For my daughter’s sixth birthday I did something I never thought I would do: I took her to the American Girl Place in New York City. Everyone thought I was crazy. “You?” my sister said. “I can’t believe you’re taking her there.” Believe me, it came as a shock to me, too. I never thought I’d have a girly-girl daughter, let alone one I showered with sparkles and tulle, but I do. And, here’s the thing: I wasn’t about to let the Ultimate Doll Buying Experience be snatched away from me by a grandma or doting auntie. Hell to the No. If somebody was going to buy my daughter’s love and affection, it was damn well going to be me.
Truth be told, Trixie didn’t even know what an American Girl was, although she loves dolls in general — especially her baby doll, Dottie, whose battered body has been stitched and taped a dozen times. And even though she wasn’t aware of the American Girl universe, I didn’t really think it would matter. I put my money (lots of it) on the fact that walking into a room filled with glassy-eyed, perma-smiling caged beauties would captivate my 6-year-old instantly … and it did.
We walked into the bustling Fifth Avenue store on a brisk Monday afternoon and her jaw dropped. Mine did, too. There were dolls everywhere. Dolls wearing ice skates, dolls on surf boards and at the recording studio, dolls sitting inside teepees or taking bubble baths. They had everything, right down to the allergy-free lunch set and the “healthy smile” headgear set. Yeah.
I don’t know if you remember these beloved, overpriced dolls from your childhood, but American Girl dolls have changed over the last 30 years. In my day, there were four dolls: Samantha (the stuffy Victorian one), Molly (the tomboy from the ‘40s), Kirsten (the Swedish immigrant – she had a candle Christmas crown, which my friend Lexi had), and Felicity (the redhead in a bonnet who represented the revolutionary war). That was it. Four dolls. Now there are 30 of them, from the 1760s all the way up to 2016. But that is not all (oh, no, that is not all!). While there are 30 “historic” dolls representing actual important moments from the past, there is also a newer line called the “Truly Me” dolls. I had never heard of these, but when we walked into the store, we were bombarded by hundreds of them:18” girls in a wealth of varying skin, hair, and eye colors. Some with freckles, some with curls, and bald dolls upon request. The point being, if you looked hard enough you’d find the doll that looked just like you.
And we did find Trixie’s doppleganger, but I was quite pleased when she went outside the box, ultimately choosing a doll with darker skin and hair, and after we’d chosen a few outfits — including a party dress and purse, denim romper, bathrobe, and sneakers — we paid up (remind me to hide that credit card bill from my husband), and made our way to the third floor for our 2 p.m. scheduled tea party.
Although I was horrified by the “salon” we passed along the way, filled with actual human stylists pampering plastic dolls and adorning them with braids and manicures, I have to say that the tea party portion of the day was one of the highlights of my life. I am literally tearing up just thinking about it. The room itself was cheesy, with high- backed chairs and pink accents contrasted by black striped walls. At each table, well-dressed little girls sat beside equally well-dressed dolls in special high chairs, each guest gushing over her own commemorative hair bow or cup and saucer. In the center of each table was a little box of “conversation starters” to keep us entertained, and I honestly was. Maybe the food was mediocre and the drinks were too sweet, but we had a blast pretend-feeding carrots and hot dogs to Trixie’s new doll (and her old doll, Dottie, whom I brought in revolt).
I learned a lot about my daughter that afternoon. She wants to be a scuba diver or a soccer player, in addition to an artist. We talked about how shy we both feel sometimes, and the planet, and what it’s like to feel embarrassed at school. And it wasn’t just the “conversation cards” that kept us going. Our conversation kinda just flowed. In the least organic place imaginable, that’s exactly how it felt to be chatting breezily with my oh-so-grown-up 6-year-old.
When we left an hour later, Trixie had a doll in her arms, I had a massive shopping bag in mine, and we both had a pep to our step. Three weeks later, I’m still smiling when I think about it. Because, yeah, it was cheesy and a little embarrassing, and I spent way too much money on accessories we’ve already lost some of, but it is a memory I will always treasure. A moment when I wasn’t nagging my daughter to eat her zucchini or brush her hair or practice reading. I was her friend. And that was awesome.