My grandfather built a 3-story dollhouse out of balsa wood for me when I was about eight years old. It was one of the most cherished gifts I received as a child, and it was my favorite thing to play with for most of those years.
I don’t remember if it was a Christmas gift or a birthday gift. I do remember it sitting on a table in my grandparents’ front room (which actually used to be a porch once upon a time when my mom was little) while there were still some finishing touches to be done. I remember my grandfather asking me what colors I wanted for the rooms. The biggest bedroom would by “mine” of course, and it would be blue. Blue has always been my favorite color. The kitchen would be yellow; our kitchen had always been yellow. I don’t know how I decided on the peach color for one of the smaller rooms, but I remember being overwhelmed by all the possible choices in front of me. How could I choose just the right color? One that I’d always love and not get tired of later on? I was also overwrought with the seeming permanence of this decision. (Actually I still have that problem- I picked up about 30 different paint chips from Home Depot in varying shades of taupe and tan for the living room. That was a month ago. I’ve only narrowed it down to about 8 colors/shades.)
Each door to each room in the dollhouse was attached by tiny brass hinges, and those held on by even tinier brass nails. There was a kitchen cabinet and sink unit that had doors held on with the same hinges, and tiny drawers with brass handles. I was fascinated because I could open and close those doors and drawers, and organize tiny dishes and mugs and silverware in them. The stove had an oven door that opened, and a storage drawer below that also opened. I could even put things inside the fridge on the shelves.
I couldn’t wait for the dollhouse to be completed. We would frequently go to my grandparents’ house for Sunday dinner, and usually the first thing I’d say, after “hello” of course, was “Is it done yet?” I’d be slightly disappointed if the answer was no, but mostly I was excited just to have a whole afternoon to organize the little bit of furniture that was in there at the time.
I don’t remember how much time it took for my grandfather to finish this project, but it seemed an eternity to my eight-year-old self.
“It will be done soon, little mouse,” Boppa would say. He always called me little mouse, and I called him Boppa. I couldn’t say “Grandpa” when I was little, it came out like “Boppa.” And because I was the first grandchild, he was always just Boppa.
Collecting furniture and accessories for my dollhouse became my favorite pastime. My favorite place to find things was at an antique car show and flea market in Rhinebeck, NY. We’d camp there for a weekend every spring. My dad would try to sell old car parts, my mom would sell old books, and my brother and I would sell old/outgrown toys. With that money burning a hole in my pocket, I’d go looking for my favorite vendor, a man who made dollhouse furniture out of round tin-can tops. He’d cut and curl the rest of the can into thin metal strips for table or chair legs. He’d spray paint it and add some fabric for finishing touches. I was so excited when I could buy a new piece, I’d run back to my camper to show my family. The whole car ride home I’d be thinking about how I’d incorporate my new piece. My favorites were a vanity table and stool, and a rocking baby bassinet.
I loved to sit in my room by myself for hours sometimes, just rearranging the furniture in my dollhouse. I’d take every piece out, line them up carefully on my floor, and then look at the empty rooms for a few minutes. Thinking. Just thinking. Would I change the bedrooms around? Would I move the bathroom? It was extremely satisfying and comforting knowing that I was in control of every decision.
Which is not to say that I’m too much of a control freak in my own house now… at least I don’t think I am. I suppose you’d have to ask my husband and kids to weigh in on this one….
Often I would spend more time rearranging, organizing, or taking inventory than actually playing. Sometimes I just liked to admire all the things I’d collected over the years, and all the things my family had given me.
My mom made little round and oval braided rugs out of yarn for each room. Blues and white for my bedroom, yellow and brown for the kitchen, tans and browns for the hallways. She also made miniature curtains for some of the rooms. My dad made the wooden cabinet that the house sat on, stained dark in the fashion of the late 1970’s/early 80’s. It’s about 15 inches off the ground, a perfect height for an eight year old to stand at her dollhouse and play.
Whenever I look at the dollhouse now, I see the hours upon hours of work and love that Boppa put into it for me. It was the attention to detail in this beautiful gift that made me so happy. It didn’t have painted-on scenes on the walls- like the old Barbie Dream Houses did- that was supposed to substitute for furniture or windows. Don’t get me wrong, part of me still wanted a Barbie Dream House. But I think on some level, I knew I got a better deal.
The shingles never got painted. That was because Boppa gave in to the impatience of his little mouse. As soon as the inside of the house was finished, I had to take it home. I loved it so much and had to have it in my room. I played with it endlessly, and loved it like a best friend.
The shingles still aren’t painted. Life got so busy, I never bothered to do it myself. High school, college, jobs, moving away, getting married, having kids. The dollhouse sat in my childhood bedroom for many years, just collecting dust. But I made sure that my parents knew that one day, I’d be back for it.
When my daughters were old enough to play with it, I couldn’t see the point of letting it sit there, untouched and unused. I tried to get them to understand how fragile the balsa wood had become over the years. The glue had dried up in some places and “repairs” were often necessary. They needed to be very careful with it.
I’d hoped they would love it as much as I did. And as I watched them from the doorway one time, years ago now, I smiled. I listened to them create stories together and design a home for their dolls, position furniture, noticing the tiny hinges as they carefully opened the doors. Boppa would have loved to see another generation of little mice enjoying his project.
(*Footnote*) I spent an entire afternoon getting this dollhouse ready to be photographed for this post. I sorted through all the furniture and accessories, weeding out the Fisher Price and Polly Pocket stuff that my kids had incorporated over the years. I was looking to recreate it as I remembered from my childhood, only original pieces in each room. Some of the furniture is in rough shape- the kitchen cabinet unit has lost all its hinges and doors- but most of the other things are okay. I dusted, I sorted, I organized, I arranged and rearranged. And I could sense those old feelings of contentment, reminiscent of my eight-year-old self.
I called my daughters in to see it when I’d finished. “This is how it looked when I was a kid.” They patiently took in each room and recalled their favorite pieces and stories they used to dream up, and how they would fight over the bedroom with the balcony. Elder daughter always won that battle.
“I wish I could just go back to being eight years old again, and play dollhouse all day,” she said.
Sometimes… me too.