolls that come with scuffs and broken parts. It is because their brokenness is evidence that they have been played with and loved. They have experienced life. Like The Velveteen Rabbit, they are REAL.
Do you ever wonder, when you view dolls and toys in a museum, if the curators take them out to play after closing time? Some dolls seem that they have a life, and others seem too perfect and pretty to handle. While there is a place for preserving the heritage of our past with these special rare and perfect dolls, I tend toward the shadows of collecting, and I like dolls I can handle and dress.
Winnifred is another such doll. She is a 12 ½” antique china shoulder head modified flat top with white center part, and original factory brown cloth body stuffed firmly with cork or sawdust and cotton. She bears the traits of a Kestner factory doll. She has lovely detailed china hands, (which is why I wanted her for my collection) and china legs with flat shoe. Her right leg is broken off at the ankle. She was probably left on a stove or radiator at some point. Her chemise has a missing portion on the right sleeve where a burn happened, and her right arm has a brittle patch from the burn.
We women are broken, like these dolls. If we have lived, and not been kept on a shelf, behind glass, only to be looked at and not touched, then we have most likely been broken in some way by what life has offered us. But like these dolls, living has made us REAL. Our experiences may have left the scuff marks and mended places on our bodies and our spirits, but we can live more fully now because of our experiences of having been loved, played with, and maybe even abandoned, and chosen again. In the words of my daughter’s favorite song, that’s what makes us beautiful.