I'm the Co-founder and CEO of The Grommet. We launch undiscovered consumer products. It's also the birthplace of Citizen Commerce. I write about design, cultural anthropology, and start-ups, mostly.

Mother, (don’t) leave those kids alone.

 

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Me washing my dad’s Mustang…his one “mid-life crisis car,” with a little neighbor.

Since we sold our suburban house and started disassembling it for the upcoming move to smaller quarters, I’ve been handling virtually all our possessions.  In the process of this project, I’ve realized three enduring truths from my childhood:

  • I grew up owning very little so I organized, maintained, and guarded what I had rather fiercely. (My sons and siblings will nod affirmatively.)  But anyone who knew how my father kept up his cars will not be surprised.
  • My prize possessions were my Barbies and my books.  December was a childhood bonanza, containing both my birthday and Christmas.  I lived all year waiting for that chance to add a few new Barbie ensembles, or a couple of the latest Trixie Belden books to my tiny collection.  (Trixie was the American tomboy version of Nancy Drew.)
  • And I really wanted something I could never possess.  I wanted to have thick long straight hair.  Alas, I was born with thin, fine wisps, which my mom wisely kept in a short “pixie” cut. Think Twiggy, or Anne Hathaway, depending on your vintage.

So, with this set of memories in the back of my mind, for the last two months I have been culling possessions accumulated over the last 20 years.  Despite the above, it’s not that hard for me to shed stuff. When my brother and mother passed away recently, they each left very little–and I share an ambition to leave a light footprint.  I actually still miss the days when I could move to a new apartment with just a Ford Country Squire.

But the one project I avoided in this extensive house packing process was looking at my Barbie collection. Yes, I still have them. They’ve been stored in a “secret” closet under the rafters since we moved in. I was keenly aware of them there, in three original cases.  But I knew it would break my heart to handle them, so I have never opened them since I was a girl.

Well–correction–I did once.

Back in my ’20’s I realized the dolls were:

a) in mint condition

and

b) probably somewhat valuable, dating back to the original Barbie.

So way back then, on a visit home to Detroit, I dug them out of my special storage place in the basement. And I found something like this:

IMG_0450It was utter chaos.  …Where is the special little Barbie shoe storage box?!  The wig stand is broken to bits! Why is nothing properly stored on hangers!?  Where, oh where, are the special geisha girl Japanese sandals?

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I found this, my favorite Barbie, body-less, with her hair all matted up.

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Nearby, this poor Barbie had developed gangrene from some pins stuck in her head as “earrings.”

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Worst of all, I found both of my Skipper dolls had new hatchet job haircuts.  The prettiest, the brunette, had a new layered look (oh how I missed her perfect butt-length silky tresses) but the real offense was this:

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To me–being the idiot little girl who once saved her precious pennies to buy a “luscious blond hair extension” from the advertisement in the back of an Archie comic–this was a capital offense. I blew a gasket in the basement furnace room. (By the way, that mythical Archie comic hair piece was destined to change my 8-year-old existence.  I was sure of it.  It arrived in the mail looking about as luxurious and realistic as the hair on the top of a troll doll.)

Seeing the disfiguration of my alter-ego Skipper, I went flying upstairs to confront my mother, like the inner 8-year-old I really was.  She admitted she had let some kids from church play with the dolls whenever they came over.  I screamed (I assume):  “Play? You call this playing?!  Supplying some hooligans with scissors, voodoo pins, permanent markers, and my only remaining childhood toys  is what you call PLAYING?”

I snapped all the cases shut, removed them from the premises, and never looked at them again.  My dreams of a comfy retirement–financed by my astute Barbie collecting–were dashed.   But the hurt (like all irrational childish reactions) was much more than the obvious, or the monetary.  You see, through the years, my mother had had a bit of a tendency to run roughshod over her children’s possessions.

In some fit of pique at age 10, over this, or some other offense of hers, I wrote a short book (to my future self) about How To Be A Good Mother.  Years later I went to recover it from my secret hiding place (probably at the same time that I was being crushed by the chaos and insecurity of actually being a MOTHER).  The book was gone.  My teenage record albums.  Gone.  All my homemade and otherwise cheesy dance costumes.  Gone.

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Me, with the pixie at an unusually shaggy length

But I guess I really need that “Mother Manual” even today–because I have to work hard to control the apparently genetic tendency to vigorously clear house myself.  My 18-year-old son will never forgive me for selling his gorgeous play teepee at a garage sale when he was only six. (Hey, we were moving to Dublin!) My middle son was home for college last month and asked where I put his soccer cleats.  Um, I had just given them to Goodwill the day before, thinking they were a remnant from high school. Unbeknownst to me, he had just flown up from Virginia with them in his bag.  Oops

Opening the Barbie cases last night, I was surprised how intimately I remembered every single outfit and accessory– damnit!  The upset of seeing everything dirty, torn, and so many favorite pieces missing was admittedly much less today than 20+ years ago.  Maybe I matured a bit in the intervening years. But I still could not help myself from restoring order.  I marvelled at the quality of detail and tailoring in the official Barbie merchandise (not the cheap knock-off stuff that I never liked anyway).  I reunited bits and bobs from favorite outfits.  I even combed their hair–yes I admit it.

And I staged some photos for posterity.

I stopped myself short of steam cleaning and stain removing all the old offenses from the clothes–I was supposed to be packing.  I also knew this blog post would mean more to me.

I found one Barbie head I did not recognize at all.  I have a feeling it comes from the era of the former Mattel CEO Jill Barad.  I once went to hear her speak at an industry conference and she spent 15 minutes building suspense about “the new Barbie.”  She painstakingly detailed all the effort the Barbie team had done to research modern girls’ desires and aspirations in order to completely reimagine Barbie.  The old girl was going to look completely different.

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By the time Jill paused to unveil the giant image of the new Barbie, even the most jaded Wall Street toy analyst in the room was sitting on the edge of his seat.  Then she appeared on screen.  A 15 foot high version of….Jill Barad.  It did look something like this mystery head:

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But back to my treasured collection.  Luckily I had lovingly stored all the annual Barbie fashion brochures in a plastic pouch so I can provide the accurate names for the outfits I photographed.

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This languid trio of girls below is plum tuckered out from  a tough day of shopping, in girdles and high heels, no less.  In fact their outfits are called Suburban Shopper, Busy Morning and Swingin’ Easy.  I am sure they will be right back at it soon, though.  (I think the simple and bold “Busy Morning” is the equivalent to today’s jeans and a t-shirt.  It’s constructed of a sturdy cotton and has huge pockets to hold cleaning supplies or baby bottles.  I would wear one if it came in my size.)

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Here we have Poodle Parade, Career Girl, and Candy Striper Volunteer taking the city streets by storm. Bring back that bacon girls!

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I am pretty sure these three ensembles below gave me my life-long love of combining blue and green.  Or maybe the grass and sky did.  Anyway, I credit Warm N Wonderful, Senior Prom, and Fun Time for my color cravings.

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Barbie in Hawaii and the artfully named Cheerleader get into the action.  Sorry I could not get that tropical print bandeau top to stay up.  In fact I wondered how I ever got any of these clothes on as a little girl.  No wonder so many of them are ripped.

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It occurs to me that maybe Barbie inspired my never-leave-Detroit “foreign” adventures.

"Spanish" dancer!

“Spanish” dancer!

"Hawaiian" dancer!  (I will spare you the belly dancer, and the Tahitian version.)

“Hawaiian” dancer!

"Tahitian" dancer with terrible sunburned face.  I will spare you the belly dancer version.

“Tahitian” dancer with terrible sunburned face. I will spare you the belly dancer version.

I took dance lessons in a neighbor’s basement.  They cost $1 each.  When I got old enough I paid for them by teaching younger girls.  These photos should be really embarrassing but I feel quite fond about them. Partly because it was so cool to me to have an after school activity.  And also because I loved having a real photographer take my picture each Spring after my year of training and sewing/assembling.

I owe a big debt to the kind dance teacher Mrs. Virginia Pleak, who was a completely exotic bird in our blue collar neighborhood (think a short curvy version of Cher, with much bigger hair).  She believed in me.  She also noticed how upset I was one year when my parents could not afford to buy a print of my photos and she quietly took care of that for me.

But for our girl Barbie…forget learning about foreign lands in some cinder block basement.  For her, Hawaii was just a warm-up!  It was a small prelude to… Barbie in Mexico!  And..Barbie in Japan!

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All these adventures can make a poor girl just plain exhausted and want to dive into her Nighty Negligee or, on cooler evenings, her Wooly PJ’s.

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It was tough to pull off these photos.  I always thought I had a real connection with Barbie and Skipper. They were my homies. My besties. But in staging these compositions I realized that they ALL have very shifty eyes.  You cannot get them to look at you no matter how hard you try.  Or maybe mine are just…mad at me?

Anyway, I haven’t decided what to do with my forlorn beauties.

Back to my other collection, the books that the probably-illiterate visiting hooligans never found…I am in the process of donating my entire lifetime collection to our local library, two bags at a time.

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Except these.

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P.S.  After I posted this piece I got a cool message from Sue Blanck Tennant, a fellow Detroit neighbor:

Hi Jules I came across your story when I googled Virginia Pleak, and I wanted to comment and send a picture to you but it wouldn’t let me put the picture on so I found you on fb thought you would like to see it.  I had her also and lived on Riverdale.

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14 Responses to “Mother, (don’t) leave those kids alone.”

  1. Tori

    I love this post Jules and have had a similar experience guarding my childhood Little House on the Prairie book collection. Even so bad that I once refused my own daughter to read them because I didn’t “trust” her. I have since came to my senses and they have been shared with my girls (though there is no reading near water allowed). :) Your library will be so lucky to receive your donations.

    Reply
    • julespieri

      Tori, I am glad you came to your senses….but totally agree with the water proximity ban.

      I can so relate as I have NEVER even opened that box of childhood books with my boys. I am pretty sure they would have had zero interest, but it is kind of appalling that I never considered sharing them. Just who was I saving them for, I ask you?

      Reply
  2. Claire

    I remember we had the Barbies (hand me downs from older cousins) with hair made out of the same moulded plastic as the bodies…My husband’s matchbox collection seems to have endured the same treatment as your Barbies – we still have it though. Hoping I can leave a light footprint SOMEDAY too. Shedding is hard.

    Reply
    • julespieri

      Claire, I don’t remember Barbies with molded plastic hair, unless the are the ones that came with wigs. I have one of those. Shedding is hard but honestly, seeing what it takes to handle a person’s stuff after they pass away creates a great deal of motivation for me. I look at things and ask myself, “Will my boys even understand why I kept this?” If not (which is the case with most things that I have in storage), I seriously consider getting rid of it. I should write notes on the things I keep, so they have perspective. But MAN I sound like I have a month to live….which is ridiculous. And why I have not written any posthumous notes.

      Reply
  3. Julie Rodecker Holly

    This was wonderful, Jules. I admit to still having my Barbies. I have some of the same outfits you do. There was actually a good market to sell Barbies and their outfits before the recession hit. I sold some outfits for over $50 each! At this point, it’s time for me to give away what’s left. I love your idea of leaving notes about why you have saved particular things. I agree that leaving a light footprint is definitely the way to go. My problem is finding the time to do it. I’ll have to schedule it in and go for it!

    Reply
    • julespieri

      OK I will need to do that note thing now that you endorsed it. It could be kind of creepy or bittersweet but that risk is lower than the likely benefits.

      Reply
  4. zima-mom

    This was great Jules! I was sitting reading the horrors of finding your decapitated Barbies and hoping it wasn’t at the hands of your baby sister (and my good friend from college) as we know she was potentially capable of doing so. I too have my special “Look-around Krissy” doll from about age 4 that I let my daughter play with, when other kids weren’t around. My mom made her clothes, and we had amazing ‘playdates’ talking about how I had matching outfits. She also got my ‘Baby Alive’ and “Baby Tenderlove”. I had Barbies as well, but only three, my favorite being Skipper. It’s nice to see that a girl who adored dolls and Barbies grew up to be so successful. See folks? Barbie is fine!

    I too, am the fan of a small footprint, have a very small purse, as my theory is, the bigger the purse, the more crap I carry. Admittedly, I’m currently in the large house in the burbs, but in about 5-6 years…will be going through the same exercise and am looking forward to it.

    Reply
    • julespieri

      Lisa was fortunately not at all destructive as a little sister. She was pretty civilized, if rather extremely talkative! The small footprint thing is odd…on one hand I live in a much larger house than I grew up in and have way more stuff than my parents so it feels disingenuous to claim a light footprint. But I do try very hard to keep the clutter/closets/memorabilia/tchotchkes to a bare minimum. Furniture is not so hard to handle (in the future), but the other stuff…the crap…is a burden. I also invest strictly in quality stuff (many Grommets of course) so that what I do own or pass along will stand the test of time.

      Reply
  5. Aunt Judy

    Julie…I loved your story, you missed your calling as a writer! I would suggest that you keep the Barbies…the ones you showed looked to be in good shape. Remember, you may have granddaughters who would love to play with them someday. I wish I had the dollhouse my Mom and Grandpa made me from an orange crate! I remember every inch of it, down to the red door with tiny hinges and a knob cut off the top of a clothespin. :) I gave my girls each a folder filled with their drawings from when they were little. Time for them to store them to show their kids someday. Love, Aunt Judy

    Reply
    • julespieri

      Aunt Judy–well I may just fall back on writing some day. It is my favorite thing to do. And thanks for reminding me about possible grandaughters. Isn’t funny how you can be sooo clear on childhood memories like that clothespin knob? I lost that memory capacity when I had my own children, I fear.

      Reply
  6. Deanne

    Hey Jules! I am also a former student of Virginia Pleak’s and I have the tambourine to prove it! When did you take lessons? I was there between 1977-82. Any idea what became of her and her daughter Danielle? I remember she had a son too. I can’t find anything online about them. I grew up west of Telegraph off Glendale, near the Ford factory. Ahhh, the memories!

    Reply
    • julespieri

      Deanne. How fun! I took lessons in the 1969-1974 time frame. I am on a Facebook group (D.J. Healy elementary school) with Danielle. She and her brother Greg comment. Danielle lives in Warren. You can connect with her perhaps? https://www.facebook.com/danielle.pleak?fref=ufi Someone recently posted a State Fair picture of a “Hawaiian dancer” troupe from the studio, in fact.

      Reply

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