The Doll Lady of Wisconsin
S. Nadja Zajdman
© Copyright 2020 by S. Nadja Zajdman
Renata with her "Janka" doll. 1994
On the first anniversary of my mother’s passing, a letter was forwarded to me from the Holocaust Center. My mother had been prominent in Holocaust Education. A woman in Wisconsin was writing a book and looking for my mother to provide her with background information. The Center didn’t know what to do with the letter, so they forwarded it to me. Enclosed were photographs of my mother, taken in her home.
I called the woman in Wisconsin immediately. She told me she was a retired Health Educator. Indeed, she told me she had a master’s degree in Health Education. She lived in a small town with the provocative name of Superior, because it is situated on Lake Superior. She told me she had attended a conference in Cornwall, Ontario over twenty years ago, and then visited Montreal on a Sunday afternoon, ending up on a tour of Montreal’s Holocaust Center Museum.
The health educator’s hobby was making dolls and giving them away to people who struck her fancy. She had one such doll with her, when she attended the conference in Cornwall. A colleague asked to have the doll but was supposedly told, “This doll is not for you. It’s for a special person. I don’t know who that person is. I’ll know when I find her.”
The Doll Lady told me that, when she saw my mother sitting at the Holocaust Center, she knew the doll she was travelling with belonged to her. She told me that she had contacted the Center the next day, during her stay in Montreal. hoping to contact my mother. Apparently the Center gave her a hard time. Why would someone want to contact one of their volunteers in order to give them a doll? Still, the message was forwarded to my mother, and she welcomed the woman into her home.
I remembered the doll, and knew its story, though I had never met its creator. Two days after I first spoke to Imelda Dickinson, who I came to think of as The Doll Lady, I was annotating documents in my mother’s hard drive when I stumbled upon her less dramatic and Dickinson-centric version of events. In a document she titled, I rediscovered, with a start, VICTIMIZED AGAIN? my mother wrote, “”After trauma people need time to recover and mourn. This is one reason why its taken so much time for us to go public with our pain…In 1978 I journeyed with my children to Poland—into my past—it became our past. I became a storyteller and my children the eager listeners…Since my retirement in 1988 the Montreal Holocaust Museum became my home away from home. I still remember a very stormy day in February 1992, when a busload of 7th Day Adventists Church Group drove in from Cornwall, Ontario. After I finished there was complete silence, no visible reaction. A week later a parcel came to the Center addressed to Renata. Inside a beautiful big doll and a letter telling me how sorry they are about my stolen childhood.”
Even after she died, I was able to check the facts with my mother.
Imelda Dickinson was a descendant of the nineteenth century American poet Emily Dickinson, and she wrote poetry, too. Her intended book was to be a collection of poems telling the story of her dolls. Each poem was intended to tell the story of an individual doll. Imelda had sought out my mother in order to learn the story of the doll my mother named Janka. That is how Imelda discovered me.
“Do you know what happened to the doll?”
“Yes, of course. My mother kept it in a place of honour on her large credenza for years. When Mum got sick, she took the doll with her on one of her trips to Poland and gave it to a friend in Warsaw for safekeeping, saying, “Its time for ‘Janka’ to come home.”
“Was Janka your mother’s sister?”
“No, she was my mother’s rescuer. My mother considered her a surrogate mother.”
“Do you know Janka’s story?”
“I not only know Janka’s story, I’ve written it.” My mother considered me her memory keeper, and so did I. When she was wrenched away from me, I made it my mission to preserve her legacy.
In e-mails and in phone calls that I sponsored, I sent Imelda completed documents and extensive notes, speaking for a woman who could no longer speak for herself. When Imelda mis-heard Poland as Portugal and accepted it, I diplomatically gave her a Cole’s Notes version of modern European history.
Imelda had been looking for the mother, and what she found was a grieving daughter. “I’m going to be your second mother! You call me at anytime for anything! You’re part of my family! You come here whenever you can and stay for as long as you want! You can stay with me forever! I love you, and I’m going to be your friend forever!”
Imelda began mailing commercial Hallmark-like cards professing lifelong friendship and undying love. She would insert lace doilies and glitter sticker butterflies into the cards. I had experienced the instant intimacy of small-town Americans in the past. I had also experienced their legendary hospitality. “You come to me and my family and we’ll flood you with so much love that you won’t be able to stand it! I have nine rooms. You have no excuse. After a visit with us, you will be restored!”
It was when Imelda began signing her e-mails Love, Mom, that I gagged and asked her to desist. “My mother is irreplaceable. Please don’t do it.”
Miffed, the eighty-four-year Imelda modified her signature from Mom to Auntie.
The elderly Imelda had bragged that she was on no medication and never saw a doctor. When she suddenly fell silent for an extended period in winter, I worried and contacted her grandson, who lived with her in the nine-room house.
Imelda was fine. “Oh dear, I’m been so busy! I’ve been working on the book for twelve hours a day!” She was also preparing for her sister’s wedding, and invited me. I received a flurry of e-mails telling me when to come and how to dress. “My family is your family! It would be so special if you would come and celebrate with us!” That was before Imelda checked with her sister.
Imelda’s eighty-year-old widowed sister was getting married to a former high school sweetheart, a widower. They were to be married on May 8. “On the seventieth anniversary of D-Day.” My mother’s references had become mine.
“D-Day?” The Doll Lady queried. “What’s that?”
Imelda asked me to send photographs of my mother in her youth so she could base a new doll on them. She declared that she was going to create a doll that would be called the Renata doll. “You’ll pick up ‘Renata’ when you come here to visit. ‘Renata’ will fly home with you.”
A pattern developed where periods of overwhelming attention would be followed by extended and disturbing silences. When I was put on Neglect, I hung up. When I did, Imelda would come after me, her Dotty-Old-Lady persona replaced by an astute human being. “I understand that you would be uncomfortable about coming to someone you don’t know. No one can ever replace Renata, Dear, and no one should. But there are other people who would gladly enter your life and your heart, if you would only let them.” The Doll Lady was almost pleading. When Imelda traveled to Portland for a week, in order to attend the wedding of another grandson, she carried her laptop with her, in order to keep in touch with me.
I am not a rich woman. Like most people, I live on a budget, and the only way I would be able to make a trip to the Upper Mid West would be on reward points off a credit card, and cash from a U.S. account inherited from my mother. I told Imelda my situation, and the conditions of the trip. “Open tickets no longer exist, so you must be very sure of the dates, because changing them would mean my having to pay a stiff financial penalty.”
For months the poetic descendant of Emily Dickinson had been painting tantalizing word pictures describing Wisconsin’s fabled forests. Her daughter Julie, Brad’s mother, lived in a fully equipped cabin in the woods, on forty acres of land populated with deer. Imelda owned the cabin and the land. “We’ll bring you to the cabin. You’ll sleep in the loft. You’ll be surrounded by beauty, and you will have peace.”
At first, Imelda suggested I come in the summer. Plans changed when Brad’s British girlfriend and her father announced they were coming for an extended stay. Then Imelda traveled to Portland, to the wedding. She suggested that I come in September, and then she suggested that I come in October. Again, I began pulling away. “I’m afraid you’re too busy for me.”
“Dear, I intend to be busy until the day I die, and when you come I will be busy with you!”
I am fond of off-season travel in out-of-the-way places. I have always loved the month of October. I love its freshness, its foliage, and its food. My mother’s birthday is in October. October is also when her dying began. On September 30, 2013, I brought my mother into hospital with alarming symptoms. On October 1 her long-standing cancer was deemed untreatable. She faded with the leaves, and departed on the night of the first snowfall. I have always loved the first snowfall, as I have loved the month of October. Now they have a painful overlay for me.
Nearing the end of September Imelda finally settled on an arrival date for October 15, but would not give a definite return date. When I called her on a Sunday morning she erupted, “I can’t talk to you now! I’m having breakfast in a restaurant and the waitress is bringing my food!” An alarm went off in my head. If only I had heeded it.
For almost a week Imelda remained elusive, and I got fed up. After agonizing over the decision all night, on the morning of September 30 I decided to cancel plans for the trip. In the afternoon I received an e-mail from Superior. “Book your return flight for November 2. Your bed is made and waiting for you. It gets cold here, so I’ll bring a fake fur coat for you to the airport.”
I looked out the window at a maple tree whose leaves were turning amber. It was the tree I had watched all through the autumn of 2013, sensing that when its last leaves were shrivelled and gone my mother would be gone, too. The return date was the same date of the ceremony my tribe calls an unveiling. The unveiling of the stone marking my mother’s grave was held on November 2, 2014.
Though my mother had lived and died in Montreal she was, by her own request, buried in Toronto, where my brother lives with his family. She had also requested that my father’s remains be exhumed and re-buried beside hers. “You’ll be free to leave, if you want to. I don’t want you to feel that you’ll have to stay just to tend to your parents’ graves.” Mum’s reasoning was thoughtful, but odd, since we both knew I’d have nowhere to go. Did she secretly hope that, once she was gone, my brother would take me under his wing? Surely she knew better. Early in my brother’s marriage she had changed her will in order to protect me from my sister-in-law.
I was manoeuvred out of attending what became a double unveiling for both my parents because no one would take me in, and I refused to be incarcerated in a hotel. Though I was tolerated at my mother’s funeral, to this day, I have not seen the stone that marks my parents’ graves.
On the afternoon of September 30, 2015, after receiving Imelda’s e-mail and feeling slapped in the face by the return date, I felt torn. My judgement said Don’t Go, but my intense loneliness and vulnerability overrode my judgement. Since the night of the first snowfall nearing the end of 2013 my heart had weathered a cold, comfortless and companionless winter. Would I be running to warmth and a welcome so cruelly excised from my life, or was I running away? No longer able to stand the strain of indecision, I went ahead and booked the flight.
I arrived in Duluth’s shiny and tiny airport on the afternoon of October 15, 2015. As I waited for my suitcase at the luggage carrousel I spotted an old woman wearing blue jeans, with blades of white hair poking out of a white beret. She was staring at me. I picked up my suitcase and walked past her. The woman followed me. It was Imelda. She had been inaccurate in her description of herself, but I had described myself accurately enough to be recognized.
When I realized who this woman was, I threw my arms around her. Finally, I was meeting The Doll Lady of Wisconsin. The Doll Lady’s 45- year-old grandson Brad was waiting outside, at his car. The Doll Lady and Brad lived together. Each had his and her own car. Brad was friendly, articulate, obese, and had one swollen eye. He had recently moved from Hawaii back to Wisconsin. According to Brad, he had come home to help out his grandmother. According to the Doll Lady, Brad had come home because of his ”health.” According to the Doll Lady, the focus of Brad’s health problem was his hyperactive eye, which swelled mysteriously at night, and receded during the day. Brad had gone as far as the Mayo Clinic in order to find out what was wrong with his eye, but to no avail.
At The Doll Lady’s request, on the way home, we stopped in at a restaurant located in a hotel. The Doll Lady ordered a pot of hot water with lemon and honey. Then she ordered a potato pancake, though those who celebrate Hanukkah would not have recognized it as such. A potato pancake in America’s Upper Mid-West is flat, thin, large, and as greasy as Vaseline.
Brad ordered eggs that I believe are called Sunny Side Up, accompanied by hash brown potatoes, and a side order of two pancakes. “Have a pancake, Grandma,” Brad suddenly appeared to be watching his diet. “I only wanted one.”
After the lunch I didn’t participate in, we rode to The Doll Lady’s home. It was a decrepit hundred-year-old house purchased less than two years before because, The Doll Lady explained, she didn’t feel like living in her cabin anymore, and she resented the idea of paying rent. Instead, a woman in her eighties, owner of a country home and forty acres of land, still capable of driving, sunk 50,000 dollars, which appeared to be her life savings, into a hundred-year-old house. The Doll Lady’s plan; precisely, her fantasy, was to restore the house, sell it at a profit, and move to Hawaii with Brad and Brad’s mother Julie. Why she simply hadn’t sold the cabin and the land, added the proceeds to her life savings and moved to Hawaii with her daughter, where her grandson was already established, was beyond me. (In an early phone call The Doll Lady had told me that she planned on giving the house to her grandson and his girlfriend, and moving into an apartment.)
The house I entered may have been considered elegant and comfortable in 1915, but under The Doll Lady’s stewardship the entire ground floor had been converted into storage space for three shops-full of what she called antiques, though much of the merchandise would’ve found appropriate homes in flea markets. The Doll Lady’s daughter Julie had owned and managed three antique shops, but recently had been turned out of them when the landlord she was renting from went bankrupt. “He over- invested.” The Doll Lady scoffed. Over the course of the next few days, the Doll Lady would scoff a lot. There had been a dining room in the front part of the ground floor, and a fully equipped kitchen in the back. “I had the downstairs kitchen taken out,” The Doll Lady airily explained. “I didn’t like it.” It was unclear who was paying for the renovations. One moment The Doll Lady cursed, “I’ve sunk five thousand into this house already, and now the workers are asking another five thousand, which I don’t have!” The next moment The Doll Lady was fine. “The state (of Wisconsin) will pay for the renovations, because of my age.”
In an early phone call urging me to visit The Doll Lady had exulted, “I have nine rooms. You have no excuse.” At a stretch, counting both bathrooms and the kitchen, which had a slanted floor and contained neither a table nor chairs, one might count nine rooms, though few were usable, and not all of them had doors.
The room I was assigned to sleep in had no door. One might describe it as an alcove. The Doll Lady used it as her sewing room. It held a small, lumpy sofa, a large, lumpy armchair, a large, wide screen TV used to screen videos (there was no TV service) and a small hard backed, unarmed chair. There were two small drawers under the TV, and one was stuffed with face cloths. I was told that these drawers were assigned to me for the duration of my stay. Brad quietly suggested to his grandmother that I might need a regular-sized towel to wrap myself in, after taking a shower. That’s when I was handed a towel.
There was no closet, so there was no need for hangers until I got there. I asked where I could hang my clothes. Imelda supplied a metal rod with holes that she inserted into the door that led to the tiny “deck.”
The alcove was carpeted, and the carpet was visibly unvacuumed. In the center of the debris-encrusted carpet sat a metal child-sized cot stuffed with filthy foam and a stained and ripped mattress. A pretty quilt, like make-up on a dirty face, covered the mattress and the foam. A dusty pillow topped this contraption. The Doll Lady had made my bed, and I was expected to lie in it.
I had just spent the day traveling. The only food I had was the food I had carried since I had picked up, in e-mails sent after I finally booked the flight, that there would be no food prepared for me. After dissolving powdered broth into a cup of hot water and drinking it, I removed the pillow, the quilt, the mattress and the foam, folded up the cot, and placed the bedding on the floor. “Oh I feel terrible.” The Doll Lady paid lip service to the discomfort she had created.
“I guess you didn’t realize how tall I am.” I was diplomatic. I was also stuck.
I was allowed to move the cot onto the deck (“We were going to throw it out after you left, anyway,” the Doll Lady declared, without embarrassment.) but I was not allowed to place the hard backed chair outside. “It might rain.” It was a moot point. Once the cot was placed onto the deck, there was room for no one and nothing else. The Doll Lady folded the narrow mattress and tossed it onto the sofa, next to my suitcase. “I can sell it at our next garage sale,” she said, and believed what she said.
“Oh I don’t think anyone will buy that.” The words fell out of my mouth before I could stop them.
“You wouldn’t believe what people will buy!” The Doll Lady harrumphed. She was right. I not only wouldn’t believe what people might buy, I also had a hard time believing how outrageously the public’s intelligence could be insulted by what people might dare try to sell.
As I lay with clenched shoulders on the too-narrow mattress, the Doll Lady brought in her dinner on a tray and perched on the edge of the hard back chair, which held my carry-on case, eating and chatting, while I lay exhausted at her feet. My closed eyes began to itch and tear. I knew what was happening, but I was helpless to do anything about it, that evening. By morning not only were my shoulders, neck and jaw in spasm, but my eyes were almost as swollen as Brad’s, my head felt swollen, my lungs felt congested, and my throat was not only sore, but also raw. I knew what was causing this reaction. Mould and dust mites.
I asked to be taken to Walmart, which I had seen on the way in, in order to purchase a new pillow and a sleeping bag. “I hate Walmart!” The Doll Lady scoffed. “If you have all these allergies then you should do a three-day detox!”
We discussed possible options, as well as impossible options. “Julie had a sleeping bag, but I don’t think she has it anymore. She has an air mattress, but it keeps losing air.”
We went downstairs and perused the three-shops full of merchandise to see if anything was usable. I spied a large mattress at the far end of what may have once been a back parlour. “I can sleep on that,” I declared, with relief. “Its large enough.” The mattress certainly was large. It was far too large for an old and a middle-aged woman to haul up a flight of stairs, and according to The Doll Lady, Brad couldn’t be disturbed. He had already put himself out carrying my suitcase up the stairs, and I wasn’t to ask for anything more.
“If the mattress can’t come to me, then I can come to the mattress!” Again, I felt inspired. Reluctantly The Doll Lady allowed me to move downstairs, but she wouldn’t allow her space heater to accompany me. “It costs 350 dollars. I can’t risk its being broken.”
The back area that contained the mattress also housed a second bathroom. Its bathtub was stuffed with pieces of small furniture, and its shower hose didn’t work because, The Doll Lady scoffed, Brad’s girlfriend’s eighty-year-old father had broken it, during their stay in the summer. Reggie was disabled. Reggie was in a wheelchair. During their stay, it was Reggie who had used the large mattress. He had also used the downstairs bathroom, and had latched onto the shower hose in order to haul himself off the toilet. That’s how he broke it. “That idiot. Using a shower hose to get off a toilet. It would cost 50 dollars to replace. Dumb. Dumb. Brad won’t marry Gemma unless she leaves her father. Gemma won’t leave Reggie because he’s disabled, but I don’t think he’s as badly off as she makes out. He’s just selfish. And dumb.” If The Doll Lady had no sympathy for an 80-year-old man in a wheelchair, she wasn’t about to develop any for me. I had not only flown down to Wisconsin in good faith, I had arrived in good shape. In conditions created by The Doll Lady, this wouldn’t last long.
The back corner of the back parlour not only held a mattress, but there was a desk beside it, and a working lamp. The mattress was wedged between the desk and an empty bookcase. There was a stack of books behind the desk. There was a sink and a toilet in the downstairs bathroom, both of which worked. It was decided that I would sleep here and do my living upstairs. To compensate for the space heater I was denied, Imelda wheeled out something that looked like a truncated radiator, with a plug. It worked, but the only thing this item heated was itself. It was so cold in that corner, so very cold. Imelda supplied extra blankets, but they froze, along with the pillow she finally allowed me to purchase at Walmart. In an effort to get warm, I would resort to placing the pillow and the bottom sheet on the portable radiator-contraption. I may have been risking a fire but by then, I barely cared.
After my sleeping arrangements were altered to the best that The Doll Lady would allow, we drove to the local supermarket for groceries. Imelda instructed me to get a cart for myself and meet her after I had finished shopping and most particularly, after I had finished paying. Imelda shopped for herself.
I had written in an e-mail that I could make a meal out of a baked potato and yogurt. In this, The Doll Lady took me at my word. She bought a sack of potatoes because she used them too, but I supplied my own yogurt. Since The Doll Lady let me know that we had certain food preferences in common, I bought these items in order to share them with her. I would ultimately enrich The Doll Lady’s kitchen.
Brad’s food was stored on the top shelf of the refrigerator because “he can’t bend,” and I shared the lower shelf with The Doll Lady. I received a dirty look when I added three carrots to my nightly meal of squash and yogurt, or a potato and yogurt. I survived The Doll Lady’s dirty look, as I survived the dirt in the rest of the house. I was hungry.
On the second night I wrapped myself in blankets, on the mattress in what I imagined was once a back parlour. I had light to read by. I had books to read. I had a bathroom to myself. There was more shelf space in the desk, for my belongings, than there had been in the drawers under the TV upstairs. There was no door, but I was far enough removed that I had privacy. I surveyed the piles of furniture in the dark and decrepit house and tried to imagine that I was sleeping in Dickens’ Old Curiosity Shop.
If only I could get warm, I could make this visit work. I wondered if Imelda would let me buy an electric heating pad. Then I remembered that it isn’t safe to sleep with a switched on electric heating pad. I wondered if Imelda would let me buy a hot water bottle. I could place it at my feet, but its warmth wouldn’t last the night. Could she be induced to make another trip to Walmart, where I could buy a space heater? I would leave it behind, as I would leave the pillow behind. There would be more for her to sell.
As the damp and rattling cold entered my muscles and my bones I thought of my mother huddling under a coat on a mattress in an apartment in winter, in the Warsaw Ghetto. She and her sister shared one pair of shoes, and they took turns venturing into the streets in order to forage for food. As my shoulders and neck and skull went into spasm I thought of the hypothermia that killed victims on death marches. It was the second night of my long-awaited vacation, and that is how my mind was working.
In the middle of the night, no longer able to lie on my frozen back, I rolled over on my side and my knee struck one of the shelves of the empty bookcase. The blow woke me, and my knee swelled. That is when I began to cry.
Imelda found me in the morning, bent over my swollen knee. “I don’t believe it!” she scoffed. Another dumb and clumsy guest. There was no ice in the freezer though, behind Imelda’s back, I would retrieve a sack of frozen vegetables and apply it to my swollen knee. In the immediate aftermath of the injury the health educator applied a herbal ointment to the injury, wrapped it in gauze, and then covered all with an ace bandage. I asked if I might have the use of a cane. I suspected there might be one on the premises. “Sure. The State gave me a cane, because of my age. I have no intention of using it. You can use the cane.”
As I sat upstairs, in the lumpy armchair, with my leg up on a box, Imelda handed me a list of activities and tourist attractions that were purportedly free. Brad’s girlfriend in England had prepared the list. I had no interest in high school choir performances. What I did find of interest was deemed either too far, not interesting, or had a nominal charge, which I was prepared to pay, but Imelda was not. (The Doll Lady ignored my offer to pay entrance fees for her.)
In the afternoon Imelda drove us to Duluth, to its port on Lake Superior. The autumn leaves were at their peak, the air was bracing, the seagulls whirled in a sky clear and deeply blue, the great lake was an even deeper blue and smelled like the seaports in Greece. There was no entrance fee, but there was a parking fee. Stepping on the gas whose price she complained about, Imelda managed to avoid paying the fee.
On Sunday Imelda drove me to a state park that boasted the highest waterfalls in Wisconsin. She sat in the car, reading and sewing, so she said, because she found it difficult to walk. Imelda did not find it difficult to climb up and down a flight of stairs several times a day, she did not find it difficult to garden, and she did not find it difficult to haul wood at the family cabin, but she found it difficult to walk. According to the printout provided, entrance to the state park was free. According to the attendant who stopped us at the gate, it was not. “Have you got three dollars?” Imelda turned to me. I did, and I had no problem handing it over.
On the way back from the park we again stopped at the supermarket. I hadn’t prepared enough money to buy groceries. I didn’t know we were going to make the stop. “Do you stop in at the supermarket often,” I asked, wanting to be prepared. “I get in my groceries once a month!” Imelda huffed. “The reason I’m going in so often now is because of you!”
Over the phone, Imelda had told me that she served as caregiver to a sister-in-law, the sister of her first husband. “I’ve buried three husbands, and the next one will bury me!” I knew the stories of Husband No. One and Husband No Three (I also knew the story of the married man who fathered her first daughter when she was seventeen. Her discovery, thirty years later, of the child she had been forced to give up for adoption lead to the meeting with Husband No. 3). I did not know the story of Husband No. 2, so I asked. “I left him after two weeks because he wouldn’t sleep with me. He was sleeping with his son. My second husband was a widower. He told me his son hadn’t gotten over the loss of his mother and couldn’t be left alone at night, so he was sleeping with him, and not with me. So I said to him, ‘Why did we get married?’ “ Why, indeed. So I wasn’t the first. It appeared Imelda had no qualms about seducing the bereaved.
“Is your second husband still alive?”
“I don’t know and I couldn’t care less.” Neither was there any sympathy for the boy who had lost his mother.
There were many discrepancies in the tales Imelda told me over the phone calls I was sponsoring, and the versions I heard in person. My head spun, trying to match what was unmatchable. Imelda did serve as a caregiver to her sister-in-law. An agency funded by the state of Wisconsin was paying her ten dollars an hour to shop, clean house, and serve a woman who had Alzheimer’s disease. Imelda would run her errands, put in her time, and clock in with the agency. This meant she was out for several hours each day. When I first arrived we stopped at a hardware store because Imelda had lost the key to her house. When the new key was cut she handed it to me. I was confused. I thought she was handing me a copy to keep for the duration of my stay. No, there was to be only one key, and we would share it. Though Brad stayed home, working at his computer all day, and then skyped his British girlfriend into the evening and half the night, I was forbidden to knock on the door when Imelda was out, in order not to disturb him.
I offered to pay to have another key made. “I don’t want to drive back to the hardware store to make a copy of the key,” Imelda stated firmly.
“And anyway,” Imelda continued, not so firmly, “Julie doesn’t allow it. With all her stuff in the house, no one is allowed to have a copy of the keys except family.” As if I were going to stuff the contents of three antique shops into my suitcase, on top of my own clothes. Imelda would use her daughter Julie as an excuse, whenever she felt in need of one.
On Monday morning Imelda offer, without enthusiasm, “I can take you to where the boat cruises are, but I won’t go with you.” When I first arrived Imelda told me there were sightseeing excursions on the lake, but the season had ended and the boats were no longer sailing. I couldn’t understand why she would tell me about it if I couldn’t make use of the information, but then, I noticed a pattern developing in which Imelda would hand me a menu, and then snatch away the meal. Now she was telling me that the boats were sailing. I suspected it was because she recognized that I was prepared to pay my way.
“But Imelda, it’s raining.” I would’ve loved to go cruising on a bateau mouche, but my cold and cramped muscles didn’t relish the prospect of being battered by the wind and the rain, nor even sitting trapped in a glass shelter.
“Is it? Well, that’s that, then.”
“When’s Julie coming?” I offered, for something to say.
“Well she can’t come now because you’re here! I hadn’t planned on your being downstairs! Julie needs to sell her merchandise, and she can’t get any work done if you’re here!”
I only slept downstairs; I wasn’t living there.
“Imelda, I came on your time, on your schedule, on the dates that you gave me. Now you’re telling me that I’m in the way. I’m scheduled to be here for another two weeks. If I’m in your daughter’s way then where should I go and what should I do?”
“Well the merchandise has to be sold. I can’t help that. You can go back upstairs! I have neighbours who are always asking what they can do for me! I’ll call them and ask them to bring the mattress upstairs.” This was a switch. When I mentioned to Imelda that I had fallen into conversation with a neighbour on my daily walks she erupted, “Oh I don’t talk to my neighbours. I don’t want to have anything to do with them. They loved the previous owner of this house, and he lied to me about its condition. They wish he was still here, and not me!” Suddenly she had neighbours so accommodating that she was sure they would drag a mattress up a flight of stairs. She was right. A young couple came in the evening and cheerfully brought the mattress up to the alcove. Then the man turned to Imelda, grinned, and informed her, almost proudly, “I had a stroke last month!” When they left Imelda turned to me, and on me. “That man had a heart attack! If I had known I never would’ve asked him to bring up the mattress for you!”
After shoving me back upstairs Imelda informed me, “I have to go to the cabin on Wednesday and haul wood for Julie. I’ll be coming back on Thursday.” An eighty-five-year old woman hauled wood for her sixty-two-year-old daughter because her daughter was disabled. Julie had a metal plate in her neck, though I never understood why. In pictures I’d seen of her, she was seated in a wheelchair. It looked like the same wheelchair that had crashed onto the back of my legs after my knee was injured. Between the plate in Julie’s neck and Brad’s rebellious eye, it appeared the only able-bodied person on the dangerously overstuffed premises was the 85-year-old Imelda.
I was confused. If the mattress was being moved upstairs to accommodate Julie, then who was coming or going to whom? I understood that we, both of us, were to be heading out to Smokey The Bear country, to the fully equipped cabin with the forty acres of land where deer, and perhaps antelope played. I was to sleep in a loft. I was to be surrounded by beauty and peace. According to the most recent e-mails, there was a bed waiting for me there, too.
“You’re going alone? I understood that I was invited too.”
“Well, in the kind of shape you’re in, you can’t even haul a log of wood.”
“Ahh, Imelda, I’m a human being. I have muscles, and nerves, and bones, and they’ve been taking a beating.” I stopped short of launching into Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech. “I’ve been injured. I need a chance to recover.”
“You can recover at home.” I was shocked. I knew Imelda’s irresponsibility wasn’t personal. She dealt in distortion. Her choices were mindless. She thought nothing through, whether it was buying a house or housing a guest. Still, I could not fully grasp the horror of having been sucked into the orbit of an elderly enfant terrible who picked up people like dolls, played with them, petted them, damaged them, and then discarded them. The creature was grotesque, and I had placed myself at her mercy.
I said nothing. My hostess refused to keep me safe and warm, and seemed to resent my attempts at taking care of myself. Insult had been added to injury. I limped away. What I didn’t do was to call the emergency number on the enhanced travel and medical insurance policy I had bought before making the trip. I didn’t believe my injury was serious enough to require treatment, and I didn’t know enough to ask. When I bought the policy from my bank, I did not read the seven-page certificate that came with it, so I didn’t see the clause stating coverage “for travel interruption for any and all reasons requiring medical attention.” If I had, my call might’ve set into motion taxis, medical attention and diagnosis, treatment if deemed necessary and, if deemed necessary, a flight home, I would be told, after I returned to Canada. Back in Canada, the representative in my bank’s travel department reminded me of something only my father seemed to have known. “You have the right to be taken care of.” In the brutal two years under a motherless New Order I had fought for the right, and for the belief, that I had a right to take care of myself. That I also had the right to be taken care of was a concept that had been browbeaten out of me long before I collided with Imelda.
In the afternoon the sky cleared and I went out, with Imelda’s cane, for a walk. The morning had been unpromising. Mid-afternoon morphed into a lovely, mild, Indian summer of a day. Residents in the neighbourhood were out on the streets. A gentleman sitting on his porch hailed me. “Beautiful day, isn’t it!”
“Indeed.” Our eyes locked. There was a connection. What caught Frank’s attention was the cane.
“Are you alright?”
“Oh, that’s a loaded question.” I approached Frank’s porch. He was a disabled Army veteran living in a fourplex. His rent was subsidized by what the state called assisted housing. He had destroyed both his knees jumping out of planes. I believe other parts of his anatomy had been damaged by similar feats of derring do.
It was a pleasure, and a relief to spend the afternoon with Frank. I was parched for intelligent conversation. Frank told me his story, and I told him mine. “I’m trying to make a decision whether to stay or to leave.” His nods and grimaces confirmed what I knew. The aptly-named Frank didn’t tell me what I wanted to hear, he told me what I needed to hear. “As long as you’re here, you’re homeless. This woman hasn’t been dealing in good faith. You’ve been deceived.”
When I returned to The Doll Lady’s house I had to bang heavily on the door in order to be let in. The Doll Lady was home, but she had locked me out. I recognized the gesture as punishment for having dared to ask for a copy of the house keys.
When Imelda let me in she also let me know that her daughter Julie “really wanted you to come and visit the cabin. You weren’t invited just so you could haul wood.”
“I know.” Of course I knew. I believed Julie’s invitation was sincere. It was Imelda who had reneged. I could also imagine what she must have told her daughter about me. The invitation was not reinstated.
Imelda then offered to show me pictures of the cabin and the land and the deer. Once more the menu was replacing the meal. I declined Imelda’s offer as respectfully as I could. I didn’t need to see an advertisement for an event I was going to be missing.
While I had the time on the mattress downstairs, and when Imelda was out, I had made several calls to a close family friend in Toronto. I had purchased a cell phone plan as well as a calling card, to be used as a back-up, in case I were to feel the need to make a long long-distance call to Canada. I never used the calling card. I stuck to the use of my cell phone, because I was afraid to touch Imelda’s phone. She might walk in, and catch me at it. I had become afraid.
Before I had left, Lawrence wrote to me, “I hope you have an amazing trip, but don’t take crap from anybody. If anyone gives you a hard time you just call us and me or Mike will fly down there and bring you home!” In the aftermath of my mother’s passing Lawrence had behaved like an overbearing mother, twisting my arm to accept what was unacceptable in The New Order, trying to force me into making Nice-Nice with those who had been spitting in my face for years. He was also the only courtier in my brother’s court that tried to bring a bereaved brother and sister together, instead of exploiting their torment in order to tear them apart.
There was unintended irony, as well as love, in Lawrence’s offer. At the time it was made, I didn’t take it seriously. After three days in The Doll Lady’s domain, I was taking Lawrence’s offer very seriously, indeed.
When I called him on it, Lawrence’s flamboyant promise transmuted into a subdued and redundant, “Sometimes you’ve just (sic) got to bite the bullet.” Lawrence was prepared to assist me in finding a flight home, but I would have to pay.
“Don’t tell my brother.” I was embarrassed that I had fallen into such a trap, and didn’t want my brother to know that I had volunteered for victimization. I blamed my isolation and the vulnerability engendered by my mother’s death. I blamed myself.
“I’ve already contacted Michael.” Then the man who had been so infuriatingly judgemental for almost two years amazed me by saying, “No one’s judging.”
My brother and our friend manned their computers and began searching for flights out. The financial penalties were egregious. I was loath to pay.
I tried to make the best of an unjust situation. The Doll Lady remained intransigent. Why shouldn’t she? The risk had been mine, the expense had been mine, the effort had been mine, and now the hardship was mine.
On Monday night, back upstairs in the alcove, on the large mattress, I gave up trying to sleep as Brad’s voice cut through his door and wafted into the space where I lay. He was on Skype with his girlfriend in London. Brad worked at his computer during the day, skyped his British girlfriend from four to nine in the evening, went out for a walk after nine, and then returned to his computer, where he continued skyping until two in the morning. He rose around noon, which is when his day began. Unless he had to leave the premises for an appointment, Brad adhered to this routine seven days a week, except for December, when he flew to London.
I had two weeks left to go in a visit that had become an endurance test. How was I to bear it?
In the morning, after a sleepless night, I lay on the mattress overhearing Imelda on the telephone. There was a call made to a store, informing them to cancel the order she had placed for bulbs to be planted in her garden. “Don’t send me any more flowers!” There was a call made to a doctor’s office, shifting blame onto the bank for a 23 dollars and something cheque that had bounced. Then the poor old woman decided to have new windows installed into a house even older than she was.
There were no more offers, even half-hearted ones, to take me, or send me, sightseeing. I had been forced back to the second floor of the house, even though having to climb up and down the stairs was preventing the healing of my knee. I was picking up texts from Lawrence and from my brother, giving me options for flights back to Canada. My brother wrote, “The estate (our mother’s estate) will pay.” Imelda was pointedly letting me know that I was unwelcome. I posed the question, prepared for the answer. “Do you want me to leave.”
“Yes!” The Doll Lady erupted, with hostility, and relief. “You’re having an unpleasant time here. You’re not feeling well. You should go home and recover. You should recover at home.” It was a masterful evasion of responsibility. It was also brutal.
“Thanks, MOM!” The Doll Lady’s eyes popped. I stomped off, retrieved my cell phone, a pen and a notebook, hobbled downstairs to The Old Curiosity Shop, and called my brother. Imelda followed me.
“There’s a flight out tomorrow. It’s a morning flight. You’d have a 50 minute stopover in Chicago. Your connecting flight would be in another terminal. Want me to book it?”
“Fifty minutes to get to another terminal in Chicago? That airport is massive! I’ll never make it! Should I move to a hotel for a couple of days?” Hovering among the junk in The Old Curiosity Shop, The Doll Lady bristled. I could feel it.
“Look,” my brother countered. He was a far more experienced and frequent flyer than I. “If it weren’t feasible the airlines wouldn’t schedule it that way. If you don’t make the connecting flight, it’s the airline’s responsibility to get you onto the next flight. Under the circumstances, it’s the best I can do. I’m booking it, and I can’t buy a third ticket! You’re getting out of there!”
In that moment both The Doll Lady and I learned that, despite the death of my mother, I wasn’t alone in the world. In a modern twist on a grim fairytale, it was Hansel who was rescuing Gretel from the house of a witch.
I hobbled upstairs to retrieve my suitcase, dragged it down to The Old Curiosity Shop, and then made several trips up and down the stairs to retrieve my belongings. It was easier to bring down an empty suitcase, rather than a full one, and Brad, of course, could not be disturbed.
I packed. The Doll Lady watched me. When I returned upstairs, Brad had emerged from his lair, and was in the kitchen. I asked him for the number of a taxi. “Sharon, if you want to go somewhere I can drive you.”
So Brad was a nice guy, and he could be disturbed. It was the cunning Doll Lady who kept her pawns separate and apart.
“I need to get to the airport tomorrow morning.” Brad backed off. He stared at his silent grandmother. He retreated to his room, and retrieved the number of a taxi from his computer.
When I finished packing I picked up the cane Imelda didn’t use and went for a walk in order to get away from this house of horrors, in which dead objects were sheltered and protected, and a living human being is damaged, devalued, and tossed. The Doll Lady’s perverted values seemed merely an extreme of what I was seeing around me, in this ironically named town. Everyone had at least one car, because it was impossible to function without one. Almost everyone had a house, but not all householders had the resources to comfortably maintain their dwellings so they bundled up, living in the dark and sleeping in the cold, in order not to run up heat and electric bills. From what I could see, the residents of Superior were enslaved by their stuff. The American Dream had become a Canadian’s nightmare.
The wind whipped up. Dead leaves whirled. Behind neighbouring fences dogs snarled and leapt to the railings, menacing me.
I didn’t take a taxi to the airport. Imelda assured me that she would drive me there. As little as she could be trusted, I trusted her to get me to the airport because I knew how badly she wanted me to leave. When I returned from my walk, Imelda offered to make me a salad. I declined. She offered to take me with her on an errand she was running for her sister-in-law. She even offered to drive me to Walmart. I was on the verge of declining, then decided to accept. There was no point in resisting The Doll Lady.
It had been a blustery day. After running the errand for her sister-in-law, Imelda drove me to the bay. She wanted to share the sunset. In the tangled branches of Imelda’s mind, cloudy days were the best days to view sunsets. Over a lawn littered with Canadian geese, the last of the day’s sun oozed between wads of clouds, like an open wound. As we sat in the car, Imelda pointed out the sites of this town with the arrogant name. “That’s the widow’s peak in the mansion I pointed out to you on the first day. You would’ve gotten to visit it, if you weren’t leaving.”
You twisted old witch. I had never before felt such revulsion for an elderly person. Is this what you brought me out here for? You heard my brother accommodating your latest demand. Your knife has done its work. Must you now grind it into the wound, too?
On Tuesday morning, Imelda dropped me off at the airport in Duluth. “Would you like me to come in and wait with you?” I was amazed. On the way in, a large sign clearly marked hourly parking rates. Was she really willing to pay two dollars for parking?
“It isn’t necessary.” Then I thanked the Doll Lady for the only thing it was possible to thank her for. “Thank you for sending my brother back to me.”
Imelda looked forlorn. Quickly, I turned away. I could not afford to feel sorry for The Doll Lady. She had cost me too much.
I never saw Imelda’s book. When I asked, she told me, “Oh I made some copies and gave them to people who have dolls.” When I asked to see the poem she had written, based on the story of the doll she had given my mother she shrugged, “Its somewhere in the computer. I’ll have to dig it out.” She never did.
As for the Renata doll; it never materialized.
I made the connecting flight in Chicago. Along the side of the ramp,
as I boarded the plane, on a wall there was a sign that read, NOW. Move Forward. With Confidence.
Reaching home, I let go of baggage and went out into the busy and darkened streets. It was October 21, 2015. Election posters of the borough’s mayor gleamed under lighted lampposts. He had just been elected to Parliament. Within less than a week, I had left a country living under a conservative government and returned to a country with a Prime Minister Trudeau. Again.
There was a police cordon around City Hall. Blue-collar workers were holding a meeting, and it was expected that they might stage a protest.
In the library there were lectures and concerts. In the neighbourhood cinema ballets were beamed in by satellite from Moscow, operas were offered from New York, and plays were projected from London. There was activity. There was movement. There was life, and for the first time in years, I felt part of it. My brother had brought me home.