The first time I ever spent my very own hard-earned money for something special, I was eight. Having pretty much never paid for anything in my life, I’d saved up quite a few dimes from my weekly 20-cent allowance (earned through such thoroughly backbreaking activities as feeding the dog and setting the dinner table). I spent an evening counting the disgorged contents of my yellow ceramic ducky bank, stacking until I had 17 neat little towers of ten dimes apiece. I was feeling fairly full of myself for having saved such a fortune, quite adult and responsible, and then I begged, badgered, and bugged my mom until she agreed to take me to Toys ‘R Us.
When we finally arrived at that Nirvana of Plastic Kids’ Stuff, I rushed to the Barbie section where I found her: a “Loving You” Barbie Doll. She was the most magnificent Barbie I’d ever seen. Lavishly shod in the equivalent of 6-inch white Stripper Heels, Barbie wore a puff-sleeved, heart-dotted, ankle-length white chiffon gown with a breath-defyingly tight red velvet bodice. She was bedecked in gigantic fake ruby earrings and a matching ring that was, in reality, a plastic red dot on a stick that went through a hole in her hand and got lost in my brown shag carpet within the week. She was a living Valentine with Barbie’s trademark blonde hair in an I-Dream-of-Jeannie ponytail. She was gorgeous and perfect and completely inappropriate for playtime. I absolutely had to have that doll.
Now, this was in 1983, so it was before Barbie was shunned by The United Association of The National Organization of the Committee of Concerned Parents Who Have Nothing Better To Do for being a poor role model for young girls due to her anorexia-inducing freak show of a body. Back then, Barbie was just Barbie. She was whoever I wanted her to be. She was whoever I wanted to be. And as I handed the cashier my zip-lock bag of dimes, she was mine.
I was not a patient child, so Barbie was out of her box somewhere between the checkout line and the fuzzy blue backseat of my mom’s blue 1983 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme (which ultimately became known as “The Blue Bomber” among my high school friends when I inherited what was left of it eight years later). This was well before parents had to listen to increasingly shrill renditions of the “Can-you-open-this?” Waltz all the way home from the toy store because the act of removing a simple toy from a box had not yet started requiring either a Master’s Degree in Engineering or some really heavy duty wire cutters. I was in Barbie heaven.
Although I had other Barbie Dolls, this one was special, and I had her for a very long time. Barbie slept in little shoebox beds I made with Scotch taped headboards and Kleenex canopies, reined over the Land of the Stuffed Animals, and danced with troll-topped pencils I pretended were Ken. She was Mommy to my Weebles, and she taught school to my Smurfs and those little googly-eyed, antenna-sprouting fuzzy things with big sticker-bottomed feet that people used to stick on computer monitors. Barbie could be anything and anyone, and in my vicarious playing, I could be too.
Of course, I never really wanted to be Barbie. In fact, despite my brief childhood fantasies of being a veterinarian (not great for someone who’s allergic to cats and birds) or an astronaut (no idea at 7 how much math was involved in that one), the only things I’ve ever really wanted to be were the very things I am today: a mother and a writer.
As a kid, I loved to write stories and keep journals. I would hole up on a plywood cubbyhole bench in my closet and read for hours, devouring choose-your-own-ending mysteries and Judy Blume books, losing myself in new places and becoming as attached to Ramona Quimby as I was to my beloved pet guinea pig, Fuzzy. It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t spend significant amounts of time writing throughout my life, whether professionally or simply for my personal enjoyment. Writing was simply part of who I was, and as I grew up, it became one of my greatest passions and joys.
The mom part of me, well, that’s a bit different. I obviously wasn’t a mom in elementary school. But I loved that role. I was the mommy when we played house. I tucked my baby dolls and Barbies and teddy bears into bed each night and read story books to our sheepdog/terrier mix, Todo, who had been named by my sister a week after seeing “The Wizard of Oz” on TV when she was three. In high school, I was a babysitter and a camp counselor, always in a nurturing role and drawn to little kids and their fabulously shameless sense of imagination. I suppose, in that sense, they appealed to the writer in me as well. In college, I was still not really a mom, but when my roommate’s ancient teddy bear needed sewing up, the girls all agreed I was the closest thing to a mom they were going to find, so I was elected teddy-bear-surgeon for the day, a role my roommate had previously only entrusted to her mother.
Now, my velvet-draped Princess/Hooker Barbie obviously wasn’t specifically a mom or a writer, but she was mine, so she was in turns a dancer, a teacher, a nurse, and a fairy, but most often a mommy. She fed my writer’s instincts by acting out the stories I created in my mind. She was everything I wanted her to be AND everything I wanted to be, just as I’d hoped when I bought her. And of course, Barbie managed all of these disparate roles with aplomb, never chipping a nail or sprouting a grey hair, always sporting her vapid pageant smile while tucking in my Cookie Monster puppet for the night.
This is what I thought of the other day as I threw yet another Barbie in the kitchen trash, her hands and feet mangled into perforated flesh-colored pancakes by my 6-year-old’s not-so-baby teeth. One of the more puzzling parts of Will’s autism is that he loves to chew on specific types of things. In the absence of pre-approved “chewies” (yes, “they” actually make latex-free, phthalate-free, BPA-free, lead-free rubberized chewing objects for kids with autism who have oral motor fixations, and we have lots of them), Will goes for a now fairly predictable range of objects. A consistent favorite: Julia’s Barbies.
There is something about chewing on Barbie hands and feet that just works for Will. Not designed for chewing, they are eviscerated in 20 seconds flat. I try to keep Julia’s Barbies under protective custody in her room, but they do manage to wander out into the open from time to time like so many horror-movie co-eds investigating odd thumps in supposedly unoccupied houses. Sometimes I can rescue them, but all too often, I come upon that insipid Hefner-girlfriend smile and find it in complete incongruity with the maimed remains of her limbs.
Of all the things Will has destroyed through being a kid with autism or simply being a kid (furniture, curtains, carpets, clothing, iPods, walls…) Barbies are pretty much the most easily replaceable and least expensive. Yet every time I throw one out I feel like I’m letting go of a little piece of who I wanted to be. That perfect mom: The one who does arts and crafts with her kids on rainy days and takes long bike rides with them when it’s sunny. The one whose kids hardly watch TV because reading together and making forts is so much more fun. The one who camps in the backyard and makes s’mores without worrying about the mess. The one who never yells and always has time and is never, ever late. But I’m not that mom. Autism dictates that I just don’t get to be that mom.
Of course, I also don’t get to be a fairy/teacher/astronaut/veterinarian married to Ken (played tonight by “Troll Doll” because no one would buy me a Ken) either, which I can’t say I really regret. But not being a fairy isn’t really something I lose sleep over. Not being a veterinarian or an astronaut or a teacher – not taking those paths was my choice. Not being the kind of mom I want to be … that falls squarely into the category of “things I cannot change and have no control over.” And that one, well, that does keep me up at night. Maybe I should be more enlightened and “let go,” but I’m just not there yet.
So, when I laid the most recent Barbie to rest in the kitchen trashcan, I thought about how autism keeps Barbie from being who she really is, at least in our house. Once she’s mangled, Barbie just isn’t Barbie anymore, or at least she’s not any version of Barbie I ever wanted her to be. And I realized, instead of Barbie being whoever I wanted her to be, she’d become, on the outside, very much the person I feel like some days on the inside: Damaged. Altered. Completely different from anything I’d imagined possible.
The good part is that while Barbie heads out to wait for the weekly trash pickup in her irreparable state, I get to heal. I get to sit here and write and watch my non-pancaked hands fly over the keyboard because I AM a writer, and I AM a mom. I may write about things I never even fathomed I’d have to know about, but I am a writer, just as I set out to be. And when I leave my keyboard, I’ll head out to pick up my kids, because even though I don’t get to be the kind of mom I thought I’d be, I do get to be a mom to two amazing people who make me grateful for their love every single day, and it’s the greatest joy on Earth.
So, Rest In Peace, Barbie. I’m busy playing with my kids.