I received my first Barbie doll for my sixth birthday. She was a Miss America doll, complete with short brunette hair in an up-do, a gold bodice on a white chiffon skirt, a red velvet cape trimmed in white fur, plus a tiara, bouquet of roses, silver scepter, and jaunty sash that declared her the winner. I had never seen a more beautiful doll in my life, and I was ecstatic.
Barbies vs Baby Dolls, the Beginning
Thus began the Battle of the Grandmothers. My mother’s mom, Lois, was a creative free spirit who could decorate, landscape, and artfully arrange things at a level found in Better Homes and Gardens magazine. Standing barely five foot two, she’d wear tight white pants and heeled sneakers to clean out a shed. She would also surreptitiously take me out of school so we could play, just the two of us, much to my mother’s chagrin. My early gifts from my grandmother were cute and innocent, like the cowboy mug whose hat snapped on to make a lid. A straw poked through the hat allowing me to drink my milk, but that all changed when Lois learned that my father’s mother, Ruth, thought Barbie dolls were inappropriate toys for little girls.
Ruth was the devout daughter of missionaries, the seventh child after six boys. She was over five foot ten and was raised in Korea, where she always felt like a giant. She met my grandfather at church while she was studying nursing at Cal Berkeley. He was studying to become a dentist, and when he graduated, she gave up her nursing career to be the stay-at-home doctor’s wife, hosting luncheons for other wives and pursuing her own passions on the side. She was incredibly gifted, able to play piano concertos and create the most magnificent paintings in oil pastels. She also firmly believed that girls should play with baby dolls in order to learn to be good mothers someday. Thus, my gifts from her were the most amazing lifelike babies you can imagine. I had ones that would cry when tipped over, ones that would take a bottle and wet themselves, and ones that could talk and grow their hair.
I couldn’t have cared less. These baby dolls were the size of actual infants, and Ruth purchased real infant wear for them, even knit them little booties and sweaters. Being an obedient and people pleasing child, I always cooed over them and played with them to make her happy, but once home, they went up on the high shelf in my closet. My Barbie dolls, on the other hand, were in a well-used plastic tub on my floor.
One day, when Ruth came to visit, I showed her my Miss America Barbie. She pursed her lips and said it was outrageous how young women were prancing around on stage in their swimwear and being judged based on their height, weight, and measurements in order to win a scholarship. Looking back, she made a good point, but all I saw was her disapproval. I thought Miss America Barbie was pretty, and I loved her long gown and high heels. I had since received a Quick Curl Barbie and a Pretty Changes Barbie who had hair pieces and this sunshiny yellow outfit, and I played with them and talked about them constantly.
I don’t remember who told Lois about Ruth’s reaction to my Barbie dolls, probably my mother, but I do know that I was suddenly swimming in Barbies and all their accoutrements due to Lois’ generosity. I had the Barbie Corvette, which was a sleek pink convertible, the Barbie Country Camper with its tiny convertible table/bed and mini fridge, and even the Barbie Airplane which folded out from a suitcase-like shape into the split open cabin of a Boeing jet. That last one caused a row between my mother and Lois. They argued loud and long, my mother saying Lois was doing this only to provoke Ruth, and Lois gleefully admitting that’s exactly what she was doing, but she had her reasons, too. She said, “Today’s girls should practice being teenagers and young, unmarried women, for God’s sake. Lighten up!”
My mother was a reformed hippy and had nothing to really preach on the matter of how young women should behave. So, she relented and would sew outfits for my Barbie dolls. One time, she made my Barbie a long, fitted black and white gown with white fur trim at the bell-shaped base. She also sewed white rabbit fur into the softest, most luxurious coat imaginable, and of course then said to keep it a secret from Ruth.
Unaware, Ruth began her own campaign of swaying my doll loyalties to something more wholesome by buying me more and more babies to play with and accompanying them with doll buggies, bassinets, and other items. Threatened by my mother, I hid all my Barbies and brought out a baby doll whenever Ruth was present, and it wasn’t a chore. My favorite of them was Baby Tender Love who could drink, wet, and squeak.
When I was in my late teens, I sold all my baby dolls at a flea market and received top dollar for them, because they were in almost new condition.
Lois died when I was seven. My memories of her are solid gold, like the wedding ring she gave me months before she died. I wore it on my pinky finger until it no longer fit, and I passed it on to my eldest daughter when she was old enough to appreciate it. In my treasured belongings, I still have a few of my Barbie dolls, including Pretty Changes Barbie, who reminds me of my vibrant grandmother.
When I was twenty five and pregnant with my eldest daughter, Ruth died. I had saved all the clothes she bought for my baby dolls those many years ago, and my daughter wore them as an infant. She also wore all the baby clothes my grandmother had purchased and saved to give me “someday” when I had my first child. They were presented to me at my baby shower, and I cried my eyes out.
My daughters never played with dolls. They preferred Beanie Babies, and I often smile and wonder what my grandmothers would have thought of this turn of events. Odds are good they would have finally agreed about something.