Thanks, Tonka

When she was younger, Sierra would head back to Nebraska every summer for a week or so to spend time with her grandparents and cousins. We generally would have huge piles of hand-me-downs for our niece, but this story is about the time we also had something in the pile that we knew our nephews would probably latch onto. After nearly nine years, Sierra decided it was time to send her huge, metal Tonka dump truck to a new home. I nearly cried as she wheeled it out the door for the last time.

This of course, seems like a drastic overreaction on my part, especially given my typical lack of sentimentality for anything. I understand that. But here’s the backstory: when  I was in Kindergarten, I broke both my jaw and my elbow in separate incidents. Those weren’t even my first broken bones. How about that? Look at how proud I am with my new arm jail.

laura-broken arm

My first memory is of being pushed around as a very small toddler in my brother’s battered yellow Tonka dump truck. My parents were working on the addition to their house, and I remember my brother zooming around with me heaped unceremoniously in the bucket of his truck. I remember the sound he was making with his lips as he pushed me around, and I remember the way it echoed off of the new walls. I remember the smell of the sheetrock and new paint. I remember his dorky home haircut. I grew up exclusively with boys. A toughened tomboy, I was constantly injured from falling out of trees, flying over my bike handlebars (NOBODY wore helmets back then), playing football (I was always all-time quarterback), or any number of other rough and tumble incidents. I wasn’t into frilly dresses, or cute hair clips, or any of that crap. I was into scabs, scars, bruises, and dirt.

I was the only female grandchild. This created a number of problems, as I consequently suffered injustices that were totally unfair whenever a birthday or Christmas rolled around. Case in point: one year my grandfather, who was a retired iron worker with a passion for carpentry, hand-built these incredible toy boxes for each of his five male grandchildren. They looked just like barns. My brother still has his, and has since passed it down to his own daughter. Instead of a custom-crafted toy box, I received a pair of cheap satin pajamas adorned with lace at the collar and cuffs and a string of satin rosebuds at the neckline. Seriously. I’m not an ungrateful person, but as a kid this felt really unfair. It was frustrating that my grandparents did not seem to understand who I was and what I liked. It also was unsettling to think that my likes and dislikes were so clearly contrary to what was considered “normal” for other girls.

A couple of years later, my grandfather did make me something. He kept dropping hints and teasers and I got really excited knowing that he was making something just for me. The day of unveiling came, and as I took the lid off of the enormous square box I just stared. Luckily, everyone just assumed that I was overwhelmed by the gift, rather than recognizing that I was trying to process the blankness in my heart. My grandfather had built me a dollhouse. It was big and certainly beautiful, with handcrafted individual shingles. It was bright yellow with white heart gingerbread-style trimmings and he had made it all, including the furniture inside. He even bought a little doll family-a mother, father, son and daughter. The daughter was blonde and pixie-like with a frilly white dress and shiny patent-leather shoes. She was everything that I was not. And it seemed to me that this was what a girl should like, and this little doll family was what my family was supposed to look like but couldn’t, because of me. I am certain that was not my grandfather’s intention, but that was what I felt. I’m sure he had beautiful images in his mind of me playing with it. In the sunspot from a window with the light reflecting off of my blonde angel’s head, there I would be, acting out little dramas with the tiny family. You know the type: Father comes home from his office job to his beautiful housewife (also in a dress) making a standard American meat and potatoes dinner. Along come their perfect clean children who had finshed their homework and their chores and had washed up for dinner, and were now just waiting for tie-wearing, loving breadwinner dad to sit in his recliner with his pipe and read the day’s news to them. With that image in mind, it’s safe to say that I disappointed him. When he saw me actually playing with it, I got in trouble.

Later that afternoon, my grandparents walked in on me playing with my dollhouse. The little family was staged inside, just as things should be for such a perfect atomic family in their perfect suburban house. Blonde daughter in her pink wallpapered bedroom reading before bed. Plaid-shirted son in the living room watching television. Perky mother in the kitchen, doing whatever it is that mothers can manage to do in a kitchen ALL DAY LONG. And let’s not forget about dapper dad, relaxing in the recliner with the newspaper. What my grandparents did not expect to see was the group of my brother’s GI Joes I had rapelling down from the quaint gingerbread trimming adorning the rooftop to sniper the family, which it transpired, were in fact treasonous spies, trading top secret information to the Russians in exchange for nuclear arms. I didn’t even know what nuclear arms were. I figured they were like bionic Transformer arms that you could wear over your regular arms and win battles with. To me, this seemed like a perfectly reasonable thing to be doing. My grandparents were appalled.

The dollhouse was taken away from me that same afternoon. It stayed at their house for the rest of my childhood, tucked up on a high shelf, glaring down at me accusingly every time we would visit my grandparents. I never got it back.

I assume it is still there, collecting dust and getting brittle with age. I have not been back to their home in nearly twenty years. I decided many years ago to never go back.

I was accepted by the boys in the family as an equal (or if not equal, at least a step above “other girls”), but the grown-ups always wanted to give me girly things. I mostly wore boy clothes (my brother’s hand-me-downs) because I would destroy anything else. But with my white-blonde hair (it got darker as I got older, ultimately setting at black just like my dad’s) and big brown eyes, I think that everyone just wanted to doll me up. There is one photograph of me that my mom laughs about to this day. In the photograph, I’m so posed and I look so uncomfortable that it makes me cringe to think about it. I’m all gussied up in some awful pink thing with too many bows, my hair is half up and is clean and shiny, and I’m sitting quite primly in a white wicker chair (like every other childhood portrait from the 80s) with my head tilted to the right just-so. It all looks sweet and innocent until you see my scabbed over knees and the giant bruises all over my legs. That was the real me, and there was really no use in pretending otherwise

When I was little, all I wanted to be in life was a firefighter. I told everyone I met. I was proud of this ambition and I enjoyed the looks on their faces when I said this. I loved the idea of fighting fires, saving people, and being a hero. It was my dream. And everyone had their input as to why it could never be attained. Mothers, fathers, friends, teachers…everyone was perfectly happy to tell me why I was wrong to have such a dream.

                  “It’s not a girl’s job.”

                  “Wouldn’t you rather be a teacher or a mommy instead?”

                  “Don’t encourage her.”

                  “Girls just don’t do that.”

                  “You could be a nurse instead.”

This was in the 1980s, not the 1880s! At the time, I didn’t understand. I couldn’t figure out why people were so insistent that I couldn’t be a firefighter. In the end, I decided that the only thing holding me back was that they wouldn’t want a girl firefighter sleeping in the same room as all of the boy firefighters. After all, when my friends spent the night, they always slept in my brother’s room and I slept in mine, so that seemed pretty logical. I contented myself with knowing that as long as I slept in a different room in the firehouse, I could become a firefighter. The dream was still alive.

I never had the cool toys the boys had. I always had to fight to play with their toys. They obviously didn’t want to play with the stuff in my room, so it wasn’t like we could trade off or anything. Then, there came a singular moment in my childhood that changed everything-my birthday. I never got too worked up about birthdays as a kid. My brother and I never really had birthday parties-we lived too far out in the sticks to have groups of friends over, so it was usually just a family night. Also, I think I’ve made it fairly clear how unsatisfactory my gifts generally were from anyone other than my parents. Often, birthday gifts were things that I needed, like clothes or shoes-things I was notoriously hard on, or things that I didn’t care much for like the girly crap I always got from everyone else. Truly the best part of my birthday was that it was summertime, it was light late, and there were fireflies about. Running barefoot through the grass catching lightning bugs with my brother and cousins is what I think of when I think of summer nights. The heavy purple air, the feel of warm dirt, and the peppery smell of freshly-mown grass. The background sonata of crickets and bullfrogs in the night and the tangy taste of fresh-squeezed lemonade on my tongue. That is what my birthday memories are mostly made of, not the gifts. However, one year was different.

I remember absolutely everything about it. When a pivotal event happens in your life, it seems that your senses are sharper, the colors are clearer and brighter, and the sounds are louder. I remember seeing my uncle Mike bounding up the driveway with a long, rectangular package under his arm and a big, triumphant even, smile on his face. I remember the way the moss-covered bricks from our sidewalk felt under my bare feet at that moment. I remember that there was a fat squirrel on the bird feeder holding a piece of stale bread and that even he seemed to be watching Mike’s approach with piqued interest, to distracted to eat. I remember the sight of the cottonwood trees blowing in the wind and the pinging sound of my brother and cousins hitting rocks down the road with an aluminum baseball bat. I remember that we were making ice cream and the sound of the crushing ice nearly overpowered everything else. It was almost my turn to crank, and that’s why I was on the sidewalk instead of off playing. I can still smell the salt.

At the sight of Uncle Mike and his present, the boys all came running in to see. He handed the package to me, said, “Happy Birthday!” and thumped me on the head. I sat down where I was because the present was heavy and too long and awkward for me to hold. I had no idea what it was.

It was so heavy and awkward it was difficult to unwrap. I remember the restlessness of my brother and the other boys as I struggled to unsheath the box from its Batman wrapping paper. I knew they wanted to help, they too wanted to see what was inside, and they were impatient with my clumsiness. They did not intervene and eventually the final wrappings fell away revealing a plain cardboard box. My dad cut the tape holding the flaps down and they sprung open, as if even they couldn’t wait to show me what was inside. I reached in and felt cold metal, solid and strong under my fingertips. I pulled.

Uncle Mike bought me a Tonka firetruck.

It probably weighed ten pounds. The ladders disconnected, the rubber hoses popped together, the doors opened. This was a legit toy. It had another hose on the top, on a rolling dispenser. It had a tiny fire hydrant, and an elaborate gold “Engine No. 5” sticker on the door. The boys, of course, immediately tried to latch onto it. By this time I knew enough about punching and the need to defend personal property that I was able to keep their greedy paws off of it. My mom told them that it was my toy, and if they wanted to play with it, they needed permission. In an instant, I had a toy that was desirable to the boys and a toy that fueled the fire, so to speak, with regard to my firefighter dream. I was so empowered by this heavy metal Tonka truck. Nothing else mattered. The naysayers and dream-killers didn’t matter anymore.

The truck immediately became my favorite toy. It went everywhere with me. I tied it to the back of my bike and drug it around behind me. The crises and dramas played out with that truck were endless. The boys always tried to capture it, but they never succeeded. They got a taste of their own medicine when they ran to my mom to complain that I was not sharing. She had no pity for them.

I painted a picture of my truck that I still have to this day. It is huge. It also is the only remnant left. Eventually the truck became so battered that my mom threw it out. I was crushed then, but as I got older I understood-the metal was so warped and broken and sharp and rusty from years of love. As grubby as I was as a kid, I’m sure my mom was sick of having to pull out metal shavings and treat me with peroxide every time I touched the thing.

My uncle Mike probably just thought I would like the truck because I wanted to be a firefighter. That was true, of course, but it had a deeper meaning to me even then at such a young age. All children have dreams. There is nothing worse than to hear that your dreams are unattainable for any reason at all, but especially because of your gender and society’s perceived roles for your future life. I did not realize then how unfortunate it was for me to grow up always feeling like I wasn’t up to the standards of what it was to be a girl. It was crushing to receive gifts from my family that I had to pretend to like, or have gifts taken away from me because I didn’t play “right.” It was crushing to hear people tell me that I could not become a firefighter. It was crushing to hear that I should be a teacher or a nurse, or a mommy instead. Rather than support and encourage my dream, they all negated it and told me what my limited options were. You just don’t do that, people! When Uncle Mike gave me that Tonka truck, it was like he was saying, “Go for it, Kid. You can do anything.”

That Tonka firetruck probably cost Uncle Mike all of thirty bucks, but it was priceless for what it actually gave to me: confidence, determination, liberation, and a sense of achieving the impossible. I probably never even thanked him properly.

As time passed, I ultimately knew that I was not going to be a firefighter. My dreams changed, simple as that. But I’ll be damned if that firetruck and what it meant to a precocious little girl wasn’t a crucial part of my life, even today. Should I ever come across one, no matter how battered, I will buy it and treasure it, and remember how I felt on that August afternoon so many years ago, when a solitary grown-up finally showed me that my dreams weren’t ridiculous or unattainable. When he showed me that there was nothing wrong with a little girl not giving a crap for satin pajamas, and nothing wrong with a little girl playing with GI Joes, and nothing wrong with a little girl wanting to become a firefighter, and absolutely nothing wrong with me being me. As a child it meant so much, but as a parent it means even more to me. Who knows what Sierra will grow up to be. If you ask her, she lists about 27 different things that she wants to be: an Olympic-swimmer-ski-racer-scientist-veterinarian-professional-yoga-instructor-wildlife-biologist is pretty much where she’s at right now. But here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter what job she wants today, tomorrow, or ten years from now. It’s my job to make her believe that she can do it.

“Go for it, Kid. You can do anything.”

When I was pregnant with Sierra, I wanted to buy her a Tonka truck. I searched and searched for a firetruck, but I couldn’t find one anywhere. So, she got the big yellow dump truck like my brother had when he was young. It was the exact same truck I remember being pushed around in so many years ago. I tried to be satisfied with that-telling myself over and over that she would pile it full of toys and rocks and who knows what else, and it would be perfect. Ultimately, I was right-she loved her dump truck and she did fill it with dirt and rocks and stuffed animals, and dinosaurs, and everything she loved. But when I was pregnant, it was hard to feel content with the dump truck. It just felt incomplete.

A few months after I had given up my quest and purchased the dump truck, I was at my baby shower, surrounded by family and friends from both my side and Josh’s. As we went through the gifts, opening so many girly presents (for like me, Sierra was to be the only girl grandchild) and listening to the oohs and ahhs over this girly outfit or that bright pink blanket set, we picked our way to the end, where we came across a long, rectangular package that had been buried under the pile of other gifts. As I struggled to open it, the guests at the party were beginning to get restless. As I popped the tape sealing the lid and reached in, my mom informed me that this gift was from my uncle Mike. I pulled the gift from its box  and immediately burst into tears, then laughter. The smile that lit up on my face at that moment was commented on for the rest of the day.

firetruck

Respect their dreams.

And, Uncle Mike:

Thank you. So very much.

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