Who Would Have Guessed?

On a Friday, January 13th 1950, we were braving a huge snowstorm on the way to the hospital when I came out of my mom wearing tap shoes and singing “On The Good Ship Lollipop.” Well not really, but almost. Anyway, I made it into this world.

Lying in front of the pecan Hi-Fidelity cabinet with the straight pointed legs at my home on 40th and Sheridan Avenue South in Minneapolis, I waited for my mommy to set up the ironing board, plug in the iron, and carefully place the 33 ⅓ LP on the spindle so we could sing and dance to Shirley Temple’s songs from the movies we adored and watched over and over again.

In the 1930’s when she was a little girl, Mommy watched her Shirley Temple movies at the movie theater five blocks away from her home. It only cost a nickel. My sisters and I watched those same movies on the television in our living room. Heck, even my little brothers watched Captain January, The Little Colonel, and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm as those boys were good singers and dancers, too.

In 1957, Mommy asked me what I wanted from Santa for Christmas. The sole thing on my list was a 12” Shirley Temple Doll - the least expensive one. I figured if I asked for only one thing, and if it was affordable, my chances of getting what I really wanted would improve. And it worked! Christmas morning smiling up at me, there she was lying under the Christmas tree in her pink onesie with my name attached to her wrist - my very own 12” vinyl Shirley Temple doll. Oh, how I cherished that doll.

The years passed, life’s desires took hold of me, and along the way my beloved Shirley Temple doll fell by the wayside. I looked high and low for her, but I couldn’t find her anywhere. Well into my 30’s, I was at a loss to find Shirley no matter how hard I tried. Although she won’t admit it, I think my mom put her in a box to give to the Good Will, poor baby.

I had to find her. That’s all there was to it. I scoured every antique shop I happened upon, but not one Shirley Temple doll peaked out through the glass cases.

One evening, I had an hour before my French class was to begin at the Alliance Francaises in the warehouse district of downtown Minneapolis so I decided to order a frothy cappuccino at the nearby bookstore. There was an antique shop next door so after drinking my coffee, I gave finding my 50’s Shirley another try.

There she was sitting all pert and pretty in a foggy glass case near the back. I’m telling you, that Shirley doll was smiling at me. I convinced myself she was indeed the long lost doll from my childhood. $98.00 later, she was once again resting safely in my adoring arms.

As a child, many of my Sunday mornings were spent sitting on my daddy’s lap combing over the want-ads of the hefty five inch thick Minneapolis Star/Tribune. If there was something to be had at a darn good price, you could find it among the hundreds of little boxes advertising used cars, ebony clarinets, and washer/dryer combinations. So, when the internet hit, it hit me hard. Obsessively hard. Ebay was pure magic. I set my alarm for the middle of night to get in on a last minute bid for a ruby and gold pagoda ring listed in Thailand. It was beyond amazing. You could buy a 1,000 year-old enameled cricket cage from China and Civil War daguerreotypes in hard cases. I bought a 1963 Morris Minor 1000 right hand drive stick shift with a big white steering wheel out of the UK. After six months, I managed to get Petula through Homeland Security and into my garage. One day I set about finding a 1930’s 13” composition Shirley Temple doll like the one my mom would have had when she was a little girl. It was easy, but it was also expensive. Still, the one I found and purchased was in very good shape for being so old.

Surprisingly, my mom passed on keeping the 13” composition Shirley Temple doll she would have had as a child. I decided to post her doll for sale on Ebay for twice what I paid for her. Mere moments later, a girl bought my 30’s Shirley paying full price on a “Buy It Now.” There was no doubt the buyer wanted that particular doll. I was to send Shirley in a sturdy box carefully cushioned in many layers of bubble wrap to Gina Napolitano at a shipping address in the Rossville neighborhood of Staten Island, NY. Gina was over the top excited about her purchase and once you hear her story you will be, too. Gina couldn’t spill the beans to her mama so she exploded with her plans in an Ebay message to me:

“I’m going to take a composition doll restoration class and make that old Shirley Temple doll brand spanking new again,” explained Gina. “You see,” Gina went on, “my mother grew up in the poorest Italian neighborhood on Staten Island. When the Depression hit her family, it flattened them with an asphalt stench and the annihilation of a double drum road roller.” (Note: I delighted in what I knew was Gina’s Italian/NYC accent crawling out from behind every syllable of her writing.) “Mama was a little girl when the Depression robbed people of what it means to be human.” wrote Gina. "My mama’s parents, my grandmama and grandpapa, wouldn’t let my mama play with her Shirley doll because if she broke it, they would not be able to buy her another one. So, they boxed up Mama’s Shirley and put her high on a shelf in the back of a closet for safe keeping only allowing her to take the doll out at Christmas.

Mama was eight years-old and it was the long awaited Christmas Day - the day she would be allowed to play with Shirley. Mama invited her friend from next door over to play with Shirley too because her friend did not have a Shirley Temple doll of her own. Cradling her precious Shirley in her arms, Mama went to the back door to let her friend in. Mama’s friend took one look at Mama’s Shirley Temple doll and became enraged with jealousy. She grabbed the doll by one leg and smashed her over and over again against the wall, cracking her face, legs, and fingers beyond repair. Mama couldn’t stop sobbing. That doll meant everything to her.

When Mama had me, she told me the awful story about seeing her Shirley in crumbling pieces on the kitchen floor. She told me over and over again, year after year after year, ‘Gina, I still miss that doll. My yearning for my Shirley never really goes away.’”

“Oh, my, Gina,” I wrote back. “This is so heartfelt and good, it might be the most amazing Christmas present ever. Gina, I have Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm bib overalls and a straw hat for that doll that I want to give to your mom, okay? In fact, I have an original Baby Take a Bow dress I will send to you as well. Would that be okay?” I asked.

“Absolutely,” Gina wrote. “This is going to be even better than I imagined. I’d better get on with the lessons and restoration,” Gina wrote. “Christmas is in two months and I want Shirley to be perfect.”

Six weeks passed and I’d heard nothing from Gina until one day I received a message with a photo attached. Gina had worked magic into the composition of that 1930’s doll. If you looked long and hard enough the smile on Shirley’s face became real. Shirley’s golden curls were divine.

On Christmas Day, I received a note from Gina with a video attached. In the video, Gina’s mama sat in a chair waiting for Gina to give her her Christmas present. Gina placed a beautifully wrapped box on her mama’s lap. Gina’s papa took the video of Mama unwrapping her gift. When Gina’s mama removed the lid, she gasped, “My doll. My doll. My Shirley. You’ve come back to me.”

Mama looked up into Gina’s face with a look for which words can never do justice. Silence took over the room except for nose blowing and tears. Mama held her long lost Shirley Temple doll to her shoulder kissing her face over and over again.

And a thousand miles away, a stranger who sold an old doll on Ebay cried.

Gina wrote one last thing to me the day after Christmas:

“Thank you, Julie. If you ever decide to come to Rossville on Staten Island, come and visit us. We’ll walk down to Portofino Pizza for a slice, my treat. I promise you will not be disappointed. Porofino’s is a small family owned pizzeria that also has fresh garlic knots that are out of this world.

Merry Christmas. With love, Gina Napolitano.”

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About the Author

Julie Peterson Freeman, née Wren Dubois, has been spotted in dark piano bars and tiny cafes in the oldest sections of cities around the world. At the beginning of her career, one was most likely to find her strolling the cobbled streets in the 18th Arrondissement of bohemian Paris. I spotted her arm in arm with the notorious Amantine Dupin (better known as George Sand), exiting Le Tagada, a quaint and popular bar among artists and eccentrics in the famed village of Montmartre. It was here where the flâneur was created. Bien sûr, none of this is true, except in Julie’s imagination.

Julie Peterson Freeman
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