When I was growing up, you only had one. Mine had the blonde pony tail and those bubbly bangs, and came dressed in a slim, gray skirt topped by a knitted, dark orange shell and matching cardigan. That cardigan had perfect gold buttons that really buttoned. The shoes, of course–open-toed pumps of torture. (How many of those shoes did I deviously, deliberately vacuum up twenty years later? My daughters were much more careless as children.) It was the only Official Barbie outfit I ever owned–after that it was all discount knock-offs and clothes I made myself, from sewing remnants my grandmother gave me–and so I especially cherished the accessories it came with: the wooden bowl of yarn, the silver knitting needes, the scissors that really worked.
My mother bought me my Barbie, chose that outfit. I wish I could ask her if she remembered, and why she picked it over, say, Suburban Shopper or Roman Holiday or, outfit of my dreams, Solo in the Spotlight, with its glittery black evening gown, pink chiffon stole and long, slinky black gloves. My mother never felt it necessary to express any opinion about Barbie, the way I did to my girls, yet she chose me a working girl model, not an air head or a diva. She also made me take short-hand and typing in high school, so I’d always have “something to fall back on”. When I was younger, I actually loved to play Secretary. I’d sit at a table, scribbling on yellow note pads, pretending to answer phones. My favorite thing was to buzz the boss and tell him someone was here to see him. My favorite character on “Madmen” is, of course, Peggy, but I have a soft spot for all those sweet receptionists in their bow-blouses and costume jewelry.
Alice McDermott–it’s time to re-read her. Her childhood was a mirror of mine–the Irish Catholic odyssey from the Bronx out to Long Island. Reading her novel “That Night” was a blow to the heart. Oh Sheryl! After I grew out of my secretary phase, she was the girl I secretly–very secretly–longed to be. Or at least, I longed to be loved the way she was–insanely, against all odds, the kind of love that makes a boy stand on your front lawn and howl your name in the dark. The scene where Sheryl sits with a younger neighborhood girl, and, for just a few minutes, plays Barbies, is a killer. Her own childhood is still so tangible–to dress your doll, to make her into a princess or a bride or a rock star! Sheryl remembers that, yearns for it, even as her own possibilities and power slip away. Such a tender, brutal depiction of what growing-up-girl can be like.
Sometimes when I’m writing, when I’m saying the lines of dialogue out loud but softly, to myself, I remember playing Barbies in the backyard with my girlfriends.