A doll worth loving down to her toes

My father sat on the spindly chair in front of my mother's Singer sewing machine, and Betsy, my 3-year-old sister, stood beside him. A worried frown fought with a look of utter confusion on her face. I was 15, and usually concerned with more worldly issues than my little sister's fears, but I could really sympathize with her.

After all, Jennifer, a baby doll that had once been mine and was now my sister's favorite companion, was in serious trouble. Jennifer's soft muslin body had fallen apart. Mother had sewn patches to keep the stuffing from leaking away, but with the doll's right leg hanging by a few threads of the original cloth, my parents knew something more serious than more patching was required.

"Can we fix her?" My sister's eyes swam with unshed tears.

"You love Jennifer, don't you?" Dad asked. She nodded wordlessly, fingering the dangling leg.

"Well, I love her, too," he said, gently taking the doll from my sister. "She's been in the family about 14 years now, gone on many vacations with us, and shared Christmases and Thanksgivings." He inspected the seams, the construction, the way the head and limbs were attached. "This looks like a man's job."

Betsy's eyes opened wide. "Mommy...?"

"Honey, I wouldn't know where to start. I need printed instructions." My mother whipped up dresses, shorts, and skirts from Simplicity and McCall's patterns with practiced ease, but the notion of disassembling the doll, cutting out a new body, packing the stuffing back in, and reattaching the head and limbs was beyond her design and engineering abilities.

"Hey! I said I'd do it, and I will. I'll make her a new body, the likes of which have never been seen." My father was far more mechanically minded than my mother. And my sister looked very worried.

But Dad didn't think much of the material Mom had bought for the project. "This muslin isn't sturdy enough," he said with disgust. "I'll use an old sheet, good sturdy 100 percent cotton. It'll never wear out."

Minutes later, Jennifer was in pieces, Betsy was in a quandary, Mom was in a state of barely controlled amusement, and Dad was in heaven. Jennifer's rubbery head, arms, and legs sat on the table by the sewing machine. My father laid the tattered torso on the white sheet as a pattern, cut two arms, two legs, a front and a back, and carried them to the old Singer.

That machine was probably one of the first electric models Singer made. He got my mother to thread it for him, but when she tried to show him how it operated, he elbowed her aside, saying, "I can see how it works. It's perfectly simple."

She choked on a giggle, nodded, and walked out of the room. In the 1950s in Kansas, men just didn't operate sewing machines. Especially not to make dolls.

"Um, Mommy...?"

"Jennifer will be fine, Betsy. Daddy knows what he's doing."

"You hope," I muttered.

It took Dad a few minutes to figure out how to keep the stitching from speeding out of control, but he soon had the Singer humming along nicely. He pinned and sewed, snipped, measured, and basted, and even used Scotch tape a couple of times, chortling to himself like the mad scientist. "Oh-ho-ho, if my brothers could see me now." He anchored a rubber leg to a cotton thigh and stitched up to the waist.

Betsy drew close and leaned against his side, looking hopeful as Jennifer began once again to assume a baby-like appearance. She helped poke the old stuffing through a hole he'd left in the middle of the doll's back, but Daddy proved incapable of blind-stitching that seam.

Mom took over, threaded the needle, and placed about 20 stitches, completely invisible, right along Jennifer's spine. Then she nipped the last thread with her teeth and held Jennifer up for inspection.

Her smile faded. Dad frowned a little, and he and Mom exchanged glances.

I looked closely at the doll. "Oh gee, Daddy, the feet...." My mother yanked my sweater, and I hushed. With a huge smile, my little sister captured Jennifer in an impassioned hug before dashing off.

"But the feet..." I said when Betsy was out of hearing.

"She won't notice ... I hope," said Dad, looking awfully embarrassed.

And, much to his relief, he was right. It was two years before Betsy noticed that Dad had switched the doll's legs. They angled in at the thighs and out below the knees - and her big toes were on the outside edges. But my sister was touched by the strangeness of the doll's legs; from then on, she loved Jennifer even more.

True to my father's predictions, Jennifer's body of cotton sheeting will probably last forever. Nearly four decades later, knock-kneed Jennifer still sits in state on Betsy's bedroom dresser.

All the children in our family have played with Jennifer over the passing years, and each child in turn has eventually noticed something odd about those feet. I was in my sister's kitchen one morning when Hannah, my 4-year-old niece, wandered in with Jennifer in her arms.

"Aunt Peggy, is something wrong with Jennifer's feet?"

I took Hannah onto my lap, kissed her frown away, and said, "Hannah, let me tell you about Jennifer's feet. It's a love story."

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