The Things I Thought I Wanted: Real Barbie Paper Dolls or a Deeper Authenticity?

paper-dollsBarbie Paper Dolls.  Oh my.  How I wanted these!  Of course I look back on this grand desire of mine and I wonder why.  I ask myself why this wonder woman with the impossible figure, cute clothes, and a long string of suitors so caught my attention . . . but maybe I just answered my own question.  Barbie was, and very well might still be, the paragon of Cool and Smart.  A model of Beauty and Sophistication.  Fun and Adventure.

And she had the cutest clothes and shoes.  Maybe it was this that so drew me into her Barbie world of pink Corvettes and hip pool parties.  It was only implied that Barbie was wealthy, but how else could a girl be so cool, perpetually-unemployed, always ready to party, and have any boy she wanted.  Her Funhouse did not come with a bundle of Barbie-size funny money, but we could all imagine her taking a bath in a tub of $100 bills.  In short, Barbie was pretty danged cool to a little girl living in a North Dakota farm town.

In an effort to assist me in my realizing the Barbie Dream, my Big Sisters made us our own homemade paper dolls.  These facsimiles may have failed miserably in the Cool Factor, but they made up for it exponentially in the Effort Department.  While Mattel was not about to go busting down our door to rob us of our yet-to-be-patented North-Dakotan version of Barbie (a doll that swore freely in Polish, wore galoshes, and whipped up funeral hotdish to take to the church in her Barbie kitchen), the Dakota dolls earned an A+ in creativity and fine craftsmanship.

The dolls were made by meticulously cutting out desirable models featured in magazine advertisements, which were then glued to the equivalent of light poster board.  I remember the girls using the light cardboard insert that came packaged with my father’s new shirts or the empty cereal boxes from the kitchen.  Gluing the models to the cardboard was cause for concentration.  It involved using the just-right amount of glue to prevent bubbling and wrinkling in the wrong places.  We’re talking Knock-Off Barbies here with the end goal of Barbie Perfection, and the dolls could not afford an unseemly bubble or wrinkle in an inappropriate place.

After the glue had thoroughly dried, the laborious task ensued of cutting out the outlines of the dolls and the tricky spaces between the arms and the body for those models who held their hands on their hips.  This was all done with blunt-tip school scissors and a pair of dull sewing shears that my mother kept by her sewing machine.  We could not afford fancy craft knives, and our parents were not about to entrust the Big Girls with a box cutter.  They used what they had, and I have to hand it to them for keeping a steady hand.  While it would have been easier to have dolls with their arms glued to their sides or completely away from their bodies, the Big Girls were committed to their craft and kept the arms-akimbo models alive in our collection.

Next came the clothes.  The dolls were traced to typing paper, and then cute dresses and pant suits were drawn and colored.  My sisters had this process down.  I suspect that there was a fair measure of failed attempts before they learned to put the doll face down on the paper so that the tracing lines could not be seen in the dress or top.  Again, those arms-akimbo spaces had to be cut out carefully from all fashions.  I now know why so many of the outfits were sleeveless — thus removing the necessity of cutting those spaces out of fragile paper.

paper dolls III.jpgAnd all I can say is a resounding Chapeau! to my sisters for learning how to place the fold tabs just so, ensuring that the dolls’ outfits would stay put and not just fall off.  I am sure that Ken would have appreciated the latter consequence, but the big girls were fashionistas who wanted their designs to remain on the dolls.  It was a lesson in critical thinking and trial-and-error, is all that I can think.  I remember when one of my big sisters learned that if you cut the fold tabs with an added angle, the clothes stayed on even better.  I fully expected this sister to go on and become a Barbie-style engineer, such were her talents with the Barbie clothes.  Such was not the case, but she grew into one sharp cookie when it comes to design.

The sisters made faux-mink stoles and evening gowns.  Gingham dresses and sweater sets.  They made outfits for a picnic and for the repetitive First Dates with Ken.  All I can say is Ken must have had a lot of imagination to create the illusion of a first date over and over and over.  Either this or Barbie had suffered amnesia as a result of crashing her pink convertible.  Still, either option explains why Barbie didn’t stray from Ken. Ken kept the relationship alive.

Ultimately, the dolls cut from the ads became templates for my sisters moving on in the design world and creating their own paper dolls from scratch.  These dolls included Barbie’s trademark ponytail swirl and other popular hairdos at the time.  They drew faces on the dolls and cleavage that would peek out of an evening gown.  Some of the faces represented some of Modigliani’s or Picasso’s earlier work, but I didn’t care.  And in spite of knowing that these dolls were a far cry from the delicate-featured authentic Barbie paper dolls, they certainly made me feel included — like I was part of a Girls Club that was all about being creative with what we had and not focusing on what we didn’t have.

paper-dolls-iiLooking back, I wonder if I didn’t intuit and recognize a Deeper Authenticity in the paper dolls that my sisters made.  What started out as Barbie knock-offs became their own style, their own brand.  I remember them discussing which models from the ads would make a better sample or how to make a more tab-friendly swim suit.  Perhaps it was the fashion discussions or watching their faces filled with preoccupation as they cut and traced that drew me in.  Perhaps it was the girl-power camaraderie to which they allowed me, littlest sister, entrance.

I remember the dolls’ edges becoming mildly curled from an over-zealous pencil tracing the dolls one too many times for the Fashion Department.  Once the edges on a doll began to curl, the clothes didn’t stay on so well . . . so new dolls needed to be made.  And I, being the youngest and most lacking in fine motor skills, received the cast-off dolls.  Talk about a win-win.

My preference now?   What I wouldn’t give to come across some of the paper dolls that my sisters made.  Alas, our house suffered a fire after we moved into town from our drafty, roomy, once-upon-a-time boarding house on the prairie. No paper dolls were recovered. But they live in my memory.  And in my admiration for my big sisters who knew how to get creative when resources were scanty.  I thought I wanted fancy and new and Mattel-sanctioned dolls that every other little girl in the consumer market had . . . but what I really wanted, and received, was the love from the Big Girls who were nice enough to include me in their World of Fashion and Creativity.   Thank you, Sissies.  I remember your creative kindness.  It is the sort of thing that I will always want and treasure.

 paper-dolls-iii

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The Things I Thought I Wanted: 64 Crayons with a Sharpener

crayola-crayonsWhen I was going to school, I soooooooooo wanted the big box of Crayolas with the built-in sharpener in the back.

As a rule, coming from a big family of small means, we would instead receive a box of 16 or 24 at the beginning of the school year . . . never the coveted 64.  I don’t think my parents could have ever known how much I wanted the built-in sharpener feature, as I didn’t feel comfortable pointing out that I had less than what I wanted.  I know now, looking back with the eyes and heart of an adult, that my parents were swamped by life’s demands and obligations and were doing the absolute best that they could.  They were pretty amazing magicians when it came to keeping everything at home afloat.

I do recall the school year (I was in 5th grade) when my dad gave me a box of 48 crayons . . . the Crayola box that was square and fat and just so jammed with color goodness . . . and I felt like a princess receiving those crayons.  I dearly hope that I thanked him in a manner that reflected my appreciation, but I simply can’t remember.

It’s weird how the memory works.  I want (hope) to believe that I thanked my parents throughout my childhood repeatedly for these childhood essentials . . . but I’m not sure that I did.  Now that I can no longer tell them directly, I want to tell them now.  I want to thank them for what they did for all of us . . . demanding that we take advantage of the opportunity to learn and get a good education and also that we learn to play a musical instrument when young.  Me?  My father was a big fan of Benny Goodman and chose the clarinet as my instrument-of-his-choice.

There were other gifts that came in the form of life lessons: My father used to tell us that if we are mean to someone, we will have to reckon with that same person again at some point in the future so we might as well try to get along.  My mother used to laugh at the darn-dest things . . . things that didn’t seem funny to me as a child . . . but now?  I can see how she tried to find humor in the oddest of circumstances.  She chose to laugh when I now realize that she probably wanted to cry.

All of these life gifts from my parents that definitely surpass and outshine a box of 64 crayons.  My life now?  My art supply cupboard is full of paints and brushes, gesso and gel, colored pencils and crayons, markers and Sharpies.  Truth, I have all of the art supplies I could dream to have.  And as for crayons, I keep a jar of 8 crayons (this particular box of crayons being a gift from a loved one . . . thanks AW!) in the kitchen to have at the ready for doodling away that waiting-for-the-water-to-boil time.

And I now know why I have those crayons out and why that box of 8 meant so much to me recently when I received it.  It brought back all of those brand-new-school-year memories of knowing that my parents had so little resource to prepare us for the year ahead . . . and yet they made it all work out year after year.

. . . that they somehow prepared me for this thing called Life when I didn’t even realize that is what they were doing at the time.  It felt so fraught with randomness and chaos growing up, but maybe there was more of a plan in place that I just couldn’t see.  Maybe they, themselves, didn’t know it either.  Call it parenting, call it family, call it surviving.  I don’t know.  I do know that they prepared me to appreciate the finer things in life like receiving a box of 8 crayons and feeling like I am loved, heard, and blessed.

The Things I Thought I Wanted: a diary with a lock and key . . . and the thing about secrets

diary-1449287_960_720Oh, how I wanted a diary when I was a girl.  You know the kind . . . a beautiful girly girl’s diary with a lock and key.  And I was simply ecstatic the Christmas when I was ten years old and I received one.  Mine had a navy blue cover with gold embossing and “1 Year Diary” gold-stamped into the cover.  I simply loved it!  I can still remember the sound that the gilt-edged pages made when I opened it for the first time . . . It felt like that crinkly sound was opening its pristine, glued-together pages to the secrets I was about to share with it.

Well, that’s the thing about secrets.  No matter how much we try to preserve them or hide them from the prying eyes and inquiring minds that intersect our life, they are [sometimes] doomed to be discovered . . . paraded . . . maybe even disrespected.  We feel violated when our secrets have been made public without our permission.

It takes a lot of risk and guts to commit a secret to the page . . . a lesson that I was quick to learn at this young age.  My hopes of finding my true self via those gilt-edged pages were temporarily dashed when my big sister read my diary entries aloud — pages that detailed my first big crush [Dean W.], in front of said crush, who was my big brother’s best buddy.

maple-leaf-638022_960_720I learned a lot that day about secrets and sisters and writing and locks and keys.  I learned that just because something has a lock on it, doesn’t mean that it can’t be jimmied open.  I learned that secrets can be made un-secret when they fall into the wrong hands.  That, although it can be risky, it’s okay to be honest with my thoughts.  That what someone else chooses to do doesn’t define who I am.  That although I might feel a wee bit discouraged, I am going to keep writing.

It took some time to view things from my sister’s perspective.  I learned that people do things that they don’t really intend to be hurtful in long-lasting ways.  That what might seem funny at the time, never really was in the first place. And that sisters somehow stick together, even when they do things that aren’t very nice.

french-1040839_960_720I am happy to have survived the awkwardness, and — now all the stronger — I have maintained my love and discipline of writing.   And in the ways of true forgiveness, I have since pardoned my diary-reading, secret-disclosing sister.  We are still the best of friends.

But you know how writing is.  It liberates us, even when life sort of sucks.  Writing asks us to pay attention to the details, even when it hurts.  Little does this sister know that she is the muse for an extremely unattractive, glowering villainess who gets her payback comeuppance in one of my current short stories.

But this is the way of writing.  You can change what is now by writing it into a different room or even onto a different planet.  Does reality change?  I don’t know how to answer this.  I only know how to live it.  And write it.  And tell my sister that I love her dearly, because I do.  And keep my journal hidden when she comes to visit.

The Things I Thought I Wanted: The Ballerina Jewelry Box

When I was young, I thought my world would be different — better — if I were in possession of certain items.  If only my parents were rich enough or receptive enough to feel motivated and/or inspired to head to the stores and shop, shop, shop for me.

In that I didn’t come from a family of wealth, I wasn’t a trust fund child, and I wasn’t some yet-to-be-discovered princess who was living as a servant in some rich relative’s attic, I found myself in the unfortunate position of having to work for what I wanted — for the things that went beyond food, shelter, and a good pair of school shoes.  I babysat, polished my dad’s wingtip shoes on Saturday nights, set up woefully-unsuccessful Kool-Aid stands, and swept the dance floors of my dad’s bar on Sunday mornings, hoping that some inebriated souls had carelessly dropped some coins our of their pockets while pulling out their hankies  to mop their polka-dance-sweaty brows.

I sometimes remember some of the highly-coveted items that I dreamed of possessing . . . I look at them now and can still identify the charms that once beckoned to me.

Lenox Childhood Memories Ballerina Jewelry Box

http://amzn.to/2bUH3eD

This ballerina jewelry box was a standard in many girls’ bedrooms while I was growing up.  I remember Kim P. who seemingly had every magical girl thing and gizmo imaginable, so of course she had one.  While the box must have contained her childhood jewelry, she never once opened its lid in my presence to simply listen to the music.

Kim P. was the kind of girl who demanded that her mother redecorate her room at the end of every summer.  She would casually toss some color combinations at her mother, and her mother would then go to work at creating some sort of theme and scheme.  At some point in time, Kim P. must have thought that the pink in the jewelry box was clashing with her psychedelic orange-and-blue color scheme .  I went over there one day after school and the ballerina box was gone.   I remember thinking, Why didn’t she ask me if I wanted it before she threw it away?   But how could she have known?  I had never once asked if I could lift the lid to listen to the music or to see the ballerina spin in place.

I was to never own one of these fancy, girl-y jewelry boxes.  Instead, I used a hand-me-down wooden chest with some vintage-faded image, in muted shades of blue and green, of an Irish cottage and a farmer in the field.  The outside of the box was pressed with a carved design, and to its credit of quality, it did hold the coveted feature of having a mirror inside the lid, but the box’s simple features couldn’t quite compare with pink velvet and a spinning ballerina.

In the ways of moving me and my belongings across the country in a pick-up truck, I had to cut ties with many of my various treasures.  Hence, I lost the jewelry box in some manner of neglect or forgetfulness.  But I did come across one of these plain wooden boxes at an antique store recently, and I bought it immediately.  I didn’t even look at the price, as I knew that it was coming home with me.

My excitement upon finding it in that dusty, cluttery shop revealed to me the strength of a memory . . . how a memory can have greater value than phantom wants from the past.  I now have my jewelry encased in this retro-memory-box, and it is in a prominent place in the center of my rickety-legged, drawer-sticking dresser — another find that reminded me of a bureau that my grandma had.

It makes me happy when I see this ballerina-less wooden box.  I think of my three  big sisters and how they all had triplet boxes like this when they were teenagers.  I can’t remember how I came to inherit mine, but I am quite certain that it was from one of the Big Girls.  It was a sweet gesture, and I am sure that I was happy to receive a treasure box for my odd mix of jewelry bits . . . in spite of my wanting different, more, or better.

We turn our thinking around when we focus on the meaning, the memory, and the value in any given thing, moment, or gesture.  Now?  I think about one of my sisters giving me her jewelry box.  And how special it made me feel to have it.

Childhood memories get refinished in so many ways.  They get re-painted, re-purposed, and their edges get sanded and their scratches smoothed.  And we sometimes  deconstruct and reconstruct a thought based on what we wanted it to be and not what it actually was.  Which is not necessarily a bad thing, I am thinking.  After all, we are in the memory-making business, and I want to focus on the good stuff — the stuff that makes a difference or that inspires me to make a difference in someone else’s life.

Lenox Childhood Memories Ballerina Jewelry Box

http://amzn.to/2bUH3eD