A doll’s cradle, tucked away, unseen for a generation, has found its way into my home, a piece of my mother’s collection. In photographing this wicker treasure, I discovered a clue as to its origins. Affixed to the bottom of the toy was a piece of masking tape with the words “made by Robert Minor for Marilyn, 193?“, written in my mother’s handwriting.
Marilyn’s granddaddy Minor (1869-1943) was a substantial man, stocky, square. Looking at his picture, it is not hard to imagine that Robert Minor milked cows from an early age, or that he was groomed to take over the family cattle trading business as soon as he could count. But his sturdy physique and natty attire belied an emotional vulnerability. Intractable headaches and melancholy shaped Robert’s ability to work, to parent, to care and be cared for. And once the family sold the mineral rights for the coal on that Pennsylvania farm in 1906, Robert had the means to do more than suffer in silence.
Treatment for nervous conditions in the early 20th century was limited, with most, like Robert, seeking the rest cure at various resort-like sanitariums. Fresh air, clear spring water, no stressors, and occupational therapy were thought to be just the ticket to relief. Relief did not guarantee return to a normal, productive life.
The stories told at family reunions, and recently uncovered postcards and letters, reveal that Robert never quite shook the demon depression. He was subject to violent outbursts throughout his life. His wife, May Laura, had even advised their adolescent son, Donald, to never be alone with Robert out in the barn. Robert also had a habit of kicking his shin black and blue whenever he became upset.
Robert Minor must have retreated to sanitariums many, many times. Somehow the farm remained functional, and a legacy for Donald, his wife, Kerma, and his children, including Marilyn. And in spite of frequent absences, Robert appears to have been a doting grandfather, buying dresses and toys when at home, and writing letters when away, like this note to ten year old Marilyn from Mercer Sanitarium, Mercer, Pennsylvania, when once again he was a resident of that therapeutic institution.
“Dear Marylin(sic) you little sweet thing, I only wish I could write you a nice letter one you would be proud of but Grandady (sic) isn’t able to do it. Of course I could ask you about the school and your little friends and about your brothers and sisters and who your teacher is and where you go to school Willow Tree or Garards Fort, and how many there were in the school and do you mind the cold, and did you or any of them take the Hooping (sic) cough.”
At Mercer Sanitarium, Robert would have been under the care of Dr. W.W. Richardson, M.D. Many nurses would have been called up to serve in various war-time positions. I suppose, though short staffed, the basis of that 1942 care would have remained much the same as before the war: good food, raised on the premises; daily chores around the home and farm; and instruction in weaving, brass work, lace weaving, or basketry. Basketry.
When I look at this doll’s cradle, I see more than eight inches of woven wicker. I see a troubled mind holding in his heart what he couldn’t hold in his arms. My dear little Marilyn…..