The House My Father Built
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.