An old doll holding a crucifix in hazy green light forms a ghost-like image that calls me back to a time before my birth, but strangely familiar in a déjà vu sense. The doll in her long dress and bonnet sits at a desk, perhaps like the ones that filled the old North Dakota school house where my dear Aunt Esther taught in the 1920s and early ‘30s in the village of Fort Ransom, which sprang up when the old army post closed its gates in the 1870s. Esther was my mom’s eldest sister, and her salary paid the grocery bill to help the Highness family meet ends every
six months or so. Esther never had any children of her own, but she had nine siblings, seven of which during her time as a teacher still lived at home, where my Grandma Emma kept house and my Grandpa Butch did whatever he could to clothe the bunch and put food on the table. Butch never finished school but the old Norwegian was a prolific hunter and fisherman who could read well enough to educate himself in the ways of animal husbandry and serve local farmers as an uncertified country veterinarian, for which he generally received bartered goods in lieu of money because most of the local farmers in those days were as cash-poor as he was. Emma, the eldest daughter from a big Swedish family as large as her own, was an avid worshiper at Stiklestad Lutheran Church and kept her own brood bonded together with unconditional love and a soap-and-water attitude that cleansed hearts as well as bodies, and inspired the work ethic that made Esther a godsend for those lean and dry years on the prairie that made up the Dirty Thirties. Mom said her family never had a Christmas tree until Esther was finally able to bring one home from the schoolhouse after classes were let out for the holidays. If my mom ever had a doll, it was probably a hand-me-down from Esther or from second big sister Helen, another woman who would never have a child of her own but would later take in nieces and nephews for whole summers at a time and would also care for her bedridden father in the last years of his life. Yes, the crucifix in the doll’s hand says much to me in another sense of hand-me-downs. A handful of love and right-minded spirit held out for all to see and grasp, even in the hardest of times. I cherish the homespun love and faith that my mother inherited and in turn passed down from the black-and-white world that she kept alive in her photo albums – where only good memories survived.