Long before I owned a big velvet couch, I owned an itty-bitty one. Years before I could sweep my front porch with a broom, I could dust it off with a fingertip. And decades before my dining room sparkled under a ponderous chandelier, it glowed under a pee-wee one, about two inches long.
I had a dollhouse. A dazzling, one-of-a-kind dollhouse that my father built for me. A blue two-story Victorian with an Astroturf lawn, white popsicle-stick fence, and working lights — and switches — in every room.
My dad’s a woodcarver, and quite a craftsman. The way he remembers it, I approached him one day with this oh-so-casual remark: “Grandma said you could make me a dollhouse. You couldn’t do that, could you?”
And the game was on.
He called it my “tiny mansion” and worked on it most of the year in his garage, in secret. I recall with breathtaking precision the moment I first saw it: French doors and balconies, old-fashioned wallpaper, buzzing doorbell. A wooden cutting board slid out from the kitchen counter. My initials were carved above the front door in scroll letters.
My dad’s a joy to me. He’s smart and funny and there when I need him. But if he’d never done another kind thing for me — ever in my life — this would have been enough.
It was a little girl’s fantasia. Like Dorothy’s house flattening the Wicked Witch of the East, it crushed my interest in lesser playthings like Fashion Plates and Shrinky Dinks. Easy Bake Oven? Feh.
Life in miniature is enchanting to a child. Whereas the adult world seems immense and ungraspable, sprawling and unwieldy, this pretty microcosm was tidy, inviting and self-contained. Full of delicate treasures and cottage comforts, it was a promise of glorious grown-up days to come, when I would be mistress of my own home. And have a pink claw-foot tub. Just because.
I inhabited that dollhouse. I re-arranged furniture, stocked the fridge with clay food, and snipped throw rugs from my mother’s sewing scraps. I created a game room in the attic and arranged Lilliputian playing cards in diminutive games of gin. I collected errant figurines from other toy sets to erect as statues in the yard.
Through my play, I experimented with possible future vocations: Landscaper. Interior designer. Home maker. Architect. No wonder why I became so enamored by Chicago interior designers and home builders. They say you show your truest colors as a child.
Shortly after the mommy and daddy dolls began, um, mysteriously turning up in the pink tub together, my interests shifted. I didn’t want to play house; I wanted to play music, play with friends, play with boys.
As I grew up, the dollhouse grew still. And dusty. Bulky and brimming with negligible knick-knacks, it was bumped from bedroom to spare room to storage — until I got married and finally had a home of my own to keep it in. A two-story home with French doors and a buzzing doorbell, if you must know.
For years now it’s been standing in the center of my garage as my disinterested sons knock into it with their remote-control cars and stomp rockets. Smudged, dinged, and uncared for, it stands in the way of their expanding collections of scooters and drums. The lights no longer work; little combs and dishes litter its floors.
So this week, I dusted it, rearranged the furniture one last time and drove it to a women’s shelter, where it just might offer refuge for the imaginations of troubled kids.
It was the right decision; even Dad was delighted. But I shed childish tears as I left it behind. How could it be that now — while living in the biggest house I’ve ever called home — I’ve finally run out of room for my first and smallest house? My favorite house. My tiny mansion.