February 3, 2010

Barbie's Dream House

I had a Barbie’s Dream House once. An original, first-ever, Model No. 816 Barbie’s Dream House, made of die-cut fiberboard that had to be assembled in 119 not-so-easy steps. I got it for Christmas in 1966. 

It hadn’t been on my Christmas list, a masterful document, each item carefully culled from the Sears Wishbook. I had wanted many things, but none more than Color Magic Barbie (page 625) whose hair and clothing changed colors when painted with the magic solution. (Refills sold separately.) Barbie’s Dream House wasn’t even in the catalog. (I know; I’ve checked.) And yet, there it was, under the tree on Christmas morning. To say I was disappointed is like saying that the Great Chicago Fire was a flash in the pan.

In fairness to that right jolly old elf and those helper elves known as my parents, 1966 might have been the year that we went to see Santa not at Livonia Mall, where my dad sold tires at Sears, or at Hudson’s department store downtown, whose windows were a marvel, but at Detroit’s Cobo Hall, where the main attraction might actually have been the stories-tall snowman slide that we climbed in order to whisper our secrets into the fat man’s ear. Apparently everyone in the greater Detroit area had brought their kids to see Santa, as the place rang with sounds of the season: whiny, tired, bored, hungry, excited-to-the-point-of-mania children.

I am certain that my little brother and I did not whine about being hungry, tired or bored. Or, if we did -- it was a very long line -- and if a look from Mom did immediately silence our complaints, the very real threat to take us home, right then, without seeing Santa, would have. When we say, in my family, that Mom was “good with” children, what we mean is that she was good with discipline, with setting boundaries and enforcing consequences. She was not overly patient with cranky. Perhaps she secretly hoped for some misbehavior that would warrant our early departure, but as it was “jest 'fore Christmas,” we were all as good as good could be.

Still, the hall was so full, the line so long and the stairs so high that by the time my brother and I reached the North Pole, Santa had little time and less patience. 

The visit went something like this: 


And with no time for anything but regrets, down I slid, with flash-blinded eyes and the leaden-heart certainty that I had failed to draw Santa’s limited attention to the most critical item on my list. He had assured me that he would read the entire thing, but his “Yeah, yeah. Next!” did not inspire me with confidence. I suspected that, this year, being good was not going to be enough.

On Christmas morning, I ripped open a package that said “From Santa” in my mother’s handwriting and revealed several sheets of what I took to be cardboard, which my father, never a handy man, had to put together. Better than a lump of coal, but just barely. I don’t remember the assembly process, except that the closet rod was somehow not included, and the whole enterprise came to a screeching halt while we waited for Montgomery Ward to send a replacement.

I find the whole Montgomery Ward thing suspect: We never bought anything from Montgomery Ward. We got everything at Sears – school shoes, Sunday clothes, a washer, a dryer, a portable dishwasher, flowerdy everyday dishes, and a turquoise stove and refrigerator that survived two moves and three states. We even got a dog there - a standard poodle Dad found in the parking lot when he sold tires in Atlanta. (He named her Matilda.)

Why, then, would my main present have come from Montgomery Ward? Why would anyone even think to give me something not on my list?

No doubt the Barbie Dream House was my mother’s idea. She was the main gift-giver and sole gift-wrapper and – no offense to my father – the one most likely to know her children’s likes and dislikes. It was the '60s; fathers went to work, mothers stayed home and, unless great trouble or major rejoicing had occurred, the men were not always privy to the day’s details. For once not privy to our conversations with Santa, maybe my mother drew her own conclusions about our Christmas wishes. Maybe she saw Barbie’s Dream house advertised on TV. Maybe she wanted me to have a doll house because, as she once told me, she had always wanted one. Years later, she and I briefly considered buying a doll house kit -- a Victorian, perhaps -- for which we would choose wallpaper and floor coverings, select furniture, and arrange tiny occupants.

I wish we had. Mom started losing her memory, and herself, nearly thirty years ago, when I was barely out of my teens, and died in 1994. We did so little together, really. I like the idea that she gave me, in Santa’s name, something that she would have loved. Something she thought I would love. Something that I did come to love.

But that came later. On that Christmas morning in 1966, I had great skepticism about Barbie’s Dream House. I was only six; it looked like no dollhouse I had ever seen; and I was still mourning the loss of Color Magic Barbie. I didn’t even have a real Barbie yet. That house might have been Barbie’s dream -- or even my mother’s -- but it wasn’t mine.


  1. This brings back many memories. I love the references to the Wishbook, a standard feature in every household around Christmas. I always wanted an Easy Bake Oven, never got one, and later bought one for my girls. Once the mixes were gone it was nothing more than a plastic box with a light bulb. Perhaps my mother was right after all. Sometimes the things we think we want and need aren't really all that important in hindsight.

  2. We used to circle items in the Wishbook, fold over the pages, dream and sigh over it for months; and then never get anything from it. :P

    I would love to see a turquoise stove and fridge though! They'd look right at home nowadays!

  3. Maybe the things we want aren't all that important in hindsight...but the memories they create are. I loved loved loved my Easy Bake oven. I think the first thing I made was a birthday cake for my cat, Simple. I was disappointed that I couldn't offer him cherry, which is what Mom always made for our birthdays, but I did the best I could. He was not terribly interested in the tidbit we offered him, but the rest of us enjoyed it. Or pretended to. Another early offering: biscuits. Apparently I wouldn't let Mom serve them for dinner because my dad had to work late, and I wanted him to share in my first biscuits. Those early culinary adventures did not translate to a love of cooking today, though. So maybe you were better off. :>

  4. Kelly--Do you remember when the Wishbook included Dennis the Menace cartoons? Sprinkled throughout the pages, they were an excellent way to ensure that we looked at every page.

    You can see a turquoise refrigerator at http://www.samsprophouse.com/SDC10379.JPG. It looks very much like ours did, except that we had a bottom-mount freezer.

  5. Ah, Memory Lane. . .I, too, had a Barbie Dream House, but it was the late 70s, someone's garage sale castoff, missing pieces and smelling of other Barbies and Kens escapades, and it was a 3 story penthouse monstrosity, with cardboard floors, plastic connectors, and a yellow plastic elevator with a string to pull it to the top. I kept it forever. For the children I never had, and when I took it out when my nieces finally got old enough to play with it, there were decades old mouse feces in the decades old plastic garbage bags, which had insufficiently preserved Barbie's Dream House for the next generation. I'm laughing now, thinking of the day I proudly disentombed it, after moving it at least twice from one house to another to another, and my sister, moving her daughter away from the disassembled Dream House, which never again held a swank Barbie party, because the exterminator proclaimed it a lost cause. My Barbie Dream House was condemned!

  6. Personally, I like Francie better than Barbie but I looked more like Skipper. ;)

    My daughter (16) just sold all her Barbie dolls at a Yard Sale. The whole enormous lot for $25 (all shoes in pairs & everything perfect)dolls, clothes, houses, horses, etc...

    Daughter just said that the dolls had made her smile and she hoped this little girl would love them too.


  7. Kate, what a sweet thing for your daughter to say. Personally, I'm impressed that the shoes were all still in pairs. :>

  8. Kris, your comment is itself a little essay. Decades-old mouse feces, smelling of other people's Kens and Barbies. Love "swank," and "monstrosity," and "disentombed."