Barbie Meets Her Match: Grandma

"Look what she can do, Grandma!" Four-year-old Victoria clutches a small remote control, points it at her new Barbie doll dressed in an explosion of pink net, and presses the button. With rigid obedience, and every synthetic hair in place, Barbie spins around - first in circles, and then randomly - all over the kitchen floor.

Victoria has no idea that I am spinning back 25 years to when her mother, at 6, yearned for a Barbie so she could occasionally play with some older neighborhood girls. But the doll was very expensive, and I had a really hard time with a first-grader buying into TV advertising and wanting to identify with a stereotyped teenager. My daughter had to make do with her baby dolls and other toys. (Fortunately, her best friend was likewise limited.)

My daughter grew up, but Barbie did not go away. Last time I visited the toy store, I noticed that one entire aisle - both sides - was devoted to Barbie and her accouterments.

What's a grandmother to do?

Actually, I started my underground campaign against pseudo-sophisticated electronic toys two summers ago, when I was staying at Victoria's house, helping to welcome her baby sister. Knowing that Victoria's parents did not want her glued to one Disney video after another, I had brought along simpler entertainments, such as gold paper for princess crowns.

The most popular proved to be water play out on the deck in either the plastic wading pool or two large metal bowls. I had purchased the bowls - along with duck-shaped measuring cups, an ice-cube tray, a sack of sponges, measuring spoons, and a set of colorful funnels - for a princely $3.48 at the "dollar" store. "Look what you can do, Tori!" I showed her, and she measured, poured, splashed, and reveled in water. Occasionally, she scrubbed the deck in imitation of Cinderella. (Disney did not disappear altogether.)

During last summer's visit, when I met whirl-around Barbie, I had brought a much humbler toy: a clean coffee can and a set of nylon paintbrushes ($2.99 at the drug store). Years ago, my mother-in-law had told me about teaching children to paint with water on any surface that darkens satisfyingly when wet, using old brushes and a can of water. She used to keep her children occupied that way while she did real painting, but I thought it sounded like fun any time. Tori and I "painted" her entire deck together, admiring each other's technique and swiftness. Next time we will discuss the imaginary colors we are spreading.

And on my next visit, I will take Victoria a homemade shoebox train, just like the one my mother made for me when I was 4. It has three cars, attached with string. Each car has many windows cut out. Victoria will choose which colors of tissue paper will be taped over the windows. In the bottom of each box we'll put a tiny flashlight, fixed in place with masking tape. On the right night, when dusk is just starting, we will turn on the flashlights and slowly walk down the sidewalk, pulling the train behind us. Victoria will hold the string, but her mother and I will be there - along with her two great-grandmothers, in spirit - three generations of mothers who know what real fun is.

Put that in your remote control, Barbie.

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