I had a few Barbies growing up, but Malibu Barbie was my favorite. Maybe because I grew up in Queens, New York, a sun kissed Barbie from Southern California seemed exotic. Of course, I had Malibu Ken, as well, with his blond, molded-plastic hair, and Barbie’s best friend, pig-tailed Twist’n Turn PJ.

I clearly remember the Christmas I desperately wanted the three-storied, Barbie Town House advertised all over Saturday morning TV. It had a working elevator! Using Magic Marker, I circled, starred, and drew arrows to the Town House in the dog-eared, Christmas edition of the Sears Roebuck catalog. There was no mistaking that this is what I wanted from Santa Claus.

On Christmas morning, dressed in a new nightgown and my hair too wavy from tortuous, pink foam overnight curlers, I ran to the tree in anticipation of ripping off the wrapping paper to reveal Barbie’s dream house. But where was the giant box? I did get a house, but instead of the signature pink, plastic-scented version from Sears Roebuck, my parents had made me a house.

Old photo

“Look,” they said proudly. “It’s so much better than the house you can buy at the store.”

Where were the three stories? Where was the elevator? I thought, not convinced it was “better.”

It was constructed like a box made from wood with painted brick and windows cut out. When flipped on its side, the cover of the box folded down to become a floor with a real shag rug. Inside the kitchen were appliances covered in shiny cobalt blue contact paper, not images printed on the wall. The stove had silver burners made from large, metal snaps and an oven that opened. The chandelier over the table was a hand-painted half of a L’eggs pantyhose egg.

The top of the box served as the bedroom with a padded bed covered in fabric linens in a kicky yellow and orange mod floral print, and a green bedspread with pompoms. Then Mom pulled out the hand-made, Barbie-sized, wood and blue fabric couch. She demonstrated how the couch unfolded to become a bed! I was sold.

Over time, I added to the house, making planters from shells and clippings from Mom’s faux plants, and macraméd miniature hangers. Another time, I attached the bottoms of two, yellow margarine tubs with a brass paper fastener, cut an opening in the side of one of the tubs to make a swivel chair. My Nana taught me how to crochet mini granny-squared afghans.

I played with my Barbie’s long after most girls stopped playing with dolls. I was probably thirteen when I finally packed it away, carefully placing all the pieces into the box, hoping that one day, my future daughter would love it as much as I did. That box moved around with me, and before my daughter was old enough, it got soaked in a basement flood of our suburban house, then sat in the unheated attic for years.

When we sold the house a couple of years ago, I finally threw away the box containing the homemade Barbie house without opening it since 1977. I couldn’t bear seeing the mod bed and L’eggs egg chandelier moldy and broken. I realize now that the love I had for Barbies had less to do with Barbie and more to do with that house my parents built just for me. Their gift was full of love and imagination, and in turn, it taught me how to be creative and resourceful. I will cherish the memory of that Christmas morning, when I was, at first, skeptical, but then understood that my parents were magical, making me a small couch that opened to a bed. So much better than a plastic elevator.

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