Relationships

The Gifts That Keep on Giving

How a single toy leads to a lifetime of memories

I can still remember my father’s boyhood bedroom, which I last saw more than 25 years ago. On the dresser, I can picture a few tin toys — the train car, the sports car, the brightly colored jalopy. I’m not sure if these objects were received at the holidays, but the vintage cars in my mind’s eye always make me smile. I can almost see my dad as an eight-year-old, racing his vehicles up and down a long, carpeted hallway.

When it comes to my own children, I have photos to remind me of the holidays we celebrated and the excess that I now find embarrassing. But the first thought that hits me is my younger son, gleeful over his brand new Buzz Lightyear, as he runs through the house in a squeaky five-year-old voice, letting out the inimitable refrain: “To infinity … and beyond!” How he adored that giant plastic toy. He played with it for years and I’m guessing it still sits somewhere in his closet.

My own childhood memories of Christmas are spotty, but I recall dinners with my grandparents where there was a roaring fire, adults drinking and laughing, and my great aunt’s cookies enjoyed for dessert. While I was rummaging through a forgotten drawer looking for photos from those years, I found three wrapped dolls that could only have been given to me by my mother and likely at the holidays.

My mother was an avid collector, passionate about art and antiques, though money was always scarce. But lack of funds never stopped her. New England in the '60s was a mecca for the American antiques aficionado, and we’d occasionally find ornate dollhouses that were typically beyond our financial reach. One year, however, I received a red and green Victorian structure — some three stories tall, with a steeply pitched roof and an impressive cupola. I’ll never know how my mother managed such a stunning indulgence, but not long after, she stored it away and it languished in the attic, gathering dust.

In its place, there was a much smaller house, no more than 18 inches high and 12 inches deep. Also 19th century, I was free to play with it and respectful in doing so. On each special occasion, my mother would add to its furnishings — a diminutive clock, a kitchen table, a cast-iron stove, tiny dishes, a set of goblets and so on.

While these items are astonishing in their detail, the dolls remain the crowning glory. Each of the three I found bears a lovely painted face, their original metal pins (for swinging arms), and are decked out in lace pantaloons and petticoats that have barely yellowed. The tiniest appears to be made of bisque, while the other two are china head dolls, glazed and shiny.

I’m struck by how easily I had forgotten about these gifts from childhood. I’m equally struck by how readily we surrender the pleasurable pursuits of imagination — a single toy that leads to a lifetime of memories.

Perhaps this is the ideal time of year to rekindle our awareness. And so I’m fortunate to have these recollections as lessons: I picture my younger son with his beloved Buzz, my dad intrigued by his collection of cars — and my antique dolls, so long tucked away, at last displayed where I can enjoy them.