We come into this world head first and go out feet first; in between, it is all a matter of balance.
— Paul Boese
A friend asked me if I had any cultural obsessions as a child.
I wondered if collecting rocks in third grade fit this category. Then I thought about my junior high years playing Michael Jackson and Donny Osmond 45s incessantly on my small portable record player. My Jackson 5, Motown 45 rpm vinyl record with the cobalt-blue label had grooves deeper than the Grand Canyon after I got done with it.
But then I remembered — I loved Wishniks!
Every little girl on my block and throughout the country owned a Barbie doll, including my two older sisters and me. My mother meticulously sewed Jackie Kennedy-esque green, calf-length dresses for our Barbies.
But for a variety of reasons, I tired of them; and during the summer of 1970, I began collecting wishniks, also known as trolls. They have been described as “those ugly but somehow endearing” plastic dolls with oversized heads, big grins, potbellies and frizzy hair.
It may have been my first pre-teen rebellion. No cigarettes or swigs of beer for this 11-year-old girl, who truly felt loved and secure — but a Catholic elementary school-style rebellion no less. Or maybe as I watched my older sisters emerging from brown burlapped-wrapped cocoons to become beautiful butterflies I was in a Peter Pan-like denial. I turned my back on Barbie’s glamorous evening gowns and her lithe 39-18-33 proportions and chose the six-inch unisex, pudgy, lovable little dolls.
Collecting Wishniks made me seem different, a foreign commodity in a tight-knit, large family. I was a classic third-born child of seven where feeling unique is rare, as uncommon as the dolls’ blue Albert Einstein hair.
I built my own family of nearly 20 Wishniks. One of my favorite finds was a miniature two-inch Wishnik that I excitedly bought at Danner’s with the first nickel I inserted into the slot of a gumball-type machine. My prize baby troll doll dropped out, encased in a clear, acorn-shaped capsule.
And I felt familial excitement, like my growing Wishnik family had just adopted the child of their dreams. I wonder if it was just a mirrored reflection of my own growing family, which now had Leta (14), Debbie (13), me (11), Kevin (9), Jerri (8) and David (4). Christopher was born three years later, when I was in eighth grade.
I think Wishniks taught me about balance.
Balance is important in life. Barbie dolls never understood that.
Even if I slid off their calf-defining stilettos and shoved their delicate feet into the hiking boots of my brother’s G.I Joe, Barbies never, ever figured out how to stand on their own two feet.
Barbie always had to have something to lean on. If she wasn’t propped up against a wall or sitting down, she inevitably ended up flat on her face and pitifully lay there waiting for GI Joe to come rescue her. Rather sad really.
I always wanted to yell some common sense into them:
“Attention! All you Barbie dolls, stop focusing on your looks and, for the love of Pete, stop walking on your tiptoes!”
My Wishniks, however, were strong and steady on their feet. You could stand them anywhere, and they had balance. I could set their stocky little bodies with blue hair on the end of my mom’s midcentury-modern end table and nudge them off the edge, and 80 percent of the time they’d land flat on their feet, like a cat.
I learned the importance of balance from my Wishniks, a life-long lesson that Malibu Barbie could never teach.
It warms my heart when I see a troll doll. With their wild colorful hair and outstretched yoga-like arms, they make me feel balanced.
Janet Hommel Mangas, the third of seven children, grew up on the east side of Greenwood. The Center Grove area resident and her husband are the parents of three daughters.