NDJ:1 Ursula Mahlendorf

The Toy Maker

I began sculpting in my mid forties in a clay therapy session. What surprised me was that my hands almost by themselves formed the clay. A few months later on a trip to Africa, I observed the Maconde at sculpting their monkey-like figures and I thought, that’s what I want to do. On the way back to California, I stopped in Munich and there bought some beautiful carving tools. I knew exact­ly what figures I wanted to carve, human forms, expressing their emotions through gestures, emotions I felt I could express through words only vaguely, entirely unsatisfactorily. Back home in California, I found a carpenter supply woodshop whose owner, himself a carver, had exactly the kinds of wood I want­ed to use. At that time, I did not make models or maquettes, I just started carv­ing. Once again, my hands knew exactly what to do. Sure, I cut myself a few times, because I could not gage the sharpness of the tools or the different hard­nesses of wood. But that was minor. I felt as if I had carved and used tools sometime earlier—earlier in my life or, I even thought somewhat mystically, in an earlier existence.

And then I suddenly remembered the toy making. I was about ten and my younger brother five when the war broke out. We had been poor before but the war meant that even when mother had money at Christmas time, there were no toys to be bought. That was hard on my brother. I had always made presents for him, paper dolls, boys and girls, which I drew and made paper dresses, pants and shirts for. Christmas 1941 I found a wooden box and decided to get more wood and to make a castle and soldiers. An aunt who owned a soap shop gave me a few more boxes. A few of them I used for making soldiers, the rest for the castle. In the attic, I had located an old fretsaw and a few blades which had belonged to my father but which had not been used for a number of years. A few drops of oil made the saw serviceable. I even found some old files, and some sand paper.

Fortunately there were a few blades because when making the soldiers, the outlines of which I had drawn on paper, I broke a few. But soon I was skilled enough to also cut out a few horses. Sure, they looked a little like dogs, but then using a bit of material to make a saddle, they could pass. It was easier to glue together a few bi-planes. The castle even had battlements, and a drawbridge that actually worked on leather hinges. Once again in the attic, I found some old paint and brushes, so that by two weeks to Christmas I had a creditable Christmas present. The problem was that I could work only on the kitchen table, and so my brother, of course, knew that a castle and soldiers were being made. In fact, I even got his help—such as it was—with sanding the cut-outs. I told him I was making a present for my cousin whose father had just died.

Since there was time left ’til Christmas, I made myself a present, a peasant cradle painted with a flower garland for the only doll I sometimes still played with surreptitiously. As I was putting the parts of the cradle together, one of the headboards broke. A customer of my mother’s who was just walking through to the sewing room saw my frustration. The wife of the owner of a furniture factory, she said, “That wood won T work, you need plywood.”

“I don’t think I can get any,” I replied.

“Why don T you come and get some of the bits and pieces left over at the factory.”

I did and the plywood did work without splitting when nailed.

In November 1942 I started my Christmas shop in the kitchen again. This time around I had wood a plenty, plywood for cut-out figures of dolls, soldiers, doll house furniture, but also wood suitable for wood blocks, for making toy houses, church steeples, trees. At first, I only wanted to make a toy village for my brother, but customers of my mother’s saw me work, liked what they saw and asked me if I d make some toys for their children. Soon I was at work mak­ing doll furniture, toy soldiers, cradles, even airplanes. I Id seen my mother make out bills, so I did too, and the adults actually paid me. I earned enough money that pre-Christmas season to buy some sky-blue dress material fo myself and my mother made me a new Sunday dress.  I felt my humiliation and fury only years later when I ‘d told my therapist the entire story. So that’s why tools, working with my hands felt so familiar, so that’s why anything visual had held no meaning for me for years. What had happened to me? My memory went further back. At three, four, five, my father used to make us toys and I had sat at the kitchen table barely looking over its top at first, had helped, watched, learned how to use tools. After he died, and my brother needed toys, I had taken his place and made them. The fun in toy making was to design the castle, the draw bridge, the planes, to draw the soldiers myself and transform my fear of soldiers, planes and war into making them and controlling what they looked like and could do. Toy making was about creating my own world, a world I could design whichever way I wanted to. The resistance of the materials (doing a clean cut-out, not breaking blades while sawing a difficult pattern, not splinter­ing the wood when nailing pieces together) was a challenge which once met, gave a feeling of mastery. And the doll furniture too had meanings I only under­stood later. During my childhood summers I was always sent to my relatives in the country. My after-dinner job was to put the fake garlanded peasant chairs in the hall onto the long peasant table, roll up the long rug, and put it on the fake peasant chest. My morning job was to take down the rug, and place the chairs around the table. I hated the job and it seemed totally pointless to me, a sort of routine punishment, because the chairs were heavy and the rug often full of sand. And I never got it right either, my aunt always complained. It was only when talking about the job years later that it occurred to me that I was sup­posed to sweep the floor and that all these preparations were for sweeping! But nobody ever told me! Designing and painting my own peasant furniture, I did the job right, and I could put the pieces wherever I wanted to. And my mother’s customers all encouraged me. They found my toys beautiful and wanted to buy them. The furniture factory owner’s wife and the hardware shop owner sup­ported me. And I even could earn enough money so that I could buy myself the sky-blue dress. I could be independent.

I had great plans for the following year, and I got ready early. The furniture factory provided as much wood as I could use. Another customer of mother’s got me new fret saw blades, and plenty of sand-paper. And I even found some more paints in the attic. I had gotten plenty of orders. It must have been on the second or third day after I started, that a policeman came into our kitchen and asked if I had a trading license. The police had been told that I sold toys without a license. I was ordered to report to my Hitler Youth group leader. I got a talking to—that I was undermining the Hitler Youth effort of toy making. I was taking wood, saw blades for private profit that rightly should have been donated to their toy making efforts. As a favor, I could start fret sawing for their shop. I felt thunderstruck, mortified at having done something wrong, and then numb. I had not meant any harm. I showed up for the HY shop the afternoon a day later, brought my saw blades, and some of the wood I Id intended to use. I was given a piece of plywood with a clown form outlined on the wood. Not just one form, five. Some of the other girls were already sawing away, clowns too. Some others were sanding, a few painting the sanded forms, copying the colors from a sam­ple. I started. My blade broke after a few strokes on the up-stroke. I put in a new blade. Puzzled embarrassed, I could not follow the outline on the wood and broke the next blade. The head girl looked at me sternly, ” I was told you are an expert sawer.”

“I was—am.”

But try as I might, I just was not able to do it. I was demoted to sanding. After that I never touched another tool.

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