Wednesday, August 4, 1999

Mind Games

Fondly I caress my little bent-leg Betsy Ross by Madame Alexander.  Unlike lesser, straight-leg, modern Madame Alexander dolls, Betsy’s legs can bend, which makes her worth a pretty penny, but she’s old, and her inner elastic band has lost its stretch.

“You need a new spinal cord, my sweet,” I tell her, “and I’m going to see that you get one.  I must keep you in good condition.  Now that my Kaiser Wilhelm has been untimely ripped from my collection, you are the only doll of value I have left.”  

I sigh and ponder the problem of Betsy’s repair.  I certainly can’t take her to Lucille Chapner, that unscrupulous thief in Greensboro to whom I brought my Kaiser doll for mending.  That horrible woman substituted a cheap copy, but I can’t prove it, so have to accept my loss.  No, Lucille Chapner is out of the question.  Who then?  Well, there’s Gardner’s Doll Hospital in Bridgeport.  That’s certainly closer than Greensboro anyway, and it is true that Abigail Gardner knows a good deal about dolls and their care.  Oh, but I dread taking my Betsy to her.  She has intimidated me ever since she and I served together on the board of the International Doll Collectors Club years ago.  She positively hates me, and I don’t even know why.

The procedure Betsy needs isn’t complicated.  Perhaps I can wait right in the doll hospital for it to be done, as an outpatient, so to speak.  Then I won’t be running the risk of leaving her unattended in Abigail’s hands.  Yes, that’s the course I’ll take.

I find myself now inside the Doll Hospital.  Abigail is nowhere to be seen.  Instead, behind the counter is a lovely young woman, about twenty-five or so.  In her hand is an undressed doll, which she cleans tenderly with a soft cloth.

“May I help you?” she asks.  I like her smile.

“Is Mrs. Gardner in?” I say, hoping she isn’t.

“She’s on an errand and won’t be back until later,” she says.  “I’m her daughter Gail.  May I take care of something for you?”

I show Betsy to her.  “Oh!” she says.  “A bent-leg!  We don’t often run across a treasure like her.  She’s a beauty!”

Pride, as though Betsy were my own offspring, makes me blush.  “She needs a new band,” I say.  “As you can see, her head flops a bit to the side, poor dear.”

Laying the other doll aside, Gail reaches for Betsy.  “Oh, I think I can do that for you,” she says.  “It won’t take long.  You can just wait if you like.”  She reaches up into the head and tries to remove the band, but seems to have difficulty.  She tugs and pulls and I begin to regret having come.  Suppose Betsy, delicate with age, cannot stand the rough treatment?  

“Darn!” the girl says at last.  “These antique dolls are attached differently than what I’m familiar with.  Perhaps Mother should do this after all.  Could you leave your doll here and pick her up tomorrow?”


She senses my reluctance, and I am embarrassed.  “Really,” she says, “she will be perfectly safe in our care.  You see, it’s just that I would hate to do something wrong, and my mother, of course, is an expert at this kind of repair.  Such a lovely doll!  We could have her ready for you by ten a.m.”  She gives me her nice smile.

“Oh, I guess that will be all right,” I say.  “I’ll be back in the morning.”

All the way home I worry that I have made the wrong decision.  The next day I’m at the Gardner Doll Hospital before ten.  Abigail is behind the counter, and acknowledges me with all her arrogance of old.  Gail, on the other hand, standing on the customer-side of the counter tallying statements on a calculator, greets me warmly, and in my emotional state, I’m close to weeping in gratitude, but instead I ask, “Is my doll ready?”

Abigail, her face a study in disdain, pushes an open box toward me and points to the doll in it.  I gasp.  It looks like Betsy...but it isn’t Betsy!  The doll in the box is a straight-leg!

“Something wrong?” Abigail asks.  It’s more a challenge than a question, and when I look up, I see her glaring at me, arms crossed across her chest.  I feel the old familiar intimidation she subjected me to in the past.  To my horror, I also see that Gail has somehow managed to go around to her mother’s side, and she, too, stands with arms crossed, staring.  A united front!  I’m doomed!  I want to accuse them of their chicanery, but my throat, dry, constricted, opens only enough for me to croak, “How much do I owe?”

Abigail puts a lid on the box.  “Fifteen dollars.”

Trembling, not able to say more, I pay, pick up the box, and leave.

Once in the car, free of her presence, I come to my senses.  “Coward!” I scold myself.  “No way will I let myself be swindled twice!  I will march right back in there and demand my...”   But by this time I have the lid off to examine Abigail’s fraud, and lo! There in the box lies my own Betsy bent-leg.  “Oh, my sweet!” I cry.  “You’re back!”

I pick her up and press her to my chest, then lay her across the seat and check her knee joints to be sure.  Yes, she’s back, all right!  My joy dissipates and fear grips me.  Was she really ever gone?