Aunt Dorothy transformed broken dolls

In 1987, Dorothy Ridlen became a member of our family.

Aunt Dorothy had been widowed for a number of years when she met great-uncle Wilbur Meyer at a Primitive Baptist Association meeting.

Wilbur was 78 at the time, and also widowed. The two hit it off, and a year later they were married.

Before her retirement, Aunt Dorothy worked as a licensed practical nurse in Granite City. While living there, she became interested in dolls and doll repair. Many china head dolls became display items once again after Aunt Dorothy rebuilt their bodies and sewed new clothes.

She did her research, and used historically correct materials and patterns to fashion the outfits.

Word got around of her ability to fix broken dolls, and she received a call from the local Salvation Army. They had many dolls given to them that were in bad shape, but with a little love, these dolls could be placed in the arms of children at Christmas. Could she help?

Under her skilled hands, hundreds of dolls were transformed. She would clean the dolls, make new clothes for each, repair disheveled wigs and repack stuffing. Also, she took a photograph of each "dolly" for her scrapbook.

One afternoon, Aunt Dorothy invited me to sit with her and look at the scrapbook of her successes. She pointed to a china head doll she had repaired for an 85-year-old lady.  When she returned the doll, she insisted the woman name her, feeling that by giving the doll a name, a closer connection would be established.

The woman followed her advice, attaching the names of her mother and long-dead sister to the doll.

Many other previously unnamed dolls were given names after Aunt Dorothy had restored them to their original beauty.

I told Aunt Dorothy of an old doll I had stored in a shoebox, for which I had no special affection and had never named. The doll had been given to me 25 years earlier by my aunt, Bertha Torbeck, who with other family members was cleaning out the old Jake and Albert Yund house south of St. Paul.

Aunt Bertha handed me the doll, and since I was too old to play with dolls, I put it in a closet. For years, I assumed it was a handmade doll, because one leg and one arm were shorter that its mate. It was filled with what felt like straw, and the legs and arms were attached with large green pins.

The doll became a research project for us.  She explained to me that the reason the doll had an odd-sized leg and arm was that at the factory, a worker got in a hurry and grabbed the wrong leg and arm for this doll.

Using Aunt Dorothy’s guidance, and doll books from the local library, I learned that my particular doll had been made in 1914 by the D. Doll Co. She had a molded head, excelsior-stuffed body and pin-and-disc joints.

Dorothy volunteered to refurbish the doll and make it a set of clothes, but first we needed to know the style of clothes she would have worn in 1914.

Aunt Dorothy made her own pattern, and fashioned not only a dress and undergarments, but socks and shoes as well. 

Now it was time to give the doll a name.  I chose Anna Paulina Berniece for my three grandmothers, all now deceased:  Anna for my dad’s mother who died when he was a teenager; Paulina for my Grandma Gum; and Berniece for Grandma Spires of Bingham.

Aunt Dorothy has since died, as has Uncle Wilbur, but I shall always remember that dear lady who urged me to name my dolly. She was right. Naming the doll made her more special; and by choosing to honor my grandmothers, I treasure her even more.

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