I have loved quite a few toys in my life. A favorite recurring dream takes me back to my childhood home to find an entire floor of the house filled to the ceiling with toys and games of every kind. There are dolls and board games and Yo-yos and Hula Hoops, Easy-Bake Ovens and Thingmakers, bicycles with banana seats, Barbies, army men, pogo sticks, you name it. Liddle Kiddles, Gumby and Pokey, Chatty Cathy, Poor Pitiful Pearl. Coloring books, Colorforms, Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys.
I like to pore over web sites that feature U.S. toys from the sixties and seventies just to recapture that feeling of spending quality time with a really great toy. It’s not that I was deprived of toys when I was little. I had a pretty lush life for a middle class girl growing up in Portland. But the TV ads were relentless, and my neighbors, Kimmy and Ted, had a basement rec room that was packed with every kind of plaything, including a two-seater surrey with actual fringe on top that you could pedal between the Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots and the inflatable bopping clown. The hunger was real.
The very best toy that I owned was a hand-me-down two-story dollhouse. It had stairs, cut-out windows, furnishings, and wallpaper patterns painted on particle board walls. There was odd furniture to arrange and rearrange, and there were dolls whose proportions did not match the scale of the dollhouse. My most favorite thing to do was to make little accessories for the kitchen. Dishes, pots, and food items, especially cakes and pies, were sculpted out of Play-Doh.
The other childhood item that I loved almost as much as that dollhouse was my older brother, Matt. I couldn’t play with him the way I did with my dollhouse because he was an active guy who had his own ideas of fun. Very few of them involved having anything to do with me, a pesky little sister four years younger and light-years away from his level of sophistication. We grew up in a time and place when kids were expected to go play outside all the time, with little to no parent supervision. As soon as I was old enough to tag along with him and his friends, I begged to do so. He patiently walked with me to the Portland zoo or the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, where we would roam around the exhibits, feeding leaves to the giraffes with their long, purple tongues, or staring at the big diorama of Northwest industry that featured little logging trucks and trains and even an airliner on a wire pulley.
I’m sure that a lot of little sisters in the world think their older brother is the coolest guy around, and that I’m not the only one who adored her big brother. But Matt really was different. He stuck up for me when bullies hassled me, telling them calmly to “knock it off” with Lisa. He watched “The Outer Limits” with me when Mom and Dad went out, and he put on amazing puppet shows on our back deck that made me and my little sister, Maggie, laugh and laugh. Once, when I heard someone criticize him for some reason, I felt what it means to have your gorge rise. I wanted to hit that kid, whatever it was he said. No one was allowed to talk about my brother like that.
It’s not like Matt was a saint or anything. I often used to think he told jerks to stop being mean to me so he could pick on me himself. His teasing could be merciless, made all the worse because he was often so funny. It’s hard to show righteous fury when you’re laughing.
There was one time, however, when I was forced to choose my allegiance. Matt used to make little 8‑millimeter movies with his buddies, sometimes doing stop-motion animation and often showcasing their youthful acting chops. I was never invited to take part in those projects, and it was something I really, really wanted to have happen.
“Hey, Lis, we’re gonna make a movie. You wanna help?”
Are you kidding? Yes!
“We need to use your dollhouse. Is that okay?”
My eyes narrowed. “What are you gonna use it for?”
“Well, we need to show a house burning down, so we’re gonna set it on fire. That’s cool, right? It’ll look so neat.”
I could not believe it. How could this almighty big brother, my hero, be so clueless about the one thing that mattered to me more than anything? Could it have been that my beloved big brother was a little bit dense?
Yes, it could. That day I discovered boundaries. And the dollhouse survived.
By Lisa Groening, Middle School English Teacher, from an essay for the Bay Area Writer Project Summer Course “Teaching Secondary Creative Writing”