Sunday, June 19, 2011

Smell Series: New Barbie Doll

After analyzing all of the possible reasons why this blog has gone into a coma, I'm going with the obvious: It's the perfume-buying moratorium. The one where I forbid myself to buy any perfume until August. That one. Apparently my brain refuses to blog about perfume when it knows that it can't buy any.

OK, fine, be that way, brain. See if I care. But can I have a blog about smells? Non perfume smells? I'm declaring a series. And I'm starting with one of my favorite smells, the scent of New Barbie Doll.

It seems faintly odd to write about dolls, especially a fashion maven like Barbie, because I was never a fashion-focused girly girl. Once I got past toddlerhood, big enough to be opinionated and no longer a passive doll to dress up, Mom lost interest in those things for me. So the whole feminine-frippery-sharing thing didn't really happen.

Mom and I did interact on the girly front, but "front" might be the right word. She insisted on getting my hair combable-tangle-free and with an unflattering razor-straight center part every day; I stole a piece of the red silk scarf that her mother had given her a piece of. There wasn't exactly a meeting of the minds. We came much closer to bonding over food. Or her mother; why do you think I stole the scarf? But those are different smells. (I still haven't found her mother's perfume.)

Come to think of it, this leads me to another possible reason why I'm not writing: Because I need to write about Mom, and I'm not ready to do so, except in little bits and fits and starts and passive-aggressive side remarks in my posts on other subjects. I need to reconcile my gratitude that she taught me to love things like marzipan and daffodils with my resentment that there wasn't more that we shared, that she wasn't (and isn't) sufficiently interested in me for there to be more. I need to reconcile the person that I told myself that she was, with the person that she really was and is. I need to accept that while I adored her parents, her childhood wasn't exactly ideal either. I need to figure out why I think of her in the past tense, when she's still just a phone call and a thousand or so miles away.

I need to decide whether I'm relieved or angry that I can safely write about her here, because she's not going to bother to read my blog. To steal the phrase, she's just not that into me.

One of the things that Mom did do, was Christmas. I don't know how our holidays compared to those for other kids, but I do know that when we were small my brother and I were presented with a Christmas that fulfilled our--or at least my; I shouldn't speak when I don't know his mind--shiny get-up-in-the-wee-hours-with-a-pounding-heart hopes. And I'm pretty sure that Mom was a big part of that.

I do find myself pausing and wondering: When both parents were shambling around sleepily at one o'clock Christmas morning, was Mom the one primarily producing the shiny? Am I mistaken, and was it mainly Dad? I always took it as an article of faith that Mom cared about our Christmas, that it was one of the times when she looked outside herself to do something for other people, and I think it's true. If it's not true, well, maybe Dad, now that he's gone, won't mind giving Mom the credit if it's what she needs to get and what I need to give her.

So. Christmas. The Christmas tree, and special snacks that were exotic to my childhood self, and dinner, and comfy family rituals, and of course gifts. Our Christmas gifts were mostly about new toys--clothes and educational toys were not invited. Toys weren't bought casually throughout the year; they had to wait for holidays or birthdays, making them all the more special. Christmas meant toys that I wanted, that I discovered from hours and hours with the Sears Wish Book. Not what Mom thought I should want, but what I actually wanted. On that subject, Mom was interested enough to hear me.

New toys had those smells, those modern, manufactured, no doubt horribly unhealthy smells, and I loved those smells. The dusty smell of bright-colored cardboard boxes, the barely-there and indescribable smell of clear plastic enclosures, the fabric-treatment smell of new doll clothes, and most importantly, the wonderful rubbery-plastic smell of a new Barbie doll.

I still love those dolls. Even as an adult, when I'm near the toy department of a big store I'll sometimes go to look at the doll displays, savoring the idea that I could buy whatever I please, though I never do. And I love the smell wherever I find it, even in an eraser or the rubberized handle of a new garden trowel. New Barbie Doll Note, I'm realizing, perhaps meant not just new childhood wealth, but times when Mom demonstrated that she cared and that she knew who I was.

Now, Barbie herself was not my favorite character in the BarbieVerse. I preferred Skipper, especially back when she was ungiggly and flat-chested and straight-haired and intelligent-looking and lacking in scarey eye makeup. It was Skipper that had the ever-growing handmade-by-me wardrobe (including at least one garment made from that stolen red silk scarf), selections of which were carried in stuff sacks before I knew what a stuff sack was, as she travelled on endless adventures with her dog, Fateful. Yes, I'm sure that I got the name from some TV dog named Faithful. Which meaning did I think I was getting? I wish I knew.

And then there was Dawn, a short, twenties-flapper-figured clone of Barbie, with another intelligent face, though she was laughing and not sober like Skipper. And the Sunshine Family, a cheerful trio that I wished I could meet in real life and, interestingly, the only ones that I cared to keep into adulthood. But they all smelled like New Barbie Doll when they first arrived.

So... this post was going to be about shiny toys, and seems to have instead led me in a cranky direction. But it did lead; I didn't have to get out and push.

Image: By Joe Mabel. Wikimedia Commons.


  1. Dear CF: I love you. I'm right there with you in your shiny kid-Christmases, feeling important.

    That weird blog dichotomy between freedom of expression and feeling neglected, that I know well. My mother knows I blog, but I don't think she reads. My sister knows, and dropped by once or twice, but found it both incomprehensible and dull - or said she did, anyway. (She still retains a bit of the "If YOU are doing it, it's not for ME" sibling attitude.)

    Fine, blog about smells all you want. New Barbie smell was never all that exciting to me, although I had a few of them and remember playing with them. What toys I loved as a kid? My terrific horse-on-springs, Thunder. I'd get on that bad boy and ride across the prairie, baby doll tucked under one arm and toy gun under the other, fleeing bad guys and shooting at them every chance I got, so I could SAVE MY BABY...

  2. What Mals said. The best 'revenge' as it were, is to live your life as best you can - and enjoy it (and sweetie, I feel your pain. If you look up the word Narcissist in the dictionary there are two photos there...:-) but my days are brighter and fuller and fresher, now that I've let that go (or as much of it as I've been able). Most of us do what we can with what we've got - that holds true for our parents, too.

    Keep writing. Write about what you want! we'll still read it!

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  4. I love this post, CF. I am wondering if we are similar in age, because I too looked through the Sears catalogue. We also only got toys on birthdays and Christmas; I remember begging my mom to give me a penny for the gumball machine in the grocery store and she declined...candy was only for special occasions!

    We (my two sisters and I) were not allowed Barbie dolls (my mom said that we couldn't have a Barbie until we looked liked Barbie - meaning grown up with breasts!) so I got Skipper and Scooter (her red-headed freckled friend, who incidentally looked more like me than Skipper did). BTW, when I turned 30, my sisters bought me a Barbie! heheeee!

    Oh yes, the smell of those toys! I was a big Jane West fan - I clearly remember the smell of her accessories (esp the saddle for her horse Thunderbolt!)

    I miss your writing, and glad you wrote this! *hugs*

  5. or her horse, Flame - I cannot remember!

  6. BF -

    The Sears Big Book was so eagerly awaited, wasn't it? I loved the dolls, even the ones I couldn't imagine having (or even wanting) like the big fluffy-dressed ones, remember those? ...then graduated to the clothes... not for the dolls, for me!


  7. Oh and I remember an outfit I picked out from that book - thinking back on it, what was I thinking!?! LOL the '70s were clothes-atrocious for me

  8. Hi CF,

    Your post was both poignant and wonderfully evocative of the magic of childhood Christmases. We didn't have the Sears catalogue over here, but most of our clothes and other household needs were purchased in instalments out of its UK equivalent.

    I was not allowed Barbie or Tressy (she of the extruded hair) because their figures were deemed too provocative. Nor was I allowed Tiny Tears, who cried and passed water, because she was deemed too anatomically correct.

    I was, however, allowed a procession of Sindys, who were considered much more appropriately "girl next door"ish. The smell I associate most vividly with Sindy is burning plastic and nylon, for my mother used to pop them under the grill after I washed their hair, with disastrous consequences every time.

    I say "them", because the company replaced the dolls free of charge each time I wrote them a heartrending letter complaining that my mum had gone and melted yet another Sindy's head.

  9. I am wondering if we are similar in age, because I too looked through the Sears catalogue.

    The Best Perfumes For Women As Said By Men

  10. Your post nearly made me cry. I too know all about waiting Christmas for any kind of toys at all. Give your mom all that credit for the new toy smell: Life will feel better.

  11. Poignant and so beautifully expressed, CF.

    I'm sure I must be the same age as you and most of your commenters: I too lusted over the Sears Christmas catalog, and my mother bought us a good many things from it (though, thank goodness, not the whole kit-and-kaboodle that my sisters and I earmarked and checked off for her). I had a red-haired Skipper doll that I loved (now I'm wondering if it was Scooter?), but my favorite gift ever from that catalog was the Mrs. Beasely doll I got when I was too young for Barbie dolls. I thought she was wonderful and took many boring pictures of her with my camera (that I got by sending in so many cereal box tops). Those were the days!

  12. Hey, Mals!

    Yep; whatever else I gripe about, Christmas was mighty nice.

    Yeah, I'd be fine if Mom refrained from reading the blog in order to respect my privacy and so on, but, no, she goes out of her way to state her intent to read it, and then seems to go out of her way to make it clear that she hasn't bothered to read it. So, well, hmph.

    I love your Thunder fantasy. :)

  13. Yo, Musette!

    Yep, I'm still in the "letting go" part. It's fully infiltrated the logic circuits, but the emotional circuits keep trying to rewrite the strategy; I need to get them fully convinced as well.

  14. Howdy, Frida! Yes, I remember one day when, as standard practice, we begged Mom for some gumball machine thing that was, I think, _twenty five cents_, a huge fortune, almost unprecedented in the gumball-machine section of the store, and she _agreed_. It was sort of a "what would the dog do if he caught the car?" moment. It was never repeated, but I'd like to know what was going on with Mom that day.

    I love it that you got the Barbie at the preordained time. :)

  15. Yo, Vanessa!

    Poor Sindy! Poor Vanessa! Did your mother expect a different result each time? Did she fear that Sindy would catch cold?

    I'm a bit surprised that Mom didn't object to Barbie's anatomy - she did, after all, object to Ginger on Gilligan's Island.

  16. Melody! I continue to be startled at the idea of kids getting toys Just Because, not on one of the officially designated Toy Receiving Holidays. For a moment my brain wonders, is it even _legal_ to just head out to Toys R Us on a random Saturday and buy something?

    Yes, I'll give Mom the credit for Christmas.

  17. Heya, Suzanne! What do kids do these days, without the Wish Book? They have the Internet, of course, but it just doesn't seem the same.

    I had Mrs. Beasley, too! She stopped talking very, very early, and could just produce a wordless garble when you pulled her string, but I was very fond of her. In fact, I think that the one childhood snapshot that I have in my possession shows me clutching her. (Mom _did_ send that, in an apparent effort to connect with me. I suppose I should give her some credit for that.)

  18. Well, Mama might not read this, but I hope you are not stunned that I did.

    Christmas was awfully nice when we were little, whether it was at home with Grandma and Grandpa visiting, or in Union City at Aunt Carrie's. I liked it better at home with Grandma and Grandpa but it was good either way. I think Mama was mostly responsible for it, though Daddy certainly was in on it. And we always got a lot of stuff from Grandma and Grandpa, some of it nice, some of it a little odd. But Mama and Daddy usually got us at least a thing or two we really wanted. Since we didn't have much money, Daddy clearly must have been in on deciding what to buy for presents. I don't know if you remember my getting a "Jon Gnagy drawing set." Daddy had a pretty funny story about the complications of finding it. At one point someone at a store asked him "Are YOU Jon Gnagy?" The sad thing about it is that the set was missing a little twistable, abstracted human figure that you were supposed to use as a model. I said that that was okay, it wasn't a big deal, no need to write to anybody to get it. I think I was already used to taking disappointments in stride and shielding Mama and Daddy from them, which of course is not really what a kid is supposed to do. It was more Daddy in that regard, really. You know what that was like, I think.

    Mama has often had good luck with presents for me in my adult life, though not so much in the past few years, which seems forgivable. Every now and then she'd give me a present that made me wonder how she'd come up with the idea. Other times, of course, she's given me a book about something I'm interested in which unfortunately isn't a very good book, or some similar well-intended misfire. And I think she probably has a better handle on my interests than she does on yours. But she's done well enough that I would credit her with most of Christmas.

    Your relationship with Mama was certainly more difficult than mine, just as mine with Daddy was more difficult. We can talk about all this again sometime. It is interesting how some of the things that you say about Mama are very similar to what I think about Daddy, especially the part about not being all that interested in me, at least as an individual. I felt like he was interested in me mainly as a reflection of him.

    You sure seem to remember a lot of things. I feel like my memory is much worse, but of course a lot of the things you talk about are things I never knew. I didn't realize Skipper had a dog named Fateful, though I do remember the alpha male rivalry between Ken and Steve Sunshine, and the time we made up superhero identities for most of your non-baby dolls, and the time Smitty Moore upset you by simulating horrible deaths for a couple of your dolls (George Washington was one of them, I know).

    I miss Mrs. Beasley. Did she just start talking unintelligibly fast all at once, or did she get faster and faster until she just sounded like "Zzzzpt?" She was the Meth Mrs. Beasley!

    I think I've got family disappointments buried down deeper than you do, and of course we've already lost the parent I had the most trouble with. Call me anytime if you'd like to talk some more.

  19. Also, you need more cat pictures.

  20. Hey, Anonymous Sibling! Is it weird that I like communicating with you in the blog? Probably weird, yes. Hey, folks, say howdy to my brother!

    Yes, I'd never really thought of it before, but there was always some pressure to keep his mood up. If I try to imagine him cheerfully taking on the problem of the missing figure, trying to make _you_ feel better and reassure you that it was all under control, I have trouble picturing it; I can imagine him moping and depressed-apologizing and making you feel guilty. He was always so depressed at Christmas anyway; I always felt a certain amount of guilt merely for wanting to have the holiday, as if we ought to relinquish it so that he didn't have to be depressed.

    And, yes, I remember that he was beyond unsupportive of your interests. He took offense at choices that didn't imitate his, as if those choices were all about him instead of you. I never thought of that quite that way before, though I saw the behavior and knew it wasn't right.

    I forgot Smitty Moore! I still can't bring up a face, but I can remember a vague, faded grudge, yep. :) I think Mrs. Beasley became unintelligible rather quickly - the theory was that her string was pulled too fast.

    Rather than bury things, I tend to dig them out, polish them up, and stew over them. :) I suspect that neither is ideal.