At some point during my swimming lessons, maybe when my teacher got bored with my lack of breath control or unwillingness to dive, I was set this challenge: the length of the Olympic pool. The reward for swimming that length was the crown jewel of children’s toys at that moment in history. The elusive Cabbage Patch kid.
I wasn’t so desirous of a Cabbage Patch kid as I was enthralled by the idea of an even exchange. I swim, I get. Usually I was doing things because I was told to (chores), and other times I got rewards without much effort (grades). My mom had proposed various prizes for this feat: ice cream? No, I said, too minor, too fleeting. I wanted a child of my own. So I swam the length, confident that if I got really worn out, I could just touch my feet to the bottom. I paced myself. It was no problem. The problem came after that.
Upholding her end of the bargain, my mom took me out to Venture. We went back to the toy section, blindly optimistic. Of course there were no Cabbage Patch kids back there. We would have had a better chance of finding plutonium for our Flux Capacitor.
On our way through the registers, though, we spied a tower of five or six “kids” piled up by Customer Service. Aha! Some greedy, wicked people had tried to buy more than their permitted allotment of dolls, and there they were being held there, in protective custody.
I was hustled over to take a look. It wasn’t much like a cabbage patch, with the dinging cash registers and the scuffed checkered floor. I peered through the clear windows at the suckled up, inflated faces, into the desperate eyes. A bald boy. Another bald boy. A boy with short brown hair. A boy with red hair. “They’re all boys!” I noted with alarm. “You could make it a girl,” my mother suggested, following the same gender-positive messages I had been hearing on Sesame Street. Girls can be anything! Airline pilots! Police officers! Astronauts! Even, perhaps, former boys.
“Girls can have short hair,” I agreed reluctantly. I chose Cecil Melvin, who, like one of my female friends, had short brown hair. At my house, Cecil became Diana. A later change into girls’ clothes made the transformation complete. Later I got Cabbage Patch “preemie” from Santa— a girl with a tiny tuft of blonde curl. Even though, physically, she looked much more like my daughter, there was no way she could compete with Diana in my heart.
While having a transgendered Cabbage Patch kid made me feel slightly disenfranchised, it also meant I was wise and creative and tolerant, qualities I was proud of. As I got older, I found conventions and expectations of gender just got sillier. My sex change, in an elementary school summer, was the first time I observed how notions of gender could limit and control, and how they can be shrugged off with a sense of humor, a commitment to practicality, and imagination.