Atop the bookcase in my blue room sit two metal dollhouses, circa 1950s. They are sentinels over the gathering space of my studio/office, high enough above the mix of chairs and throw pillows that they call no attention to themselves. I suspect some visitors hardly notice them.
The one on the left is the dollhouse I thought I found; the one on the right is the one I did.
When I was young, older than a toddler but not yet school-aged, our next door neighbors were Gladys and Elbert Jobe and their two daughters, girls edging into their teen years. The family doted on me. Martha, Alice, and their parents were a constant presence, keeping an eye on the tot I was, especially when my mother was ordered to strict bed rest while she was pregnant with my younger brother. The almost adolescent Martha was my playmate. I adored her.
My best guess is that I was about two and a half the Christmas that they gave it to me: THE dollhouse.
All I have to do for the memories of my dollhouse to surface is close my eyes and be still. In the quiet, I am there, back in our old living room. The chill of the uninsulated linoleum floor rolls under me, stretched out, stomach down before the open backside of the dollhouse. The chill penetrates my cotton camisole and red corduroy shirt with a shiver, while an insistent hiss from the gas heater is background noise. Warmth and chill coexist as I arrange and rearrange the tiny furnishings and determine the movements of a plastic family that I can control.
Bright lithograph colors on thin sheets of metal, all right angles and structured together with deftly folded tabs, it was sturdy. And that’s a good thing, because it was magic; and a sturdy kind of magic was needed by the child that I was, playing my way through the changes my family was experiencing.
Between the years when I was three and five, my mother buried a brother and her grandmother, both deaths shocking, with the abrupt cruelty of accidents. There was loss on my father’s side of the family too, not so cruel, but change producing, nonetheless.
The adults around me were juggling, emotionally and physically. This wasn’t an era when the impact of death on children was supper table conversation. We were fed, clothed, kept warm, and taken to church.
And we played. My imaginary friend, Mattie, and I held power in the magic realm of the dollhouse.
Somewhere along the years, I suppose my mother gave my dollhouse to another little girl, though I can’t say when that happened. Thinking I’d outgrown it, probably by second or third grade, I imagine her passing it along to a friend’s daughter, maybe a three year old who fit perfectly in front of its tiny rooms.
I hardly let myself miss it.
Until I started tapping this keyboard, pecking around for words that have taken me down a forgotten path, I wasn’t aware that my dollhouse mattered so greatly to me. Nevertheless, I’ve grown curious, fifty-five years after the fact, why the memory of it sent me out, years ago, to find its vintage twin.
One of my earliest forays into the world of eBay was the mission to find a replica of my dollhouse. I saved my search, kept up with new postings, and compared them against the image in my mind. Nope, not that one. Maybe this one…. but no. Oh, this one looks like it. Yep, that’s it!
I didn’t have a clear memory of the facade, since most of my time was spent at eye level with the interior, and I was sure that the one I’d bought was the exact same style as mine, red roof and all. There was no doubt I’d found it.
There was no doubt, that is, until ten years later when I found IT.
A red-roofed image, unexpectedly familiar, caught my eye and a gulp of recognition stuck in my throat. Displayed in a local shop window, I recognized the printed stone design on the exterior of a fifties era dollhouse. The tiny stones were amazingly similar in color to the faux stonework I’d painted during my mural painting years.
At gut level, I knew that I was looking at the origins of my own pink-green-blue-gray rocks. This was imagery that had become hard-wired into me. I cannot paint stone without those tones mixed in. I don’t even want to.
Here in front of me was evidence of how my childhood attempts to make sense of an uncontrollable world had become instinctive, part of who I am at the core. The comfort of my dollhouse with its dependable design, the setting where I could direct the action, the impact in my later life of what I was doing as a three-four-five year old, had been hidden away beneath events that I saw as more significant than my being Mistress of the Dollhouse.
It was all hidden until I began to write this essay about neighbors and loss and finding a dollhouse. Tapping away at the keyboard, gently rapping at the door to poignant and dusty places that want to see the light of day, it began to come together: I still love colored stone and arranging houses and scene setting and red roofs.
I found my old neighbors, still living in my heart.
And I still believe in the power of play.
Now, excuse me, while I dust off my dollhouses.