Virnitia Wood, 54, a Howard University nurse, held "Peaches" on her lap as she talked. She had removed the mink-trimmed velvet coat and muff that "Peaches" had worn because "we were a little bit hot," Wood explained.
Wood had gussied up "Peaches" for the fifth annual "Brown Spice" reunion -- a gathering of the owners of handmade Brown Spice dolls.
Every summer the mother/daughter team of Ann Dickerson and Julee Dickerson Thompson, who have been making the cuddly cloth dolls at their Brookland homes for six years, host the reunion.
Last Sunday about 70 owners, ranging from older women such as Wood to little boys and girls, spent the afternoon displaying their dolls, exchanging stories and winning prizes from the dolls' creators.
"An old lady like me getting a doll? I was surprised, but I was definitely thrilled," said Wood, recalling how her daughter gave her "Peaches" five years ago.
Some of the owners brought their Brown Spices strapped to their backs, others cradled them in their arms and one little boy, in a bright blue dashiki, used his to cuff a playmate on the head.
Children's book author Eloise Greenfield, 56, came with her doll, Ayanna, outfitted in a sunny yellow dress. A 12-year-old sent her Brown Spice to the reunion from Tennessee.
"It's kind of like a homecoming for me," said Ann Dickerson, as she circulated among her guests. "I get to see all the dolls I have forgotten I had made."
The owners displayed their dolls in a pageant on the patio cum stage so Julee and "Annie," as everyone called them, could award best-kept doll and dude (male dolls) prizes. Those that did not win ribbons received pink or blue balloons that read, "Everybody needs a little spice in their life."
"Leroy Brown" and "Y dala" ("a lady" spelled backwards, according to Brown Spices literature) were the first of the jointly created line. To Julee, the dolls are meant to reflect the physical and spiritual diversity of children from the African diaspora.
For that reason the dolls and dudes come in all imaginable shades of brown, beige, gold and black. Those in the "fantasy collection," more popular with the children, have green, blue, and pink hair, but the more traditional dolls bear a closer resemblance to black children: twisted yarn represents all manner of dreadlocks, braids and curls. Some wear head wraps and some wear veils, though Julee said the girls take the veils off of the Muslim dolls "as soon as they get home."
She added, "If there are 31 flavors of ice cream, there are 31 million flavors of black people . . . . Through diversifying Brown Spices we're discovering the really wonderful things about black people -- their looks, their personalities, their clothes."
She and her mother make male dolls because, "I wanted to create characters that were really masculine . . . [and] bring out the musical side, the creative side, something that boys can related to without being kill 'em, shoot 'em."
Charlene Jones, 28, a Dickerson cousin, has two children and each has a doll. "I think they're a much better investment than a Cabbage Patch because each one is unique," she said, holding two dolls. One wore the christening gown of her 6-year-old daughter. "It's a good way to preserve the outfit," Jones said.
Her 11-month-old son J.J. wore a shirt that matched the outfit of his doll.
Thompson had dabbled in doll-making, but the 1979 birth of her first child inspired both women to pursue the art seriously. "My mother had noticed that black dolls were always white dolls painted black," Thompson said.
When the line started, Julee, 29, a trained graphic and fine artist who works in pen and ink and soft sculpture, gave the dolls names, but now she lets the children pick their own, from cards she provides; from Julius to Jibri, from Jesse to Jamal.
Ann Dickerson was the founder and owner of Second Time Around Boutique in Washington. "She has always been a crafts person and has always been interested in children," Julee said of her mother.
The business has been such a success that Julee's husband, Enoch Thompson, an architect, built a storage shed to the side of their home that has become the official "Gingerbread House."
The Brown Spices line, which now includes dolls, their clothing and books, are sold from here. The doll prices range from $40 to $150 while the clothing prices range from lace bloomers and panties for 75 cents to pink polka-dotted doll dresses, and indigo blue and beige African wraps, and a pair of "dude" overalls for $2 each.
At the reunion, "The Little Brown Brothers Rock and Reggae Demolition Band" played plastic ukeleles and makeshift congas to a reggae beat. Annie invented stories for the children and their dolls.
Julee has stories for all of the dolls. "He has had a life of his own," she said of Paul, a grave-faced fellow sporting a hat. "He was on 'Newsbag' [a children's television program]. I picked him up and his pants fell down, just like real little boys."
Guests and dolls were served by little hostesses carrying baskets of cream-cheese-stuffed celery and gingerbread cookies. They wore pink aprons with quilted Brown Spice faces on the front. Each carried her doll on her back, to free her hands.
Looking out over her "family," a rainbow of dolls and children, Ann Dickerson was pleased. "The incredible thing is, if you look at the kids and you look at the dolls, they look alike," she said.