When my sister Bertie and I were growing up from the middle 1940s to the 1950s, like most kids we had our share of toys over the years. We lived in the country and had no close neighbor children to play with, so we learned how to be creative with our toys and games.
Being little girls, we had lots of dolls, and our mother made doll clothes for us and we made things for our dolls, too. I remember that Bertie once made a pair of skis for one of her dolls out of a pair of corset stays from one of Ma’s old girdles (remember those?). She bent up the ends into a curve and then painstakingly crafted a pair of tiny ski boots out of oilcloth, which she stuck onto the skis with glue.
But we also liked “boy” things, too, like little cars, trucks and trains. Our pop had wanted boys, so he showed us how to use a hammer and nails, and we learned to make simple things from wood, like boats and bookends. Pop also had a flair for drawing, and for humor, and he used to make us paper dolls that looked like cartoon characters, with funny big heads, handlebar moustaches and wild frizzy hair. Bertie and I would draw clothes for them with little tabs, and color them with colored pencils.
But when it came to the games that kids our age usually played, we weren’t really up to snuff. We had weird ways of playing with some things, not the way they were supposed to be played with at all. For instance, I didn’t know how to play Jacks and had no interest in learning how. Instead, I used to collect those little metal Jack thingies and the rubber balls anyway and use them, well, sort of architecturally, arranging them in patterns and trying to stack them up. We had a game of Tiddlywinks, but only rarely did we sit down to play the game where you snap the winks into a cup to win points. Instead, we’d line the plastic discs up in rows or create pictures with them by drawing circles around the outside of the discs.
I knew that there was an actual game called “marbles” but I had no idea how to play it. Sometimes I’d watch other kids trying to shoot each others’ marbles out of a ring, but I didn’t understand what they were doing and it never appealed to me. Nevertheless, I had a large collection of marbles in a cigar box. They fascinated me, with their swirly colors, and the way they sparkled in the sun. Bertie and I collected them and traded them with each other. Once we went to visit my Grandma and I found a box of old clay marbles in a closet. They weren’t shiny and swirly like my glass ones, and most of them weren’t very round, either, but I loved them. They were old and interesting and lopsided and nobody I knew had anything like them. I had fun arranging them in a circle and imagining little boys in caps and jodhpurs from long ago playing marble games with them in the street.
Ma bought Red Rascal roller skates for me and Bertie that clamped onto our shoes, and we used to skate up and down the cement terrace at the back of our house. But what I really liked to do with the skates was to use them as cars for my dolls. One skate would seat two of my smaller dolls, and then I’d take them for a fast ride around the terrace, using the leather ankle strap to keep them from falling off.
Pop liked to play chess, and he had a nice wooden chess set. The pieces were small and smooth and I loved the way they felt in my hands. I used them as toy soldiers, creating a battle field under the dining room table, until I was around nine years old. That was when Pop taught me how to play the real game of chess and I finally learned how to use the pieces the “right” way.
Our bedroom had spare drawers, so Bertie and I made dollhouses in them, using the cardboard that came in Pop’s shirts from the dry cleaner to build walls, and making furniture out of matchboxes, clay, popsicle sticks and anything else we could get our hands on, including Pop’s empty 22 rifle shells, which we used for tiny drinking glasses. We fashioned little people to live in our houses out of pipe cleaners and scraps of cloth.
But the most fun Bertie and I ever had playing with our dollhouses was with the Scrabble chips. We had no interest in playing the game in those days, but Pop had gotten a job working at a little Scrabble chip factory and he used to bring all the faulty chips home for us. They were made of real wood, so Bertie and I got to work right away, turning them letter-side down to make beautiful parquet floors for “drawer houses.”
I think I must have passed some of Bertie’s and my off-beat way of playing with toys on to my own daughters. When Hilary was a pre-toddler, for instance, her idea of fun was not to actually play with her toys, but to stuff them all in her toy box and then climb in with them and just sit there. And when Madeleine was around 9 or so, her favorite thing was to yank the heads off her Barbie dolls and then draw smiley faces on their neck stubs! A bit macabre, I suppose, but I have to admit it was pretty funny and I often joined in, indelible pen in hand.