Sierra heads back to Nebraska every summer for a week or so to spend time with her grandparents and cousins. We generally have huge piles of hand-me-downs that we give to Josh’s sister for our niece to grow into, but this time we also had something we knew our nephews would latch onto. After nearly 9 years, Sierra decided it was time to send her huge, metal Tonka dump truck to a new home. I nearly cried as she wheeled it out the door for the last time.
Sierra’s Tonka truck was the first toy I bought when I found out I was pregnant
This, of course, seems like a drastic overreaction on my part. I understand that. But here’s the backstory:
This is me when I was 5. This is already my second broken bone.
My first memory is of being pushed around as a very small child in my brother’s battered yellow Tonka dump truck. My parents were working on the addition to their house, and I remember my brother zooming around with me heaped unceremoniously in the bucket of his truck. I remember the sound he was making with his lips as he pushed me around, and I remember the way it echoed off of the new walls. I remember the smell of the sheetrock and new paint. I remember his haircut. I grew up exclusively with boys. A toughened tomboy, I was constantly injured from falling out of trees, flying over my bike handlebars, playing football (the boys always made me be all-time quarterback) or any number of other rough and tumble incidents. I wasn’t into frilly dresses, or cute hair clips, or any of that crap. I was into scabs, scars, bruises and dirt. I was the only female grandchild and suffered injustices of receiving satiny pajamas and other girly nonsense for gifts from my grandparents rather than the handmade toybox my Grandpa made that looked like a barn that all of the boys got (my brother still has his). It wasn’t fair. I was accepted by the boys in the family as an equal (or, if not equal, at least a step above “other girls”), but the grown-ups still wanted to give me girly things. I wore boy clothes (my brother’s hand-me-downs) because I would destroy anything else. But with my blonde hair and big brown eyes, I think everyone just wanted to doll me up. There is one photo of me that my mom laughs about because I’m all gussied up in some awful pink thing with too many bows, my hair is up and is clean and shiny, and I’m sitting quite primly in a wicker chair (like in every other childhood portrait from the 80s). It all looks sweet and innocent until you see the giant scabbed over knees and bruises all over my legs. That was the real me, and there was really no use in pretending otherwise.
At that age, all I wanted to be in life was a fireman. I told everyone. I was proud of my ambition, and I enjoyed the looks on their faces when I said something out of the “girl” norm. I loved the idea of fighting fires, saving people, and being a hero. It was my dream, but everyone had their input as to why it would never be attained.
“It’s not a girl’s job.”
“Wouldn’t you rather be a teacher or a mommy instead?”
“Don’t encourage her.”
“Girls just don’t do that.”
“You could be a nurse instead.”
Seriously. This was in the 1980s, not the 1880s! At the time, I didn’t understand. I was unsure as to why people thought I couldn’t be a firefighter. In the end, I decided that the only thing holding me back was that they wouldn’t want a girl sleeping in the same room as all of the boy firefighters. After all, when my cousins spent the night, they slept in my brother’s room and I slept in mine, so that seemed pretty logical. I contented myself with knowing that as long as I slept in a different room in the firehouse I could be a fireman. The dream was still alive.
I never had the cool toys the boys had. I always had to fight to play with their toys. They didn’t want to play with the stuff in my room, so it’s not like we could trade off. One year, my Grandpa built me something. He made this elaborate doll house for me, with wooden shingles and everything. He provided wooden furniture and even a little family. I’m sure he had beautiful images of me playing with it. In the sunspot from a window with the light reflecting off of my blonde angel’s head, there I would be, acting out little dramas when the Father comes home from work to his beautiful housewife making a meat and potatoes dinner and their perfect 2.4 children who had finished their homework and their chores and were waiting for their loving breadwinner dad to come home and read the newspaper to them. I’m sure his heart plummeted the first time he saw me playing with it, and reality set in. I got in trouble that day. To me, it was perfectly normal to have the family in the house while a sniper party of GI Joe action figures rappelled from the rooftop to assassinate the family, who were really spies trading top secret information to Russia in exchange for nuclear arms. I didn’t even know what nuclear arms were. I thought they were like bionic Transformer arms that you could wear over your regular arms and win battles with. Regardless, I was scolded, and the dollhouse was taken away from me. For years. They gave it back to me in 2007 so Sierra could play with it. I’m happy to say that she played with it much like I did.
Sierra playing with the dollhouse my grandpa made for me.
Then, there was a moment that changed everything. My birthday. I never got too worked up about birthdays as a kid. We never really had birthday parties. We lived too far out in the sticks to have groups of friends over, so it was usually just a family night. Also, I knew that any presents I did get from anyone outside of my parents would be either things that I needed (new clothes or shoes, which I was notoriously hard on) or things that I didn’t care much for like the girly crap that I always got from everyone else. The best part of my birthday was that it was summertime, it was light late, and there were fireflies about. Running barefoot through the grass catching lightening bugs with my brother and cousins is what I think of when I think of summer nights. The heavy, purple air, the feel of warm dirt and the peppery smell of fresh mown grass. The background sonata of crickets and bullfrogs in the night and the tangy taste of fresh-squeezed lemonade on my tongue. That is what my birthday memories are of, not the gifts. However, one year was different.
I remember everything about it. When a pivotal event happens in your life, it seems that your senses are sharper, the colors are clearer and brighter, and the sounds are louder. I remember seeing my Uncle Mike bounding up the driveway with a long, rectangular package under his arm and a big, even triumphant, smile on his face. I remember the way the bricks from our sidewalk felt under my bare feet at that moment. I remember there was a fat squirrel on the bird feeder holding a piece of stale bread and even he seemed to be watching Mike’s approach with piqued interest, too distracted to eat. I remember the sight of the cottonwood trees blowing in the wind because my brother and cousins were hitting rocks down the road with an aluminum baseball bat. I remember that we were making ice cream and the sound of the crushing ice overpowered everything else. It was almost my turn to crank, and that’s why I was on the sidewalk instead of off playing. I could smell the salt.
This is my Uncle Mike and his wife, Nancy. He is one of my mom’s brothers.
At the sight of Uncle Mike and his present, the boys all came running in to see. He handed it to me, said, “Happy Birthday!” and thumped me on the head. I sat down where I was because the present was heavy and too long and awkward for me to hold. I had no idea what it was.
MY UNCLE MIKE BOUGHT ME A METAL TONKA FIRE TRUCK! LOOK AT IT!
Of course, this is NOT the actual truck. Heavens no, I played with that truck until it was completely wrecked. When it reached the point of looking more like a hunk of twisted metal instead of a truck my mom threw it away. By that time, I had cut myself on it every time I tried to play with it. This is the same exact model of truck I had. The ladders disconnected, the hoses popped together, the doors opened-I mean, this was a legit toy. The boys, of course, immediately tried to latch on to it. By this time, I knew enough about punching and the need to defend personal property that I was able to keep their greedy paws off of it. My mom told them that it was MY toy, and if they wanted to play with it they needed permission. That did it. I had a toy that was desirable to the boys that was mine, and it fueled the fire, so to speak, in regard to my firefighter dream. I was so empowered by this heavy, metal, Tonka truck. Nothing else mattered. The naysayers and dream-killers didn’t matter anymore.
The truck became my favorite toy. I tied it to the back of my bike and drug it around behind me. The crises and dramas played out with that truck were endless. The boys always tried to capture it, but never succeeded. They got a taste of their own medicine when they ran running to my mom to complain that I wasn’t sharing. She had no pity for them: the truck was mine and I could do what I wanted to with it, including not sharing. What a treat.
I drew this picture of my truck. I still have it, and it is hanging in Sierra’s room right now as a reminder of how important dreams are to children.
My Uncle Mike probably just thought that I would like the truck because I wanted to be a firefighter. That was true, of course, but it had a deeper meaning to me even then. All children have dreams. There is nothing worse than to hear that your dreams are unattainable for any reason at all, but especially because of your gender and perceived roles for your life. It was crushing to hear people tell me that I could not become a firefighter because I was a girl. It was crushing to hear that I should be a teacher, or a nurse, or a mommy instead. Rather than support and encourage my dream, they negated it and told me what my limited options were. You just don’t do that. When my Uncle Mike gave me that Tonka truck, it was like he was saying, “Go for it. You can do anything.” That Tonka fire truck that probably cost him $30 was in fact priceless for what it actually gave to me: confidence, determination, liberation, and a sense of achieving the impossible. I probably have never thanked him adequately.
As time passed, I ultimately knew that I was not going to be a firefighter. My dreams changed, simple as that. But I’ll be damned if that fire truck and what it meant to a precocious little girl wasn’t a crucial part of my life even today. If I ever find one, no matter how battered, I will buy it and treasure it forever. As a child, it meant so much, but as a parent it means even more to me now. Who knows what Sierra will grow up to be. If you ask her, she lists about 27 different things that she wants to be all at once: A Yoga teacher-Olympic athlete-ski racer-cowgirl-veterinarian-professional climber is where she’s at right now. It doesn’t matter what job she has; it’s my job to make her believe that she can do it. “Go for it. You can do anything.”
When I was pregnant with Sierra, I bought her a Tonka truck. I searched for a fire truck but couldn’t find one anywhere. So, she got the big yellow dump truck like my brother had when we were young. I tried to be satisfied with that, telling myself that she would pile it with toys and rocks and who knows what else, and it would be perfect. At my baby shower, around the middle of the long line of packages was a long, rectangular one from my Uncle Mike. I opened it, and the smile that lit up on my face was commented on for the rest of the day.
I’m not ashamed to admit that I have never let Sierra lay a finger on it.
Respect their dreams.
Thank you, Tonka.
Thank you, Uncle Mike.