"She's built a little house for herself in the living room," said Gina, my sister-in-law. She was speaking of my 8-year-old niece, Becky, who was carefully positioning a sofa cushion.
"It's so cute," said Gina. "It's the only house I've seen that has dimples." She was referring to the many cushions with buttons, around which the sofa fabric billowed and puckered.
Sofa cushions were Becky's favorite construction material. She used them for the walls. In addition, a large chalkboard taken from her room made part of the front wall, and a huge overstuffed pillow formed most of the south wall, giving that side a shapeless, malleable appearance - sort of a half-melted-marshmallow look.
Her mom said Becky had slept there the previous night. She simply curled up against a pillow. I've heard of beds that fold into the wall, but her bed was the wall - just one of her many innovations.
I admired the simplicity and practicality of her house. Take, for example, the chalkboard wall. It bore yellow chalk drawings of flowers, shrubs, and lawn, providing her house with an attractive yard that was incredibly easy to maintain. Growing a plant was as easy as drawing it progressively larger. Transplanting a shrub was as simple as erasing it, then redrawing it elsewhere on the board.
"Come on in," said Becky, holding open the blanket flap that was her front door. She felt ready for house guests and was eager to show off the interior. I tried my best to enter unobtrusively, but I was like a size 12 foot putting on a size 8 shoe. I got in only by collapsing part of a wall.
"That's OK," she said while climbing out to make instant repairs. Her cheerful manner seemed to say, "Even though my uncle is a human wrecking ball, he has his good points." If someone had knocked over a wall of my house, I'd be considerably more upset.
I noticed that she didn't just restore the wall, but expanded it, adapting it to my dimensions. She molded the wall around the space I was taking up - thus blurring the distinction between builder and tailor. I felt as though I were being fitted for a sofa-cushion suit.
From inside, I saw that four straight-backed chairs formed the frame of her house. We sat cross-legged among the chairs. Their seats, which she called "shelves," faced toward us. Games, art materials, books, and snacks were piled onto the seats, drawing my attention to this unique aspect of her design: About 70 percent of the interior was shelf space.
The ceiling consisted of blankets and sheets stretched over the chairs. One blanket had colorful pictures on it. When I craned my neck to see them, tilting my head back as one would to view, say, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, I found that her ceiling was resting directly on my face, interfering with my breathing and blurring my vision. Admittedly, the Sistine ceiling is a better viewing experience, but my niece's ceiling can boast of being fully machine-washable. The sheets created a pleasant sunroof effect, providing enough light for me to read the directions to a game that we played. Becky was a clever player. She wrote furiously when the game gave us one minute in which to list "objects in a room that begin with the letter T." She wrote, "the chair, the lamp, the clock, the desk..."
I was glad that, as a builder, Becky kept her expectations reasonable. When I was her age, my friend Larry and I decided to build an underground fort. We were seized with inspiration during the planning stage, envisioning an anteroom with a trapdoor that would take us to a slide. Going down the slide would bring us to a recreation room equipped with a trampoline - situated so that we could spring from it into our subterranean Olympic-size swimming pool. Something got lost in the transition from plans to realization, however. After three days of picking and shoveling in hard ground, all we had was a dirt hole with some wooden planks over the top.
Real estate agents say, "Location is everything," and Becky's house was not located near a television. When her favorite program came on, she abandoned her construction site to watch the show. Other family members joined her and, not being expected to sit on a cushionless sofa, borrowed portions of her wall so that they could sit comfortably. In this way, her house was gradually dismantled.
I am sure, however, that for years to come Becky will see potential building materials whenever she looks at that sofa, that chalkboard, and that overstuffed pillow. And when the day arrives that she is ready for a more formal house, one with weeds to pull and a mortgage, she will have a ready-made list of things she will need, a list that reads, "the chair, the lamp, the clock, the desk..."