Nostalgia is a tricky business. Sometimes what you long for can never be recaptured.
That ugly truth came crashing down on me a few weeks ago when Cousin Renee called. “It’s not there,” she said. It, I knew, was her metal dollhouse, the three-story lithographed affair last seen in the 1950s.
I know this sounds shallow, but I’ve coveted that toy since my parents gave it to my cousin back in what must have been 1957. I was then three years old; she was six and I remember her big “surprise” revealed at my Unc and Aunt O’s farmhouse in Central Illinois. How I wanted to play with it! That Christmas Eve I learned the meaning of deep-seated envy. How could my parents—my parents–give her such a deluxe house when my sibling and I had only a common two-story?
Back then metal dollhouses were made in the classic colonial style with painted shake shingles, shutters and cross-hatched windows—tiny replicas of the “Leave it to Beaver” house. The interior featured painted curtains, pictures and rugs, but those prefabricated accessories bothered me, even as a kid, because they restricted how rooms could be arranged. How could I place furniture in front of shelves painted on the wall? How could I set the sofa over the area rug?
Two-story models are all over eBay these days, but that special three-story model eludes me. A picture is all I want, just one more walk through the funhouse of childhood.
“It’s not there, Cuz,” Renee said. The disappointment in my voice took me back to the years of wanting to just see the house. “It’s up in the attic,” my aunt said, which meant there was a chance you might see it in her lifetime, but probably not.
My aunt was a keeper. Very little was thrown out or given away. She rarely went through anything, though. She didn’t want to stir up dust or memories. Over the years I would ask Aunt O about the dollhouse.
“It’s up in the attic,” she said.
“Up in the attic” meant it was still there, though no one dared to place a ladder to the ceiling access hatch and scramble into the dusty garret—not in subzero winters or broiling summers. No one had been up there in decades, so the attic kept its secrets undisturbed.
When Aunt O passed in 2013, Cousin Renee was charged with the task of “going through everything.” It has taken a while. Recently she hired a man to clean the attic. He filled the double garage full of stuff, cousin reported, even her first bike with training wheels, but no dollhouse.
Have him look again, I wanted to say. I’ve been wondering about that dollhouse for more than 50 years. How dare it be gone!
In my mind’s eye, the dollhouse is a mansion, well-appointed with plastic molded furniture in deep brown and bright yellow and blue, and the vinyl doll family to occupy the space. It takes up the entire kitchen table; no, the entire kitchen. It has features our common dollhouse does not—maybe shutters that open and close, cabinets with hinged doors, flower boxes, staircases, a front door that doesn’t pinch your fingers when you open it. It probably has tiny pans on the stove, a dog and a cat, maybe a Desoto in Sahara tan like my aunt and uncle used to drive. If that had been my dollhouse, it would have been the centerpiece of my life. I would have named the pets and the family—June, Ward, Wally, Beaver.
In the museum of my mind, the house is sitting on the kitchen table, though the last confirmed sighting was in their basement, a musty, dank cellar. My brother remembered it as being in rough shape, all rusty and cobwebby.
When Unc died in 1966, the family moved to town where my aunt taught school. I want to think that the dollhouse made the move, that it was loaded onto the neighbor’s truck and hoisted to the new attic. I want to think it’s still up there hiding, if a three-foot dollhouse can indeed hide in a narrow garret.
But of course it’s not there. It‘s a myth like the Cleaver family and other long-faded memories that we think we see but can never touch.