My daughter dressed as Pippi Longstocking for the National Book Day celebration at her school. When she selected that character, I felt a certain amount of pride because Pippi is a genuine literary icon, unlike Barbie or the Disney Princesses. No, I don’t think that playing with Barbie leads to anorexia or that Disney Princesses encourage domestic violence. It’s just that I find them dull and uninteresting because they have all but commandeered the collective imaginations of little girls. Besides, Pippi is from a real book—not a comic book or some other piece of mass marketing copy-righted image that is packaged and sold as literature.
Best of all, my daughter already had a Pippi costume left over from Halloween. Basically, it’s just a jumper with other mismatched clothes, a toy monkey pinned into her pocket, boots, and a bright red wig with wiry braids that can be positioned to sticks straight out at 90 degree angles. Without the wig, my daughter just looked like someone who got dressed in the dark. The wig is what pulls it all together and transforms my rather delicate-looking blonde girl into the rough-and-tumble Pippi Longstocking, the daughter of a pirate king!
Yet, I was hesitant to let her wear the wig to school. Seven hours is a long time for a Kindergartener to wear a wig. What if something happened to it? What if she left it on the back of the toilet in the girls’ restroom? What if she agreed to let the other kids use it as second base at recess? What if it proved to be too distracting and the teacher confiscated it? Honestly, you can’t guarantee anything that you send to school with a child is going to come home with them. Just think of all the gloves they lose in the course of one winter. There is a reason frugal and cautious parents pin the gloves to the ends of their jacket sleeves. I can’t very well pin a wig to the top of my child’s head.
I almost said, “You can be Pippi, but I don’t think wearing the wig to school is a good idea. You might ruin it or lose it.” But I stopped myself.
“A wig is a thing,” I reminded myself. “And it is meant to be worn as a part of a costume. If something happens to it, what have I really lost? A thing. If I don’t let her wear it, she loses a potential memory or worse, it reinforces this silly idea that I can’t trust her with a thing. I bought it for her. I’ll let her have her fun.”
So, I helped her dress in striped tights, scuffy boots, and a corduroy jumper over a long-sleeved t-shirt. Then, I helped her tuck her very fine hair under the scratchy wig, and I drew freckles on her face with eye-liner. She was mistakenly Pippi Longstocking!
“Mom, I have to bring a Pippi book, too!” she said as she ran into her bedroom to retrieve one of three books featuring her favorite character.
Now, I spoke up. “I don’t know that I want you taking MY Pippi books to school,” I said. “They are very old.”
Old, indeed. The inscription in the cover of each book reads, “Happy Birthday! Love, Grandmama. 1975.” So, you see, they were a gift and I’ve had them for nearly 40 years and so that makes them special. They aren’t something that should be taken to school by a 6-year-old.
“But mom, the flyer said to dress as a character AND bring a book!” Yes, the flyer announcing this event DID say that students were encouraged to bring the book that features their character, and my daughter has no Pippi books of her own.
“I swear it’s like a six-million dollar chair,” I said under my breath referencing a story from my own distant past.
Years ago, I had a friend who worked at a large art museum. He was the Curator of Decorative Arts and therefore, his museum’s resident expert on furniture. One day, one of the museum’s board members invited him to his house to see his latest acquisition—a six million dollar chair.
“What does one do with a six million dollar chair?” I asked.
“Sit in it,” he answered with a hint of sarcasm.
“Did you?” I asked as I imagined the gazillionaire board member just inviting random people to his home and saying, “Please, make yourself comfortable in my six million dollar chair.” Perhaps over cocktails, there would be a joke comparing the chair to Steve Austin, the Six Million Dollar Man.
“No,” my friend answered. “I flipped it over. I looked at it from every angle, but I didn’t sit in it.”
“It’s a fine piece of furniture.”
“But does anyone sit in it?”
“I doubt it. He keeps it roped off with the rest of his collection.”
Having worked in museums for most of my adult life, I have no desire to live in one. I see no reason to hold onto the things that aren’t serving their purpose, that aren’t in some way functional. So, when I find that I become overly concerned about the fate of a thing, I remind myself of the six million dollar chair and it snaps me back into the reality of knowing that what I have is for my family and me to use, not to merely admire from the other side of a velvet rope stanchion.
I don’t, however, criticize the board member for spending six million dollars on a chair. I know there are people who get outraged about that sort of thing and like to go on and on about how many malaria vaccines six million dollars can buy, but really, whether we are rich or poor, I believe we have the right to do with our own money as we choose. I went to Target last week and spent $50 on a tablecloth, white patent-leather mary janes, and two chocolate Easter bunnies—hardly necessities. That $50 could have been used to better the world in some way, but I spent it at Target. I am as guilty of being wasteful as a guy who spends millions on one piece of furniture. That’s just it—regardless of the size of one’s bank account, we all get to decide what is special to us.
And what makes my Pippi books special to me? Is it the age? Um, no, I have quite a few things that are more than forty years old. Is it because my grandmother gave them to me? Not really. She and I weren’t terribly close and I don’t remember even reading them as a child. What I mostly remember about Pippi Longstocking is the short-lived, Swedish TV series with the dubbed-in English.
What is special about my Pippi books is that I read them to my children and that my daughter loves Pippi so much that she wants to dress like her and show her friends a Pippi book on National Book Day.
“Okay,” I said. “You can take the book to school, but you must promise me to take very good care of it. Do you understand?”
“Thank you, Mama! I promise!”
And we headed to the bus stop. It’s a Pippi book, not a Gutenberg Bible or a six million dollar chair.
Note: Should you decide to read Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking books to your own children, keep in mind they were written a long time ago and aren’t what we now consider PC. Pippi and her friends buy candy cigarettes and cap guns when they go into town. Barbie and the Disney Princesses would never engage in such behavior.