I bought a new shower curtain on Saturday. The one with the PVC. Not because it was the cheapest, but for the smell. An olfactory trip back to the most highly anticipated day of my childhood year - Christmas! The smell of new toys. Plastic toys. That just-opened burst of chemical off-gassing. So many presents! Big Jim and all his macho man accessories. Tents, campers, motorcycles, race cars, tree stumps. Each was individually packaged in its own plastic isolette, ready to serve a supporting role in my ever expanding action-adventure tableau.
Occasionally my sister would invite me across the hallway to play Barbies. She’d already be set up in the largest open floor space of her lavender bedroom, between the foot of her bed and the double closets that spanned the north wall. From the floor, the vertical lines of the closet doors shot up to the ceiling above her Lively Livin’ dream house like two colossal high-rise office buildings or apartments - like the kind where Mary Tyler Moore worked and lived, after she traded her cozy Victorian shag-covered sunken living room for a breathtaking view of greater Minneapolis through the sliding glass doors of her precariously railed balcony. I was relegated to more of a Sanford and Son kind of operation down on the south side of my sister’s dresser, an awkward and cramped corner near the door with zero curb appeal, about half a block away in 1/16th scale. The zoning laws were apparently very lax.
Along with the couple of low-ranking Barbies my sister would send over as loaner girlfriends (wives? hookers?) for my Big Jim and his buddy Big Josh, she’d also provide a meager allocation of home-building materials: doll cases and cardboard. Though Big Jim and Josh stood several inches shorter than my sister’s dandy, Ken, they were far more work-ready with well-defined, spring-loaded, woodchopping biceps. While do-nothing Ken was busy playing house with his Barbie beards, Big Jim, Big Josh and I launched a nascent version of Extreme Doll Case Makeover! Far from throwing together some kind of house-of-cards shanty, we pulled out all the stops and mounted a low slung, multistoried, mid-century modern, Frank Lloyd Wright/Mike Brady-esque cantilevered triumph, which consistently surpassed my sister’s sterile, store-bought house in both originality and style.
Like the faint aroma of a once new shower curtain, so too did Christmas slowly lose its luster, starting with my sister’s blunt announcement that Santa Claus wasn’t real. She chose to break her news bulletin at the step between our dining room and a room where I listened to records, though it could hardly be called a “music room.” Christmas magic faded further with my increased awareness that all things were not equal. All kids were not opening the kinds of toys that I was. I first realized this when my Mom ever so earnestly undertook a charity project of sewing homemade doll clothes (at a time when homemade was considered second-rate) for hollow-legged, off-brand, dime store dolls. Once finished, they were delivered as gifts for kids at the Cheerful Home. It made me anything but cheerful. The disparity saddened me to tears, privately shed. It was my first experience of an inner, wordless ache; and the fact that my Mom hated to sew.