Sunshine Family: Welcome to the World
Day by day, the year nineteen-seventy-three ended and feminist anti-Barbie moms could finally purchase the Sunshine Family dolls. Mattel Toy Company introduced a new doll line designed for girls to enjoy fun sustainable-living with the Sunshine Family. Hot on the heels of the flower child era, these back-to-nature family of dolls were a socially-responsible alternative to Barbie. For little girls it became time to create a world of their own. On braided rugs, over organic granola, in handmade shirts and skirts, this was back-to-nature living among neighborly folks. After all, it was the Age of Aquarius.
There were limited doll accessories available, the Sunshine World held Big Beautiful Ideas like reusing household throwaways to create your own items—home-woven, recycled, macramé crafts, all from special Sunshine’s little idea books. Imaginations turned styrofoam Big Mac boxes into lovely arm chairs. Tuna cans were tufted and made ottomans. In the magic, used match covers became books, napkins transformed to its pages. Everyday odds-and-ends were decoupaged while I hummed John Denver tunes.
The fun shined on and on, for me and my new wholesome family of Steve, Stephie, and baby Sweets. Less free love, more new-age hippies, the Sunshine Country style. These Sunshines weren’t radicals, instead they lived in a family way, complete with a set of aged Grandparents. Grandpa looked like Grizzly Adams. Grandma fresh off Maggie’s farm. And they looked as if they made a mighty fine mulberry wine. Jeremiah was unlike any man in my life—no buzz cut, no advice on how to contain communism, no complaints about street bums or who needs to get jobs. Just joy for boys and girls and all the fishes in the sea. And ole’ Maggie was never for a ner’ do well, but she determinedly set sunshine and a scent of apple crisps into the home atmosphere. How soon the ozone of a more cheerful temperature made itself felt. My Sunshine World was free of harsh radiants. In a rhythm all its own, where even the sun recycled, day by day.
Many toys embodied the seventies, but none so quintessentially as the macrobiotic, new age spirituality, grass-roots looking Sunshine family. They were my fantasy kinfolk. They recycled like my family but I made them one notch better as they were vegetarians. They prayed before meals and composted the spoils after. They sang of peace while they weeded the community garden. Most of the other 1970s dolls lived the high life—Barbie was driving a pink Corvette, Tuesday Taylor was fashionista central—clearly both with untreated shopping addictions. They tore through bank accounts like wasps, in spite of economic crisis or oil embargoes. I noticed even the Sunshines were beginning to sell out by installing shag carpeting in their humble abode. No more eco-friendly hand-crochet throw rugs. I moved Stephie’s spinning wheel aside and glued down the deeply piled Bigelow carpet colored ‘Soft Cloud for Virgo.’ Singing “The Sunshine Fa-Mi-Leeee... where the fun shines on and on.”
In the Sunshine Family world there were obviously acceptable occupations such as forest ranger, marine biologist, organic farmer or vintner, and many of the lovely ‘arian jobs—like veterinarian or librarian. Then came the somewhat acceptable, but still made your parent’s worry about maintaining income, jobs like yoga instructor, barista, or writer. The most important occupational criteria was local involvement, as my mother often reminded me—grass connects through its roots.
However, one’s occupation could not be too activist or you’ll become dead like the four from Ohio. In this world it was fine to be a neighborhood organizer but don’t step into aggressive civic leadership roles. Attending a rally might be okay but not a protest. Signing a petition—right on—drafting a manifesto—no way man. Another big never was military service, there were no uniforms available for any of the Sunshine dolls.
When the Sunshines made their way into my life, I felt sorry for Steve. He would never look starched and spectacular like my dad, Commander USN. I was no great seamstress but I worked miracles with a hot glue-gun and I managed to cut and seam together a marginally authentic set of dress whites for Steve out of old handkerchiefs. I attempted first with Kleenex and quickly discover the errors of that way. Having a tear-able surface was not the way to go when gluing the scrambled eggs on the visor of his hat. In the newly tailored uniform, Steve stood taller, sharper. Though definitely in need of a hair cut, and I had to admit, none of it seemed to fit. I couldn’t possibly figure the conversation between Steve and Stephie.
“Hey honey, I joined the Navy. Now we can sail the seven seas and tour faraway places.” For an eight-year old, it was a plausible opening line but my instincts told me that Stephie had a sophisticated mind behind all that homespun hooey. Her answers would involve words like ‘Nam, insurgence, POWs, Nixon, riot. Words I’d overheard in my parent’s living room when I hid in the stairwell. They represented territories I was afraid to speak of so my doll’s conversation dissolved into “what’s for dinner?” and retorted with “this isn’t a mess hall, make it yourself Captain!”
For the record, I knew that the three stripes on Steve’s lapel indicated Commander not a Captain, though I didn’t go there with Stephie. She was already in her craft shop pounding clay and throwing pots. After a full day of silent treatment, I simply told Steve he was honorably discharged and confiscated his uniform. Then I left the live-off-the-land lubbers alone to their Sunshine happy dry-docked occupations.
In my first year with Steve, Stephie, and Sweetie Sunshine, I’d built a recycled neighborhood for them in the corner of my bedroom. Grandpa and Grandma Sunshine lived close by. Just when I had everyone settled, it was time for The Sunshine Family World to expand, and it became all about happiness. The Happy African-American Family moves next door, kids and grandparents, a multi-generational live-in party.
Like the alliterative Sunshines, Hal, Hettie, and Hon Happy became my latest can-do spirited family. But without any another real-world inspiration, the Happys seemed Good Times cast. Hal came out of the box wearing a rainbow tank top and blue jeans, soon I had him sauntering like JJ Walker and using catch phrases like “Dyn-o-mite!” I opened each play session with TV theme songs, singing along with words I didn’t comprehend, like ‘temporary lay-offs,’ which sounded dirty so I lip-synched those. My storylines seemed bona fide, lifted as they were direct from television, and every gritty conflict wrapped up in 30-minute sitcom style.
There were differences between the families that I didn’t understand, such as why Hal was wearing a sleeveless tank while Steve wore a long sleeved turtleneck. This made setting the seasons for my storylines difficult. There was also an obvious discrepancy in Hettie’s vogue inspired dresswear to Stephie’s home-spun clothes, and Hettie never topped over her bright fashions with an apron like Stephie in her maxi-prairie dress. I finally resolved the clothing puzzle by deciding occupations—Stephie a stay-home mom, Steve an environmental lawyer, Hettie his office manager, and Hal worked construction.
With this in mind, the Sunshines mysteriously become more like Darren, Samantha, and Tabitha from Bewitched. A nineteen-fifties version of family drama, complete with conjuring up gourmet dishes and instant solutions to problems behind closed kitchen doors. The more I had the Sunshines excuse themselves and disappear into the kitchen, another troubling difference became clear to me. The Happys didn’t have a house. Yes, I had raided all the household shoeboxes to build funky cubist accommodations for the Happys. Yes, it was cool and I could save up for another Sunshine Family house, but that would be identical to Steve and Stephie’s. Why didn’t the Happys have their own house? Why, weren’t these the good times?
Still, no one was getting hassled, or hustled. The neighborhood celebrated new friends and hoped to enjoy something other than bulgur wheat and yogurt at the annual block party. Steve described the street-lined party as “potluck polka.” Hal called it “hangin in a chow line,” either way good times. Only the Sunshine and the Happy Grandparents seemed timeless in my many and varied borrowed scripts. They sat together at family functions chuckling over the younger folk’s drama. Happy Grandpa with curly black hair nodding next to nearly identical Sunshine Grandpa with his snow white head. Then I realized the Happy Family was formed from the same mold as the Sunshine Family. The only difference being colorations, including the Sunshine’s accessory options which offered a red-headed baby. Still, everyone of them with the unvarying vapid stare.
Throughout my entire third-grade year, the Sunshines and the Happys were keepin’ their heads above water. By my birthday, the Sunshines stopped running their craft shack out of their piggyback camper and opened up a pop-up store alongside the Happys. Stephie Sunshine taught Hettie Happy how to hand-throw pots. Steve and Hal planted a community garden with seeds received from the Green Guerrillas, and made plans during the oil crisis to begin living off-grid.
Despite any strife, ain’t we lucky, sticks and stones don’t break us. Ain’t I lucky, singing about the good times and keeping the neighborhood on the sunny side of friendships. Because I knew that everyone was moving on up, even this little story weaver with my pockets full of Sunshine and Happy.
By nineteen-seventy-eight, I was done with the Sunshines and their countrified ways, they seemed passé in a new world of consumerism. No one bought Stephie’s handmade fashions and home-goods after the giant Zayre’s moved into town. There was no way I could redecorate that earth-toned hovel of theirs. The hi-fi in their family den sat unused as the world went boom-box. The simplicity of their aura had begun to weird me out—was it their lidless, staring eyes? Steve’s unusually high forehead appeared alien. The cherubically smushed impression on the female faces, Stepford-like. It seemed the Mattel Company was done too as the Sunshines added Fun to their family name, doffed preppie-looks, and prepared for eighties yuppie-dom. But this girl could clearly detect marketing ploys now, the bright no longer fooled. I stepped away from the Sunshines. Eventually, the Sunshine Fun Family’s rather simple bodies morphed into Mattel’s Mork and Mindy dolls. What progress, after a generation of Earth Day imperatives and supposed social enlightenment to ‘nanu nanu.’
I remember bluer sky high days, when it used to be sunshine on and on in sunshine country, even when their frozen faces of cheap Taiwan plastic were left un-decomposing in a New England landfill. This I regret. I should have recycled them. That was the whole Big Beautiful Idea!