I hadn’t ever seen myself as particularly effeminate until a boy in 8th grade said in a snarky teenage boy tone:
“I bet you played with dolls when you were a kid, didn’t you?”
My response was either “Kiss my grits!” or “Whatch’you talkin’ ’bout, Willis?” (depending on which sitcom I had been devoting myself to at that time).
I immediately took offense since I assumed he was referring to baby dolls: the kind whose eyes opened and closed creepily when you flipped them over. If you have any experience with these unholy creatures, you know that oftentimes, one eye closed and the other didn’t – especially if your cousin had tried feeding a slice of pizza to the doll’s cornea.
Then there were those enchanted baby dolls that bellowed an equally eerie, “Mama!” when you flipped them over. The little sadist in me used to throw those baby dolls around to see if the vocal timbre would change to one of suffering. No dice. At the most, it would crack and stammer, but no audible pain was detected. Needless to say, I never pictured myself as a future mother.
However, since I rode my Pink Panther bike like a demon, I took his ‘girly’ accusation as an insult. Just as I considered lifting my leg to commence kicking the crap out of the kid, my thoughts turned to the hours, weeks, and even years spent in front of my dollhouse. I loved putting my dolls to bed, setting their table for breakfast, and reorganizing the chaos that remained after my little sister had wreaked her unique brand of destruction on the house in my absence. It was after one particularly destructive episode of Tornado Tara that I decided the place needed new management.
The Brown Family came with the house and their surname was as uninteresting as they were. Had they been named the “Dungworths,” or “Turdsmells” I might have coddled them out of pity. A stale white-bread, 4-person family with beady eyes, brown plastic painted-on hair and non-removable clothes, the entire family also had very few moving parts. The son and daughter had particularly frail limbs and I wondered if they had been hospitalized just prior to ending up in my dollhouse.
Taking any of the family members up the stairs inside the doll house was a dreaded chore. My tiny wrist would either have to twist painfully, or risk the decapitation of the ascending family member. One can imagine that their headlessness at any given point would put an abrupt halt to my imagination. When Mr. Brown saw Mrs. Brown at the top of the stairs without her head, he’d almost had a coronary and landed in the hospital hundreds of miles away in the bathroom of our real house. No one liked that, least of all my mom when she stepped on him in the dark in her bare feet.
Eventually, when my 8-year old self realized that Strawberry Shortcake (yes, THE Strawberry Shortcake) could turn the place into a guesthouse and earn some money, the Browns were unceremoniously relocated to a dilapidated shoebox in a lower-income area of the closet.
Even as a child, I knew I was fortunate to have that dollhouse. It was a treasure, particularly since my grandparents had put it together themselves. They purchased the plywood kit and sat at their kitchen table day after day for weeks in their South Side Scranton home, gluing their fingers and their nerves together. I am quite certain it was all my Grandma’s idea. Thankfully, my grandfather had retired from his job as a company controller just in time to bond with a copious amount of wood glue.
The house itself was large for a dollhouse with 10 rooms and 2 bathrooms. It had a sizable but broken-up kitchen. (Although I myself enlarged it by removing a supporting wall about a year later. The fundamental concepts of building construction clearly eluded me at that age, since the 2nd floor eventually began to collapse in on the kitchen. I’d saved the wall and was able to reinstall it half-assedly. So, if any one of the residents bumped it, the wall itself was a goner and the individual sustained injuries sufficient to land them in the bathroom hospital.)
The inhabitants of the doll house could access a garden of carpeting out back, and all were able to entertain themselves with a piano in the parlor. No television existed in the house. I don’t recall forbidding it, I just couldn’t find a made-for-dollhouse television set.
As the Building Manager, Strawberry faced her own set of problems. She rented the rooms to her friends, and learned early on that sharing living quarters strains relationships. All of the renters hailed from Strawberry Land, and I daresay my bedroom was a step down from what they were used to. In any case, the demand for fresh fruit was on the wane, as it was rapidly being replaced by artificial colors and fruit leather in the United States at that time. Hence, the overall state of the market required them to sell their individual homes and co-habitate in Northeast PA.
Blueberry Muffin and Lime Chiffon shared a room with bunk beds on the 2nd Floor West Wing, while Raspberry Tart had her own room right next door (for reasons that shall remain undisclosed here). Huckleberry Pie and Lemon Meringue occupied the 2 East Wing bedrooms. Strawberry slept up in the attic (as it provided the best view), and had her own personal bathroom there. Apple Dumpling and Apricot were orphans who slept on the floor in the piano room out of the goodness of Strawberry’s heart. However, they had many chores to do and they accomplished each one barefoot.
The friends shared one vehicle (a Jeep I’d borrowed from my brother’s G.I. Joe set), and oftentimes the friends wanted to use the automobile at the same time. This created palpable tension. On any given day, bold dolls like Raspberry Tart might even defy the house rules and drive all the way down the hallway of the big people house looking for a party. (Unbeknownst to her, a very real threat existed with our dog at that time. If he found a doll, he would chew on it with his razor sharp puppy teeth until its face was punctured, slimy, and unrecognizable). I barely let the dolls out of my room for that reason. Most of the dollhouse furniture had already borne the scars of my pup’s seemingly relentless need to chew.
In the house itself, Strawberry also had to deal with the fact that each doll had it’s own smell. The cacophony of odors could be nauseatingly overpowering at times. Sadly, the fake plastic windows glued onto the house did not open. One time in a fit of rage over the constant smell of burnt meringue, Huckleberry Pie knocked a window out. Thankfully, I was at basketball practice when that happened.
The overabundance of girls and the scarcity of boys was a constant issue. Most of the girls were secretly vying for the attention of Huckleberry Pie – while he pined only for Blueberry Muffin. The only other male in town was Purple Pieman, and he was unpleasant with his twisted mustache, pie breath, and purple-flavored pies. Pieman was 7 feet tall, even without his toque and only weighed about 97.9 plastic pounds (in human proportions).
Suddenly, the very essence of obnoxious broke in on my daydream:
“So, did you play with dolls or not?“
After fondly reminiscing, I smiled to myself, unhinged my knee, threw a nasty look at the 8th grade boy who badly needed a shower, and strode away, forever embracing my uber-girliness.