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.

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Forgive and Remember

A few days ago I was cleaning the house and came across some dusty and faded dried flowers hanging from the antique bare-wooden door that is propped up in the corner of my living room.  The flowers had been preserved for reasons I can no longer recall.  I do remember that I had received them from someone in an attempt to beg forgiveness for something that wasn’t kind in the ways of relationships.  But why I thought to save them as a reminder?  Beats me.

When I came across them in my cleaning, I asked myself: Why do you have these things in your house, collecting dust and preserving negative memories?  Why are you keeping them? It didn’t take long in the deliberating.  I cut the yarn that was attaching them to the door.  I took the flowers and dumped them in the garbage can in the driveway — almost ceremoniously so.  It felt great.  I then found some other memorabilia that was conveying the same less-than-happy memories.  Another trip to the garbage can.  It felt good to rid my home of these things.  Thursday morning came along, and I wheeled the can to the curb and said, “Good!  Done!  Bad memories be gone!”

121I came home from work mid-afternoon that day and took the dog out for his afternoon romp.  There were two neighbor boys playing up the hill.  When they saw me with my dog, they came tearing down the hill to pet him.  After cautioning them that this 8-pound Chihuahua-boxer mix might tear their arms off at the elbow if they bent to pet him, they started to ask me all sorts of questions . . . reminding me of what it once felt like to be 8-years-old and curious and lacking distinct social filters.  Why does your dog bite?  Does he bite everyone?  Where do you live?  What’s your dog’s name?  Can we pet him how?  Are you married?  Is that your truck?  Why is that cat following you?  Is that your cat?  Can we pet your cat?  

I stood there and answered all questions.  They looked like brothers, the younger one not having quite grown into his grin or his ears.  Questions answered and curiosity satisfied, they turned to run back up the hill — the elder swinging and beating at the younger with some sort of weapon.  My first thought was, That looks like fun — remembering what it was like to play rough-and-tumble with my Irish-twin brother on the physically-competitive and sometimes-painful battlefield of my Little Sisterhood.

Then I looked at the boy’s flailing weapon of choice.  It was the bunch of dried flowers that I had thrown into the trash, looking somewhat less robust since the game of Chase, Beat, and Flail had ensued.  The flowers had somehow avoided the tip into the garbage truck.  Swish and whap.  This big brother had his little brother on the run.  The younger was yelling at the elder to stop — which was added fuel.  More swish and whap ensued.  The way I am describing the story sounds awful, but they were, in truth, having fun chasing each other around . . . and it made me laugh to see such a miserable reminder of past unfaithfulness being utilized in such a fun and hearty fashion.

I doubt that these two are going to remember the summer day when they stopped to talk to the neighbor woman about her dog, her cat, her truck, and her marital status.  I don’t know if this day will live long in my memory either, but it started me a’thinking about my wonderful big brother –who now is one of my most amazing friends.

In childhood, the way we treated each other at times must have looked to be appalling.  We grew up tough and recognized the importance of knowing how to take care of oneself in the face of conflict.  But, as we grew older, our conflicts grew into a more collaborative and supportive state.  We joined the same team.   We had grown close through those years of pushing, shoving, and wrestling.   We had forgotten the fighting and had grown to appreciate the loyalty that living in the trenches of childhood had created.

It’s odd because I never thought to cry, to tattle, or to demand a cease fire.  None of this was an option.  Tattling was taboo.  It was how we learned to test each other’s mettle, and it was how we built the friendship that continues to grow in our adult years.  It was how I came to understand that forgetting is a huge part of forgiving others.  Because once you forget, you are done with the whole thing.  It’s easy to forgive when I have forgotten.  But when I am not forgetting?  When I am reliving the moments that weren’t so pleasant while attempting to complete the forgiveness cycle?  These are the moments that snag my flow and hold me back from becoming me and from choosing the life that I want for myself now.

So I am happy that I cannot recall the reason for the tossed-out-dried-up flowers.  And I must be in a good state of forgiveness if I can get a good laugh watching that little brother howling and sprinting up the hill.  I could tell that these two weren’t tattlers.  Their parent or guardian wasn’t going to hear about the Dried Flower Flailing Episode.

My mother was an extremely patient woman.  She knew how to hold her tongue when appropriate, and she knew when to let loose when the situation invited it.  She was smart, clever, and intelligent.  And she had a great sense of humor.  I sometimes wonder what she must have thought as we were tumbling each other down the stairs or slaughtering each other with ice-hard snowballs.

She was a good mother in so many ways.  She let us discover Truth in our own hard-headed ways of comprehending fairness and meting out justice and bequeathing mercy.  I intuitively knew that had I simply asked my brother to be nicer to me, he would have been.  Right then.  But there was something in the way that we played and interacted — it grew our hearts to be braver and stronger.  I think that my mum, having gone through tough times in her childhood, knew this.  There was not going to be any coddling in situations that demanded us to use our brains and hearts to figure out the solution on our own.

It is an odd feeling to recall Mother Love.  It is visceral and hits you in all the right places.  And in all the painful places.  As an adult now, I wanted so much more for my mother.  I wanted her to experience more calm, more zen-like moments in her days.  She was an intensely creative and musical soul who worked too hard raising a brood of fiercely independent children.  We didn’t demand much from our parents, but we had a large presence as a result of this.  It was as if Life had tapped a part of her creativity and circumvented it into an elusive place.  It made me sad then, and it still does a little bit now.
And those dried flowers from the garbage can?  They gave me a bonus by linking me to a memory of a time when my brother and I were four- and five-years old.  We put our heads and hearts together in order to give my mum a Mother’s Day gift.  We were without financial resource, so we got creative.  We agreed that my brother would sing my mum one of her favorite songs — “My Wild Irish Rose” — all while holding to his heart a plastic pink carnation from the “bouquet” she kept on her dresser.

can canAfter he sang, I was going to be a floating romantic magical bubble while singing “Tiny Bubbles” — my costume being my mum’s voluminous and starched white “can-can” half-slip.  During rehearsal, we critiqued and coached each other.  He sang.  I bubbled around.  We were ready.

Show time.  My mum laughed and clapped.  My brother looked so sweet and earnest.  His sincerity being hard to believe — what with me having just recently been assisted/pushed/rolled (It all happened so quickly) down the steps in my beautiful Bubble before the show started.  I was scolded for ruining my mum’s starch job on the can-can.  And my act was hopelessly ruined — my brilliant costume being my main mojo.  But the show must go on.  And it did.

I remember the look on my brother’s face as he sang, and I now wish that I would have taken even a moment to see the look on my mum’s face.  If I did, I can’t remember it.  And this makes me the teency-est bit sad.  I can only imagine how proud she must have been of his creative gift of song.  I makes me happy to think that the musician and artist within her must have felt “seen” that day — which is a very beautiful thing to experience in life.  It makes for a bittersweet surge inside my heart remembering this day.

My bruises from my Tumble of Terror eventually healed.  And I forgave my brother for rolling me down the steps and destroying any future hopes of performing on Broadway.  It makes me laugh out loud now to think of how it must have looked.  My scuffed-up Buster  Browns — hand-me downs from him– poking out of all of that lace and crinoline — me howling all the way — terrified and wondering if this is how it felt to travel to heaven.

But I haven’t forgotten.  And I am so glad.  I love my brother for singing to her that day.  For looking so earnest.  For trying to have a good singing voice.  For remembering all of the lyrics.  For reminding me that not all that is forgiven needs be forgotten.  For him growing into such a good friend.

My mum always used to say, “Light hands make for light work.”  I love her for saying this.  I have been blessed with many light and healing hands in my current experiences that help to grow me into a new state of Remembering.  My brother helps me to remember the good things that have helped me to grow.  And grow some more.

Dried flowers.  Plastic carnations.  An Irish song for our mum.  Forgiveness.  Forgetting.  Remembering.  Rewriting the script.  Leaving things in a really good place.  Moving on.  Releasing my memories from the snags in the flow of things.  Valuing Experiences not for what they were but for what they are now in a new context.  Remembering and celebrating in a new time of life.  A different context of Light and Love and Loyalty.  Lightness in Laughter.  And Trust and Truth. toaster oven