Back when her hands were a mere 99 or 100 years old, when her eyes didn't bother her much, when her gait was steadier and life (even life in the triple digits) didn't seem quite as limited, the Sock Doll Lady sewed her magic in only two hours.
From first snip to final stitch, in just two hours Nellie Elvidge could turn a boys' Fruit of the Loom crew sock into a cute-faced cuddly, a miniature, slimmed-down cousin of the Pillsbury Doughboy. It was not unusual for her to complete 13 sock dolls a week, and they were chauffeured to Inova Fair Oaks Hospital, where the excited young siblings of just-arrived babies got a present all their own.
Before long, the numbers added up. In five years, Miss Nellie finished 1,569 dolls. By July of this year, 1,816. And by last Wednesday--just two days short of her 104th birthday--her total hit 1,847. At the Fairfax County nursing home where she now lives, the occasion was marked with cake--a "good work" cake for a job well done.
For that, blessedly, is what her sewing has been. As sweet as the image is of little children hugging dolls hand-made for them by an elderly volunteer, there is a far more poignant picture: of a tiny, taciturn woman, nearly alone at the end of her life, whose days have found structure and purpose in the combination of yarn, sock and stuffing.
"This is what she does," notes Georgia Fraser, a longtime volunteer for Inova Fair Oaks. "It keeps her sane, it keeps her viable, it keeps her going. It's her vocation."
Miss Nellie, as she so often is called, was born in another century--a serious, hardscrabble time that indelibly marked her life--and grew up in Peckville, Pa., the oldest of five brothers and four sisters. Her father was a coal miner, and with such a large family, "we never had too much to do with money," she says. By fifth grade, she had quit school to help her mother raise the rest. Later she worked in a silk factory as a "winder," hired out as a housekeeper for a doctor in Niagara Falls, N.Y., and took care of students at a school for the deaf near Scranton, Pa. She never married.
"She was always working," explains her niece, Arlene Smith, of Fairfax, with whom Miss Nellie lived for 12 years. Pleasure came from crewel work and cooking. Diversions such as trips were few--"she was very frugal," Smith says--and fun activities like going to the movies apparently were equally rare, although, when pressed, Miss Nellie mentions that she did like Shirley Temple.
She arrived in Washington by the early 1960s to join two of her sisters in an apartment on East Capitol Street. Fast forward 20 years, when the women began making sock dolls for what was then Fairfax Hospital. Who knows how many they did or how long they would have kept at it had the two sisters not died, within months of each other.
Miss Nellie returned to making dolls several years before moving in 1996 to the Manor Care Fair Oaks nursing home, where "The Price Is Right" and favorite television soaps help her hours pass. Her mind remains exceedingly sharp, but her ability to walk has deteriorated, with each fall taking a toll on her independence. Thus her days have become increasingly solitary. She has her own room, and it is spacious enough, but she talks with bitter resignation of the four walls. "I get awful lonely here," she says. Never a social extrovert, today she is further limited in conversation by a severe hearing loss.
Her companions are her dolls. "I like to mix my colors up," she says, referring to the bright yarn that defines each creation's eyes, nose and mouth and decorates each cap with looped stitches, each body with simple bows. A shopping bag on the floor holds skeins of red, blue, pink and gold, next to a plastic bag puffy with filling. Works in progress are kept safe in a drawer.
Miss Nellie's hands are smooth, even delicate, her fingers amazingly nimble for someone 104. She starts each creation by cutting off the toe end of a sock and sewing it shut. From the leftover material, she makes arms and legs and then sews them in place on the emerging body. Then she proceeds to the head, face and cap, which she crafts by turning down the top portion of the sock tube.
Despite repeated compliments and appreciation, she does not see her dolls as the special gifts that others do. Nor does she think of herself as a volunteer. Perhaps that is not surprising, given the generation in which she grew up. But something else may be at play. Although Thomas Hardy once wrote that "the value of old age depends upon the person who reaches it," stereotypes of the elderly persist and are far from generous. Too often, the expectation is that the very old have little to contribute.
Miss Nellie talks along those lines sometimes, insisting she's too old and tired to sew anymore. When she's feeling better, though, she reconsiders. "Maybe I will, maybe I won't," she said two weeks ago. "I think it is good for me."
CAPTION: Georgia Fraser, left, and Mary Agnes, right, volunteers at Inova Fair Oaks Hospital, look at some of the nearly 2,000 sock dolls that Nellie Elvidge, center, has made. The dolls are given to siblings of just-arrived babies at the hospital.