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
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:
It 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?
I found this, my favorite Barbie, body-less, with her hair all matted up.
Nearby, this poor Barbie had developed gangrene from some pins stuck in her head as “earrings.”
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.)
Here we have Poodle Parade, Career Girl, and Candy Striper Volunteer taking the city streets by storm. Bring back that bacon girls!
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.
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.
It occurs to me that maybe Barbie inspired my never-leave-Detroit “foreign” adventures.
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!
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.
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.
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.