My grandfather began selling toys to local stores right around the time Mattel hit its stride. I don’t know who he knew, but he knew someone. I got to demonstrate Chatty Cathy at the International Toy Show in New York – she’s the doll who spoke when you pulled the string on the back of her neck. I never knew anyone else who owned one. My sister and I got the first Barbie before she was in stores. We also got the best new outfits: Barbie’s white satin dress with red velvet top. Her powder blue velvet slacks and knit sweater. The bluejean clamdiggers and red checkered top. That sexy yellow sheath.
I had mixed feelings about Barbie. But I loved her clothes. I loved the furniture even more. Mattel Modern was made from wood, with grasscloth trim and upholstered cushions. Each piece came in its own box, with a “Designed & Imported by Mattel” label on the side. Everything about it was magical to me. How it looked and felt. How each piece fit its box, snugly. You had to pull it out and put it back with exquisite care.
I knew it was precious, rare, a privilege to own. Not privilege in the way it’s finally in the conversation, but as special, not to be taken for granted. When it was time to clean out our childhood home, my sister and I both wanted the furniture. I got it. The taped-up boxes have lived in my basement – three basements – ever since. Now my husband and I are moving. We’re lucky, privileged to be starting a new chapter. So I’m sending the Mattel Modern to my sister. She still has a basement. She’ll be thrilled.
Before I packed it up, I pulled it out one more time. I fit headbaord to bed frame and mirror to dresser. I slid the doors on the buffet and converted the day bed into a sofa. A few pieces are broken, but they’re all in better shape than Ken. Barbie’s gone. She left him without mattress and sheets, forcing him to look at her ever chic leggings – she wears footless now. But Barbie isn’t the only one who was mean to Ken. Maybe my sister remembers why we rubbed most of the hair from his head.
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A few years ago I reconnected with my first best friend. We met in kindergarten and were inseparable until junior high. These days we often talk about our friendship, how it shaped our perceptions of the world. Her most vivid memory of us, is Barbie. It was magical to her, too. She didn’t have anything like it. Of course she wanted to play.
But the Barbie stuff, to her, was also a symbol of wealth. Her memory is that I rarely wanted to play and she could never understand why. The truth is, I like playing outside more. So did she. Truth is also that I sensed her feelings and they embarrassed me. Barbie was my embarrassment of riches. So I played with my sister, not my best friend.
But what a privilege to play with the furniture again.