If you’ve read my profile on WordPress, you already know that I grew up way, way back in the sticks (In my younger days, sticks was synonymous with woods.) about as far as one could get without falling off the edge of the Earth. I was backward, shy, and ignorant in the ways of the world. All I had knowledge of was my family, our farm/ranch, and the few—three or four, I think—neighbors who were within a walking distance of a couple of miles. Our closest neighbors were Effie and Thell Shaw. They lived up the main road a piece in a ramshackle house in worse shape than the one my family lived in. At the time, I had little to no knowledge of indoor plumbing, air conditioning, and other modern conveniences, so to me, their four-room house that had probably seen its last coat of paint in the Stone Age, was a nice place to visit. Why, they actually had a TV, something my family didn’t acquire until I was nine years old.
But their TV wasn’t the main attraction for me; it was Effie, a nice elderly woman who was either a full-blood Cherokee or close to it. She and Thell sort of adopted my siblings and me as honorary grandkids. She took my sister and me fishing on at least one occasion, digging the fat red worms we baited our hooks with from the dirt right outside her kitchen window where she pitched out her soupy-looking dishwater. Lord, I still remember the taste of the homemade biscuits and sweet onions she brought along for our dinner—lunch to y’all who happen to live up north—on our fishing trip. And her ice cream, also homemade. Pineapple was my favorite, and to this day, when I buy a malt or shake, nine times out of ten, you can bet your butt it’ll be pineapple.
But what I remember most were her dolls, lined up all nice and prim on top of a free-standing cabinet in her kitchen. My favorite was an Aunt Jemima doll that, if memory serves me correctly, was about a foot tall. All decked out in her red-and white checked gingham dress, white apron and kerchief, that doll was beautiful to me. I loved that doll. I adored that doll. And if I washed my hands, Effie would let me hold her for a while. Lord, did I ever covet that doll.
Now on to another set of neighbors: Mr. and Mrs. Little. They were black. In fact, until I started school, I think they were the only black people I recall seeing.
They lived on a farm a tad bit farther along the dirt road that ran in front of our house. Every so often, Mrs. Little would stop on her walk to the mailbox, which was located on the main road–also dirt–that was a little past our house in the other direction, to visit with Mama.
Now remember here that I was a terribly shy, skittish child. I did well to speak to my immediate family, let alone someone I barely knew. So, when Mrs. Little dropped in occasionally, I literally hid behind Mama. I can remember Mrs. Little telling me in a gentle voice that she wasn’t going to hurt me, but I was sort of scared of her just the same. But I was that way with everyone, not just her, so please don’t mistake my reticence for bigotry. Why, at that time in my life, I didn’t even know such a thing existed.
Mrs. Little is only a whisper of a memory; she came into my life and left before the Aunt Jemima doll. She and Mr. Little sold their place to my parents and moved away before I’d so much as set foot inside a schoolroom—a horror story I’ll save for another time. When I got a little older and a little wiser and looked back on my childhood, I wondered sometimes if the Aunt Jemima doll was a stand-in for Mrs. Little. I wondered if my abiding love of it was my way of saying I was sorry I hadn’t talked to her. If I could go back and change things, I would. But I can’t. And I hope wherever Mrs. Little is, wherever her Lord took her, that she still looks down on me with kindness and understanding, like she always did.
Now on to another chapter in the Aunt Jemima saga…
After years of being a stay-at-home wife and mother, I went to work for Walmart in the crafts and fabric department. One day, a customer came into my area looking for gold hoops, which luckily, we had in supply. Out of curiosity, I asked what she was going to use the hoops for. Earrings, she answered, for—you guessed it—an Aunt Jemima doll. Then she went into detail about how she made the dolls. The base was a tomato cage that supported the full dress-tail; and attached on top of this, the torso and head, stitched in brown fabric from a pattern and stuffed with poly-fil. She painted on the face, tied a white kerchief above the features, and glued the gold hoops on the tiny, delicate ears. She went on to inform me that each doll was made to order; the customer picked out the color of the checkered gingham dress, the color of the apron and kerchief.
At that time in my life, money was tight, but I had to have one, cost be damned.
I chose red-and-white gingham for the dress, white apron and kerchief—just like the doll that had sat in Effie Shaw’s kitchen. I picked up my doll at the woman’s shop a couple of weeks later. brought her home, and placed her in a prominent place in my kitchen: against the wall adorned with family pictures. And there she stood, all of three feet tall, beautiful and proud. I named her “Mima.”
Mima was already living with me and Husband #1 when our first grandson was born. He grew into a toddler well acquainted with Mima. She had always been there, just like Granny and Ga’Pa.
One day, for some reason, my husband was talking about his own mother to our small grandson. Husband told him that his mama (husband’s mother) lived in town. Grandson said she didn’t. Husband said she did. Exasperated, Grandson said, “No, Ga’Pa, she lives here.” Then he ran into the kitchen and pointed at Mima. “Here’s your mama.”
Needless to say, husband and I had a good laugh. All the time we’d been calling my doll “Mima,” our grandson had been hearing “mama.” To this day, that memory still brings a smile to my face.
Mima stood guard in my kitchen for many years, first in the home belonging to me and Husband #1, until his untimely death, then, later in the dining room of my present husband’s and my house, which happens to be in the city. A few months after the move, I carefully wrapped Mima and stored her away. My reason? I have neighbors and friends who happen to be black, and I did not wish to offend them in any way.
But I never looked upon Mima as a degradation of being black. Lord, I loved that doll and still do. To me, when I looked at her, I looked at my childhood, a time of innocence, a time before the ugliness of the world elbowed its way into my life.
I miss Mima. Sometimes I think about taking her out of the darkness in which she now abides and letting the light shine on her beautiful face once more.
I think about it, but that’s all I do.
©2021 KT Workman
(Note: I know some who read this may think I was/am racist for loving a doll that to some, represents a racial stereotype; nothing could be farther from the truth. I was just a backward, little, country girl fascinated with a doll, and as an adult, associated that doll with two kind women and my childhood.)