In my rebellion against the toy mega-corporations and retina-searing pink plastics, I’ve had to resolve my own personal biases with my girls’ love of fashion dolls, and their desire for doll houses.
I can understand the desire. As a little girl, I wanted nothing more than a tiny house, all of my own. My friend two houses down had a doll house, three stories and about nine rooms, with real shingles on the roof, and a whole collection of miniature furniture and accessories. I could not fathom how she could stand to spend more than a few minutes separated from this magnificent little house!
My father and mother seemed to “get it.” They knew I wanted a little house, all of my own. The same Christmas my cousins and I tried to prompt the holiday with our wee-hours coffee excursion, my parents, grandparents, and aunts all decided to fulfill that desire, and managed to keep it entirely a secret.
Dad had been out of work for a few months (as is fairly typical of winters in lumber), and had spent the time finishing out the attic space in our little house with two bedrooms, so we could finally have the five children divided up into two spaces, rather than sharing one front bedroom crammed with bunk beds. Three things he had to work with were building material scraps, ingenuity, and time.
He built what was either a small fashion doll’s house (two rooms and a roof “deck”), or a large bookcase, with flat panel construction so it could be transported to and from my grandparent’s house under all the luggage in the back of our blue and white Volkswagon van. Trimmed bits of carpet became the luxurious wall-to-wall carpets in the little house. Real “wood” paneling salvaged from the remodel of the room that would house the new stairs in the big house became wall coverings for the little house.
He packed extra bits of scrap lumber and odds and ends; when we arrived at Grandma & Grandpa’s house, the two men disappeared into Grandpa’s woodshop to make additional furniture in fashion doll scale.
While the menfolk were busy making the house and furniture, my mother, grandmother, and aunt created everything else with fabric, needles, yarn, and love… quilts and rugs and pillows, and an entire wardrobe for my Barbie. Parts of the bounty were arranged in the assembled house; other parts, like the clothing, were wrapped in tissue and laid in small boxes, to give me lots of fun things to open in the morning.
Under cover of darkness, when all the children had been banished to bed with dire threats of coal and switches if we didn’t just Go To Sleep, For Goodness’ Sake, the adults brought in the house, assembled it, decorated it, and headed to bed themselves.
I glimpsed the assembled house as we snuck through the darkened living room to the kitchen to make that coffee, and immediately, a small war set up in my little heart. On the one hand, I was so excited… for my cousin, to whom I was sure the house would be given. She had the coolest Barbie stuff, including a Malibu Barbie with a yellow bathing suit. Since she was rather fond of me, I was sure I’d be allowed to play with her and the house. On the other hand, I was devastated… it was exactly the sort of thing I wanted to take home with me forever.
I tried very hard to not look, but even back in bed, I could see the wonderful little house by the twinkling lights of the Christmas tree, and I knew in my heart I needed to muster up more happy for my cousin, and less selfish for me.
Then, O! the joy of the next morning, when I began to unwrap small boxes filled with doll things, and mentioned to my cousin that it would be fun to play with her and her new house after breakfast… and my cousin looked at me with a puzzled smile and said, “But, that’s YOUR house… it says so on the tag!”
Fast forward about 17 years. We were in a similar position to my parents… out of work for several months, very little cash for presents, but a workshop full of salvaged wood, some ingenuity, and time. Our Eldest had been improvising doll’s houses in every nook and cranny, so we knew a real house would be well received. The planning commenced.
At Thanksgiving, my Tall, Dark, and Slightly Neanderthal husband smuggled the flat wood out to my brother’s house. While my sister-in-law and I prepped dinner, they went to my brother’s garage, and stood before the Big Saw needed to cut the wood into house parts. My poor husband was stressed… all the cuts had to be right the first time, because there was no money to supply a do-over.
On the way up, I had jokingly told him he ought to ask my brother about saying a prayer before they cut, that I remembered my Dad praying before all the parts of our upstairs remodel, because mathematically, things like the stairs couldn’t fit… but with a prayer first, they did.
So, my husband jokingly shared my thoughts with my brother, who got very serious and said, “Good idea. We can’t afford to screw this up.” So, they said a manly prayer, knowing that God would understand the desires of two amateur carpenters eager to delight one small girl, and dove in.
It worked. The pieces went together correctly on the first try.
Fast forward through another month. We spent weekends and evenings working on the house in secret; our Eldest was banned from the garage and pantry (which was next to the garage), and told there were Christmas surprises there, and that peeking would spoil things entirely. Being a good girl, she didn’t even try.
We covered each level’s floor with self-stick vinyl kitchen tiles, trimmed to fit. Scrapbook papers were decoupaged onto the walls. We had a tiny jar of free mis-tint paint recolored to get just the right shade for the exterior. Wide tongue depressors were cut into 2″ long pieces, and applied individually, by hand, for shingles. My husband built a bed to fit an 11″ fashion doll; I dressed it with a padded mattress and bedskirt, and pillows in cases. He built two fireplaces with mantels, and one old-fashioned black “iron” range in the kitchen. The lowest level was fitted with doors, and became a storage cabinet. We let other family members on both sides know what our project was, and they added things like additional furniture, clothes, and accessories, all wrapped separately for under the tree.
Oh, and since my husband is quite Tall, with an inherited propensity for building on a Tall Man’s Scale, the constructed house is just over seven feet tall at the peak of the roof. Ken dolls can stand in the rooms, and look to scale.
Christmas Eve, my brother stopped by after work, to see the finished house and visit for a minute. We stood in the garage together, gazing at it.
“Do you remember the house Dad and Grandad built for you that Christmas?” he asked.
“Oh, yes,” I replied.
“You’d have had kittens if it was something like this.”
“She’s going to love it.”
And, she did. And does.
That night, while tucking the kids into bed, I told our Eldest that we needed to install a Christmas surprise in the room just above their bedroom, so if she heard any thumping or banging, it was just us fixing the surprise, and she should keep herself and her brother downstairs, in bed. Tickled to be in on the secret, she agreed. The Boy, who had helped glue down several courses of shingles, was also tickled, since he knew about the double-secret trick.
We got the enormous house through the kitchen and up to the guest room with about 1/2 inch to spare, and bolted it to the studs for security. After arranging the house fittings nicely, we retreated, leaving a large bow on the door to the room.
The next morning, Eldest got more and more excited as she unwrapped packages of doll things. She asked if she could clear the books out of part of the living room bookcase and set up a house there, and could barely contain herself when the answer was, “I suppose so…”
When all was unwrapped, she looked around and whispered to her daddy, “What about the big surprise for my brother?”
“Oh, that’s right! How about you run up there and make sure it’s all ready, then we’ll let him see?”
Off she went, with the rest of us close on her heels. She saw the house level by level, each floor adding another, louder, “OH!”, until she finally burst into tears and launched herself at her dad for a hug. “It’s really mine, isn’t it? Not my brother’s! It was a surprise for me?”
Knowing how very hard it would be to leave her new house, I was happy to bend the rules just a bit, and let her eat her meals in the guest room all day.
Five years later, the doll house is still her favorite play thing.
You just can’t get those kinds of memories from a box full of pink plastic, some assembly required.