My Barbie Dreamhouse Gave Me Something To Live For
I was 8 years old, in a hospital recovering from a terrible car accident. And it was so much more than a toy.
For me, the Barbie Dreamhouse wasn't just any toy. My father promised me when I was 8 years old and in the hospital as a way to give me something to live for — something to look forward to after miraculously surviving a near-fatal car accident.
I remember exactly when my dad offered it to me. I was in the intensive care unit, and it was late at night. It must have been a few days after my second operation. The first was to save my life, as I had broken ribs that had punctured my liver and lung, and my spleen had ruptured. The second operation was to give me a tracheotomy in hopes that I would soon be able to breathe on my own. When my father called to see how I was doing, I remember the nurses asking if I thought I was strong enough to say goodnight to him on the phone. Even though I had a fresh tracheotomy tube and plate in my throat, I nodded yes. On that phone call, he said he would buy me anything I wanted when I got home from the hospital. Anything. I mouthed “I love you” and “goodnight”, but no words or sounds came out. I tearfully handed the phone back to the nurse, and they said goodbye and hung up. The nurse told me that my dad said that he'd heard me. He wanted to make sure I knew that.
As I healed and moved from the ICU to the children's ward, I settled on what I wanted: the Barbie Dreamhouse. I remembered seeing a commercial for it.
Weeks passed, and I continued to progress. And then came my very last day in the hospital. We said goodbye to what had become my new family: a collection of nurses and nurse's aides I saw daily for months. And when I got home and walked through my door, what was there to greet me? My little dog, Dapper, wiggling and wagging his tail and… the Barbie Dreamhouse. It looked even more stunning than the commercials. The packaging took up half the living room. It almost shone.
I played with that Barbie Dreamhouse every day. I played with it before and after school. I had intricate storylines that I can't quite remember, although I do seem to recall I made Barbie a magazine writer and created tiny magazines with paper, markers, and tape for her desk.
Eventually, I grew out of it, but I played with that Dreamhouse and Barbies like it was play therapy — dolls and plastic walls soaked in emotions, offering a momentary escape from unprocessed trauma.
Decades passed. In October 2019, I returned to Calgary, Alberta, Canada — where I grew up — for four days with a grueling task. My mother had passed away the month before at 90 years old. After the funeral, we sat Shiva at her house, on her furniture, surrounded by all her stuff and, frankly, a lot of our stuff. Six kid's worth of baby books, photos, report cards, drawings, knicknacks, and memories. A ton of it was mine, and it was clear that I had to deal with it.
We hired an estate seller to deal with most of the contents of the home: the furniture, the dishes, and my mom's beautiful clothes that she kept in perfect shape but were not the size or style that appealed to me or my sister. The seller was soft-spoken and looked like someone who’d organized many church bake sales in the past. And she was clear about the strict terms: she would only deal with one person from our family as her point person, and that person would need to sign a contract, which included one crucial point: Anything left in the house after October 23rd would be considered part of the sale, with no negotiations.
To me, that seemed like a bizarre thing to ask, but then with just a tiny bit of reflection, it started to make sense. Every item in my mother's house pulled at a string in my soul. My sister, on the other hand, appeared to have little interest in taking anything; maybe it just seemed too sad to her. So, she was self-nominated as the exclusive family member who would communicate with the estate saleswoman.
I started cleaning, sifting through many layers of the past, the past before I was born, and my past. A few things caught my attention, including dozens of magazines and newspaper clippings from Neil Armstrong's moon landing and a bunch of newspaper clippings from the Jewish Star announcing that I was the first Jewish baby born in Calgary of the new year (I was born at 5 am on January 2nd). Therefore, my parents were awarded all of this free stuff, including free gas for their car, free diapers, free groceries, free baby formula, and more. I'd never known this happened! Immediately I called my older sister and asked her about it. "Oh yeah, I remember that it was so irritating hearing how great you were from birth!" she teased.
And then I found all of my Barbies. I loved Barbie, and I had many of them, including a couple from my older sister's era, which I especially loved because they had real eyelashes rather than painted ones. But the one I liked the best was the one I bought with my own money: Pretty in Pink Barbie, who came with a light pink, fur-trimmed cape and long, dangly rhinestone earrings. And then I found so many Barbie clothes: beautiful outfits — gowns, coats, pantsuits, hats — all handmade by my mother. An expert seamstress, she'd use the leftover fabric from the clothes she made us to create Barbie clothes.
And then I spotted this massive steamer trunk tucked under the basement stairs. It was too heavy to move by myself, but I tried anyway. I turned around, grasped the side handle with my hands, and pulled hard — I have no idea how my elderly mother got it there herself. I unlatched the two large brass enclosures and lifted the top like a treasure chest. And there it was: my Barbie Dreamhouse.
It was in its original box, disassembled, but apparently in perfect condition. I took a deep breath and sat on the cement furnace room floor. Just looking at its bright pink, orange, and yellow plastic pieces felt vulnerable, like I was reading my childhood diary.
I didn't remember it being so big. I was overwhelmed with feelings, my past loss and current loss, and these items reminded me of happiness in between. I didn't know what to do. That Barbie Dreamhouse wasn't particularly valuable as a collector’s item; it was just a collection of molded plastic from the 80s that had been thoroughly played with, but I couldn't just garage sale it. I definitely did not want to spend hundreds, probably more, to ship to New York and then have to rent a storage space to keep it in. I would give it away, but it had to be to the right person, the right child, and I didn't know that person. I was partially thankful for that.
I procrastinated until the last day I was in Calgary and then begged my brother to pick it up and keep it in his basement until I could figure out a place for it. He seemed to agree.
I flew back with a suitcase jammed full of ornaments and framed photos.
A week later, my sister called me to tell me that my brother had forgotten to pick up the Barbie Dreamhouse. Since we missed the deadline, it was now part of the estate sale. There was nothing we could do about it, okay? I'd never yelled at my older sister before, but I snapped. I yelled at her that somebody had to do something. My sister said that she’d signed the contract and we missed the deadline and that was that.
But I knew what the Dreamhouse meant to me, so I had to do whatever I could to get it back, even if it meant buying it back. So I wrote the estate seller an email:
I know my Barbie Dreamhouse toy, with all the furniture, was left behind at my deceased mom's house due to some confusion.
The reason I wanted that held for me is because it's more than a toy I played with. I was unfortunately in a terrible car accident when I was eight years old. My brother survived, my mom survived, and I survived. I was the worst off of the living with a collapsed lung, ruptured spleen, broken ribs, and a lacerated liver. My best friend was also in the car and did not make it.
In the hospital, when I was still in the ICU unit, my dad told me he would buy me anything I wanted. I chose the Barbie Dreamhouse. At the time, as a kid, I thought he was just buying me a present. With hindsight, I understand that he was not only trying to give me a reason to live and something to look forward to, but I imagine the devastation of my friend dying; he, like everyone, was reaching to find something, anything nice to do.
That Barbie Dreamhouse that object is the only positive memory I have of that time, a time I continue to unpack and deal with 40 years later. I played with that Barbie house every day for years. Probably a couple of years too long.
It means so much to me that I hope you can see it fit to look past the mistake of it not being picked up and moved.
I remember you said that you like selling things with stories. This is the one item with a story I cannot sell. That plastic dollhouse meant so much to the 8-year-old girl I was and still to the woman I am, and I can't give my consent to sell it.
She wrote back that she had never received an email like this and that my brother could pick up the Dreamhouse at his convenience. Sometimes signed contracts don't mean a thing.
So where is it now? It was too expensive to ship to New York (the quote I got was $2k), so a friend offered to store it in their business's warehouse in Calgary. When I brought it there and hoisted it onto a top shelf in that massive space, it felt like the last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
It's been four years, and my Barbie Dreamhouse is still in that warehouse in Calgary. I don't know what to do with it, but it's important that it's there, waiting for me. A few friends have suggested that with the recent popularity of the Barbie movie, I could probably sell it for a bunch of money. I don't know if that's true, but I don't want to sell it even if I could. If anything, I'd like to give it to someone: some kid who would love it and could really use it or who would understand what it means. I don't know who that is yet, so for now, that kid is still me.
Ophira Eisenberg is a standup comedian, writer, and host of the comedy podcast Parenting Is A Joke with iHeart Radio and Pretty Good Friends. She also hosted NPR’s Ask Me Another for 9 years. She is a regular host and teller on The Moth Radio Hour and her own memoir, Screw Everyone: Sleeping My Way to Monogamy, was optioned for a television series. Her comedy special Plant-Based Jokes is streaming on YouTube and Apple Music.