May 25 2010

The Other Barbie

Birthdays are not to be shared. It’s the one single day you get to yourself, the day you were born – the day you opted into this planet. It’s your day. There’s no reason to be magnanimous about it.

I know this because the double birthday party I celebrated years ago with Debbie West was an exercise in being gracious, a task that was really too advanced for my consciousness at the time. Her mother made the most elaborate gingerbread house cake with colorful jellybean trimming. The sixteen candles – our ages added together – dispersed across its roof were too hard to blow out in tandem, the song lengthened uncomfortably at the point of our names. Debbie’s, of course, came first.

Most of the gifts we received were identical – the same duets of birthday wrapping paper folded around matching puzzles, coloring books and Spirograph kits. Except the Barbie Dolls that Susan Olsen brought: Each gift tag was carefully labeled with one of our names in the fine, formal handwriting I recognized as Mrs. Olsen’s, but obviously her mom must have randomly assigned the boxes which were packed with fraternal twin Barbies.

Debbie got the blonde doll. But she was a brunette. Shouldn’t she have gotten the doll with the matching hair? I opened my box in sync with her, noticing the hair color instantly. Before I could stop myself the words popped out, “but I want that one!” The doll in question, of course, the one in her hands, not the one in mine.

I’m pretty sure that everybody heard me, but it was as though each and every person – young and old – tacitly agreed to ignore what I had blurted out. My 8-year old self was too young to be gracious was nevertheless old enough to know that this was not the appropriately thankful response to a gift. I stared at the doll and pretended to love her, knowing the eyes of a roomful of good girls were upon me. But I could not contain the tears that naturally manifest after such a disappointment, tears which burst out from me at full volume.

“It must be too much excitement,” I heard my mother say, “all these girls and all these gifts.”

This is why when Buddy-roo has a moment like this, I redirect her frustration as a good parent should, but inside: mountains of empathy. I suppose if you asked De-facto for his point of view on my birthday spirit, he might suggest not that much has changed.

But birthdays are something. You gotta make them happy, or else they’ll make you sad.

Later at home, after the party, my mother placed the doll prominently on my shelf. I let it sit there, untouched and unloved, eventually letting it fall to the back of the queue of dolls and stuffed animals, neglected, rejected – the other Barbie.