Monday, November 21, 2011

It is entirely possible that the answer to this is "You have a crazy-ass southern family"

So, there's this episode of Designing Women where Bernice's persnickety niece wants to have her committed because she thinks that Bernice is quite obviously off her rocker. The episode culminates in one of the more hilarious moments in the entire run of the show, when everyone from Sugarbaker's is called to testify on Bernice's behalf at her competency hearing. Earlier in the episode, Julia's first confrontation with the Niece from Hell ends with the late, great, Dixie Carter making the following speech:

"And just for the record, Phyllis, I think you should know, even if Bernice
WERE crazy, that doesn't necessarily mean she should be put away. I'm saying,
this is the South. And we're proud of our crazy people. We don't hide them
up in the attic. We bring 'em right down to the living room and show 'em off.
You see, Phyllis, in the South nobody ever asks if you have crazy people in
your family, because they already know you do. They just ask you which side
they're on."

When Phyllis asks Julia which side HERS are on, Julia, of course, deadpans, "Both."

Which brings me to my query. Look, I love my family. And I know that they are, if not actually bona fide crazy, most certainly, myself included, what I like to call "Characters." Now, on my dad's side, his father died when he was a very small boy and his mother, like him, was an only child. I don't know that side as well (but from encounters when I was growing up as well as stories, I know there are any number of Characters). On my mom's paternal side, it's possible that there's a slightly more tempered version of Characters happening. Which brings us to my mom's maternal side. Oh, Lord. My mom is probably the most sedate amongst her female cousins on that side and she produced me and my sister and is the grandmother of my niece, who puts my sister and I to SHAME. Many of us are dramatic. Like, literally. Professional performers dramatic. Funny, nay HILARIOUS. Kinda loud. Have entire collections of stories that "could only happen to (insert person here)".

My maternal grandmother and her sisters grew up extremely poor. Which could have been completely tragic. Except for the fact that they were all very smart and very creative. As such, what they lacked in material goods, they more than made up for in elaborate and creative games. Games which were passed down to all of us. There were also a couple of songs that we sang OVER and OVER on every car trip I ever remember taking with my grandparents. A couple of them, I thought my grandmother had actually composed until I heard one on The Muppet Show when I was a kid (That would be "Three Little Fishies" Music and Lyrics by NOT My Grandmother) and then in college was crushed to learn that yet another song we knew wasn't composed by my grandmother because my best friend thought that HER grandmother had made it up ("Did You Ever Go A-fishing?" which I have found on YouTube, but with different lyrics that the ones that both Liz and I had learned, which were EXACTLY the same!). The REAL mystery song was known to us as the "Billy Goat Song" and I JUST found it by sludging through a book on railroad lore in American folk songs. On YouTube, I scraped up a mostly-the-same song called, "Papa's Billie Goat" which is, apparently, based on an older Irish folk song. And please for the love of all, if you know this song at all, let me know. The recording on YouTube is from a VERY old 78 RPM record. We all learned it with the lyrics "Once I had a great big billy goat. Ma, she washed most ever day. Hung her clothes out on the line and that old goat would come that way." Maybe you learned different lyrics. The gist is that after the goat eats the shirt, he gets tied to the train tracks as punishment, but when the trains headed towards him, he coughs up the shirt and flags down the train. I am intrigued, doubly so on account of taking a class in college on folk songs and ballads and their dissemination in Britain and the American South and come to find out it was happening RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME!

All of which is lovely, because I like to remember my grandmother and her sisters! But which brings me to my real question. At some point tonight, I got sidetracked onto a site about Robert the Doll. And if you don't know what that is, then google it yourself, because I can't bring myself to link it, but please be forewarned that it's ABSOLUTE NIGHTMARE FUEL. Anyway, I started thinking about something that my family did. I know that some of my mom's older cousins did it for her and that Mom did it for those cousin's kids. Who did it for my brother and me. And I did it for my sister, Molly. The thing is, my grandmother passed away two years ago and she was the last of her sisters left, so we can't ask her. I've googled it and come up with nothing remotely related to what we did. I don't know if this is some bizarre Southern legend so obscure that there's no internet reference to it. I don't know if it's something my grandmother's older sisters made up and did for the younger ones. Maybe it's something that their aunts did for them and THEY passed it down to my mom's generation who passed it down to mine.

It's called The Dummy Dolls. It always happened in the summer or late spring. The story we were told was that Dummy Dolls were magic and they lived in the woods. If you waited until dusk, and went to the edge of the woods and called for them, sometimes, if you believed really hard, a Dummy Doll might come to your house (and yes, I realize this is kind of FRAKKING CREEPY). And when you came inside and looked around the house, sometimes you found a Dummy Doll (If you're completely getting wigged out, go read about Robert the Doll and this is way less creepy). Dummy Dolls can't talk, but they can understand you, so if you sit quietly and are still and try to touch them, they can answer questions where the answer is yes or no. Dummy Dolls like the dark so you can't turn on all the lights. Maybe just a lamp in the corner. And they like old-fashioned things, so they wear bonnets and long dresses. And after a while, your mom or your grandmother will ask the Dummy Doll if she's getting tired and she's say yes and your mom or grandmother will take you back out into the hall so the Dummy Doll can use her magic to get back to the woods.

Of course, there's really no such thing as a Dummy Doll (although my mom and aunts and grandmother and cousins all told the story so convincingly and the whole illusion they created--which I'm gonna explain--was so complete that until they told ME the secret so I could do it for Molly I had NO IDEA how it worked). By the time the very little kid was out in the backyard calling for the Dummy Doll at the edge of the woods, an older sibling or cousin or aunt (it has to be a female for it to work and you'll see why in a sec) would have already been making preparations. Someone in the family who is a good artist uses markers (or acrylic art paint is what they used on me) and draws a face (mine had a button nose, but I can't remember if that was part of the story) on the back of the person playing the Dummy Doll's hand. Then, that person makes a fist and a doll bonnet is tied around their hand and they put a long doll dress on their forearm with the neck at their wrist. There may have been yarn braids, too. Molly's turning 28 in a couple of months and she was in preschool when I did it, so it's been a long time. Then, while everyone is outside calling the Dummy Dolls, the volunteer gets under a bed with just their forearm sticking up from under the dust ruffle. When the kidlet comes into the room, the lights are very low and it looks REAL. They ask their questions, other adults get the kiddo out of the way and the trusty Dummy Doll climbs out from under the bed.

Molly doesn't remember doing it at all, although she does remember one of our great-aunts taking her out in the yard and talking to "little people who live in the holes in the ground" which may be related or may not. I remember doing it when I was the Doll and have shadowy memories of someone doing it for me. What we want to know is there anyone else in our family who knows how this got started? Is there anyone else NOT in our family who has ever even heard of this? Do you now think that my family is COMPLETEMONKEYSHITBALLSINSANE? If you HAVE heard of this, is there more to the story than what my Mom and I remember? HELP US!!!

And for the record, in retrospect, we--my mom, sister and I--were talking about this tonight and we think that it is CREEPY. But we still want to do it for my niece (and maybe for Jackson, too, although he might be too old). Because what's the point of being a crazy, southern, aunt/grandmother if you can't do BIZARRO stuff like this.

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