A hushed tone, a one-voice dialogue, the quiet clank of wooden furniture. I peek through the playroom door and see my two-year-old standing at her small dollhouse making up a story, little figures in her hands moving this way and that, in lively conversation. She is deep in the world of imagination. When she spots me at the periphery, she startles and smiles and reverts to a nonsense word, “gah-gah!” A term I’m certain translates to banishment. I instantly feel guilty for breaking the spell.
I was once a dollhouse girl, whispering my stories for hours, imagining miniature dramas. The Christmas after I turned five, my sister and I received our first dollhouse. I remember the anticipation, a vague awareness that something was being crafted in secret in the garage. The air held surprise. My mother found slivers of time while we were napping. She created a template from cardboard, deconstructed it, and brought the pieces to the hardware store to have wood measured and cut. She and my dad worked on it together in the evenings after my sister and I went to bed, painted the exterior a pale yellow like our real house, decorated the interior with remnants of brown carpeting from our living room and pineapple wallpaper from our dining room.
At my mother’s house, the dollhouse still stands tall and sturdy, a replica of my childhood home, a trip back in time. My daughter makes a beeline to it every time she visits. I didn’t expect her predilections to reveal themselves so soon, or the way they would open secret doors to the rooms in my heart. In her novel Eleven Hours, Pamela Erens writes, “She would like the surprise of children, the way they bring pieces of the outer world back to you, pieces of past, present, and future. The way they are always in a place where you cannot quite meet them.”
It’s true in a way, that children often seem to be in a place just shy of our grasp. The moments we’re able to shift our adult brains to child-wonder, to allow ourselves to be fully immersed in that world, are transcendent and fleeting. Just as I come to fully understand exactly where my daughter is, the phase disappears and she transforms again. I attempt to trap these moments in photographs and writing to be returned to later; I practice presence in an effort not to miss a moment of her growth. But I wonder, is it less about capturing these ephemeral joys and more about seeking to meet her right where she is?
With her dollhouse play, my daughter brings back a piece of the past, tangible and solid, a place where my small self meets her here in the present. Time folds over, or maybe ceases, as we meet inside the magic of imagination. Already I’m thinking ahead to Christmas, of the big dollhouse we will surprise her with. I am distracted looking online at the different designs and styles, until I land on the one, the dollhouse of my dreams.
In my excitement, I show a picture of it to my mother, who says, “Who are you kidding? This dollhouse is for you!” Well, maybe it’s for us. I had looked at many, many dollhouses. From an adult perspective, I was thinking about styles that best facilitate imaginative play. But I was also very much able to see it all with my child’s eye. Which would I have enjoyed the most? Which would have allowed the most room for my sister and I to play together and separately? Which had doors and windows big enough for little figures to easily go in and out? Which rooms drew me in, asking to be appointed with just the right furniture? I’m thinking of the miniatures we will collect. Or better still, the ones we will make ourselves. We could carve a tiny Christmas tree, make little papier-mÃ¢ché pumpkins, a minuscule birthday cake, the smallest paper chain you’ve ever seen.
The dollhouse isn’t just a connection to the deep past. It is an ever-present part of me. It is me. The one who imagines. The little girl whispering her stories for hours in a quiet room. The writer here at her computer typing. This is the uninterrupted time I seek; to follow my imagination, down quiet corridors and into a bright field. To argument and celebration, death and joy and hushed conversations, birthdays and friendships and betrayals, the skinned knee, the chipped tooth, the race won, the hill we rolled down, smell of sweet grass, eyes shut tight, bodies bumping the earth until we hit bottom and split open with laughter. The past alive in the present spooling into the future.
I couldn’t help myself; I ordered the dollhouse and it’s on its way. I keep checking for its arrival like a child waiting for Santa to slide down the chimney. I can’t wait to unpack the box, admire the smooth sanded pine. Together my husband and I will assemble the pieces out in the garage the way my parents once did. The trick will be keeping it a secret until Christmas. I’ll attempt to quell my excitement by collecting miniatures that reflect our everyday life. Tiny pieces of sea glass, two cats made of felt, little houseplants. But I’ll resist adorning and decorating. I know she’ll have her own ideas about how to set things up. Perhaps we’ll sit on the floor together making our little decisions. I will meet her right where she is. And then leave her to it, to imagine her own world.