Welcome to the Dollhouse

I found my dream dollhouse—and a brand new hobby—sitting on the curb in my Brooklyn neighborhood

I never had a dollhouse when I was growing up. Maybe it was the size of our apartment. As every New Yorker knows, size is a precious commodity in NYC, and a perfectly decent living space—say, a 1.5 bedroom apartment—can feel like a dollhouse itself.

I certainly had plenty of dolls, mainly Barbies, and all of her accoutrements, including her car and some of the furniture from her signature Dream House Collection. But I never really wanted the actual house.

For one thing, Barbie and I didn't share the same dream when it came to real estate. For all its amenities and pinkness, Barbie's property just didn't seem like a home to me. It was big, plastic-y and mass-produced. My dream dollhouse needed to be made of wood. It would be a blank slate, waiting for me to take command as its sole owner and decorator.

This fantasy, however, was too big, impractical and expensive, so I kept my dollies and their belongings in a toy chest, assembling and reassembling them as needed—a pop-up life for me and my imaginary friends.

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Cut to many, many years later: I'm taking a walk in my Brooklyn neighborhood on a very rainy day, and there on the curb, amidst a pile of garbage bags and things too big to recycle, sat my dream dollhouse.

It was made of wood, all of it unfinished. One part of the roof had snapped off and lay splintered in the attic. The ground floor was soaking wet and crawling with bugs. But I didn't care because I saw the potential grandeur. I immediately imagined my kids playing with it, this gender-neutral manor with sliding doors in the entryway, a balcony on the second floor and nary a Mattel logo in sight.

I knelt in the rain and examined the house more carefully, making sure that there were no bed bugs amidst the current creepy crawly inhabitants. Then I lifted the house up and lugged it home.

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I asked the kids to stay away from it until I repaired the roof and cleaned the house from top to bottom with what seemed like gallons of Mr. Clean. Then I painted the whole thing white. After everyone went to bed and I was still fussing with the refurbished dollhouse, I heard a nagging little voice inside my head ask, "Why are you doing this? What's the purpose? Was it really for the kids?"

If it was, why wasn't I letting them fix and decorate it? I tried to make up all kinds of excuses—I was going to pimp out the dollhouse and then sell it, or enter it into a dollhouse contest (those exist, right?).

Finally, I had to admit to myself that this was my house and that a true hobby was being born. In addition to never having had a dollhouse, I realized that I never had a hobby, either. I guess I've always been a type-A person who made plans, had goals and steadily worked toward them with complete focus. I've always liked arts and crafts, but more with an eye towards making things to use: terrariums, curtains, pillowcases—home decor for an actual home. This new project was a different story.

I was totally into it, even a little bit obsessed. Using wallpaper samples and a hefty container of Mod Podge, I painstakingly papered each room of the little wooden house—a rich, textured red for the living room, a serene blue for the bedroom and yellow for the kitchen.

I measured and cut sandpaper to make tiny shingles for the roof. I like hardwood floors, so I googled "DIY dollhouse floors" and found out how to do it with ... popsicle sticks. Brilliant! In fact, the Internet was teeming with inexpensive ideas for creating one's own miniature dream house. Who needed Barbie and her plastic crap McMansion?

The first time my kids saw the freshly painted house sitting atop our kitchen table on a sunny morning, they gasped with delight. Of course, they'll have to wait just a little longer before their action figures can permanently move in.

My project is far from finished—in fact, it's destined to be a work-in-progress for quite some time. But I've found that I can now enjoy that too. I can take my sweet time with this sweet new hobby. I can make tiny furniture and a pantry full of fake food, and I can place teeny little potted plants on the balcony, all for a group of minuscule imaginary inhabitants.

I might even let my kids help.

Tags: aging

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