In simpler times, the tiny, dewy globes were food for my dollies — and my imagination. They also look like elf-sized Christmas tree ornaments.
Back at my childhood home on Bedford Road in Dumont, New Jersey, the front steps were built from red bricks; yew bushes, with squishy crimson berries, flanked the metal railings. My Dad trimmed the shrubs regularly.
We, all of us in our family of six, walked down those steps and past those bushes on the way to wherever we were going in the world. The stoop paved the path for our first days of school, trips to New York to visit relatives, Sunday Mass, teen jobs at White’s Norge Village Laundry & Dry Cleaning (my Sis and me) and White Beeches Golf & Country Club (our older brother was a caddy).
The steps led to the car, for a short ride to the A&P on Washington Avenue, where the cashiers wore red wrap smocks and the door opened magically when you walked on the rubber mat.
One wintry morning, after breakfast with my mom (she thought I needed iron, and had me whir milk, a raw egg and vanilla extract in the blender daily), I slipped down those steps, as if on the slide at the park, in my rush to walk to school. The bricks were slicked with black ice. Wearing my Saint Mary’s pleated, blue plaid skirt and cabled navy socks with bare legs, no matter the weather, I scraped my knees. It stung. I cried. She cared.
On the sun-lit, exciting evening of the May Procession in eighth grade, I loped down in a pale blue dress with narrow rows of lace, a hand-me-down from my sister. My new heeled sandals were so slippery, I fell. By the time we got to church, I saw the giant run in my L’eggs suntan pantyhose. My mother drove me back home to put on another pair.
When I was a little girl, I loved playing with my dolls — Karen, Pudding and Polly — by those shrubs. They seemed like part of a mystical forest to my small soul, and offered beauty in bursts of color.
I just read that yew berries, bark and needles are poisonous. I doubt my parents knew that, or someone probably would have warned me, the youngest of four, when I plunked myself down in the Saturday sun and happily plucked the doll-sized fruits from the branches. I plated them on pastel plastic saucers and mushed them up as pretend baby food for my dollies. Back then, busy parents tended to check in less on children than we do now.
Karen was my favorite. I named her. She was a Madame Alexander doll, my mother told me, which clearly gave her cachet. Anyone could see that, from the flush in my mother’s soft cheeks that Christmas night as she lifted the doll out of the case. Mom’s double string of pearls looked like luminous orbs, snow-dipped lights, against her dressy aqua sweater — a short cardigan Lucy Ricardo might have worn.
I hold that moment in time in my mind, like a photograph in a golden heart locket. Karen was delivered in a pink and white floral suitcase-style box with a full baby wardrobe: a pale blue dress that buttoned at back; a white flannel diaper; adorable pink pajama pants and top; and a pink bonnet with rows of lace. Mom, trained as a chemist, worked part-time some Christmas seasons at B. Altman & Co. in Paramus; her employee discount would have put Karen within our means.
My mother had mini pink plastic curlers to set her own hair around the edges — she gave them to me for Karen, and I still have a couple on my dresser now. They are a sweet keepsake of girlhood. I soon acquired diaper pins, one with a pink ducky on it, and a miniature container of Johnson & Johnson baby powder. Such joy it was to twist the cap and open the pinholes, inhaling that clean nursery scent, pure and full of promise.
Karen went the distance with me. I saved her for my own girls, but by then, after all the baths I had given her, her once soft hair had turned ruggy and rough. I still can’t bear to throw her out. She was the baby I cradled when I dreamt of being a mother one day.
Pearl elegance and all, my mother had to go, taken by cancer (but into the angels’ arms, I trust) when she was 56 and I was 20. She did not want to leave the room, but the pain was too much to bear. I know because she told me.
I didn’t have my own baby until age 34. My mother’s absence was bittersweet. I needed her to show me the ropes now that I had a real baby girl with pretty dresses and hats, tiny diapers, pajamas with rosebuds and bows, snowy white velour onesies and baby bottles. I cried sometimes to my baby, named Anne after her missing grandma — especially when we used her old metal cookie cutters to shape buttery Santa boots and trees studded with red cinnamon candies for berries. “I like them browned on the bottom,” Mom had said when, as a teen, I thought I had burned a batch of the sugar cookies.
The old house my husband, Dan, and I bought in Montclair (about 30 minutes south of my childhood home) in 1994, nine months before Annie was born, also came with red brick steps flanked by yew shrubs. But we have only two front steps, not the stack of several on Bedford Road, which were quickly replaced by the new homeowners when Dad sold the house after 50 years. Like Dad, Dan trims the bushes.
When I see the red berries, I travel back, pulling one off to squish between my fingers.
I cannot get my mother back, and now Dad is gone, too, but I will always see the innocence of childhood and the seeds of nurturing and self-reliance in those plump red berries, glistening on the branches like promises of Christmas to come for young girls everywhere.
Alice Garbarini Hurley remembers her mother saying she wished she could buy her, or win her, a dollhouse. Their mahogany breakfront in Dumont held a delicate, doll-sized china tea set that Anne (who had three younger brothers, no sisters) had played with as a girl in New York City.