Around 1998 I was a home visitor for a project supporting older people. As part of this I visited a woman who I’ll call Edie. Edie had married late in life, having bumped into the man of her dreams on a weekend away to mark her retirement. She and Alf had been happily together for over 20 years but since he had passed away, life was increasingly a struggle. Edie managed out to collect her pension, but had little other social contact and no family members at all.
Edie was a little uncertain about this ‘young man’ (I was in my 30s) coming to visit but she quickly took the chance to chat. We got into a rhythm of weekly visits and Edie would say that she felt better at the end of our chats, and looked forward to the next, so it became an important milestone for her in an otherwise blank diary.
Edie often talked about her childhood and I was fascinated by the tales of someone born and bred in Edinburgh – her school days, the changing city centre, trams and horses – all of these things painted a different picture of the place I knew. But there was a darker side to life as well, because in today’s terms, Edie had lived through some serious domestic violence as a child – something she also often referred to. This had culminated in her, along with her mother and sister being hidden by taxi drivers outside the Caledonian Hotel as they fled from home. The only thing Edie had with her was her doll, Meg. Edie would often talk of Meg being her one real friend during this difficult phase of life. She would hold her at night, telling her all her troubles. As a dressmaker, Edie always made sure that Meg was well turned out. The two were inseparable.
As many years passed and Edie became established in adult life and work, she reached a point where she felt that a better home for Meg would be at the Museum of Childhood, and donated her there. As part of the frequently told story of Meg, Edie would often say, “I’d love to see her one last time, and give her another cuddle.”
So, I hatched a plan. I confirmed with the Museum of Childhood that they could trace a doll donated by a particular person and that arrangements could be made for a reunion.
When I broke the news to Edie, that if she wanted to, she could see Meg again, she was speechless. And then this almost housebound woman quickly got into planning for the big event – how we’d get there, what coat she’d wear, where we might get a cup of tea afterwards – there was a new purpose.
The day came and we arrived safely at the museum. Edie held my arm. Her chattiness was gone and she was like an anxious relative in a hospital waiting room. What will always remain with me from that day was the care taken by the museum staff member, who arrived with a large presentation box. She opened it to reveal Meg, lying on a deep bed of tissue paper.
“Can I hold her?”
We watched as Edie now in her early nineties was reunited with Meg, who had been both her rock, her confidante and her comfort blanket through the most troubled part of her childhood.
“Oh my wee love…my wee love…and there’s the dress I made. You look so lovely….”
I shared a glance with the museum staff member, and this is also something I won’t forget. We were watching something special and deeply personal. As she chatted away to Meg, petting her and fussing over her, I had a brief anxiety that Edie’s embrace of Meg wasn’t going to end, and we would have trouble returning her, but all Edie wanted was have that little bit of time, the chance to see Meg again and tell her that all was well. Once she had made sure Meg’s dress was sitting right, she laid her back down gently – her dearest childhood friend put away safely again.
Over twenty years later that brief moment has remained a powerful one for me. It seems to illustrate many things – the difficult times in people’s lives which stay with them forever, objects that can have incredible meaning almost beyond words, the desire to re-connect with our past, the power of listening and getting to know people, simple actions that become landmark events, and the kindness of strangers. All of these things connected by a doll in a box.
Writer and Consultant