Well, Squints and a friend are making a devil’s food cake with butter cream frosting and trashing my kitchen as they try to separate the eggs. Perhaps I should give them a hand, but I won’t. The cake may be delicious. Quite possibly, it will be a disaster. But, short of a fire, I will stay out of their way, acting only as consultant. I will allow them to own this project because of a lesson my parents repeatedly taught my siblings and me years ago, a lesson that said that in order to succeed, we must first fail.
* * *
A gigantic cardboard box waited in the center of the main room at the K of C Hall. A gaggle of girls crowded it, some kneeling on the grimy chipped tiles, others standing and leaning forward, watching the proceedings.
“I’m taking this one!” Every so often, a girl would leap up, clutching a naked doll to her chest.
My mother, being the leader of this Girl Scout troop, probably made my sisters wait until last to pick their dolls—fat dolls with pink cheeks and cheery smiles, despite the chill they must have felt in their nakedness.
Fiona flounced into the room, a bright smile upon her impossibly pink lips. “Mine’s going to be Best of Show,” she proclaimed, selecting a doll from the box.
The idea behind the annual Dolly Derby was to take a gently used doll and fashion her a new outfit. Just in time for Christmas, the stylish new dolls would be donated to local kids whose families couldn’t afford to buy gifts.
Like all Good Deeds, this one was accompanied by prizes: If a girl worked hard, she could win in any number of categories—best swimwear; best casual outfit; best evening wear. Or, a girl could win the coveted Best of Show.
I narrowed my eyes. Fiona wasn’t going to take Best of Show. Leslie or Kathy would. Like our mother, my sisters were—and are—accomplished seamstresses. I was jealous of the fact that they could take a piece of fabric and transform it into a dress. The one and only time I attempted a dress, I ironed a hole through the yoke, and my sewing days came to an abrupt and tearful end.
My sisters promptly forgot about the naked dolls. Heck, it wasn’t even October. There was plenty of time to sew their outfits. Every so often, my mother would make inquires: “How are the outfits coming along?”
“Yeah, just terrific.”
And then one of them would probably plug in the sewing machine and step on the pedal for a few moments for added effect. My sisters and I considered ourselves masters at this type of deception: When my father, in an effort to lower our electricity bill, informed us that each of us was permitted to use the blow dryer only twice per week, we despaired, until one of us came up with the perfect solution: Dad wouldn’t come upstairs to see who was using the blow dryer on which day. But he might listen in to hear how many times the dryer was switched on. So on my day, I would turn on the blow dryer, arrange my hair into a passable style and hand off the dryer to Kathy who, once she’d finished, would pass it to Leslie. The dryer was turned on only once. It just stayed on longer than usual. I doubt the electricity bill dipped that month. And I doubt my father was fooled. Anyway, the idea was abandoned within the month, the way my sisters abandoned those poor dolls, stuffed by now in the backs of their closets.
The morning of the Dolly Derby arrived; the morning that all the local troops would gather back in the main room of the K of C Hall, a room that always smelled faintly of natural gas and mildew. There would be long tables set up upon which the transformed dolls would be displayed. The local press would be there, too, to take pictures of the winners. Yeah, this was the day: The day the girls earned those badges to put on their uniforms; the day the troop leaders could take pride in their girls and silently promise to themselves not to volunteer again next year; the day the siblings would vow that they, too, would sign up for the Dolly Derby as soon as they were old enough.
Leslie and Kathy had been quiet all morning, shut up in their bedrooms, putting, I supposed, the finishing touches upon their outfits. I couldn’t wait to see those dolls; couldn’t wait for the Best of Show award to be prominently displayed on our living room mantle.
“Girls,” Mom said, butting up her coat. “We’re going to be late.”
They emerged from their bedrooms, hands clutched behind their backs.
“Well,” Mom said. “Let’s see them.”
Eyes cast downward, my sisters brought out the dolls.
I knew then, gazing at those dolls, that the Best of Show award would not be coming to our house that night. The kitchen was silent while Mom stared, open-mouthed at the awful image before her. My sisters hadn’t sewn shorts or dresses for their dolls. The dolls weren’t wearing new skirts or pretty pink bathrobes. No, for the annual Dolly Derby, my sisters had chosen to attire their dolls in toilet paper. Leslie’s resembled a mummy wrapped from head to toe in thick layers of white Charmin tied off in an expansive bow at the back. Kathy opted for a beach look: a floral two-ply halter top tied at the neck and a green bikini bottom that looked more like a diaper. For one unbearable moment, the dolls seemed to regard one another, trying to decide, perhaps, whether to laugh or cry.
The moment was broken when my mother uttered a stream of words; one long sentence unbroken by any punctuation except for the final exclamation point. “Go get some of your doll clothes and put them on those dolls I can’t believe the daughters of the troop leader are taking dolls like that to the Dolly Derby you two should be ashamed!”
For the first time in my life, I was glad I was too young to be a Girl Scout.
We drove to the Derby in silence. My sisters sat with tear-streaked cheeks, eyes avoiding the horrible dolls sitting on their laps, looking awful in their stained, ill-fitting hand-me-downs. When we arrived at the Derby, Leslie and Kathy rushed to the nearest table, hid their dolls on the table, then hurried away.
Someone picked up one of the dolls and held it up to my mother. “Who brought this?” A small crowd gathered to stare at the poor doll. Someone giggled. And then, the room fell into a stunned silence. Fiona had entered, smiling regally, bearing her doll like an offering to the gods. Fiona’d chosen a wedding gown for her doll: layers of silky hand-beaded fabric; a long train; a veil; even little white shoes with heels. Jaws dropped. The circle around my mother dispersed and reassembled itself around Fiona. We all wanted that doll. We needed that doll. For a minute, I wished to be one of the less fortunate, so I could take that bridal doll home.
“How did she?” someone whispered.
But we all knew: she hadn’t.
Predictably, Fiona’s doll won Best of Show. Her picture appeared in the paper. She received a fancy award. Yeah, Fiona had her day of success. And my sisters had their day of failure. And I suspect my mother knew those outfits weren’t done that day. Yeah, my mother had allowed her daughters to fail.
By letting their children fail and fail and fail yet again, my parents taught us to succeed. Because a few days of failure can bring a lifetime of success.
Labels: Cooking, Girl Scouts, Raising Children, Sons