March 30th, 2010


LJ Idol week 20: Playing House

“Those two don’t like each other, so they have to stay in different rooms of the house.”

My niece is seven years old. I see her on average twice a year since I live in a different state than my brother and his family. But when I do go to their house, she and I always end up in the corner of the finished basement playing with her Barbie dolls.

Sara has a lot of Barbie dolls, along with the convertible, a big house with moveable furniture, and several animal friends. My sister-in-law checks out the garage sales in the summer to add to the collection. (I shudder to think how much all of it would have cost new.) But Sara doesn’t mind that the dolls are previously loved, each new one gets a place in the story.

“He is her brother and this is the guy she likes. You can tell them apart because his eyes are different.”

The story is complex. Some of the dolls are siblings, some rivals; some are dating (whatever that means to a seven year old). At least one gets car sick and so always has to ride the horse if they’re going somewhere else. One of the dolls is officially a grandmother since her daughter has the twin babies, but she looks like she's in her mid-20’s and does nothing but work out - just like all the rest of them.

“She only likes to wear dresses. And he can’t wear anything green.”

There is a huge basket of clothes. I suddenly remember why I was never that into Barbie dolls when I was a kid. The clothes are small and difficult to get on and off. I do enjoy mixing and matching the outfits to put together crazy ensembles that no one would actually wear. Sara just sighs at me, and straightens things out to her liking. Certain skirts and tops have to go together. The non-princess dolls can’t wear princess clothes, and some siblings always need to be in matching outfits.

I know I frustrate Sara when we play. I don’t follow all of the rules, or know the stories. I try to put dresses on boy dolls, or give everyone mismatched shoes. I let her lead the storytelling and costuming as much as possible,though. I remember being seven and needing the world to fit a certain pattern. I remember being the one to correct the adults who were doing things wrong and getting them back on track.

I wonder when things change. Kids, especially once they’ve started school, develop such a sense of how things are ‘supposed’ to be. The social monolith of school reinforces that different is bad. No one escapes it, and seven is only the beginning. It gets worse as we approach high school. When I was in middle school my mom and the neighbor lady walked down Main Street wearing the Halloween masks they had just bought at the sidewalk sale in July. Halloween masks. In July. On Main Street. I was mortified, and they just laughed at me and invited me to be silly with them. But I couldn’t do it; it was too weird and strange.  Even if it did look like fun.

Now I would wear the mask, and probably embarrass my niece. I don’t know exactly when or why I regained the ability to be silly without being afraid of being different. Some people never outgrow the need for everything to be exactly right and ‘normal’, some of us learn to revel in the ridiculous and strange. I know that pushing my niece now won’t change anything, and it’s not worth spoiling the little bit of time we have together. Besides, she still surprises me now and then.

“Okay, now they’re all going to fly to go and get pizza.”
“Well the car and the horse will stay on the ground, but everyone else has to get there too. Only three of them can fly at a time, though. The pizza place is on the corner of the couch.”

I fly the dolls three at a time, wearing their matching outfits, across the room to the corner of the couch for the pizza party. Later that afternoon when Sara is helping her mom bake a cake for dinner, I change all of the dolls’ shoes. I grin knowing that the next time Sara goes down into the corner of the basement to play with her dolls she’s going to shake her head at her crazy aunt and then put them all back, the way they’re supposed to be.

***This is my entry for week 20 of LJ Idol, the topic was ‘playing house’. If there’s a poll this week, I’ll post a link to it when it goes up. ***