The Dollie girls

The Dollie girls

December 5, 2020

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by Trey Nosrac

“On the Monday after my 15th birthday, doctors took Uncle Phil off life support. The swinging doors separating intensive care from the waiting room opened. My mom and her sister walked out, faced each other, and shared a long hug. The only sound was their muted sobs and sniffles. I sat frozen in a plastic chair against the waiting room wall, pretending to read an issue of Sport’s Illustrated. For some unknown reason, I didn’t join their huddle of sadness. After a few moments, mom and Gwen drew apart. Hand in hand, they headed to the door. I just stood and silently followed them and slipped into the back seat of mom’s Buick. Today, Aunt Gwen’s tears were across her kitchen table. This time, I couldn’t hug her.”

From the passenger seat, David asked, “The virus?”

I nodded. “Aunt Gwen is pushing 80. Tall and tidy, she reminds me of one of those long-legged white birds spearing the water for fish. Today was only the second time I saw her since the pandemic. In April, I took her to the doctor for blood tests and her flu shot. Today, I masked up to unclog her bathroom sink.”

“I don’t believe you want to talk about plumbing.” He said gently.

“Nah, the sink was a 10-minute job. After I tossed my channel locks into the toolbox, I washed my hands while Aunt Gwen put on the tea kettle. We sat across the long ends of her oval dining room table. We lowered our masks to create neck scarfs so that we could sip our tea and munch on cinnamon rolls.”

She tried to keep things light and asked, “So, Trey, how are those horses of yours doing during these challenging times?”

“Not great, actually racing has slowed down for me. I didn’t buy a new one this year.”

“No, youngling?”

I smiled, “Yearling. Not this year, maybe next year.”

“But the horses are still racing?”

I nodded. “It was touch and go. Racing closed for about a month, but the racetracks started up again, and we gutted it out through the rest of the year. Racing people seem to be trying hard to keep their guard up. The sport chugs on, but everyone is holding their breath.”

She said, “You are fortunate that your sport is outdoors. People do not need to squish together.” She paused, and I noticed her first tear. Then the dam burst, “The Dollies have not been so lucky. Oh, I miss them, and I miss going to church and choir, and I miss hugging you right now.”

I tried to steer the conversation to happier times. “Remember, last December? The Dollie girls were here for their annual Christmas bash? Out of the blue, Eddie Holden and I knocked on your door? When they dragged us inside, we felt like lamb chops tossed into a kennel. What a fun bunch they were, much more fun than I ever imagined. ”

She dabbed at her eyes with a napkin, “Of course, I remember. There were 10 of us, and we had just about finished the eggnog. Trey,
we have been together in some form or another for 28 years. We have met every single month since your Uncle passed. They have been my rock.”
“You never did truly explained what it’s all about.”

“It’s about friends. Five of us met at a craft show where Luanne Fleming was selling Raggedy Ann dolls. We each bought a doll and got to gabbing. Mercy Thomas suggested we meet for coffee at her house. Over the years, one friend brought another, some stayed, a few dropped out. We all enjoy dolls, dressing them, and adding to our little collections. The internet made our little doll hobby different, but we all know darn well the dolls are just an excuse to be with people we love.”

I said, “The horse racing crowd is sort of like that. One thing leads to another, and before you know it, you have friends. It’s become a big part of who we are. Getting away from the game is, I don’t know, scary.”

Aunt Gwen pleaded, “Are your race friends being safe?

“Most of them. Occasionally I see grooms and trainers who wear their masks below their noses, and I holler at the TV, ‘Pull it up, partner.’ The precautions are a pain, but better than having the horse racing plug pulled. The harness race community is adapting. They are a gritty bunch that has seen hard times before.”

“Oh, Trey, this is different. Tell them how fragile things can be. Everything is normal until the moment everything shatters. When the virus struck Luanne, our world exploded. Since then, every day since she died feels like we are walking on thin ice over a deep, dark lake.”

“Do the Dollie girls zoom?”

“We do. It’s not the same. Seeing faces in squares on a screen is bittersweet. There is a hollowness without touching, and I miss winking at someone when I hear something sweet or sassy. And Luanne is missing, we have had two other Dollies die, but Luanne’s absence feels different.”

We sipped our tea in silence.

She asked, “Are you lonely?”

“Sure, but I have a couple of good friends in my little bubble. They are very, very careful, and following horse racing helps. I read racing websites, bet a few races, and check-in at the breeding farm to visit my broodmare and her baby. I have a few other things to putter around with, but the winter is going to be a drag.”

She sniffed. “Oh my, listen to us complain. We have our health. Others have problems that make ours look silly.”

I nodded and heard myself whine, “The uncertainty is a big part of the problem.”

“Yes,” she said with emotion. “My church will still be standing when this finally goes away, but what will happen to the Dollie girls? What will the future hold for your races? Oh, Trey, what if life doesn’t return to normal?”

Another tear trickled down her cheek. To fill the silence, I said, “Aunt Gwen, we gotta hope for the best and do what we can. Maybe try to use these days as a chance to plan how to come back stronger than ever. You know, the old lemonade from lemons thing.”

She asked quietly, “Can I be in your bubble?”

This time, I had to get out of my chair. I rationalized with every step that my aunt had been super safe, and I had been super safe. I walked over and draped my arms around her bony shoulders for an awkward hug, “Of course. From this moment on, we are officially bubble mates, and this winter, I promise to pop in every week. I’m no Dollie girl, but I’ll do my best.”

She turned her head and kissed the back of my hand that was resting on her shoulder. Then she said, “Tell your horseracing friends to be careful, to be double safe. Everything is so fragile.”

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