Thursday, December 31, 2009

stories from a maker childhood

A TV show about vintage toys brought on a discussion in our house of toys we had when we were kids. Not too surprisingly to anyone that knows me, my favorite activities were making things and reading.

My love of all things spooky, supernatural was inborn in me. My earliest comic books at 5 years old were Casper the Friendly Ghost and Wendy the Little Witch. I attended church preschool at The Falls Church, and I was often found wandering the small cemetery that is there. I still have a glow-in-the-dark ghost family that I know we bought one figure at a time on visits to the drug store in Falls Church. It should be no surprise, then, that my absolutely favorite toy from my childhood was the Thingmaker. I have a photo from either Christmas 1968 or my birthday in 1969 where I am joyfully displaying my favorite present - a mold with which to make my own little skeletons.

Don't remember the Thingmaker? It was later re-branded as "Creepy Crawlies." It was basically a hot plate, accompanied by metal molds, into which you poured colored "Goop." The heat set up the goop in the mold, and once the mold was cooled you had soft rubbery things. There were molds for bugs, but there were also molds with which you cast parts to make larger items (skeletons) or 3D objects (so-called "Dragons," which were THE hot trading item when I was in the 2nd grade after clackers, those glassy resin balls on thin rope that you clacked together to make really loud noises and sort of perform tricks). You could mix the colors of goop and create some really startling color combinations. It later years they also had "jewel" molds with jewel powder to cast hard plastic jewels. I am sure the company that manufactured these made quite a bit off the goop and jewel powder consumables. The product disappeared and came back in the 1990s in a safer version but it just didn't look as good to me. OK, I guess it's not acceptable anymore to give 5 year-olds a toy that consisted of an open hot plate, metal molds, and some flimsy tongs with which to extract the hot molds, but I really loved that toy.

I did not have an Easy Bake Oven. Mom would give me a toy that was an open hot plate but not one with an enclosed light bulb? I once enacted the roasting of my talking Bugs Bunny puppet with a neighbor girl with a roasting pan in a dresser drawer. I spent a lot of time at her house because they had a color TV and her mother would let us watch "Dark Shadows" after school.

I was not one for playing much with dolls. I had a large baby doll and baby furniture - I cherished and still have the doll blankets that my mother knitted but can barely remember the doll. I had Barbie dolls (the rotating electric kitchen of the future was my favorite accessory), a Chrissy doll with hair that grew and retracted again (that fascinated me), and Dawn dolls (I loved her dress with the crystal-pleated organza skirt, and her beach house with the inflatable pool). I later transformed some of those dolls into superheroes by making them little costumes. Then there was the one I turned into an Andorian by painting her skin blue with permanent marker and coating her hair with liquid paper. I gave all those dolls away to the daughter of a friend in the late 1980s.

I did have a dollhouse, my most desired gift for Christmas 1969. That was the Imagination dollhouse, an amazing reconfigurable mid-century modern style plastic dollhouse that consisted of three movable transparent colored plastic structures. The figures and furnishings were all sleek and modern. I know they sometimes appear on Ebay. In a future where nostalgia overwhelms me and I am flush with cash and storage space, I may buy one.

I never had Legos, but I did have Lincoln Logs. I have no idea if Mom knew they were developed by one of Frank Lloyd Wright's sons, but she had a Frank Lloyd Wright obsession (she lived in the FLW Imperial Hotel in Tokyo in the 1950s) that she passed along to me.

Mom was a maker at heart. She knit and crocheted, and had a fondness for paper crafts. Somewhere I have a picture from Easter 1970 where you can see on a table an astonishing tableaux of two stylized rabbits, where the clothing/bodies were constructed of a number of different coordinated patterned and plain colored glossy stiff paper (why do I remember that the paper came in folded squares from a Hallmark store?), the heads were decorated blown eggs made to look like bunnies, and they had as Easter hat and an Easter bonnet perched over their ears. I know the templates came from a magazine. Mom kept them for years, but I did not find them when I cleaned out her house after her death.

We crafted a lot together. Some time around 1970 Mom bought The McCalls Giant Golden Make-It Book for us. It was full of templates and instructions to make dozens of projects. Mom was annoyed by my lack of patience in waiting for glue to dry and my insistence in using scotch tape for every paper project instead. She despaired of my seemingly profligate use of tape. Yes, I still have that book.

Mom was an excellent cook but a so-so baker. At Christmas she obsessed about making cookies. Her attempts at bread were disastrous, so she resorted to frozen bread dough. Her Pfeffernusse were like dog kibble. When I was in elementary school I bought The Cookie Book by Eva Moore through one of my Scholastic book orders. It had one recipe for each month of the year, and we made its December sugar cookie recipe with "Peanuts" Christmas cookie cutters which we decorated in glorious detail. (I still have the book, too, and think it has the best Snickerdoodle recipe.) Mom also had a cookie press and made butter cookies that she dyed in batches of red and green. Some years they were very pale tints and some years they were very vivid. Both were unappetizing to look at but yummy. I have that cookie press in its original box with all its dies, and I use it almost every Christmas. I do NOT dye my dough.

I never picked up knitting. I was OK at crocheting. I loved embroidery, needlepoint, and sewing. Mom taught me to sew, I had classes as part of my Girl Scout sewing badge, and I took a summer school needlearts class (we will not speak of my knitting attempts in that class). I still sew but I haven't tried anything else in decades. I am daunted by my expert knitting friends.

Mom had excellent copyist drawing skills. She never created any original works that I remember, but she could copy anything. She was astonishingly skilled with charcoal and pastels. She and I took an oil painting class together when I was a child - the instructor must have been extraodinarily understanding that she let a single mother bring her elementary-aged daughter to class with her. Luckily I was a good painter. My drawing skills were never great. I took lessons in Chinese ink painting in middle school, and I somehow talked my way into a life-drawing class when I was 17 (in post-Proposition 13 California most high school art classes were canceled, so I took adult education and community college classes). My high school classmates just could not deal that I was drawing nude models. I also took a print-making class. I was working with oversize printing plates and had to work with them in the acid with my bare hands. The yellow and black chemical discoloration of my hands freaked out my high school chemistry teacher, who was afraid I'd done it in her class. She was relieved and horrified when I told her what I was doing.

My early childhood room in a number of houses was decorated with little paint-by-numbers paintings. Mom loved the precision of those little kits and pots of paint. I hated the clowns and strange, stylized dogs. I still have the ocean scenes she painted for me. I don't remember doing this myself. I preferred playing with Colorforms when I was 4 and 5. And my Etch-a-Sketch. And my favorite toy before my getting my Thingmaker - a Lite Brite. I always used up the black sheets of construction paper out of the mixed-color pads first as Lite Brite refills. The sensation of pushing the light pin through the paper and through the round mesh and seeing the pin light up was just so cool.

I may have had a couple of tiny Liddle Kiddle dolls, but what I loved was my Liddle Kiddle branded tracing light box. I used that light box - its body was lavender plastic - at least 15 years through the mid-80s when it finally died. I also had a Barbie branded "fashion plate" set that consisted of a series of outline templates that you used to draw Barbie figures that you could color in. There were patterned rubbing plates you could use to create textures. I loved the fashion design aspect of it.

Didn't every kid in the 1970s have a Spirograph? I could create intricate patterns for hours, and I kept a stash of colored ballpoint pens. Actually, I know not every kid had one because I always took it with me to my cousins' house, along with the Barbie fashion plates. My cousin Sandy may have had the Mousetrap and Green Ghost games, but I had those.

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