“It takes hands to build a house, but only hearts can build a home.” — Author unknown
Ever since Santa brought me a metal two-story, I’ve loved dollhouses. My humble abode had painted-on curtains, bathroom towels, and area rugs, and plastic furniture, but its trompe l’oiel fireplace made it fancier than our real–life ranch-style tract home. My imagination moved right in and stayed there until my house was inevitably destroyed by my younger siblings.
When I had a little girl of my own, I wanted her to have a dollhouse, too, and not just a tin one like mine. My dream dwelling included a front porch, elegant furniture, crystal chandeliers, a winding staircase, maybe a smaller version of Colleen Moore’s magical fairy castle on display at the Museum of Science and Industry.
I seized my chance to live my fantasy when Katie was five. What could be a more perfect gift from Santa? First, I had to get Santa on board. Would Mike be willing to build her a dollhouse? Yes. Would our neighbors next door be willing to have him build it in their basement? Another yes.
Doll houses were pricey, but I scoured the Sears catalog and found a kit for a classic colonial that even included furniture. We ordered it before Columbus Day, figuring that we’d have oodles of time for Mike to assemble it. A week later, a hefty, flat box landed on our doorstep. Inside lay thin sheets of wood stamped with numbered parts. Tossed in were pages of assembly instructions, spelling out the steps for cutting, sanding, painting, gluing.
“Holy crap!” said Santa. “No wonder this thing was so cheap. It’s just a box of wood and instructions. Look at all of these steps!”
“Oh, you can do it! There are lots of steps, but it won’t be hard.” said Mrs. Claus. Silently I wondered just where were the elves, ready with their teensy hammers and saws.
Mike brought the kit next door where it was out of sight, out of mind. I may have mentioned to Mike that he ought to get started; he may have assured me that he’d get it done. November rolled around; finally, he went next door.
First, he had to cut out every pieces: walls and floors, Visa-card-sized shutters, heaps of Lego-sized shingles. He painted the exterior white, the shingles , chimney, and shutters blue. Then, on the bedroom walls, he pasted wallpaper, dainty scaled-down designs I found at a hobby store. He glued. And clamped. Sometimes the glue stuck; sometimes
it didn’t. The chimney toppled off, and toppled off again. There was some swearing involved.
Thanksgiving came and went; Christmas toy commercials ramped up on TV. With Christmas Eve looming, Mike became Daddy in absentia. All December, he’d come home from work, have dinner with the kids and me, and then, by 6:30, he was out the door.
“Why does Daddy have to help Marc every night?” the kids grumbled.
“Well, Marc needs him to help him in their basement,’ I explained while I oversaw baths, supervised teeth brushing, tucked kids into bed every evening without back-up. I pondered just what was going on next door, imagining Mike industriously humming along as walls went up, shutters were hung, windows were installed.
Around ten p.m., a bleary-eyed Mike would stumble in.
“How’s it going?” I’d ask.
“This damn thing is a nightmare. The glue won’t stick, and even when I clamp the walls, they fall in. Everything is so little and my fingers are too big. What the hell were we thinking?” he said, flexing his cramped hands and rolling his aching neck. Transforming a box of wood into a keepsake dollhouse for his little girl had lost its sparkle before we even got the tree decorated.
While I tossed out “you can do it” platitudes, I secretly questioned if it would it be completed for Christmas. Well, it had to be. Santa could hardly leave a note explaining that he didn’t get around to finishing her gift. The doors on our Advent calendar were nearly all open, and still there was work to be done. I found a nice family, a mommy, daddy, and two kids made of fabric, to move in, but what about furniture? The local hobby shop sold cunning pieces of authentic Queen Anne sofas, wing chairs, poster beds, and armoires, almost as expensive as our people-sized stuff. Not for a five-year-old’s toy; this wasn’t a museum showpiece. The furniture in the kit would have to do, and it needed assembling as well, and maybe some upholstery.
On the Saturday before Christmas, we hired a babysitter for the day, lying to our kids about where we were going. As soon as we waved goodby and shut the front door, we scuttled next door. Marc and Mike clamped and glued the remaining walls and roof top in place, Margie and I glued together bandaid-box-sized couches and beds and chairs smaller than a pack of paper clips. Our tongues between our teeth, we hand-stitched calico cushions and poked cotton balls into postage-stamp-sized pillows to add a splash of color to the décor. As if a fairy godmother had waved her wand, it was becoming the dollhouse I’d been dreaming about since I was five myself.
On Christrmas Eve, Mike and Marc reverently carried the it across the driveways as if it were a princess on a sedan chair. We placed it in front of our Christmas tree next to the gifts for Brady— the standard kind of three-year-old-boy stuff we found at Toys R Us.
I barely slept, my mind buzzing with anticipation. How would Katie react? Would she like it as much as I did? When Christmas morning dawned, the kids ran to the living room, and Katie stopped in her tracks when she saw her dollhouse. Yes, she did love it, and the evidence is tucked away in a photo album—a snapshot of our wide-eyed little blonde in her blue robe and nightgown, beaming next to her Santa surprise. Best of all, it was not one of those toys that gets ignored after Christmas. For a while, she spent any birthday money she had making upgrades: a brass coatrack, lamps, chairs and tables to replace the tacky balsa wood stuff.
When she no longer believed in Santa, it dawned on her that her dad had been the archtiect of her treasure. “Daddy, did you make the dollhouse?” she asked one day. When he acknowledged that he had, she wanted to hear all about how he’d managed to accomplish such an amazing feat. Kate got older, of course, and what high school girl needs a doll house in her bedroom? We covered it with a sheet and packed it away, then moved it to the basement of our new home the year before Kate got married.
More years passed; eventually we had two granddaughters. We lifted the sheet, revealing the old manse, time worn and dried out. A glue gun and some cleaner spruced it up a bit, but time had withered away its glamour. The tiny candlesticks, the crocheted rugs, the flimsy furniture were tired and tawdry. The little girls played with it a bit when they visited, but no one was as captivated as Kate had been so long ago. Now Maggie is eleven, past dollhouse age, while Francesca owns her own Swedish contemporary.
So, the Sears dollhouse, its sad old roof sagging even after some repairs, haunts the storage room, like some dilapidated grande dame in the seedy side of town. Recently, Maggie helped me clean out a closet and we came across a battered old box. I opened the lid to find long-forgotten Kleenex-wrapped treasures –blue metal spatterware dishes, a silvery teapot, a plastic Tiffany lamp, a wooden rocking horse, and even the pillows Margie and I made on that long-ago Saturday afternoon.
It should be time to say goodbye to the old home, too far gone for rehabbing. The box of furnishings? No need for those either. I could carry it all out the trash, I guess. Not right now, though. Not yet.