Initially they were toys, some of them unveiled on Christmas morns, when clocks ticked slowly and grown-ups slept forever before ribbons and bows could be forsaken in a flurry of anticipation.
Then they became a collection that grew—and grew—and continues to grow. Kami, Hammerschmith, OSU assistant director of Student Media, has more than 1,000 dolls, about 400 of them Barbies. They are from different countries and eras, one of them dating back to the early 1900s.
The dolls create a calendar of her life marking special occasions and precious years. There is one, however, that kindles a mystery that never left her heart. No one anticipated or can explain what happened on Sept. 15, 1998, in a house on a hill near the Oregon coast.
Since that day, the call of the ocean seems different to Hammerschmith. It colors the sky but steals the sun, and when she walks upon the beach, she feels warmth from the tiny hand of a son, almost 2, and a husband who walks with her. A chill wind, however, is never far away.
Hammerschmith’s father, Gary Smith, owned a pest control business in Eugene. He was a man who loved to host, laugh; and he always had a joke up his sleeve. He loved to cook and was particularly proud of his fajitas. At the core of his life was family, and wrapped tightly around it was a passion for sports.
She remembers sitting next to him in their living room and bleachers. If anything came to separate them, it was that Smith’ loyalty was given to his alma mater and its dastardly Ducks, while hers was for the Beavers.
They made a pact once that whomever’s team won would call the other to gloat. “It’s a good day to be a Duck,” he would say, and he said it often as the Beaver football program was burning to a crisp in the hell of 28 consecutive losing seasons.
They would sit in the cheap seats of the Kingdome to watch the Sonics back in the day when Downtown Freddie Brown was launching them in from Pike Street and Jack Sikma, beneath golden locks, was grabbing defensive rebounds as if he were picking cherries.
Smith would explain rules and nuances of a game that prides itself on its rapid pace and the grace of giants, the sheer beauty of the fast break and confounding irony of the intentional foul.
Hammerschmith never lost the passion of shared hearts. The difference now is that her phone no longer rings when the Ducks prevail, and there is no one to call when the Beavers win.
They could have been the family in Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom From Want,” portraying an aproned woman with white hair placing a holiday turkey, huge and perfectly glazed, on a table surrounded by family members. At the head of the table stands a man, perfectly suited, and prepared to carve through breast and flank. It portrays America at its fabled best, and that is how she saw her life.
Her father telephoned her the night before he went missing. What she remembers most vividly is his complaint about a credit card company contacting him late at night. Hammerschmith had made a purchase on an account she hadn’t used in some time. The call was to confirm the transaction.
“Get this taken care of,” he told her.
Those are the words that stand out.
“Get this taken care of.”
Of course that’s what he would say. A veteran of the Army reserve, he learned the importance of commitment, responsibility, getting things taken care of.
After their conversation, Hammerschmith left for a conference in Seattle, and upon her return, as she was walking toward her apartment, she noticed her lights were on. When she opened the door, her mother and aunt were awaiting her.
Her mother, Cindy Smith, was the one who introduced her to collecting dolls. From the time Hammerchmith was 8, they would attend doll shows, and once a month, she was allowed to stay up late to attend meetings of the United Federation of Doll Clubs.
As a young girl and into her teens, she played with them, creating scenarios in which one doll was the teacher, and others students. Or she carefully dressed them and fixed their hair for dates or grand balls.
“Maybe it was my escape,” she says. “I could go play with them by myself. Maybe it was my alone time.”
At age 16, she started keeping her Barbies in boxes. To the collector, it is vital in determining value, but Hammerschmith had another reason.
“I wanted them to stay perfect,” she says.
One of her favorites is a holiday Barbie, dressed in red and glittery silver, a gift from her father in 1988. While her mother did most of the Christmas shopping, he wanted to give Hammerschmith and her brother gifts that were solely from him. For her that meant a doll.
The first year, he drove from store to store, not realizing the dolls were in high demand. It seemed Santa had beaten him to the shelves. Finally, on Christmas Eve he struck the mother lode at Toys“R”Us, and it became his tradition to gift her with each year’s version of the doll.
The tradition ended the night Hammerschmith returned from Seattle and was greeted solemnly by her aunt and mother. She knew something was wrong but didn’t know how wrong it was. Her father, they said, was dead.
He had picked up his car from the repair shop. There were clients to see that day, and it was tax day, so he was due to go to the bank, but he never made it there. Little else is known about that day except that it was warmer than usual, there was an amiable wind, and at some point he drove to a family friend’s house in Florence near the ocean he loved.
He had a key to the house and drove into the garage and closed the door behind him. He then leaned back in the driver’s seat until his final breath.
No one knows what thoughts he had that night. There was no history of mental illness, no evidence of foul play. Even though it was tax day, there was money in the bank. He left no note.
“Death is something you want to be able to explain,” she says, “but we couldn’t do that. We went to family counseling, and they would talk about alcohol addiction, mental illness. They all seemed to have an explanation, but we never had that.”
Questions linger: From where did darkness come? Did he pause to walk along the beach one final time? Did he cry? Did he feel loved? Did he pray?
Her family did what strong families do. They moved forward. The Christmas after her father’s death, Hammerschmith opened a gift from her brother, Kraig Smith, who lives in Michigan.
It was a holiday Barbie. To this day, her brother continues his father’s tradition. In the past 15 years, much has happened. She married Mark Hammerschmith and they have a son, Tanner. Her brother also married and has two children.
Perhaps—no, absolutely—Smith would be proud, and maybe that is how the mystery should end. While a chapter is missing, it’s not the final one, and under the tree each year is a holiday Barbie, and next to the tree is a son—a grandson—soon to discover the magic of Christmas and the abiding love of family.
Story and photos by Duane Noriyuki