A little house furnished with big dreams

My children are moving into my first house, the house that in many ways I grew up in. With youthful abandon, they make themselves right at home. They feel free, even obliged, to move the furniture around, to dismantle the d├ęcor I carefully arranged so many years ago. As moves go, this is an easy one. No U-Hauls to unload, no boxes to unpack. The only loan required is their imagination, a simple down payment of little-girl dreams.

On a recent visit to my mother's home, my girls discovered what remains of my dollhouse. Actually I should say, our dollhouse - the one my Grandmother Harriet made for my sisters and me more than 30 years ago. By all rights, it is my daughters' plaything now. My sisters and I have long since moved out. It has stood vacant in Mom's garage storage room for well over a decade. Yet it is far from empty.

As we remove the protective plastic, I am struck by the dusty familiarity of its contents: gold spray-painted lampshades Grandmother Harriet crafted from aerosol-can tops, the rocking chair I saved my babysitting money to buy, a toilet with an old-time pull-flush chain my sister added.

Chairs lie toppled over on faded carpet-remnant rugs, and the living-room valances my little sister made are falling down. It's a disheveled mishmash of furniture and memories that my girls are parked in front of and happily digging into.

The house's well-lived-in look is testimony that we loved this place, a plywood five-room shell with a hinged gray roof that lifts open like a treasure chest. Though it still has my grandmother's original wall-papering and many of the picture frames she made, my sisters and I all had our turns as primary housekeeper. We each added our own touches, renamed the doll-family members, and claimed it as "ours" for the few years that it held our pre-adolescent interest.

So now my children inherit more than a toy abandoned as their aunts and I grew out of little girlhood into adults. It is our tabletop homestead. It was my dream house, where life happened as I imagined it should. Though miniature in scale, what this house once held - and perhaps still holds - is huge.

My fascination with the dollhouse was less the delicateness of little stuff than the fact that here the possibilities were endless. I could switch the stairwell from one living-room wall to the other, move the fireplace wherever I wanted, rearrange the dining room, or just ditch it altogether. I could put up the snow-tipped pipe-cleaner Christmas tree in May, or make a new TV from a magazine picture and a matchbox.

The possibilities were equally endless with the little German-made dolls that lived there. My mother had special-ordered them, and they had bendable arms and legs made from some ace-bandage kind of wrap, expressive faces, and real hair. Two sisters, a brother, a mother, and a father - who were, of course, perfect. The parents were loving and kind and danced together by the fire after the kids were asleep. The kids were happily mischievous, with the girls always in charge.

Perhaps the enchantment of make-believe is our not-so-pretend desire to believe that we can make our houses, our homes, our families what we wish them to be. I spent all those childhood years playing house - either in the dollhouse or outside in the acorn houses we made in the roots of oak trees. Countless hours were whiled away fashioning Barbie a penthouse apartment out of a stool, or later, as a teen, fantasizing that the house where I was babysitting was in fact my own.

It seems odd and sad, now that I finally have my own home and family, how little like play I let it be. My house today is where I work to maintain order and curtail clutter, where I'm constantly putting things away rather than letting dreams fly. Where responsibilities, not possibilities, seem endless, and where my energy seems to be spent fussing about the daily dramas that unfold, rather than imagining and creating better endings.

But ducking my head back into the dollhouse, watching my children awkwardly maneuver their little hands to open a kitchen drawer, I remember the delicate joy I found there, and I am reminded that I need to make-believe again. I need not begrudge being a housewife when I can dare to be a homemaker.

Sure, there are chores and bills and limitations I wish I could simply wish away. But even still, I need to make-believe in my capacity to make my house the home I hope it can be. Not a designer showcase, but a place where we can get cozy. And where two little girls who love to play house can have at it, and dream.

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