I was eight when the Cabbage Patch Kid craze swept through America like a toy tsunami. Cabbage Patch Kids were soft-body dolls with round, plastic faces sporting chubby cheeks, freckles, and heads covered in yarn hair—curly, straight, braided, short, and then later on none at all when they introduced their “preemie” line. Each doll came lightly perfumed with the unmistakable baby powder smell and their creepy mythology was as follows: Cabbage Patch Kids sprouted from a magical cabbage patch, (if only biology were truly that kind) plucked out of the ground by the benevolent, young Xavier Roberts who whisked them to Babyland General Hospital in Cleveland, Georgia where they waited to be adopted by an awesome little kid like YOU (for the low, low price of $49.95). The dolls’ tiny, fabric puckered bottoms sported the blue scrawl of Xavier Roberts’ signature (Ummm, ok, not weird to have a guy’s name branded on one’s ass I suppose) and each one had with their own adoption certificate bearing (at the time) exotic names like Roxanne Fanny, Isabella Rose, and Benjamin Lewis.
Kids and parents lost their collective minds for these things. This was 1984 when word still traveled by newspapers and television and there was no Amazon Prime to save us all. Stores sold out of shipments before they hit the shelves thanks to endless pre-orders. In the extraordinary occurrence that a toy store did have stock available, the demand was so huge they held lotteries: you would basically show up 8 days before the announced date, get a number, and hope they called yours. Real kids who needed actual adoptive families weren’t this highly coveted.
Of course I wanted one as badly as the next girl. It didn’t help that many of my friends had them, some even had TWO, which seemed both cruel and unnecessary and was one of my first lessons about something called a higher tax bracket. Life lived without one of these special dolls was unbelievably unfair in my comfortable, middle-class house where my Dad worked his corporate job and my Mom appointed herself unpaid CEO of Child-Raising Inc. My parents were pragmatists. Neither one was too keen to shell out fifty beans for a toy (baffling) or to add to the collective mele that had nothing to do with government regime change, water shortage, or even the Beatles, but revolved around, again, a toy. Why I had to suffer for my parents’ stalwart values, I had no idea. I only knew that I was left out, that I was somehow less than for not being able to have one of these dolls.
During this time we took one of our family trips to see my grandparents in Manhattan. My parents were great about jamming a bunch of touristy activities into those trips even though museums and historic landmarks were not necessarily the kid-friendly places they are today. So there was a lot of this:
“It’s a room with rugs on the wall.”
“These are 14th century tapestries. Aren’t they beautiful?”
“Can we get ice cream?”
As a reward for this forced family fun, my parents would take us to FAO Schwarz, the high holy mecca of toy stores. Entire rooms devoted to Barbie and Lego, three floors of stuffed animals. Nirvana. If any place was going to have those goddamn Cabbage Patch dolls, it was the proverbial Emerald City of kid stuff.
“When we go to FAO Schwarz, if they have Cabbage Patches, do you think I could get one?” I asked my mother.
“Maybe,” she said. “We’ll see.” That singular pursuit and hope occupied my fevered little brain from the second we left the house to the moment we stepped across the threshold to Wonderland.
I bee-lined for the doll section, which spanned several meandering rooms. A standing sign at the entrance read “We are currently sold out of Cabbage Patch Kids.” Defeat. My mom and I wandered through admiring the huge array of dolls eventually winding up in a section that housed the fancy pants dolls. These were the kind of dolls my mother might have played with as a girl. Some had porcelain faces with spidery eyelashes and hair that felt like corn silk. Their dresses were all exquisite—velvet skirts, delicate satin jackets, soft, lace petticoats. Who needed a dumb, doughy doll grown in the ground when you could have one of these exquisite little ladies?
I was looking at a stand of these dolls housed in a glass case when I heard a voice say, “Excuse me.” I turned to find a woman a little older than my mother standing next to me. In her arms she cradled a beautiful doll with long, chestnut hair wearing a pink silk dress.
“Would you like this doll?” she asked. I blinked. It was like every Disney movie, every fairy tale I had ever gobbled up come springing to life: the scrappy, unassuming girl of lesser means (Ok, that part is a stretch) plucked out of the masses and chosen.
“Oh yes,” I managed to squeak and nodded enthusiastically, beaming up at my new Fairy Godmother.
“I have a niece who is just about your age and I think, then, she would probably like it too.” She smiled down at me and clutched the doll against her chest as she walked away.
Devastation. That encounter seemed to encompass the entire Cabbage Patch odyssey in 60 seconds: Some people seem chosen, some seem like they are “the ones” while others remain outside of that designation. Harsh. But the evil toy geniuses had built that into the Cabbage Patch story—the squishy little things went from dirt to hospital waiting for someone to pick them, waiting to be seen as special enough to be given a home.
It’s messy, right, whether you’re eight, eighteen, or eighty? It’s a little unfair that our self-worth can be so fragile when it’s yoked to something as tenuous as the seeds from the head of a dandelion. It’s one of those things we have to learn and unlearn every six months: your shoes don’t matter, you matter; your car doesn’t matter, you matter; your book deal doesn’t matter, you matter.
It was just a toy, yeah? It was just a stupid doll, you know? Or was it a tenacious reminder that no one actually gets to choose us; we choose ourselves.