Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Art of Dressing Barbie

My mother was an excellent seamstress, a skill I never had the talent, interest, or patience to acquire. (It took me all year and many tantrums to finish the gathered apron in my junior high home-ec class, when all the other girls finished that, the peasant blouse, and the gathered skirt to boot.) My mother, though, could turn a bolt of cloth into anything, from a fitted suit with flattering darts and covered buttons to pleated draperies and matching bedspreads.

But mom's special talent -- or at least the one I valued most when I was a child -- was Barbie doll clothes. My sisters and I had the most fashionable Barbies in town, outfitted in exquisite hand-sequined gowns, sleek satin sheaths, and hand-knit sweaters fastened with buttons no bigger than a lentil. She even made plaid pajamas and a robe for Ken. (This was long before Barbie dumped Ken for an Australian surfer dude, who wouldn't be caught dead in flannel pjs.)

My Barbie’s favorite party gown was a blue strapless number with scalloped flounces held up with tiny rosebuds. If the evening was chilly, she could throw on the matching satin-lined coat, which closed with miniature pearl buttons. (I got rid of my Barbies years ago, so my nieces gave me one from their vast collection to model the dress, which, like most of the other clothes, is now sadly worse for the wear.)

I always felt smugly sorry for my friends, whose Barbies had to wear ill-fitting, poorly-stitched store-bought clothes. Later, after my mother began selling some of her creations, other girls in town also could dress their Barbies in hand-made originals.

Mom sold the outfits so she could buy my father gifts with her own money. These gifts were usually things like
boxes of chocolate covered cherries (dad's favorite candy) or bottles of Old Spice, but sometimes she used her earnings to buy him original oil paintings. I have one of these paintings, a landscape by Colorado artist Lyman Byxby. Mom paid $40 for it. My sister has the other paintings, including my favorite, a bold, abstract city scape. I wonder how many tiny dresses, how many hours spent cutting and stitching, these paintings represent.

For much of my life, I was dismissive of my mother's talents. I could justify my behavior by claiming that I saw her skills as mere "women's work" at a time when I was all about rebelling against the status quo in general and my family in particular. And there is some truth to that. But this explanation feels a bit too easy, a bit too neat. The messy reality is that for most of my life I was not a nice person.
I was self-centered and tempermental, a bridezilla without the excuse of a wedding. And my mother was the most frequent target of my anger.

Even in Baby Boomer America, the land of perpetual adolescence, it took me longer than most to grow up. Looking back at the younger me isn't easy, and as I write my memoir, I often find myself sinking into depression. But these well-used doll clothes have made me feel a bit better. They have reminded me of several long-forgotten conversations I had with my mother. I don't remember the details, but I do remember letting her know how much I cherished the doll clothes, the fanciful birthday cakes, and the other things she made for me. And for that I am very grateful.


  1. Great looking back post and the photos of the doll clothes are beautiful. Guess we all have mixed feelings about our memories of growing up. I locked most of mine down deep inside and tried never to spend much time with them. I've learned to live with them, but sometimes I realize there are still lots of old wounds that are painful.

  2. Aww Frankie. I think most of us were monsters when we were kids and I think it's all part of the growing up. A little bit of psycho-babble here, but kids are meant to be self-centered. What matters is that we can look back as adults and see it.

    I was never into dolls when I was growing up, but the dresses look awesome!

  3. Thanks guys. I can easily forgive myself for being self-centered at 8, but 25 is another story. And I was more than merely self-centered; I was downright mean, especially to mom. I haven't yet posted those stories, partly b/c they are chapters of a memoir I hope to publish, and I guess partly b/c it's hard to share things that I'm not exactly proud of. I hear you, Sylvia, about not digging into old wounds, but for some reason I feel compelled to go there. It's been incredibly hard and amazingly freeing to write about these things. But I'm not sure I would recommend it as a hobby!

  4. Frankie, this post strikes a chord inside me. I was the rebellious teen and a heartache to my mom. I guess everybody has had been mean to their mommies at some point in their lives. Its just the way of life. And then when you turn 30 or 40, you suddenly realize that moms were the best thing you ever had in your lives. And that's the way of life too. And then we wish we could re-live our adolescence and not me so mean to our mommies.
    Life sucks, for most part!

  5. Lak, thank you so much. It really helps knowing I'm not the only one who feels this way, and who woke up in her 30s and 40s. I, too, was the rebellious kid. And I had a vicious temper, made worse by a medical/psychological problem. Since going on anti-depressants 20 years ago, I'm like a different person. (In a good way; I'm not an emotionless Zombie like some anti-depressant critics would claim.) My family also had a lot of problems with alcoholism. Al-Anon saved my life...and my relationship with mom.(I now realize she was an alcoholic and was depressed for most of her life.)

    Lak, I hope life doesn't really suck for you. There is so much light and wonder in the world, even in the darkest times. (Well, maybe not in the midst of my worst depression, when I couldn't even get out of bed for months. Thank God I got help.) Are you in any kind of place like that?

  6. Your posts always get me teared up! You seem like you've turned into a lovely person. I was a pretty mean all the way through my 20's. I need to call my mom more...

    I left you long message on my blog. No need to worry about me:)

  7. Frankie, looks like you've been through a lot in life. *My hugs*
    I'm so glad to know that you got help at the right time.
    All my problems were self-created ones. I had a great childhood and my parents, for most part, were great parents. I don't think you know much about very conservative Indian parents, do you? In India, being a rebellious teen is an absolute NO-NO. I was one and this caused a great distress to my parents and they in turn despised me for that. They had too much of expectations from me and i failed them. I wish they understood me better. But i forgive them for their ignorance. I love them very dearly and miss them now more than i ever did. They live in India.
    It's just that i don't fit in with the regular crowd. I'm so different from others. I despise materialistic possesions. I want a bigger meaning of life rather than the day-to-day existence. I'm at the cross roads of spiritual quest with absolutely no convincing answers. I'm a confused soul. I'm looking for peace within me and not finding it makes me frustrated. So, life does sucks sometimes. Although its for reasons different than the usual ones.