As a very young girl, my mother and I shared a fascination with miniatures and, more grandiosely, dollhouses. We combed through issues of a magazine called Nutshell News, which showed award-winning Victorians, houses with additional wings, houses that boasted electricity. Everything was perfectly varnished. Plenty of things were out of place, but not for sloppiness: the houses were meant, even in the absence of dolls, to look lived-in.
One year, my sister and I were asked for several months not to enter my father’s study, which was usually a place we went to play games on the Commodore and poke around in order, I realize now, to better understand the enigma my dad was. I mostly did as I was told, but there were times I’d open the door to peer in, wondering what must be happening inside that we weren’t allowed to see. There was no lock on that door. All I noticed that was amiss was a sheet covering a mysterious, bulky, geometric structure I couldn’t make sense of.
It wasn’t until my birthday that year when the sheet was lifted and I was allowed to see: a blue and white Tudor-style two-story dollhouse, carefully pasted with stucco, the plastic windows etched in neat and orderly designs, small circles at the top of each pane. The shingles were unfinished, the interior was the raw wood provided by the kit, but there were window boxes for flowers, and window seats for cushions. There were four rooms, which my parents had outfitted with some purchased furniture and some homemade. There were even a few off-scale homemade foods adorning the white kitchen table: a clay hotdog in a bun, painted with acrylic, cracking along its edges.
I had never been so happy to receive a thing in my life.
I played with it religiously growing up, spending whatever allowance or Christmas or birthday money on gifts for the people who lived there—a set including a blonde, oddly feminine father in a blue sweater and tie, a matronly mother in an embroidered salmon skirt and white blouse up to her neck, down to her wrists, and a baby in pink and blue swaddling, up to anyone’s interpretation. There was an elaborate Christmas tree and I wrapped their gifts with paper and bows.
The dollhouse lived with my parents for most of my adulthood, until I relocated to Georgia, just a few hours away, and hauled it home with me. This was around the time my father was dying, and my interest renewed, I set to work remodeling, so that I could show him. I did not attempt to mimic the museum-quality work of the Nutshell News houses, but I used popsicle sticks, stained lightly, as hardwood floors in the living room, and mosaic tiles in both the kitchen and bathroom. The bedroom floors, also popsicle sticks, are whitewashed. I painted the interior entirely white. I installed grass in the small front yard and flowers in the flower boxes.
I spent too much time online searching for the perfect trinkets to modernize the place. I bought a frilly bra and underwear set, some men’s shirts folded neatly and meant for drawers larger than those I have. I bought a dollhouse for my dollhouse and a to-scale skeleton, who only hinges at the hips, to replace the dolls I’ve long since packed away with other childhood memorabilia. He can only sit with his legs straight out, so his placement is always precarious.
I have held onto small things from young scavenging, like Wesson Cooking Oil, Neutrogena, toothbrushes and toothpaste, a straight razor. I piled in the sink for realism, left a half-eaten brownie on a plate on the coffee table, put tiny letters on the surface of the roll top desk.
The past few years, it has sat, neglected, in the upstairs bedroom, collecting dust. Periodically, framed art slides off of the walls where it had been adhered with museum wax. Now, the kitten has discovered it, and it has been pillaged a bit, chairs knocked over and dinner on the floor. My wife has a stuffed alpaca she keeps inside it, moving it comically from the gabled roof to the bathroom, to standing on all fours on the finely-upholstered sofa.
For my birthday this year, I decided it was time to get into a bit of spring cleaning. My childhood friend came to visit and I forced her to participate, bless her heart. I dusted everything, removed all the museum wax from beneath each dish, vase, flower arrangement, and toiletry. We rearranged all four rooms, often blocking architectural elements like, well, the front door, and I actually put the toilet in front of the window because that way you can see the tiny toilet paper better. Priorities.
I also put a lot of trinkets away, attempting for a more minimalist approach, but the kitchen is still overflowing with ingredients, food, appliances, dishes, and cookbooks, as it should be, and the marks of my parents are still in every room. It feels to be gleaming, a new start for my people-less home. Now, on to spring cleaning my real house, I guess.