How a chilling conversation with my elderly mother about her 90-year-old doll made me realise she is lonely
Peter Kammerer is reminded of the problems of growing old alone following a spooky encounter with a family heirloom
A 90-year-old doll has made me reassess my relationships with those closest to me. She usually sits on a chair in my mother’s bedroom, watching all that comes and goes. Her eyes are made of glass and her body of composition, a substance comprising glue and sawdust; plastic wasn’t commonly used back then. Her appearance is eerily lifelike and her history makes her unsellable for my family, even though offers of US$700 have been made.
The doll belonged to my grandmother’s sister, who died at the age of nine in 1928. Just weeks before her life ended, she asked my grandmother to name her first-born daughter after the toy. The wish was followed: Two years later, my mother was born and her name is the same as that written in pencil in a child’s hand on the doll’s back.
But the toy is more than a family heirloom to my mother – it is also her best friend. My mother has been widowed for almost a quarter of a century and never remarried. Most of her friends have died and those still alive are of such an advanced age that they rarely visit. From my distance in Hong Kong, it wasn’t evident that she was lonely, nor during my irregular trips to see her did it occur to me that visitors were few and far between.
I therefore didn’t pay much attention to a remark she made during a recorded interview I did on her 80th birthday. Only after unusual events did I listen to it again. Telling the story of how she came to be named, my mother picks up the doll, holds it up to her face and says, “We’re the best of friends.”
Early last year, I had rushed back to Australia after my mother had been taken to hospital. I stayed alone in her home and visited her each day.
Early one morning, I was awoken by what I thought was a noise from the cupboard in the room I was sleeping in. Without turning on the light, I slid the door open and reached inside and my hand touched a face. When I had regained my composure, I found that it was the doll.
The following morning, I put the doll back on the chair in my mother’s room. But several nights later, I was again woken by a sound and found the doll was back. No one else, to my knowledge, had been in the house.
Later, I questioned my mother about the doll. I didn’t tell her about my experience, instead asking her if there was anything unusual about the toy. Her response was as chilling: “Oh that doll – it follows me everywhere”. She claimed that whatever room she walked into, the doll was always there, waiting for her.
I am not one to believe in the supernatural. An internet search brings up all manner of stories about haunted dolls. The advice when encountering one is simple: Don’t mess with it.
Nothing unusual happened when I visited my mother over Christmas. There’s every chance that when she doesn’t have visitors, she unconsciously takes the doll about the house with her. Perhaps I had a little too much to drink those nights I heard the sounds. Of one thing I am certain, though: My mother is lonely.
Research published in November in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences determined that loneliness can increase the risk of premature death in older adults by 14 years. It leads to a weakening of the immune system, making people living alone more prone to illness.
My mother is adamant that she won’t move out of the house she has lived in for 61 years. The doll, no matter how real it may seem, isn’t preventing her slide into worsening health. Her well-being best lies in friends and regular visitors. My resolution for the new year is to make that happen.
Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post