By Jennifer Silva
I have lived more than half my life in a far-off country. Over time, I haven’t become more like those with whom I live or less like those I left behind. I have become someone who is neither one nor the other. I have reduced my existence to the span of today. It is easier to endure overwhelming yearnings for far-away people and places and the horrors of approaching old age alone, in a foreign land, when I dwell neither on the future nor on the past.
Sometime ago I was walking in the street market. It is set up on a weekly basis rotating through the neighbourhoods. It is a scheme from times gone by before cars and supermarkets. I like market day because I enjoy going along with my shopping bag, squeezing the oranges and smelling the paw paws. I know the Japanese from the lettuce stall by name and I always stop to ask the sugar-cane lady about her father who has cancer.
This day, as I came to the fruit stall, I spied a rag doll. She was lying amongst the pineapples. The doll, in itself, didn’t surprise me, as it is still common, in a time-honoured way amongst the peasants and the poor, to make dolls from cast-off rags for their little girls. What intrigued me was that this doll wasn’t a baby doll or a girl doll but a fully-grownup doll. She wore a low cut dress over full breasts, shiny gold earrings, a pearl necklace and a wedding ring on her stuffed finger.
What is this doll?” I asked the vendor. “She’s a Mother Doll,” she replied, and picked her up and gazed lovingly into her stitched-on face. “My father was a fisherman and we lived in a fishing village in the north-east of Brazil. My mother, like all the other fishermen’s wives, made lace at home. Its very intricate, time consuming work and she needed quiet in order to concentrate so she would send us out into the yard to play. She would get out the Mother Doll and set her up near the kitchen door.”
The vendor then began to imitate her own mother’s voice as she shook her finger up and down in a threatening way. “Now, I want you all to be beautiful children and not get up to any mischief. The Mother Doll is here keeping an eye on you.” As she passed the doll to me she laughed and added, “and you know, we were always very careful how we played because we knew the Mother Doll was watching us.”
I found this an enchanting story and felt very tempted to take the Mother Doll home with me. Ridiculous as it seems, I wanted her to watch over me. My own mother had been dead for so long and was buried so very far away in Australia.
Reluctantly, I left her behind in the pineapples because of a rather silly decision I had taken not to accumulate more superfluous trappings in my life. I soon reproached myself but when I returned the Mother Doll had gone.
Last month my father came to visit for the first and only time. He has aged but he made the effort because he wanted to sit at his kitchen table and be able to picture where I lived when he thought of me. He brought me a present.
He had been doing a lot of cleaning out recently and he had come across Mary. Mary was my mother’s doll. She had been kept in the glory box at the foot of my parent’s bed and was deemed too precious to be put into my hands as a child. In retrospect, I imagine Mary represented the comfortable home life supplied by my grandfather until he died at an early age and the hardship of the Depression weathered at the mercy of relatives. She must have been very important to my mother.
Now Mary had come to me. There was nothing else my father could have brought from home that would have afforded me such an inordinate sense of pleasure and satisfaction. I dressed her in a floral dress and a blue velvet coat and hat. I found gloves and shoes. Everything matched in a way my mother would have approved. I sat her at a little table, permanently set for afternoon tea, in the corner of my room.
I sit here working and now and then I catch her eye. She seems to say, “Hello, I am still here watching over you. When you can spare a minute let’s have a cup of tea.”
And I smile.
Jennifer Silva is an Australian, living in São Paulo, married to a Brasilian with two children.“