The House My Father Built

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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.


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