Joyce went all-out for me, Tonia, and Sean for Christmases in Montana. Since we weren’t visiting with grandparents during the holiday season and she wanted to make sure we knew the grandparents had given us gifts, we unwrapped presents from the family on Christmas Eve and then woke up to stockings filled and presents around the tree from Santa on Christmas day. The area around the tree was sectioned into three parts and gifts from Santa spread in those sections from the tree to at least halfway across the living room. Shared gifts spread out beyond that–the living room was filled with unwrapped toys waiting to be marveled at. The Barbie collection I’d started my (5th?) Christmas at Elnora’s grew by giant bounds every Christmas and little bumps every birthday. Tonia and I eventually owned the Barbie Camper, Townhouse, Dream House, baths, tents, cars, beds, horses, bicycles, styling salons, beach house, family house, swimming pool, Fashion plaza, dream boat, speed boat, fishing boat, beach bus, motorcycles, dune buggies, tents, cars, buses, jeeps, an airplane: the United Airlines Friend Ship, every new Barbie trinket under the sun.
My first Barbie was the 1969 “Twist ‘n Turn Barbie with new flip hairstyle.” I had begged for a Barbie for Christmas and the adults all agreed it was a gift that I was too young for. We spent the Christmas of 1969 in Florida with the grandparents and when I didn’t receive a Barbie from anyone–not even Santa! I was inconsolable, as only a 4 year old can be. I was so forlorn, everyone went out and got me a Barbie without telling anyone else. When we returned to Missouri, I was the proud owner of four Barbies. I treated them like baby dolls, which I’d never had time for.
By the time I entered junior high, Tonia and I owned at least one each of the following: Dramatic New Living Barbie, Malibu Barbie, Growing Up Skipper, Mod Hair Ken, Malibu Ken, Sweet Sixteen Barbie, Gold Medal Barbie, Ballerina Barbie, Miss America Barbie, Superstar Barbie, Live Action Barbie, Busy Barbie, Barbie with Pretty Growing Hair, Living Barbie, Barbie Hair Happenins, Busy Talking Barbie, Walk Lively Barbie, Talking Stacy, Talking PJ, Live Action PJ (my Absolute Favorite!), Malibu PJ, Malibu Ken, Malibu Skipper, Walking Jamie, Bendable Leg Skipper, Pose ‘n Play Skipper, New Good Lookin’ Ken, Live Action Ken , Busy Ken, Now Look Ken, Long Hair Ken, Superstar Ken, Deluxe Quick Curl PJ, and Dream Date PJ. Sometimes we had 2 of a model, one for each of us. We didn’t have any cheap knockoffs, either, only Barbie would do.
We had Barbie suitcases, hangers, clothes, shoes, beds, coats. Joyce learned to make Barbie clothes on the sewing machine and Nora crocheted Barbie clothes. Our Barbie collection took up whatever room we were playing in, enough to create an entire town, with a giant extended family of husbands, wives, children, spinster aunts (there never were enough Kens to go ‘round). Sean joined in with his GI Joes–who were Barbie sized at the time–Stretch Armstrong, and Steve Austin, the Six-Million Dollar Man. Steve was far more handsome and masculine than any of the Kens, so he was the prize to catch. The GI Joes were all a bit on the untamed, rough side. But all of our Barbies were treated well by whatever male they matched up with.
Sean’s very favorite toy was his Evel Knievel action figure and he had all the accessories: the stunt cycle, the Scramble Van, the Jet Cycle, the Dragster, the Funny Car, Skull Canyon. He may even have had Derry Daring, Knievel’s stunt rider girlfriend. The dashing Robbie Knievel action figure would’ve been an ideal husband for our all-American Barbie, except he was only 7” tall to Barbie’s 11.5”.
Sean also had tons of Matchbox and Hotwheels cars, which I loved almost as much as he did. When we weren’t involved in the drama of Barbie and company, Sean and I would play cars. At that time he was a big fan of Evel Knieval, “CHiPs”, “Smokey & the Bandit” and trucking movies, and “The Dukes of Hazzard”. It never failed that one of our Big Rigs would jack-knife and cause a HUGE pile-up on the highway. We’d get the tow trucks out and straighten up the mess, get traffic flowing again…and wouldn’t you know it? Another Big Rig would jack-knife and cause a HUGE pile-up on the highway…
Tonia wasn’t at all interested in cars and usually spent time with her baby dolls while we were busy with the cars. Tonia truly loved her baby dolls. In 1973, Kenner came out with Baby Alive. As much as I had needed a Barbie, Tonia was wild for a Baby Alive. Baby Alive came with a bottle, diapers, dish and spoon, and packets of special food. You mixed water into the food and fed Baby Alive with the spoon. Her mouth would move as she ‘ate’ from the spoon and ‘drank’ from the bottle. The food moved through her body and she wet and messed her diapers. Joyce didn’t want to deal with the mess or expense of new doll diapers and food, so she said no.
But my grandfather Jesse was living with us at the time and he doted on Tonia, who–according to him–looked just like Joyce. So Jesse got Tonia a Baby Alive for her birthday. He bought a box of real disposable diapers for the baby too, and thought he was done with it. Tonia was in heaven. That babydoll was not only the most loved doll on the block, she was also one of the best-fed. She was out of food in no time. Joyce told Jesse buying new doll food was his problem since he’d bought the doll, so he and Tonia went downtown to buy new food. They came home with a case of tiny jars of real baby food. Jesse had decided the damn toy company was trying to rip him off, charging an arm and a leg for fake baby food when he could buy a case of real food for less. Tonia was pleased as punch—this was even better than expected. REAL diapers and REAL food for the coveted and cherished doll.
You may already suspect what happened next. Baby Alive food was specially made for feeding to dolls. The food was basically plastic flakes, designed to easily move through the doll’s body. There was nothing organic in it. REAL baby food is (hopefully) zero plastic and 100% organic matter. It didn’t move easily through the doll’s body. Instead, Baby Alive got a pretty bad case of constipation. There was no way to get the food to come out, so it sat there in poor Baby Alive’s tummy. Within a week, Baby Alive reeked worse than any diaper any live baby ever soiled.
Joyce and Larry really did try to unclog the doll. Baby aspirators were bought, boiling water was poured through her, she was soaked in various cleaning solutions. Jesse bitched and swore about cheaply made merchandise and toy companies ripping off the American consumer. It was all to no avail. Baby Alive had to be interred in the flower garden out back. We had a nice little funeral for her with a double-knit polyester lined box and a painted rock for a headstone. Jesse wasn’t allowed to buy toys alone anymore.
I sometimes played dolls with Tonia, but I wasn’t much interested in playing house. I liked to play school, but Sean and Tonia found me to be a harsh teacher and refused to play after just a few times. We played Star Trek–where Sean could be practically anyone on the Enterprise, but we girls had to play someone’s girlfriend. Representation DOES matter. We also played Sea Lab, but since none of us had actually seen the show, we weren’t bound by genders or reality or how it actually would work to live in a lab at the bottom of the ocean. Mostly we ‘swam’ around and battled moray eels, great white sharks and giant octopuses.
I discovered Marguerite Henry’s “Chincoteague” books and Walter Farley’s “Black Stallion” books and decided I wanted to either ride wild, proud horses or become one, and run across the untamed prairie with the wind. None of the kids I hung around with were terribly interested in running all over, all day long, while playing horses, so when I played alone, I pretended I was a horse, or a girl on a horse and ran, ran, ran everywhere I went.
When I was in 6th grade Joyce and Larry made friends with a couple who had a daughter named Becky. I can’t recall the parents’ names or if Becky had any siblings; I just remember that for a few months we spent a lot of time with that family and I wasn’t very fond of Becky. I think she fell right between me and Tonia in age, but she never wanted to play anything; she only wanted to watch TV and brag about herself. I’ve always believed Becky stole one of my prize possessions: a stuffed doll dressed in fur that Ruby Mae had bought for me when she visited Alaska. Becky always admired that doll and wanted to hold it and pet it and one day after her family had visited, my doll was missing. The next time we visited Becky’s house I surreptitiously searched for the doll, but of course I couldn’t climb into closets or go into her parents’ room and I never saw the doll again.
And what did Becky have to brag about? She had a horse and was a show rider. She had fancy western outfits all full of fringe and spangles. She competed in barrel racing and calf-roping events, and judging from the trophies all over her house, she was pretty good at it. She also rode side-saddle and was learning stunt riding. I was so jealous I could spit. One day Becky and her family invited me and Tonia to go to the stables with them and learn to take care of the horses. If all went well, perhaps we could learn to ride.
And that’s how I came to spend a few weeks learning to muck out stables and brush, clean, and feed a horse. I have no idea what kind of horse Becky had, but he was tall and black as ebony. I had to stand on fences, hay bales, stools, anything at all to be able to reach him to care for him. Then wonder of wonders, I was allowed to ride him. No saddle, only the bridle and reins. I literally clambered aboard him from the top of a fence. Tonia was too afraid to try to ride him alone, so Becky’s father lifted her on the horse behind me. She was supposed to hold on around my waist, but as soon as Mr. Becky let go of her, Tonia began to panic. Instead of grabbing my waist, she grabbed the reins that I was holding and began to pull back on them.
Obediently, the horse began backing up, but we were in the corner of the fence and there just wasn’t much room to back into. I kept telling Tonia to let go, but she couldn’t understand in her panic. The horse, backed into the corner and still being told to back up, began to fidget and stamp, which frightened Tonia more and upset Becky who began shouting at me to stop pulling on the reins, which frightened both Tonia and the horse. I finally pried Tonia’s hands from the reins and urged the horse gently away from the fence.
But the damage was done. It’s not good to panic a horse. They’re delicate and expensive. We were made to dismount immediately and were never allowed on the beautiful tall horse again. Soon after my brief ride Joyce and Larry had a falling out with Becky’s parents. I never saw Becky or her beautiful horse (or my Alaskan doll) again.