By Maria Lagalante Schulz
When I was a kid, there was almost nothing as exciting as my birthday. The day would begin with a phone call from my Puerto Rican grandmother, who would get me on the phone at exactly the time I was born and sing Happy Birthday, or “Hoppy Birsday” with her big laugh at the end as a special treat. Five minutes later, she would call back to sing the same rendition of Hoppy Birsday to my twin brother, Chris.
Christmas was right up there on the EXCITO-METER, and so was Halloween, but the most exciting part of my birthday was that I:
1) Got cake
2) Got to share it with my twin, Chris, and older brother, Joey, whose birthday was the week before ours
3) Got to pick out my very own gift
The fact that I was only getting one gift, and that I could pick out anything I wanted in the store (under about $25 dollars) was huge to me. I used to spend almost the entire month of August researching my gift, because I knew it had to be good. It was the one and only gift I’d be getting from my parents, so I figured I had better make the best choice possible.
The year I turned five, I knew I wanted a Talking Stacy Barbie Doll.
Stacy had long red hair that she wore up in a pony tail, and when you pulled the string in the back of her neck, she said wise, Barbie-doll things like, “Hi, I’m Stacy,” and “that sounds fun.”
I already had the Malibu Barbies, with their long blonde hair and glowing tans. I had Barbie, Skipper, Francine and PJ. They all looked very chic in their blue, orange and yellow bathing suits and had the most “mod” looking sun glasses around.
I also had Busy Hands Barbie, who could pick things up thanks to her opposing thumbs that clicked when you shut the hands. I clicked her hands so much that she became “Carpel Tunnel Barbie” and her fingers froze into position. This also happened to Skipper’s knees, because I loved that clicking sound that the joints made. But I digress….
My parents got me my Talking Stacy and I loved her. I pulled the string over and over again, soaking in her Barbie Doll witticisms, until my brothers were ready to string Stacy and me up. I could not have been more delighted.
Then, Jude approached me with a scientific request.
“Maria,” he began, and I could tell that what he was about to say was very grown-up and important. At 13, he seemed like Einstein to me. “The guys and I would like to figure out how Talking Stacy talks. We know there’s some kind of mechanism that runs out of the back of her neck, but we don’t know how it works, exactly. Would you mind if we conducted a science experiment?”
Who was I to stand in the way of science? “Can I watch?” I said, sure that this would be fun.
“Sure!” Jude said. “But you can’t complain to Mom and Dad about it later. Deal?”
I was so happy to be a part of things that I said, “Okay!”
The next night, the seven of us gathered in my parents’ bedroom, which I would soon learn was doubling as an operating theater. Jude turned on the big overhead light and asked me for Talking Stacy.
I handed her over, not sure what Jude intended to do next. But I soon found out when a loud ‘CRACK’ rang out and he smacked her in the back of the neck with a hammer.
“Oh,” Jude said, as he held up the now limp string that wound through her back. “See guys, it’s just looped through here and it activates a small tape recorder. Too bad I broke it. Okay, here you go.”
He handed back Talking Stacy, who from here on out would just be known as Mute Stacy or “the doll with only a head” in Barbie circles. Her body was smashed to bits, and I had to pull her head off and place it on a different Barbie Doll, whose legs didn’t click, who didn’t have opposable thumbs, and who probably came from my grandmother after a trip to the five and dime.
Chris felt sorry for me. “That’s too bad about Stacy,” he said. “Are you going to tell Mom and Dad?”
“No, I made a deal,” I said, forlornly looking at Decapitated Stacy.
Later that night, I realized something. The next time any of my brothers approached me with a request for a science experiment on one of my toys, I would say yes, but only if they let me do whatever I wanted to one of their toys in return.
That cut down on the doll tragedies, somewhat, but not completely.
Other toys of mine that fell to my brothers:
- My first Drowsy was finally discovered at the bottom of my closet one day, after a long and frantic search. It seems that someone found the 9 things she could say reason enough to silence her forever. The string that made her talk was wound around her neck about 5 times. I would mourn Drowsy until Santa replaced her three years later, with a note that said “here’s a new Drowsy” in handwriting that I told my mother “looks just like yours!”
- My Julia Barbie doll lost her left leg in an unfortunate, Chris-related incident. He was so upset that he promptly hid her under my bed, meaning to go back later and fix her. When I found her minus one leg and under my bed, he confessed immediately. But Julia’s nursing days were clearly over.
- My Barbie Dune Buggy was pressed into service by my brothers and about 50 of their closest friends during a rough and tumble game of GI Joes. Unfortunately, at the height of a Top Secret Mission, they broke the front axle off my dune buggy and Barbie and friends had to walk to the beach from that day on.
Any toy that you got had to be guarded from the marauding hordes better known as my six brothers. Still, when August came around, Chris and I would watch TV ads, go to Korvette’s on Main Street with my mother and grandmother, and look through the toy catalogs on Sundays. Here’s what I chose in the years to come:
Baby That-A-Way: “Scoot and Scat-a-way, Baby That-A-Way.” The idea of a baby doll that could crawl down the hall, bump into things and then turn around, seemed like sheer genius to me. Of course, I really wanted Baby Alive but my mother heard of cases of Salmonella stemming from the doll food getting lodged in its’ body, so that was a no. Once Baby-That-A-Way met Goldie and Henry, however, it was time to stop letting her scoot and scat-a-way into any rooms where they might attack her and leave her as Baby Maul-Away.
Crissy Doll: I got this doll because her gleaming red hair could be curled (although I never figured out how to do it) and made longer or shorter depending on my mood. I wished there was a wheel in my back that could do the same thing, because when I cut my hair off it never grew back. My friend Perette gave me her sister’s old Crissy doll in an orange lace dress, and I made them twins.
I liked her, I really liked her, for about 5 hours that day. Then I realized that she didn’t talk, her fingers didn’t open and close, and her knees made that clicking noise but you couldn’t do that all day or you’d break her. I got tired of her pretty fast.
The Bionic Woman: Jaime Sommers was one cool bionic woman. When you turned her head, it made a clicking noise since she had bionic hearing. The skin on her arm rolled up and you could see the bionic components that gave her such incredible strength. Plus, she was a babe and looked great in her blue jumpsuit, standing next to all of my other Barbie dolls, and she came with a big red purse that was full of all sorts of bionic goodies.
Even a year later, when the skin on her right arm began to fall off from excessive rolling, I was able to write an impassioned letter to the toy company, and they sent me two new arms and detailed instructions on how to replace them. Chris never got the Steve Austin: Six Million Dollar Man doll, and I like to think this was because his Mike Powers, Atomic Man doll and Jaime already had an understanding.
Cher: I wanted this doll desperately. She had so many gorgeous gowns, and she was as beautiful as the real Cher. She had long, silky black hair, came in a hot pink halter dress, and wore matching hot pink pumps. My grandmother bought her for me after I stood in the toy aisle at Korvette’s and became speechless. My mother had already bought me the black Barbie Ballerina doll, since I felt it was important for Julia to have family around her following her accident. So, if my grandmother hadn’t been standing there when I found Cher, I never would have gotten her. Unfortunately, we never got Sonny, but it was just as well, since Cher divorced him soon afterwards and I didn’t know where to get a Greg Allmann doll.
A Custard Maker: this was one of those toys that my mother didn’t want to get for me. She never liked the EZ Bake Oven, fearing I would burn the house down. She also despised this tiny toy iron I had because you could plug it in and really iron things. I almost had a fit when she (rightly) cut the cord off and told me to use my imagination.
But the custard maker wasn’t something that required heat or electricity; you simply used ice, some powdered pudding mix in strawberry, vanilla, chocolate, or banana flavors, and a ton of arm strength to churn the custard and turn it into a soft-ice cream consistency. You could eat it in a cup or use ice cream cones. I loved my custard maker, and pretty soon, my mother loved it too.
When we were through picking out our toys and we’d spent the entire day enjoying them, my mother would call me out to the kitchen to help her bake a cake.
It wasn’t hard picking one out. Chris loved yellow cake with chocolate frosting, but sometimes we’d mix things up by baking a chocolate, vanilla, or marble cake. My mother would show me how to add just the right amount of chocolate batter to the cake, and Chris, Joey, Paul and I would fight over who got to lick the spoons, beaters and bowls.
My father would come home and after dinner, we would go for a walk around the neighborhood. He would always ask me, “so how does it feel to be turning 7? 8? 9? 10?” and eventually, “so how does it feel to be a teenager?” My response was always, “the same as it felt yesterday.”
When we got back, everybody would crowd around the dining room table and sing “Happy Birthday” to Chris and me. If it was a weekend, my grandmother, Uncle Don and Uncle Sal would be there. Sometimes Cindy was there too, and even the band members would sing along (there was nothing more tempting than cake as far as those boys were concerned).
As we got older, the trip to Korvette’s disappeared, along with the toys. My parents gave us cash and told us to get what we wanted. During my teen years, we all got really busy and didn’t always make time for birthday cake.
I haven’t had “Hoppy Birsday” sung to me since the year I turned 19, which really doesn’t seem as far away as it is now. Although the year I turned 20, my brother Tony called and sang the song in its’ entirety, so I wouldn’t miss my grandmother too much that day.
I remember turning 8 years old and thinking: I can’t wait to grow up. Now, I wonder, why was I in such a rush?
Flan (in honor of my grandmother)
Soft Ice Cream
So, what was your favorite Happy Birthday ritual when you were a kid? What toys did you get? What kind of cake did you eat? Leave a comment and let all the other Hungry Lifers know.