The 700-Doll Question
By JO MAEDER
Published in the New York Times on May 8, 2013
Ten years ago, when my mother was in the throes of dementia, I left New York, bought a home in North Carolina near my brother, and moved her in with me.
Mama Jo, as she was known, was a hoarder who had been living in Virginia with a collection of more than 700 dolls that she referred to as her “little people.” So I turned the largest space in the house into the doll room: 400 square feet of floor-to-ceiling dolls that rendered most visitors speechless.After she died, a friend assured me that I’d get through the process of “liberating” those little people the same way I got through my mother’s harrowing decline.“With a lot of praying?” I asked.“No,” she replied. “With a lot of Ativan.”As a child, I went from dolls to ponies to boys. By the time I was an adult, I thought the dolls were creepy. But when Mama Jo died in 2006, I had become fond of them again. Still, I wasn’t what you might call a C.D.L., or Crazy Doll Lady.When a dealer offered me $35,000 for the collection, I turned it down and dismissed the idea that there was anything wrong with me. I needed to keep the dolls on hand while I wrote a memoir about my care giving adventure. Then my editor thought they might be useful in promoting the book, and when it was optioned to be a movie, the producer loved them. Unfortunately, the option vanished. But a new agent suggested I keep the dolls to promote the paperback. There was always a rational reason.Or not so rational. Mama Jo and I had been estranged for more than 30 years. It wasn’t until I became her full-time caregiver that we fell madly in love. The doll room was a shrine to her, the dolls an extension of her. And I wasn’t ready to let her go.Before she died, I videotaped her talking about her collection. “How do you feel about the dolls now?” I asked her.She beamed. “I hope they all stay together,” she said.Add that to the list of reasons to keep them.Six years after her death, they were still with me, and I was still in North Carolina.I had made countless trips to New York, staying several months at a time. I helped a beloved elderly aunt who lived there, saw good friends and hoped that a new love or job would appear to keep me there permanently. Back “home,” I felt like an interloping Yankee, and yet, unexpectedly, I discovered I was growing as attached to the South as I had to the dolls.I couldn’t seem to make a decision about anything. And when I did, I immediately regretted it and blamed the dolls (a k a “the damn dolls”). Everything would be fine if I could move back to New York, I told myself. But how do you sell a house with a room that resembles the set of a horror movie?“They’re holding me hostage!” I complained to anyone who would listen.The doll collection spanned four generations of my family.One of the dolls, a Ludwig Greiner, was made before the Civil War. There were antique bisque dolls and modern plastic ones, in various colors and nationalities. They ranged in size from one-inch Frozen Charlies to three-foot-tall Playpals.My plan was to hold onto the ones that had been made and costumed by gifted family members. I would keep a few that were made of wax (my great-aunt Gladys MacDowell was renowned for them) and cloth (my grandmother had made them during World War II when dolls stopped being produced), and some that had coconuts for heads (made by my great-grandmother).That seemed reasonable, didn’t it? After all, they were heirlooms. And maybe I’d keep a few more. Could I really let go of Sonny and Cher?I knew this was a ridiculous thing to agonize about when there was real suffering in the world. But when I mentioned it to others, I often heard echoes of my own dilemma. One man told me that after spending a long time grappling with what to do with the Hummel figurines he inherited from his mother, he had finally decided to display them. Someone else admitted that although she was desperately in need of money to care for her disabled husband, she couldn’t bear to sell her late father’s valuable tool collection. “I built a shed for them,” she told me.I watched “Antiques Roadshow” and wondered how many people ended up selling their valuable treasures, and how many more couldn’t bring themselves to part with something so special. How many marriages had been strained by the problem I was struggling with? (Sell it. Keep it. Sell it!)My memoir went out of print as I worked on three other books my agent couldn’t sell. I was living Hemingway’s famous words about going broke two ways, “gradually and then suddenly.” My I.R.A. was evaporating.And then one day I looked at the dolls and saw $35,000 flashing in bright green neon.Think again.Thanks to the recession, dealers and auction houses were no longer scooping up collections the way they had before. Not only that, but people tend to buy the toys of their youth in their 30s, 40s and 50s, and Mama Jo’s dolls, I was told, were “aging out.” Our local doll museum, like others across the country, was on the verge of collapse.One doll lover came for a look. “Honey, you should have taken that money,” he said. “You were standing on the edge of the ledge of the canyon.” He made a karate-chopping motion in the air with his hand.I prayed. I saw a therapist. I consulted an astrologer. Finally, after a shamanic healing, I became unstuck. Maybe I was just ready to let go of my grief.My first step on the road to recovery was to have the entire collection photographed. The dolls will stay together forever, Mama Jo — in four photo albums.I opened a shop (really more of an adoption service) on the collectibles site Ruby Lane and began listing the dolls one at a time. It was far more involved and emotional than I anticipated, but it also infused my life with a certain girly fun I hadn’t known was missing.The dolls are now scattered across the globe, from Russia to New Zealand. I’ve made a few bucks, but I am far richer for the new friendships I have formed. My brother has been selling some of the dolls on eBay, and we’ve grown closer too.And Mama Jo’s House of Dolls has its own Facebook page, where new “moms” post photos. So the dolls are staying together virtually.A year after my shamanic encounter, I’m too busy for long visits to Manhattan, much less to consider moving or to be confused. I have reissued my memoir under my own imprint, and suddenly it’s a Kindle best seller. More books are on the way. My I.R.A. is growing again.Once I’m free of most of the dolls, I hope a real person will take their place. One I can talk to, who won’t just stare back at me.But most surprising, I’ve joined the local doll club. I tell myself that would make Mama Jo even happier than if I had kept the dolls together.I had no idea how much more I would come to love her and learn from her after she was gone. And for that I have the dolls to thank.