I held the slick red cardboard box to my nose, gave it a gentle squeeze so the scent within could waft through the pinholes in the plastic display window. The faint smell of strawberry lent an immediate trip to the early 1980s.
There was no need for a DeLorean, city phone booth, or rocket sled to get there. It was the Proust effect — immediate transportation to a moment in time when I had held a similar box in my hands. Far smaller, younger hands than the aging, pale, and fleshy ones of the present, I noted with a grimace. Course, my hands were not the only difference, the list long and complicated.
Where to start in the changes from the 1980s to the present? Perhaps, the box now held in my hands? The size was different. It was slimmer, more rectangular, as opposed to boxy. A quick flip from front to back revealed no Kenner logo from the past. I could see no thank you card or purchase card, no red plastic comb through the display window, imperative accessories in the 1980s. The slight weight told me the quality of the doll within was vastly different — thin and light. Yet, the doll beyond the pinholes had the same straight red hair, light pink floppy hat dotted with strawberries. She wore the same white and green striped tights, tan shoes, and the forever frozen sweet smile. One that said she was in on a beautiful, delightful secret. Her blue eyes, small dots with a sprig of eyelashes, told me she knew what this moment was doing to me.
I had never felt a smidge of childhood nostalgia in my four-plus decades. Perhaps it was the fact I hated everything about the kid I once was and the world she once maneuvered through.
“I have to buy this,” I said to my mother, who silently, with a roll of her eyes, turned towards the toddler toys. We were shopping for my nephews at Veach’s Toy Store in Richmond, Ind. The 78-year-old, 16,000 square foot store, was only months away from closure. It was a disheartening visit as we and many others took advantage of the sales. There was a simplistic, childhood evoking atmosphere to the store, its entry a welcome splash of bright yellow and blue, with toys, posters, games, and more decorating the large display windows.
Of course, the store offered similar toys to the standard brick and mortar, but the offering was well beyond brand names. There were quality educational toys, science kits, board games, stickers, building sets, and a vast assortment of collector trains, the building reminiscent of an old five and dime store with creaky linoleum floors and high ceilings with tin tiles. The full displays held a menagerie of treasures, toys for every age begging to be played with before purchase. Enormous stuffed animals lined high shelves along the walls. Cardboard clouds hung from the ceiling pointed out the various sections from dress-up to music and more.
The singular Strawberry Shortcake Anniversary doll was on a shelf of collector dolls. It was an odd siren of the seas for a middle-aged woman. I was supposed to be shopping for a baby and toddler, not taking a delightful trip down memory lane.
Wait, delightful? While it could have been worse, my childhood was not exactly been delightful or had it? Suddenly, I wasn’t sure. I set about the store, stopping at the end of one aisle after another to press the pinholes to my nose, staring into those blue eyes, searching for something that was almost there, like a forgotten word on the tip of one’s tongue.
When I saddled up to the cash register, the 35th Anniversary Strawberry Shortcake edition doll was, embarrassingly, the only item I had in hand. I made excuses in my head as to why I would purchase such a thing. While not a flagged book from Seinfeld days of yore, my nose print all over the display window sounded reasonable.
Unsure where to place the doll once home, I sat her, unopened, on a bookshelf amongst a collection of Stephen King books. It only seemed appropriate. This purchase was going to haunt me. Plus, it was an area of the living room where I could not only look upon the doll at any moment but retrieve it easily. The number of times I brought the pinholes to my nose by the end of that day incalculable. Whatever was going on, whatever game this may be, Strawberry Shortcake was winning and I blame my nose for starting it.