Olivia has fallen asleep. I tiptoe quietly around her room picking up naked Barbie dolls from the foot of her bed, the top of her dresser, and the sink of her play kitchen, where a few of them had been bathing. Olivia loves her Barbies; she told me the other day thay she would marry Barbie. I didn’t mention Ken. She’ll find out about the competition soon enough.
The Barbies all have blue eyes and happy, eager-to- please expressions. They always seem to want to do whatever Olivia suggests. And they’re all such good sports even when she throws them head first into the bathtub or dips them in finger paint up to the waist.
The prize of Olivia’s collecton is Mermaid Barbie. She, like all her sisters, is 12 inches tall with thick blond hair that falls to her waist. Mermaid Barbie wears a bikini top made up of light blue iridescent clam shells and a long diaphanous blue skirt which fans out at the bottom into a crisp pair of pleated fins. They cover her tiny feet (toes pointed down as if supported by invisible high heels) and give the illusion that she is half-Barbie, half-fish when she is really all Barbie.
She is a siren, calling to her all the little girls who play at our house. They want to see the blue and pink streaks in her hair disappear when she swims in warm water and reappear when she swims in cold.
Olivia’s play with her Barbies consists chiefly of undressing them. She can’t quite get the hang of putting their clothes back on. So at the end of the day, I gather up the naked Barbies and their ball gowns, bathing suits, high heels, fins and pedal pushers, and bring them to the couch. I’ve learned from my daughter’s example to care for these friends of hers, and I do for them what she herself has not learned to do. I straighten out their limbs, untangle their hair and begin dressing them, carefully choosing their outfits and adding accessories. I’m absorbed in my work. I enjoy making the decisions — Olivia’s the boss during the day. She is leading me down a path wondrous and strange to me, for I never had Barbies of my own.
My twin brother and I were born one minute apart. He came first̬I followed. We spent most of our childhood in the same configuration. He was the flagship of our small fleet, I his loyal rear guard. Anything Michael did, played with, or wore I had to do, play with, and wear too. So my mother bought two of everything: two sets of Mickey Mouse ears, two straw cowboy hats, two white-handled cowboy pistols, two stick hobbyhorses with leather bridles and reins to be ridden around the range of our backyard.
We twins were my mother’s first children and up until the time I arrived she’d been under the impression that little girls wore frilly dresses, hosted tea parties, and played with dolls. It was especially painful for her when one of my aunts or my grandmother foolishly presented me with a doll. Without the least twinge of remorse I’d toss it aside in favor of whatever truck or power tool kit my brother had just received. The explanation for my heartless behavior was simple: “Michael doesn’t play with dolls.”
On our sixth birthday, after the singing of Happy Birthday and the eating of innumerable pieces of birthday cake, we were given our presents. I opened my box to find a beautifully dressed bride doll. My mother had commissioned it to be made especially for me by a woman in her office. The doll was one of a kind and had been named Julia by her creator. Michael got a toy gas station with cars, a pick-up truck, two attendants and water-filled gas pumps that really worked.
I don’t remember much about the way Julia looked. She had a long gauzy white veil held in place on her blond head by a comb with pearls on it. Her white scratchy dress winked at me from tiny crystal beads sewn all over it. It looked and felt like the dreaded dress I’d be making my First Holy Communion in later that year. Julia had white gloves, white shoes and she carried a small white purse with a rose on it.
As I took her from her beautiful scented wrappings I felt my mother’s tense, hopeful gaze on me. She didn’t seem to breathe. Even at six I sensed the enormous strength of her longing for me to cherish this doll.
I spent a few minutes turning Julia slowly in my hands, seeing all of her. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Michael setting up his gas station in the living room.
I hugged Julia and felt her veil scratch my face and tickle my nose. I held her close and smiled painfully while my Aunt took a picture. Michael, I noticed, had gone to the kitchen to fill the gas pumps with water.
I tried to speak to the doll but I couldn’t figure out anything to say so after opening her little purse to see if it contained money, I sat her carefully on the chair next to me and told her I’d be right back. Without looking at my mother again I popped up and made a beeline for the now up and running gas station. Michael and I spent the rest of the afternoon filling gas tanks, checking oil, and forcing the attendents to drink “gasoline” and die. Julia continued to sit forlorn and neglected at the dining room table.
Years later, my aunt told me that after clearing the table and saying goodbye to my Godparents, my mother took Julia upstairs to her room. She held her in her arms and cried for a long time. Then she put the beautiful handmade doll away in the closet. I never asked where she was.
I think of that sixth birthday party as I pick out a lovely maroon and gold tea gown for Dance and Twirl Barbie to wear this evening. I slide the puffy tulle sleeves, gold bodice, and petticoat-layered skirt over her body and satisfy myself that all the seams are straight. I fit her tiny maroon high heels on her perfect little feet and I see my mother’s face across the dining room table — achy amidst the party favors, hats, and birthday cake. I hug the Barbie I’m dressing to show my long-dead mother what I’ve learned about love. Then I place Barbie on the couch with her sisters — stylish and ready for tomorrow’s play.