Living the American (Girl) Dream

Remember that great scene in When Harry Met Sally? No, not that scene. The one where Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan are discussing high-maintenance and low-maintenance women. She asks him which she is, and he replies, “You’re the worst kind; you’re high maintenance, but you think you’re low maintenance.”

In this season of giving, I’m compelled to draw a parallel between that conversation and my parenting skills, not concerning how much maintenance I require but how indulgent I am. If I’m being honest, I’d have to admit that I’m the worst kind; I’m high indulgent, but I have always thought I was low indulgent.

My indulgence stares me in the face every Christmas. I don’t mean the stacks of presents under the tree, although there is that. I mean the 14 eyes watching me every time I walk through the foyer. There, lined  up the staircase, are the dolls. The magical dolls. All seven of them. Felicity, Josefina, Addy, Samantha, Kit, Tammy and Lindsay. Our American Girls, five historical and two modern, sparkling in their Christmas dresses, their hair combed and clipped, welcoming everyone who knocks on the front door.

They’re not always so sedentary. Some years they wear their parkas and skating outfits and play in a winter wonderland of pillow-fluff snow and a cookie-sheet skating rink. Other years they gather round their present-laden Christmas tree in their pajamas. Or they meet in their parlor for a Christmas tea and recital.

Technically, only one of the dolls is mine – my three daughters own two apiece – but my girls have abandoned theirs. They seem to think that women in their 20s are too old to play dolls. Thankfully, this woman in her 50s still lights up around them.

I blame my (tiny) obsession on Angie Provaznik. Until I was 8, I lived across the street from her. She was a year or two older but occasionally played Barbies with my sister Linda and me. Back then, girls had only one Barbie, one Skipper, one Ken and, if you were lucky, one Midge (Angie had one; Linda and I didn’t). The dolls fit snugly in a case we could carry to our friends’ houses. Linda and I also shared a Barbie house outfitted with boxy cardboard furniture. When Angie came to play, she brought her doll, her house and her wicker furniture. A real woven white wicker Barbie-sized sofa and two chairs. My Barbie longed to sit on those exquisite chairs, to lounge on the padded sofa, but Angie never shared them. Sadly, when we moved away, my Barbie was forced to covet the good life from a folded rectangle that posed as her bed.

My longing for luxurious doll living was reignited when my 1-year-old firstborn daughter began receiving the American Girl catalog. I had never seen such beautiful dolls, each from a different period in American history with outfits and accessories authentic to her time. Although new to parenting, I quickly picked up one of its main tenets: Our kids are here to live out their parents’ unfulfilled dreams.

It would be a number of years before we could afford American Girls, but we gradually collected an extensive array of dolls, outfits, furniture and accessories. Kristen loved horses, so her Tammy got the riding outfit. Later on we acquired the horse. Anna played soccer, so her Lindsay got the soccer uniform, complete with ball, cleats, shin guards and bag. Jessie wanted to be a writer, so her 1930s-era Kit got the typewriter. It came with the wheeled eraser once needed to make corrections. The dolls became a way for me to mark each girl’s interests and for them to live their American Girl dream.

Or was it really just me living mine? Kristen and Anna dressed their dolls and arranged their furniture, but only my youngest daughter, Jessie, ever really played dolls. Then she outgrew them, and if not for me at Christmas, the joy they radiate would be smothered year-round in plastic bins. And nobody would see their real woven white wicker sofa and chairs.

Now I have a granddaughter who can pick up the slack left by her aunts. Signs so far indicate Hazel will like balls more than dolls and my son and daughter-in-law have asked Craig and me not to indulge her with presents, but I can work with that. If I happen to get her a doll, I’ll just keep it at my house where Hazel and I can play with it. Any time she wants. Even the wicker furniture.


  1. My most loved Barbie was a talking Barbie with dark curly hair and one leg screwed in at the hip by my engineer father who thought everything was fixable rather than replaceable. We had Barbie weddings where guests brought gifts for the happy couple. My sister and I played with Barbies, Kiddles and baby dolls well beyond what girls do these days. My sister even had an anatomically correct boy baby doll which was a bit scandalous for the time.

    My two daughters never bought into the doll thing. Their first love was pretend which included pretend school, library, store, candy shop, little house on the prairie, veterinarian, pirate ship, hotel, spies, fancy ladies, the borrowers, and high schoolers. No dolls involved!

    • Lee Lueck says:

      I don’t remember talking Barbie but do remember my Little Kiddles. Didn’t they have some kind of contraption that helped their legs move as if they were walking? Details are fuzzy, but not the memory of how much I loved them.

      My older two girls also preferred pretending to playing dolls. For store, they used a board game buzzer as some sort of scanner, and for library, I let them tape paper pockets in our books so they could insert due-date cards (remember those?). That was probably 18 years ago, and I found one a few weeks ago when I pulled a book from the shelf.

  2. Love the post, love the story, love the memories … thanks for sharing, Leemur :)

  3. Great post lee. Can I just focus on this phrase:
    Although new to parenting, I quickly picked up one of its main tenets: Our kids are here to live out their parents’ unfulfilled dreams.
    Still putting hope in this one. Is that wrong???????

  4. Loved your post; the parts about Barbie brought back some great memories.

    My first Barbie was a hand-me-down Barbie from my father’s secretary’s daughter. She had legs that didn’t bend. She didn’t have hair, except for one long clump, and her head rattled when I shook her (I loved that part). The best way to explain her look is that her hairdo looked like those of orange-robed Krishna followers.

    When I looked at dad with questioning eyes as he gave me the Barbie, he told me my Barbie was much better than the other Barbies; she was different and unique and this was much better. Strangely, I found this to be true. Looking back, I’m sure he meant something noble, something altruistic…a lesson in life. But as a child, the thought was lost on me. To me it meant drama and creativity.

    My brother named her Witchy-Poo because her big cat eyes and eyebrows looked kind of mean. I had hours of fun creating wild hairdos from yarn; one blue “do” was particularly stunning. My friends and I had fun playing with mean Barbie. Witchy-Poo Barbie could put all the pretty Barbies in dungeons and could turn them into toads. Witchy Poo Barbie could put spells on Ken (to only love her and not the pretty Barbie.) This gave me a strange feeling of satisfaction.

    The next Christmas, Mom said I could ask for a new Barbie…but I didn’t want a new one; I really liked my Barbie. She was unique.;

    • What a great story! Like your Barbie, my first Barbie’s legs did not bend, but her hair was a bubble cut. I was far less loyal. When my sister and I were in 4th and 5th grades, we saved our money to get Barbies with bendable legs AND hips that swiveled. We had to trade in our old Barbies and pay $1.50 to get the new ones.

  5. Mary Chandler says:

    I love it! Do you think Angie has any idea she has so affected your life for decades?!?!

  6. Oh friend! Had we only lived near each other growing up, I would have gladly shared my home- made Barbie house with your dolls. I love dolls, and we had some American girls at our house too. I have been fascinated with that collection for a long time and daydreamed that I would purchase the WHOLE baby doll set for them and we would play dollies for hours!! Alas, it is only a dream! I love that you dress yours up and set them out at Christmas. Someday your daughters will take them back, if you let them, haha, and relive their fond memories with their own. Thanks for sharing this!

    • Jessie also owns the American Girl baby doll, Bitty Baby, and she played with her all the time. She is probably the most-loved of all their dolls. Although this post focused on my Barbie doll, my sister and I also had the latest baby dolls of the day: Chatty Cathy and Chatty Baby. Remember them? When we pulled their strings, they talked to us. I also had Kissy, who puckered her lips and made a kissing sound whenever I clapped her hands together. I loved my baby dolls! I remember playing with them through junior high. Can you imagine girls today doing that?