Me and my 400 dolls

2018-12-20 09:38
 PHOTO: Joanie Berg

PHOTO: Joanie Berg

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Many of us keep a  cherished doll from childhood – a toy that  reminds us of the comforts of home and a time when life was uncomplicated and carefree.

But Lynette Avenant takes things to a whole new level. Every surface, display cabinet and piece of furniture in her flat is home to the more than 400 dolls she’s been collecting since childhood – and as far as she’s concerned there’s a lot more to them than inanimate objects.

“If you could speak doll language you’d know what they’re saying now,” she says. “When you walk by, each of them is saying hello to you.” She grins.

“These dolls! We chat every day and I take very good care of them.” Wherever you turn there are dolls of all descriptions: delicate porcelain beauties, plastic babies, dolls made of rubber and cloth.

They’re crammed into every nook and cranny, each neatly dressed, each with its specific spot in the flat. There are even dolls in the shower and the bath, on the kitchen cupboards and on the floor.

Lynette is known as the doll lady of Hartenbos and people come from far and wide to her face-brick flat near Mossel Bay in the Western Cape for a glimpse of her fairytale world.

During the day the 66-year-old widow chats to her precious possessions and tells them stories.

Her late mother’s dolls, Sheila and Martinette, are especially dear to her. The two rubber dolls, made in 1948, are the only ones she puts on the balcony each day so they can get sunlight and fresh air, she says.

woman with over 400 dolls

“At night I walk by each doll and close their eyes so they can sleep. Those who can’t close their eyes watch over us during the night. “Right now there’s excitement brewing in the house,” Lynette adds.

“Every summer and winter I dress the dolls in new outfits. Winter is coming so they each need to be clothed in something a bit warmer.” She hauls out a large brown suitcase full of baby clothes.

“I buy the clothes at Pep stores or people give me their old baby clothes,” she says. She points to a brown brick dressed in a pink hat and jacket perched on the  coffee table. The brick has a paper face pasted on it.

“That was my first doll,” she explains.  Lynette tells us how she grew up in Durban with her mother, father, four sisters and older brother. The family struggled financially and her father, who worked for the railways, couldn’t afford to buy dolls for his girls.

“When our cousins visited they always used to show off their fancy dolls. We longed for dolls of our own,” she recalls. “I was probably about seven years old when we decided to make dolls with bricks.

We would wash mango pips for the eyes and draw little faces on them. That was how we started making and collecting our own dolls.   

“Of course, we weren’t allowed to touch my mother’s doll, Sheila.” 

Years later, when her mom was on her deathbed in a hospital in East London, she made Lynette promise to look after Sheila and “never let her get cold”.

“I promised her I would and when she closed her eyes I took Sheila from her. Now I take special care of her and make sure she’s never chilly,” Lynette says, pointing to Sheila across the room.

The doll is dressed in an oversize gown and a pink beanie. She has her own place in a little pram and a blanket is tucked over her lap. The day Lynette got her first job she bought herself her first “real” doll.

“My sisters all think I’m cuckoo,” she says, tapping a finger to her head. “But they accept me the way I am.” On the wall are framed photos of her son, Kobus (44), and his wife, who also live in Hartenbos.

Lynette tells us she suffered three miscarriages and Kobus is her miracle child. 

But she laments the fact she has no grandchildren. Another photo shows a jolly-looking grey-haired man clinking glasses with a much younger Lynette. “That’s Dennis,” she says sadly.

“He died eight years ago in Bethal where we lived. It was his heart.” Lynette had been married and divorced twice before meeting Dennis.

“My husbands all accepted my dolls. The first one didn’t like the dolls much but he’d buy me more. The second one bought me the most dolls.

“Because Dennis had children he enjoyed living with the dolls. Every night he’d say goodnight to them just to please me.” Both bedrooms are chock-full of dolls, little figures packed neatly next to one another on the beds. There’s no room to lie down. “I don’t sleep with my dolls,” Lynette says.

“I might roll over and hurt them.” She explains that since Dennis’ death she hasn’t slept on a double bed because she misses him so much.

“Dennis was a large man. The bed is too empty without him. So each night after I say goodnight to my dollies I come through to lie on the couch in the lounge and watch TV until I fall asleep. I feel less alone here.”

Lynette has so many dolls  she can’t remember all their names.

woman with over 400 dolls
woman with over 400 dolls

Which is why she’s written each one’s name on a piece of paper that’s been stuck to them. “And I don’t count my children, I just watch over them,” she says.

When she’s not chatting to her dolls or wiping dust from their faces she works as the caretaker for her block of flats. Lynette tells us she’s already made plans for what will happen when she’s no longer around.

A good friend and her husband in Hartenbos have agreed to look after her dolls. “And they’ll take very good care of Sheila,” Lynette adds. She picks up a doll called Amy.

“See, she’s breathing, she’s alive. Look at how she’s laughing with you! “She’s so cute,” she says, placing Amy gently beside her. 

Lynette regards the way she lives as “totally normal” and she couldn’t be bothered with what people think of her. She rubs her hands lightly along her white pants then peers up at the greyhaired man in the photo.

“Everyone’s life comes to an end,” she says. “I just think you’re not alone if you have something like my dolls.

Yes, a lot of people go mad if they’re alone. But if you keep yourself busy like this you’re never alone.” 


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