Isabella walked into Grandmother’s nursing home with her rag doll tucked under her arms. She carried the doll almost everywhere she went, even though she was, maybe, too old for that now.
She and Mama walked down the long hall, holding hands. Isabella always felt nervous in this huge place full of old people, and she was glad to have her doll under one arm and Mama holding her other hand.
Sometimes the old people made strange noises or called out to them, asking questions. A woman with wispy hair asked, “Where is my baby? Has anyone seen my baby?” And a man stuck his cane out in front of Mama and Isabella one day and stopped them. “Who is feeding my hogs now?” he demanded.
Mama always smiled and nodded at the old people, but Isabella kept her head down. She was afraid of their long, skinny fingers pointing at her. She was afraid of their eyes, sunk deep in their lined faces. She was afraid of their questions, too, because she couldn’t answer them.
At last they were at Grandmother’s door. She sat, frail and alone, in her hard, straight-backed chair. Mama had brought in a softer, more comfortable rocker, but Grandmother never sat in it.
Isabella, however, loved the big plaid chair. She bounced up into it now, settling down with her doll while Grandmother and Mama talked.
At least, Mama talked. Grandmother just sat very still and stared out the window.
That was scary too. Grandmother had always chatted with them. She’d always listened to all their questions and ideas and told them what she thought. But now she might as well not have been in the room at all!
When Mama went out to talk to the nurse, Grandmother turned and looked at Isabella. “I had a doll like that,” she said.
She spoke so suddenly that Isabella jumped.
“I had a doll like that,” Grandmother said again.
Not knowing what to say, Isabella looked around for Mama.
“I had a doll like that,” Grandmother repeated, louder this time. Isabella saw tears running down her wrinkled cheeks.
What should I do? Isabella wondered. She looked around again, and this time she saw Mama coming. She jumped up and scurried over to her. “Mama,” she whispered, “Grandmother was talking about a doll.”
“That’s nice, honey.” Mama turned to Grandmother. “That’s nice, Mom, that you’re talking with Isabella.” Taking a hanky from her purse, Mama wiped Grandmother’s cheeks.
“I had a doll like that,” Grandmother whispered.
“Of course you did, Mom,” Mama said.
After lunch—gelatin and cottage cheese and boiled vegetables and milk in little cartons with straws—in the big old dining room with the high ceilings, Mama said that they had to go. She kissed Grandmother’s dry, wrinkly cheek.
When Isabella leaned over to kiss Grandmother, she heard a tiny whisper in her ear: “I had a doll like that.”
When Isabella turned to wave, she saw that Grandmother was holding the fringe of the shawl that was tossed across the bed, just as if she were holding the fingers of someone’s hand.
Outside, the air smelled fresh, the sun was high in the sky, and Isabella felt lighter than she had in the nursing home. Still, she kept thinking about what Grandmother had said about the doll. “Mama, why is Grandmother like that?”
Mama didn’t ask, “Like what?” She just said, “She has a disease that takes away her memory. She can’t think of things the way we do, anymore.”
“She kept talking about my doll.”
“Oh? What did she say?”
“She kept saying, ‘I had a doll like that.’” Suddenly Isabella’s throat ached. She wrapped her arms around her doll and stood still, crying for Grandmother, who couldn’t remember things, crying for Mama, who had to see her mother like this, and even crying for herself, because her laughing, cookie-baking, fun-loving Grandmother was gone. Now there was just this old woman with no life in her eyes, saying, “I had a doll like that.”
Finally she heard Mama talking gently to her. “Well, you know, Isabella, Grandmother made that doll for you.”
“Yes, years ago. You were too little then to be aware of it, but Grandmother made that doll and all its clothes.”
“Even the bonnet?”
“Yes.” Mama took the sweet-smelling hanky from her pocket and wiped Isabella’s cheeks.
“And she sewed the face on and everything? The eyes and everything?”
Isabella looked at the face of her beloved doll with its black eyes and long lashes stitched on, and a little red bow mouth. “So that’s why she remembers this doll.”
Isabella made up her mind. “Mama, let’s go back.”
“To the home—let’s go back.” Isabella turned and ran, Mama behind her, all the way to the home, all the way down the long hall, all the way to Grandmother’s room. She stopped to catch her breath just inside the door.
Grandmother looked up at her and said, “I had a doll like that.”
“I know, Grandmother. And now you have her again.” She put the doll in Grandmother’s lap.
Grandmother folded her arms around the tiny body. “This is my doll?”
Grandmother looked up, and this time her eyes were alive. The corners of her mouth went up in a smile. “Rock the dolly,” she said.
Mother and Isabella helped her up from the hard, straight-backed chair and into the big soft one. She held the doll close, and began to hum, rocking back and forth.
Mama and Isabella said good-bye again, but Grandmother did not look up from the doll.
As they walked slowly down the hall, Mama put her arm around Isabella’s shoulders.
“It was Grandmother’s doll, wasn’t it, Mama?” she said. “It always was, and she knew it.”
“I think maybe you’re right, Isabella.”