Monday, October 26, 2009

Life at 2308 Haste St.

Sophia in 1959 in Athens with the Dolls
It was after the Panty Raid semester, and perhaps only at the end of 1956, that I acquired a roommate to share the apartment in the brown-shingle fourplex. I think it was the semester after I first read exams for the freshman-sophomore course in Comparative Mythology. One student's essays had impressed me, as if there were one student who had gone back to take a wide-ranging course purely for pleasure having completed the requirements for a degree in, for example, English Literature. I think it was C. who introduced M. to me, explaining that her arrangement at one of the cooperative dorms, where the residents shared the chores, was not really satisfactory for her. I imagine that it was noisy and disorderly. She was (and still is) several years younger than me, but self-disciplined and considerate. We both tried to be considerate, and we managed. She was not the sort of girl who had all sorts of cosmetics (later, much later, a niece stayed with me with the horrifying use of hair spray; at art school, when we used fixative, we went outdoors to use it). We both used our own drawers for folded things and kept our skirts and dresses hung up (for the life of me, I cannot remember where, in that compact apartment, a closet was). She brought with her, besides, only a 12" replica of Willie, the Metropolitan Museum's Dyn. XII hippopotamus, her replica of one of the lovely daughters of Nefertiti, one of those in the Berlin Museum, a 12-inch "Madame Alexander" doll, beautifully dressed, and an 8-inch little-girl "Madame Alexander" doll with a boxful of clothes. This was the time when the McCall magazine and pattern company had marketed Betsy McCall, the direct ancestress of all those American Girl dolls that are sold now, as well as of Barbie. But the "Madame Alexander" dolls were fully jointed, naturally proportioned, and delicatedly detailed. They could be purchased fully clothed as storybook characters or only in underwear and shoes and socks. The best place to buy them was I. Magnin. It has a Wikipedia article now. It was a lovely place to shop, even if you only wanted a little doll, and it wasn't overpriced unless you really wanted to spend a lot. I. Magnin wouldn't carry junk, no matter how fashionable (it left that to the next generation's store, Joseph Magnin). The 8-inch dolls are still used for the Storybook series, I see, but we bought them ready to be dressed ($8) with an envelope of patterns for 8-inch dolls of such proportions (Betsy McCall patterns were too skinny).
M.'s doll was blonde. She bought me a brunette one, called Melanie (we both took Greek; M., in fact, was majoring in Greek). She taught me to take pains with the tiny details that make tiny doll clothes good: minute snaps and hooks and eyes, extra fine thread and needles, proper miniature hemstitching. This was no easier than learning to wedge clay and throw pots or to stretch and prime canvas, but fortunately the Girl Scouts had made me do a needlework merit badge and I had plenty of practical experience mending clothes; I could even darn socks. And it was a lot more fun to sit and talk or listen to music while making doll clothes than to gut and chop up chickens, not to mention turkeys. Up at the hotel in Yosemite, M. probably had worked harder than I had, but each of us had done things that the other had never thought of. And I had never seen such beautiful dolls as those 1950s Madame Alexander ones. I took a fancy to the dolls and to M.'s high standards in sewing for them. Willie the Hippopotamus and Nefertiti's daughter were placed on top of the corner loudspeaker enclosure, where the cats wouldn't (and didn't) disturb them.
Here is where the picture at the head of this post comes in. When I went to Athens in 1959 and lived in Loring Hall, the maid who was assigned to the women's quarters was Sophia, and she was only 26, a year older than I was. I had taken the Melanie doll with me, and I set her on top of the chest of drawers in my room. She enchanted Sophia. So I begged M., married by now, to get me an 8-inch doll, like her blonde one, for Sophia: I'd gladly pay the import duties on it. She not only got the doll but dressed her for Sophia (see the photo, where Sophia has put a flower beside Melanie's cheek and holds her own). Then for Easter, using pins and toothpicks for knitting needles, Sophia knit a Greek traditional dress for my doll; somewhere, I dare to hope, I still have the photo I took of the doll in it.
Now have you guessed that the student in Comparative Mythology whom I'd taken for an older woman, even influenced by her Slavic name, was in fact a young undergraduate? In fact, her ancestry was largely English, but her given name had been chosen to chime with her family name. It has been a very good, complementary friendship all these years, though just as when we were young, whenever we visit, we have to be somewhat careful. It still is easier for me (the eccentric one) to try to adjust, but I don't always do very well. We still are the same persons as we were. We do value each other. When I was in the convent in NYC and taking my first vows, it was M. who came to the ceremony. Not that she was an Anglican, either. Not all the way from California, but from one of the D.C. suburbs. It is she who has remained a close friend of C. and his wife, too. Again, we all like good music and art and books. And cats. If, 50 years later, M.'s white cat looks a little unhappy, it is because a feral, outdoor cat had bit her ear.