Wanda Bridgeforth is 92 years old and has been attending the memoir-writing class I lead in downtown Chicago for seven years. She grew up in Chicago and her mother worked “in private family,” which means Mama lived at the houses she took care of. Wanda lived with one relative one week, a friend the next, and sometimes, with complete strangers.
When I asked writers to describe their favorite plaything as a child, Wanda came back with an essay about her doll, Geneva. Wanda is compiling some of her essays to self-publish as a gift for friends and family this Christmas. I have a feeling this one about Geneva will be included in that collection.
My Favorite Toy
by Wanda Bridgeforth
I must have been a really good girl in 1927 because Santa left an ironing board, electric iron, sewing machine and the Effanbee “Rosemary Doll” all of my friends and I had asked for that year.
Her curls and eyelashes were natural hair. Every time I sat her up or laid her down she opened and closed her eyes and said, “MA-MA!!!” That was enough to melt a little girl’s heart. Without hesitating I named her Geneva, after my Mama.
In late spring 1928, Dad’s company closed their chemistry lab and he was laid off. Mama and I moved into a bedroom with Aunt Gert and Uncle Larry on 51st Street and Dad went to live with Uncle A.S. and his wife at 42nd and Vincennes. Mama showed me how to wash and iron Geneva’s dress, panties and bonnet.
Mid summer, Mama went to work “in private family.” I abandoned all of my toys except Geneva. She became my confidant and bedfellow. I guess you could say she was my security blanket. I took her everywhere. The kids began to tease me and called me a “big baby,” so, when I left home I hid her under the pillow on my bed.
Every Tuesday after school I washed her clothes so she would be nice and clean when Mama came home on Wednesday, her day off. The three of us would sit at the kitchen table and exchange the events of the week. Geneva’s clothes were almost faded white.
Christmas 1931, “Cousin Sugar” the lady I was staying with made Geneva a new outfit. Mama and Cousin Sugar assured me the new clothes did not need weekly washing.
Some of my friends boasted about their dolls made of rubber that could drink milk or water from a tiny bottle with a tiny nipple on it. I looked at Geneva, her mouth was open and she had a space between her lips. I bought a tiny bottle with a tiny nipple on it from Woolworth’s 5 & 10 cents store and fed Geneva.
After a while Geneva developed a horrible odor and her body became damp. Cousin Sugar and Mama cut a slit in her body. The straw stuffing had mildew and mold and her plaster body had melted. Only her head was intact. I didn’t realize her straw insides absorbed the liquid instead of passing it through like the rubber dolls did.
I was inconsolable. Geneva was DEAD!!!
I decided she must have a funeral. Mr. Brunow, the janitor, dug a grave in the far corner of the back yard. Dressed in our parents black clothes, my friends and I marched behind the Radio Flyer Wagon lined with black crepe paper.
We sang a hymn and sent Geneva, My Favorite Toy, dressed in her Christmas Outfit to live with the Angels.