The House My Father Built
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The House My Father Built

As young girls growing up in the 1970s, my sister and I spent hours playing with our beloved dollhouse. As my mom and I restore it for my niece, tough and tender memories flood my mind.

Revisiting the Past

As my mother and I dust each piece of furniture, the past comes rushing back. A tiny set of silverware falls out of the miniature refrigerator. My sister and I must have stashed it there, not knowing it would be hidden for three decades. Now Mom and I are restoring the long-neglected dollhouse I played with as a child for my 18-month-old niece, Claire.

When I was little I was thrilled that our house didn't look like all the others. About a foot tall and three feet wide, the house is round, with all five rooms opening onto a central courtyard. Bolted to a piece of wood with a single screw, it turns like a lazy Susan and fits perfectly on a low, circular coffee table that seems tailor-made for that purpose.

Squatting on my mom's back porch, I spray the central screw with WD-40 to loosen it after years of attic storage. With a duster, a whisk broom, and a bucket of soapy water, I rediscover the house Dad built from plywood using a plan Mom ordered from the newspaper.

As I gently clean the blue-and-white striped wallpaper, I'm back in the early 1970s. The bedroom decor matched our real-life guest room, and the gold-and-brown-flecked shag rugs were scraps from the carpet in our house -- the second, and last, one my parents bought. They'd moved to "up-and-coming" Atlanta from California while my mom was pregnant with my younger sister. When they bought the house in Winding Woods, my dad was working for a company that marketed nuclear energy. Mom preferred another house, but they couldn't afford the additional $500 on the purchase price. So we moved into the one-story red-brick ranch with a huge picture window and a driveway too steep for learning to ride a bike.

Mom brings out a plastic bag stamped with the logo of an Atlanta store that has long been out of business. As she unloads pieces of doll furniture, I wait for the white wooden dining room set with gold seat cushions. She pulls out the plastic double bed on which my sister wrote "Lisa H." and "Lynn H." to designate which doll slept where. Lisa H. has weathered the years better than Lynn H., who has lost an arm. But the dolls' simple shift dresses and coiffed hair are intact. As I carefully place the blue plastic tub in the bathroom and the lawn chairs in the courtyard, I remember setting the table for dinner parties.

I try to imagine the joy my dad must have felt making this house for us. I can't ask him about it: He died of a heart attack in 1974, two weeks before my seventh birthday. He was 34. He didn't get to see how much fun Lisa and I had with the dolls. He never read the "WASH HANDS BEFORE LEAVING THIS ROOM!" sign I added to the bathroom in second grade. He missed our constant rearranging of the furniture. He would probably be surprised to hear that his younger daughter has three children. That his wife saved the dollhouse through four moves. That his elder daughter is now wiping tears from her eyes while wiping dust from the red-painted roof. That his granddaughter will host parties for her dolls in that house.

I don't recall when or how my parents gave us the house. My childhood memories are hard to place unless there's a clear clue as to whether my dad was still here or already gone. But in one memory he and I are the only ones there: I'm in my bed, nestled into an alcove hung with a curtain of shimmering blue and green plastic beads. He is tucking me in, softly running his thumb across my closed eyelids, as if to seal me in for safekeeping. Another memory: Mom and I are on the living room couch. She is sobbing, and I am trying to console her. I feel very grown-up and think I am doing a good job. Looking back now, I grieve at how lonely she must have been, forced to rely on the inadequacy of a child's comfort after her husband died.

The Story of the Dollhouse

His dollhouse is funky. In real dollhouses -- that is, ones sold in toy stores -- everything is too cute and perfect, an attempt to create a facsimile of what we wish real life were like: complete sets of furniture, coordinated decor, intact families. Our dollhouse looks like something a high school student might make in shop class. The furniture is a mishmash of styles, and the dolls are twice as big as everything else. They don't even fit through the doorways; to move them between rooms, we had to lift them outside and back in. The fact that the carpet and wallpaper matched our real house was a function less of vanity than of economy. It was an easy way to decorate the dollhouse on the cheap.

To update the house for Claire, my brother-in-law has given Mom scraps of wallpaper from their actual bathroom and kitchen, so the dollhouse rooms will match those in Claire's home. But I feel too sentimental to tear off the wallpaper and rip up the carpet of my childhood. Not Mom. The queen of '70s casseroles and sewing patterns doesn't mince words. "I don't like this paper," she says, yanking off the pale pink-and-green songbirds of our old dining room in one long strip. "Don't worry about that hole in the dining room wall," she adds. "I filled it with wood putty." I peer at it more closely, and the putty turns out to be Crest. "It's fine," she says, smoothing the toothpaste. "It'll give the house a nice smell."

"Too bad Mimi isn't here," Mom says, referring to my father's mother, who's 86. "She'd get a kick out of this."

Mimi and Papa (our pet name for our grandfather) used to visit from California as often as they could, both before and after Dad died. Easygoing and quick-witted, Papa and my father looked alike: about 5-foot-10, medium builds and distinctive green eyes. Not long after our father died, Papa's younger brother, Howard, visited. Lisa jumped up and ran to him, crying "Daddy! " She was 4 years old.

What I don't remember: Dad telling Mom he didn't feel well and going to lie down. Her fixing dinner and then asking me to tell him it was ready. My walking down the long hallway to their bedroom at the other end of the house. Finding him on the bed. Going back to the kitchen and telling Mom he wouldn't wake up. The phone calls. The ambulance. Lisa and me spending the night across the street with our babysitter's family.

What I do remember: Wearing a house key on a string around my neck so Lisa and I could let ourselves in after school because Mom was at work. Mrs. Gerlach, our neighbor, fixing cinnamon toast when I was sick and the school had to send me to her house. Playing with a friend up the street who put on a 45 of the hit "Seasons in the Sun," a sappy tune with a cloying refrain: "Good-bye, my friend, it's hard to die/When all the birds are singing in the sky." I never told her how much that song upset me. It still does.

A few days before Christmas Mom returns from shopping with a miniature Christmas tree, a birdhouse, and the numbers "2010" to match Claire's real address.

"What's this?" Mom says, scratching at a sticker stuck to the roof. "We'll have to scrape that off."

"No," I say. "Leave it." I can just make out a mailing label that says "Mr. and Mrs. Ray Heinisch, 2242 Winding Way." Soon Claire will be old enough to hear about the grandfather who made the dollhouse for her mother and aunt.

"I wonder if Daddy knows we're doing this," Mom muses, as she sets the Christmas tree in the courtyard.

I like to think that he does.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, December 2008.