In Copley Square in downtown Boston, there is a large ‘New York’ road sign at the entrance to the turnpike. Whenever I see it, it still amazes me that I live in a place where New York, a city once mythicized to me through movies, Frank Sinatra, and 9/11 news coverage, is a drivable destination. I have been to New York about twenty or thirty times with my Mum. In fact we have been frequently enough that we have developed certain rituals whenever we visit the city. We have favorite hotels, we always go to Dylan’s Candy Bar to get chocolate covered gummy bears for my younger sister, and we usually go to F.A.O. Schwartz to look at the Barbies. This Summer, we added a new stop on our New York tour as I took my Mum to American Girl Place for the first time.We spent nearly an hour watching the dolls get their hair done in the dolls salon. First they have a robe placed around their necks, before being seated in a spa chair. Next comes a full body clean with lotion, teeth brushing, and nail and feet cleaning. Then the real work begins. Having chosen a hair style, the girls look on in wonder as their doll’s hair is transformed from a Medusa like state to a smooth shiny braid, bun, or up do. I don’t know what the stylists have in their spray bottles but it is a magic potion for dolls hair! As the stylists brushed, combed, and cut, they chatted away with their young clients, asking them about their favorite doll adventure, what outfits their doll liked to wear, and what they were doing with the rest of their time in New York together.
For the finale, the stylist opened their draw of ribbons and the little girl was allowed to pick two colors from the copious rolls available. As the draw opened my Mum gasped, “Tess, this is your dream job!” She is exactly right; ribbons, hair plaiting, and child’s play really would be my winning combination. With a final flourish, the ribbons were ceremoniously braided in to the doll’s hair. The stylist gave the excited child a pamphlet about doll hair care, and explained how essential it was to only use the American Girl brush. Feeling very guilty that I did not have one for Molly, we walked over to the brush section and added a brush to my increasingly heavy shopping bag.
By the end of the hour at the salon, it was clear that I was not the only one who would make a purchase today. With my youngest niece’s fifth birthday approaching, my Mum suggested getting one for her. And so after picking up a hairbrush for the soon to be purchased doll, we made our way to the My American Girl section of the store. My American Girl launched in 1995. Unlike the historical collection, these are contemporary dolls that can participate in whatever activities their young owners are interested in. Accessories and clothing for all hobbies and activities are available for purchase. There are gymnastic bars, tennis rackets, snowboarding boards, ballet tutus, yoga mats, and paintbrushes. The dolls themselves are available in similar variety so that you can choose one that closely resembles its owner.After much discussion we narrowed it down to two possibilities for my niece, and finally chose a blonde doll with long hair, and a sprinkling of freckles. My Mum, boyfriend, and I all concurred that she looked the most like our birthday girl to be. Soon the doll was safely packed up in her red and white bag, and after a trip back to Boston on the Megabus, she crossed the Atlantic in Mum’s hand luggage.
In August, when I was back in England, we planned an early birthday tea so that I could be there when my niece opened her presents. Molly (my American Girl doll) “wrote” an invitation, and my niece excitedly wrote back saying she would love to come to the party. On the day of the party, I am sure I was more excited than our guests. America has exposed me to the art of tablescaping and themed parties, so I took a slice of this back to England and went a little American Girl crazy. Taking the star motif as a guide I made a star cake, star shaped confetti on the table, star shaped jelly, and fruit kebabs with melon stars. We had “cocktails” in champagne glasses, and mini biscuits and party hats for the dolls.
I wrapped her doll in blue star gift-wrap, added some extra glittery stars on ribbons, and an American flag for a gift tag. On opening the gift, my niece was completely overwhelmed. All eyes on her she did not know what to say. But once we took the doll out of the box and she sat on the floor brushing her hair, that moment said it all. Concerned that she might want more clothes for her doll, I told her she could borrow any of Molly’s for the day. However, this fear was completely unwarranted. Our sweet-tempered four-year-old was content with just a hairbrush and a long blonde mane to brush.
After tea and cake (with candles relit three times so each of my nieces could blow them out), I sat with the birthday girl as she brushed her dolls hair. “I’ve wanted a doll like this my whole life,” she told me, “Because I’ve always wanted a doll that closes its eyes when she goes to sleep.” I could not love her more than in that moment.
Her doll is now named Katie Isabel, and she and Molly exchange mail. She’s been to Spain on summer vacation, and has enjoyed a range of hairstyles courtesy of my niece. This weekend I am starting to make her Christmas gift: a wardrobe of dolls clothes. As with her tea party, I know I will get as much enjoyment from the gift as she does.
In my class we talk at length about how there is no one American Dream, but rather the strength of the idea is its flexible ideology. For my younger self, coming to New York was certainly a defining feature of my vision of an American utopia. But the older I get the more I realize the American Dream isn’t about places so much as it is about people. The American Dream survives because people make it their own. It could be visiting the White House, it could be seeing the Grand Canyon, it could be watching fireworks on July 4th, or it could be playing American Girl dolls with a four-year-old niece. You don’t find the American Dream, you make it.