I was born poor, or so my folks said, which is exactly what I wrote to the Mattel corporation when my Barbie doll's neck split open, just three weeks after Chanukah, the appropriate date of her arrival under my Menorah. I vaguely remember what I wrote:
Dear Mr. Mattel: I am seven years old and poor. I just got my first Barbie, whose neck split and my parents cannot afford another one. Should I send this one back? Tell me what to do. Love, Roberta
I had quite a few Barbie dolls by the time I got the neck-splitter, but my mother told me not to mention that in the letter. I also didn't mention the fact that I was yanking at her head, as was my style with girlish toys, and the rubber couldn't take this last assault. I did leave out the most important part--that I wished I had other Mattel toys, like a Chatty Cathy (my true dream) and Barbie's house, but my parents couldn't afford such things if I wanted to go to college.
We were relegated "poor" strictly by the standards of the neighborhood my parents chose to live in. The facts of my childhood, seen through the clearer lens of time, suggest that I was not the least bit deprived, at least materially. I had my own phone, my own TV, scores of clothes and records. I ate out at the pizza place every day (one dollar for two slices and a coke, with change back). It never occurred to me in my youth -- mostly because the fifties and early sixties were short on reality TV--that people in my own country, let alone the world, lived in conditions far more abysmal than my own. I didn't know what poverty was; all I saw was Dick Van Dyke's nice house and those well-dressed celebrities on Variety shows. Worst of all, my mother's desperate whimper about not having a mink stole and a diamond watch.
Just as TV was naive and pizza was cheap, so was Mattel a different type of company. They did not ask me to prove the tear by sending the doll back, or even question how the tear occurred.
Two weeks later, a brand new Barbie arrived at my doorstep, swimsuit and all. Free. No note, no explanation. Many decades later, I imagined the letter falling into the hands of some old-time executive, who cared about his product and customers. Tears might have formed in his eyes, transformed into a twinkle, as he got a grand old-fashioned idea. He might have gone home whistling that day, feeling like Jimmy Stewart in his own wonderful life.
I played nicer with this new Barbie, and her neck stayed firm. It was a fine week, with me believing in men and companies.
As I skipped up our front sidewalk the next Friday, having already nearly forgotten my good fortune of the week before, I found another package came from Mattel. Again no letter. I ripped open the package to find a brand new Chatty Cathy. My parents suspected it was a fluke, a mistake, because people didn't do such things in those days, especially to the "poor."
It wasn't a fluke, or a mistake. In my seven year old eyes, it was a miracle from which I would never grow out of.
By the end of the year, all the wealthier girls from the neighborhood gladly came over to play. They figured I had the richest and best parents in the world, flush enough to buy out the toy store but willing to forsake a Jaguar of their own for my doll collection. I never enlightened them. I was too busy reveling in my new status, and believing that millionaires like J. Beresford Tipton did give out money to those in need. Or hand them Chatty Cathy dolls, anyway.
The miracle repeated itself every Friday for four years. Each week, never missing the mail, would arrive a Ken, or a Midge, or a new outfit, or Barbie's dream house. Then came the devastation of that first Friday when the packages stopped - again no note, no explanation. I was left to imagine the mythical old guy retiring or some new efficiency expert putting a stop to this "waste" of anonymous charity or abruptly deciding I was too old for dolls.
How could I have foreseen how destructive this kindness would be? Being raised in a Cinderella existence, going from rag picker to doll Goddess was heady stuff a kid - and etched into my impression of life like a prehistoric bug in amber. The world was mine. All I had to do was play poor and write nice letters.
It worked again, at NYU. They gave me a scholarship and a resident fellowship and all sorts of similar toys. In 1973 I graduated, my standards still warped. I stepped from the warm coziness of the University and dropped into Hell at the coldest deepest circle. The news called the economic climate a recession.
Pitched headlong into the 'real' world, I soon found I was paid too little and working offered an extremely low fun quotient. No free dolls or even an extra half-hour for lunch. Jobs were scarce and, although I'd graduated near the top of my class, there were no management trainee positions for me, only secretarial spots. This, I learned, was not because my parents were poor. It was partly because I was born female, but more do to the simple concept of harsh reality, of some alternate grownup world I had not entered out of my volition. The Mattel girl, the material girl, was just another girl after all.
Throughout my twenties and thirties I looked for a new brand of Mr. Mattel. When I thought I found him, I would write a book, sing a song, mail a letter, and heaven would open. I tried ambition, spirituality, eroticism, duplicity, but nothing worked as well as that first letter. Like a first kiss. Unforgettable.
Still operating from my sheltered, if not somewhat battered, experience and just when I thought my heart could carry no more leaden disappointment, I was commissioned to write a story about everyday life in the ghettos of Brooklyn. I realized in those cruel streets that I never even approached the state of being poor. Scores of little children lived every day with broken toilets, rats running the floor, cockroaches climbing in bed, and stray bullets flying through cracked kitchen windows. I thought during these moments about those free dolls, wishing I knew what to do.
I can't return the dolls, and I can't return the joy of opening gifts each Friday. Nor can I exchange the guilt over what I had and didn't appreciate, or the bitterness seeping in from the realization that the new world order will never give away anything free to anyone, not even a child. I long to go back in time to that glorious thrill ride and enjoy it, wave my hands in air just before the awesome ascent takes me crashing over the top. And down, down, down.
I don't know anything about Mattel today, but I suspect that letters from "poor" children about their broken Barbie dolls don't yield the same bounty. And kids who are really poor know it plainly, because they live among death and needles, wasting diseases. Because free dolls are fine, but free food and clothing, attendant parents, and self-esteem would serve them much better.
Occasionally I have a little extra money and I pass it to a street person. And for a moment, in their eyes, I see the delight of my childhood Fridays, when that magical package came from a long lost land of dreams fulfilled.
Copyright © 2000 Moondance: Celebrating Creative Women