BARBIE & ME
We had made a trip to Yonkers the previous Thanksgiving, to visit Mom's family and Cassandra's grandparents. Maybe enough blood had gone over the dam and we would get to know some of our relatives. Maybe with Dad out of the picture, Mom could let down her pride and begin to mend some fences. Maybe it was just time. We traveled on an airplane, changing planes in Chicago. The trip took all day. Cassandra was very excited to see the Thomases, her dad's parents and his sister, Aunt Betty. I was more interested to learn that I would meet my grandfather McElroy. I didn't know what to expect.
We stayed at Granddad Thayer's. He looked just like the photo Mom kept of him on her dresser. Stern. Dignified. He let us run wild all over the house. "This is the house Mom grew up in," we reminded each other. "This is the banister she slid down. This is the bed where she slept. This is the attic she played in." Oh, the attic. It was filled with three generation's worth of family treasures. I couldn't imagine growing up your whole life in one house. We had already moved so many times I lost count. Even Mom couldn't keep track.
"These are Mommy's baby clothes," we marveled. "This is her old sled." The house was tall and thin and dark but very elegant. Everything was old. Granddad Thayer's younger sister lived with him, to help take care of him. Her name was Anna and we called her Aunt Anna Banana which she did not seem to mind. We sat in shocked silence to see all the china and silverware and cups and glasses they used at every meal. Imagine, a cup and a glass both for each person, at the same time. How extraordinary. We watched closely to see if he really did chew each bite of food one hundred times. Jimminey, it's true. He did! Meals took a long time. Mom chatted about people we didn't know and places that no longer existed.
Cassandra went to stay with the Thomases, just around the corner. They seemed even more formal and correct. Lucy Thomas had an old hand-crank phone hanging on the wall in her kitchen. I spent all my time trying to figure out how to make up an excuse to use it. I was dashed to find out it was ornamental, having been replaced by a little blue item called a Princess phone. Too bad. I felt like I was living in a movie and I could just see myself cranking the handle and telling the operator, "Connect me to Jone's Pharmacy, please."
Cassandra was in seventh heaven. She made a pilgrimage to Arlington Cemetery to view her father's grave. She was very dramatic. She took flowers and came back with picture post cards. I still thought she was pretty lucky to have her Dad safely dead, in heaven or elsewhere, away from the thick of things were he could do no wrong. She slept in her father's bed and looked at his clothes and belongings in the attic. All of us were pretty surprised to see how rich our relatives appeared to be. Not a trailer camp in sight. Mom took us to the Museum of Natural History to look at the bones. We saw the Empire State Building. Radio City Music Hall. Central Park. Mom took the little kids to the Bronx Zoo where, gushing to them, "Oh look at the great big lions!" she was chided by a passing beatnik. "Oh, cool it with the mommy bit," which amused her endlessly and also about halfway pissed her off. The nerve. What business was it of his?
We met Mom's brother and sister and their kids. One of my cousins cheats at hide-and-go-seek. Another one doesn't know how to share her paper dolls. One was fat and did nothing but eat which we thought was pretty funny. Mom told us not to laugh at him or make jokes. We tried to be nice. One of the cousins has seizures, kinda like Cassandra. How strange. She was a real live wire, though. One of our cousins was smart and sarcastic and sassy. I liked her best. She wasn't mean at all but boy could she get the zingers in.
Finally I was schlepped over to the McElroy's place in Dobb's Ferry. They lived in a hot, cramped apartment. Grandma Phoebe was dying on the sofa in the living room where she has been enjoying ill health for decades. Grandad McElroy looked a lot like Dad, with white hair. He was big and loud and hearty and kept everyone happy. He played the ukulele and sang a bunch of songs I never heard in my life. He obviously liked cooking, too, just like Dad, and he put out quite a spread. There were a bunch of people I didn't know, most of whom were related to me somehow. "So, you are Pat's daughter," I was asked, or told, a dozen times. Yep, that's me folks, a chip off the old block. I knew I looked just like him. It was arranged for me to stay a couple of days while Mom returned to her father's house with Mosie and Orion. Right away, I didn't like this. For one thing, there was quite a bit of drinking going on and I felt nervous about that. Secondly, everyone kept asking me all these questions, most of which I did not know how to answer. How do I like it out West? Good, I like it real fine. They kept mispronouncing Nevada. The said Nevawdah which sounded screwy. It took me a few times to figure out where they meant. How did I like it Back East? Truth to tell, it was crowded, just like Dad always said. Way too crowded. But I just mumbled about the museum and seeing the Atlantic Ocean. Phoebe tried to dominate the conversation from the couch. "Daddy will show you the ocean, won't you, daddy?"
Well, this frosts the cake, I thought. I didn't know who she was talking about for a bit. Women who call their husbands "Daddy" became the next item in my list of Go Figure stuff. Talk drifted off to the subject of boats and boat trips shared and enjoyed by one and all but yours truly. "We'll take you out on the boat, up the Hudson, someday,” Granddad said. Yeah, I've heard that one before, Daddy.
Phoebe was pretty well liquefied at this point which was a hoot as she kept saying she could just have one small one, the doctors said she shouldn't drink much. Well, she was putting those little ones down fast enough. I'd hate to see her get her hands on a big one. She'd probably fall off the couch. And the Old Man, well he had hit starlight time, where everything and everyone is wonderful, just wonderful. I've been around this block a time or two, though and I didn't want to be in the way when wonder got lost and we were just full.
Granddad leaned over me and said, "You're mother is a saint, you know."
I allowed as how I have heard this sentiment expressed before.
"She would have to be a saint to put up with the crap that father of yours has pulled on her."
Oh, my father, not your son, I get the drift. What could I say? Nothing.
"I don't think I will ever be able to forgive him for what he has done,” he continued. Granddad had patriotic eyes, too, with a lot of red in there, way out-weighing the white and blue. "I am ashamed to even carry the same name as him," he concluded.
Come on, Granddad, what do you think I am gonna do, agree with you that my Dad is an asshole. You'll never know what an asshole he can be. But, godammit, he's MY asshole and I love him. But, ya can't say that to people ya hardly even know, not when you're ten years old and don't even know where Yonkers is from Dobb's Ferry. So, I just stood there, feeling hot andtongue-tied.
God bless Uncle Bill. "Hey, ya wanna play chess?" he called to me from the other side of the room. Well, I had never played chess in my life, never even seen it. But, if ya'd said Russian Roulette, I'd have said, "You bet!" Uncle Bill is my father's step-brother, Phoebe's son, Mom's cousin. I told ya there's a lot of stuff that just doesn't hang together in my life. But, he is one of the few relatives I've got that I would be willing to claim. He taught me all the moves and we played a few games and then I taught him how to play Black Jack and we had a great time, squeezed in the kitchen, while the booze flowed in the living room and the voices got louder and louder.
I learned to play chess and I learned that getting drunk and acting stupid is probably contagious. I'm pretty sure Dad caught it from his father.
I got sick real bad with the flu the next day. I believe I caught that from the McElroy's over-heated apartment. I got the sweats and the chills and my bones ached and I saw double, all symptoms of acute alcohol poisoning, I know, but I swear I didn't drink a drop. We had Thanksgiving at the Thomas's and I vomited quite spectacularly afterwards and then had a piece of pie. Perseverance can be confused with pig-headedness, I suppose. Orion and Mo got fluish, too, and it was a sickly crew that flew safely home to Nevada at the end of our harrowing journey to visit the relatives back East that Autumn.
So, why, you might ask, did I decide to use the money I saved from my paper route to fly back to New York alone that next summer? Who knows. Even I Make No Sense, sometimes. Partly it was the bribe, the promised boat ride up the Hudson. Partly it was the kick of having the money and being able to lord it over the other kids, "I'm flying a-lone. I'm going to Yonk-ers. I'm gonna see-ee the ocean." The unspoken message was "and you are not". Partly, also, I think I had some kind of idea that it would be different, could be different, this time. Boy, is that a familiar piece of insanity.
The plane ride was wonderful. The pretty stewardess walked me to my next terminal in the big airport in Chicago. Cassandra had decided that she was going to be a stewardess when she grew up so I was checking out the territory pretty closely. Hmmmm. Stewardesses reminded me of the ushers at the movie house. Smart uniforms, they get to tell you where to sit, and best of all they get to fly for free, kinda like getting to see all those movies again and again and getting paid for the privilege. I thought Cassandra was awful clever. Being a stewardess would be lots more fun than being a teacher and certainly more glamorous than being a nurse, which were the only two professions we knew for women in the 50's. I mean, who the hell ever thinks, "I'll be a lowly shop clerk when I grow up and get bossed around by customers and store managers alike."
On the Chicago to New York leg of the flight my seat companion was a chatty older woman who set right in asking me hundreds of questions about who was I and where was I going. I couldn't help it, I lied and lied and lied. I told her my family lived in a big house in San Francisco and my father was a doctor and my mother played the harpsichord. I told her I was an only child and I was going back East to see my grandmother, my mother's mother, a frail old lady who lived in a big apartment overlooking Central Park. I really don't know why I told these awful stories. I would fib at every opportunity. I blush to think about it. Could she have seen me, this odd little girl with hair sticking up in all directions, looking for all the world like a mad duck, and believed for a single minute that I was the indulged only daughter of a physician going to spend the summer on Park Avenue?
From Idlewild, I was whisked by Uncle Bill and Graddad McElroy to the apartment in Dobb's Ferry. It was the middle of summer and now instead of being hot in the apartment, it was cold. Phoebe had an air conditioner running full blast, day and night. The doctors had said she couldn't stand the heat. The McElroys subsisted on a diet of mint juleps and cocktails and salted nuts. Uncle Bill ate cereal. He let me buy Coco Puffs and Trix and Lucky Charms, we never saw these at home where Mom leaned towards corn flakes, raisin bran and shredded wheat. I was surprised to find that these high-priced fancy breakfast food products also turned into a gluey glop if you let them sit for more than a few minutes in their lakes of milk. The "raspberry red, lemon yellow and orange orange" bits in the Trix bleed dye, too, and turned the milk into a murky mess. Next time we went shopping, we got raisin bran.
Granddad had laid in cases of Coca-cola and let me guzzle them one after another, every day, which was a novel experience. We had a few big meals when company came over but otherwise stuck to a pretty much straight liquid diet with snacks. I found out that potato chips aren't nearly as exciting when you don't have brothers and sisters to fight with over who's getting more. Uncle Bill and I floated pretzels in our cokes and watched them fizz and foam and drank that salty, sweet sticky brew with great glee.
We played chess and Black Jack out in the yard, a large common court shared by all the dozens and dozens of apartments in the complex. There didn't seem to be any kids around. Phoebe watched soap operas, a very boring pastime, I felt. She amazed me with her encyclopedic memory of all the characters and plot twists, however, which was enough to kill a few humid afternoons. Granddad let me buy all the comic books I wanted but this too, I found, lacked excitement with no one to bicker with over who gets to read them first or who's hogging Superman. At night, I caught fireflies in jars and kept them in the bedroom with me at night. Every morning they were dead and I felt sorry, but the flickering lights they made fluttering in the trees was irresistible again each evening.
Grandad watched the televised proceedings of the Eichman trials and told me it was too bad the Nazis didn't get the rest of the Jews while they were at it. This I couldn't figure, at all, because at the very same time, he claimed the electric chair would be too good for Eichman. "They ought to hang him by his heels in the town square and let the people take care of him." I had this odd vision of that old man dangling upside down from a gallows while long lines of peasants ministered to his needs. How could you eat or drink upside down? I could tell by his voice that he didn't mean "take care of" in a nice way; one more thing that Makes No Sense, no matter how I looked at it. Another of Grandad's Pet Peeves was the dirty PR's, the little bastards, that came over here from Puerto Rico, and littered all the streets and refused to learn how to speak right. "You don't know what they're like," he told me. "They come here with all their cousins and try to take over the place. You would know what I mean if YOU had to live with them." I looked every where we went but didn't see any dirty little bastards, Puerto Rican or otherwise. I could tell that he was what Mom called prejudiced but also he was real angry about it. I didn't like the way I felt inside when he would rant and rave like that. Jews, Spics and queers. All trying to ruin America.
We did get to go up the Hudson on the boat, a day long trip I enjoyed. Graddad's boat wasn't that big but it was a cabin cruiser, quite the largest boat I had ever been on, and I was thrilled when he let me take the helm. We went up beyond Sing Sing Prison and I was surprised to see how big the Hudson River was, miles across, dwarfing the Humboldt or any other river I had ever seen. There were so many other boats, and ships, to watch, and my arm got tired waving to them all. Grandad wouldn't let me swim, the water was too dirty and cold. It didn't look that dirty or feel that cold and I saw people swimming several times on the far side of the river but he was adamant.
Grandad had bought me a new swimsuit for the outing so I was pretty pissed when I didn't even get to get it wet. I had been pretty pissed when we went shopping and the salesclerk directed us to the "Charming Chubbies" section of the store where all the bathing suits were black with up and down stripe or Navy blue with big flowers. I had my heart set on a two piece with palm trees on it. "That would never fit you," the clerk said briskly and a hot flush crept up my face. Worse yet, the black number they shoved me into was wool, which was itchy and scratchy and HOT. A few weeks later we made our trip to the Atlantic and I did get to go swimming and found out that suit was even worse when it got wet. Oh, how I missed my family, and the cool, clean waters of the lake, and the days of diving and paddling around in the pool. I just knew that all the kids were learning lots of new dives without me.
Grandad was in the Navy, forever. He was, he never ceased to say, "The oldest Master Chief Petty Officer in the service" His uniform had hash marks all the way up the sleeve. He took me down to the Naval Yards and showed me off and bragged about the ships and his comrades, "The best damn fighting force there ever was." They looked like just a bunch of guys to me, old and tired and a little bored. We went on a Navy picnic where I ate raw clams which was very exciting. How do you know for sure they are dead, I wondered, and for several days I imagined one might be even now waking up and crawling around down in there looking for his shell. Granddad drank too much that afternoon and got louder and angrier than usual and scared me when we were driving home, talking about the PR's and the niggers. "They shouldn't even come here,” he said. "They should all go back to where they belong." Even to me, a ten year old, I wondered if the Irish should go back to Ireland, then.
At that time in my life, what I wanted more than anything else in the world was a Barbie doll. This seems crazy to me today because I absolutely HATE Barbie, I mean Big Time resentment. But, way back then, for some reason I don't understand, I thought I just had to have a Barbie. I had begun a campaign from day one of my visit to convince the McElroys to get me one and I continued working on this diligently. I had been allowed to touch, but not to play with, Karen Hansen's Barbie and my fingers could still feel the lush firm rubbery plastic of her limbs and I could see that bright dumb big-eyed face in my mind's eye. Barbie had a flippy pony-tail back then and frizzy bangs and came only with a stripped bathing suit and gold lame high heels and let's face it, she was a tart. There was already a catalogue of dozens of tiny outfits you could buy Barbie, all priced at a little more than Mom paid for clothes for us kids, every one of which was cut to show off her bosom and long, long legs. Barbie had legs all the way up to her armpits, for Christ's sake and her neck was obscenely elongated. But, what with TV and the adoring admiration of my little playmates, I needed a Barbie worse than life itself. Barbie was a deformed caricature of all that our culture idolized in females and it is difficult for me to admit that I bought into that package of goods, gold lame and all, but that summer my day-dreaming hours were spent hoping and wishing for a Barbie of my very own.
I just HAD to have one, don't you see.
Granddad was quite pleased with himself, therefore, one evening towards the end of my visit, when he came home with a box all wrapped up in paper and handed it to me. I tore open the package, my heart racing, could it be? Yes, right there, staring up at me from a cellophane window in a long skinny box was.....
Wait a minute. This isn't Barbie. I ripped the box open and grabbed the doll out. She was made out of hard, brittle plastic, hollow, light. She looked like Barbie, kinda, but her features were just daubed in and the paint had sort of missed the mark in places. She had seam marks where her two halves where glued together. And her arms didn't move right and her legs just hung there rigidly.
I flung this knocked-off Barbie look-alike down and ran out of the room, Granddad right on my heels. "What in the hell is the matter with you?" he asked me once I was cornered in the bedroom, no where further to go.
"That's not a Barbie!" I spit out. "Her legs aren't right and she isn't soft and the hair looks funny and it is NOT A BARBIE!" I just sat there all slumped over. I could tell by the look on his face that he couldn't understand what I was trying to say. I sulked all night and all the next day. Uncle Bill told me we could go shopping to get a real Barbie, he at least could see what I meant about the doll that sat abandoned on the dresser where my clothes were kept during my visit. We drove downtown and went to several stores but wouldn't you know it there was not a Barbie doll to be found in all of Dobb's Ferry. "All sold out," we kept hearing. Bill and I started laughing after a while. "Gee, that Barbie is one popular girl, I guess," Bill joked. We saw lots of other pretend Barbies for sale but Bill sensed not even to ask if I wanted one of those. It was Barbie or Bust as far as I was concerned. Now, there's a lousy pun.
So, it was with a poor imitation of the real thing and an awful itchy charmingly chubby black bathing suit that I returned to my family and, sure enough, they had had a lot of fun all summer long and claimed they didn't miss me at all. I couldn't even explain what a mostly rotten time I'd had. Orion and I used Mom's finger-nail cutters and clipped all of Look-alike (kinda) Barbie's fingers off and set her hair on fire but it didn't burn very well and bombed her with dirt clods where we set her up like a 100 foot tall target amidst his tiny green plastic soldiers. We also shot her with a BB gun and soon she was more holes than substance and we buried her out in the woods.
I have to say right now that it wasn't just Barbie that got tortured and mutilated. I found out when I got a real Barbie I bought myself with my own money---and discovered that she was a useless, albeit more expensive, fake that just stood there, too---that her hair didn't burn very well either and her parts were only held together with a few not very sturdy rubber bands inside. All the dolls in our family were subject to some awfully rough play. We drew on them with pens and cut their hair till they all ended up looking like inmates from a lunatic asylum. We clipped their nails up to their elbows and burned and buried and bombed them endlessly. But, it was Barbie that I grew to love to kill the most, Barbie, and then later her dickless sidekick, Ken.
Karen was smart to not let us play with her dolls, who sat prettily on her desk. Mosie cried an ocean of tears trying to defend her dolls and we still managed to ruin them all, eventually. A doll in the McElroy family always ended up maimed. We weren't doing it to be mean. We just loved torture. One of our best games was Kidnap Baby which caused poor little Mo to suffer dreadfully tug-of-warring to get her baby doll back from us.
I fell in love with a man one time who played Voo-Doo Barbie with my then six year old daughter and taught her to twist its head around backwards and act spazzy. He put his fingers on either side of its head and squeezed in and out so Barbie looked like her brain was erupting and said, "Oh, look. Barbie's having a thought." They stuck pins in her torso and chanted, "Your breasts will fall of. Your legs will shrink up into a lizard's tail. Your wardrobe will spontaneously combust and you will have NOTHING TO WEAR!" He picked Barbie up and made her say in a high squeaky falsetto, "Oh no. Not that. Take my breasts but leave me my gowns."
Bryn rolled on the floor laughing and I was so happy because we fought all the time about Barbie, whom I hated hugely. When she would ask me to play Barbie with her I would say, "That slut. Not on your life. She is stupid and besides NO ONE REALLY LOOKS LIKE THAT!" and Bryn would get quiet and sad and talk softly to Barbie explaining that her mother was a feminist and couldn't help it. I know I fell in love with this fellow because he taught my kid to make fun of Barbie. Sick-eh?
Web site and all contents © Copyright Kat McElroy 2005, All rights reserved.