What is the appeal about dolls that fascinates and attracts girls from the ages of one to one hundred and one? There are those delicate porcelain creations, too fragile for anything other than display. Other dolls beg to be hugged and dragged along wherever you go. Some are beautiful and some are, well, just plain homely. My mother-in-law has several hundred scattered throughout her home, and they are all her close friends.

I was sitting at the Passover Seder table this year, along with the members of my husband's family. Next to me was my sister-in-law Marcia who, when she discovered that I have begun writing again, suggested that I send in an article about our mother in law's dolls. Great idea, I responded, but who would be interested in a bunch of dolls collecting dust in an eighty-four year old lady's home?

I realized that there is much more to this story than the dollsAs I reflected on this for a while, I realized that there is much more to this story than the dolls. My mother-in-law Riva, is a survivor of life, and her dolls symbolize her experiences and struggles along the way. Each doll tells a story, and her collection is an integration of the many challenges throughout her life.

There are the garage sale dolls, unwanted and ignored by most but treasured by Riva. They borrow clothes occasionally from their sisters. They've had a tough time, but their smiles are always there, just like my mother-in-law's. And then there are the thrift store dolls, the weathered second hand little gems which Riva simply could not resist. She offered them her home and gave them each a new beginning.

Riva arrived in Canada at the age of three and, like so many others of her generation, came from a complicated family network, resulting in her being raised by her maternal aunt and uncle following the death of her mother at the tender age of one. Her cousins became her brother and sisters, and so her new life unfolded in a modest but happy Jewish home.

Riva married her sweetheart, Eddie, during the turbulent time of WWII. The couple had a slew of family members and friends living with them throughout the post-war years. There was her only surviving biological sibling, Joseph, who along with his wife Paula, emigrated from Europe and needed a place to stay before building their lives in a new country. Then there was her brother-in-law Bennie and his bride Miriam who also spent some time in Riva and Eddie's home… Ann, a family friend, shared their quarters for a while too. Life was full.

The couple welcomed four sons over the years, and Riva inhaled her children like precious oxygen. Her family always remained paramount; it was her anchor, taking precedence over all other happenings in her life. Her role as nurturer and protector branched into caregiver when her parents became ill, and then again, many years later when her beloved Eddie developed emphysema and COPD.

She had been there every day, with her hair coiffed just the way he likedHis condition worsened over the years, until one day in 1980 he was rushed to the hospital, never to sleep in his bed again. He moved into a hospital room, with a tracheotomy and respirator to keep him alive. Five years later when he succumbed to his illness, Riva found herself lost. She had been there every day, with her hair coiffed just the way he liked, wearing the outfits he loved to see her in. My father-in-law adored his charming Riva. At barely four feet nine inches, she truly resembled a lovely, dainty doll. But this was no porcelain figurine.

Over the years, there were many deaths in the family which took their toll on Riva, but none broke her heart like the loss of her beloved eldest son Allen, who was ripped from her life suddenly, tragically, by a bacterial infection seven years ago. By the time she rushed to Toronto to see him, he was in a coma. Within a matter of hours he was gone. There is truly nothing in this world more devastating than outliving one's children.

In the years prior to his death, both Allen and Marcia had discovered a higher level of spirituality; Shabbat and the Jewish holidays took on a new dimension. All of this transformed Allen, providing him with a more meaningful way to embrace life. He was truly the wise "elder" among the brothers, the glue which solidified the family bond. And suddenly, that life was over.

We were worried about our tiny matriarch's survival, but Riva's strong will and determination kept her going. Pictures of her family, always plentiful in her home suddenly seemed to fill every inch of wall and table space, each proudly displayed in its own special frame; like her rapidly growing collection of dolls, they surrounded her with the smiles and memories of happier times.

As my sister-in-law Marcia and I chatted for a while at the Seder table, I remarked that she looked younger and more peaceful than she had for a long time. She confided that, in fact, only a few days ago she had just become engaged to a gentleman who, like her, had become much more observant recently. Our mother-in-law had been informed of the engagement prior to the rest of us, out of respect. After all, it was a lot for her to absorb, and even more incredible, her fiancée's name is… Alan.

Riva's reaction at the table was quiet, accepting, and loving. While Marcia was overwhelmed by the support she received from all of us, Riva's gift to her was the most significant. I admired her strength as she spoke the few words which touched me so deeply. "Marcia, you are the mother of my grandchildren. Nothing will bring my Allen back… I want you to be happy."

Riva's story may not be earth shattering or newsworthy. But Riva, like her dolls, is a quiet reminder that the most precious things in life often come in tiny packages, waiting for someone to notice their incredible potential, and uncover their true beauty.