(The house in this picture is not the same dwelling as the one in this story, for reasons which will be clear soon. It is added here only for ambient nostalgia value.)
On Day 1, Mom was kneeling in the back room. Planks and wood pieces were stacked on the floor. On graph paper she was marking measurements and angles, and penciling the wood using a tape measure and yardstick.
“Mom?” I was back from the bus after my half day at school. “Whatcha doin’?”
“Never you mind,” she said with a smile, and went on working on her latest project.
Mom was always working, doing everything perfectly and fast. She could make anything out of anything. She thought things up, then made them with her own two hands. She scrubbed and painted and polished, cooked and baked. In spare time she sewed clothes, knitted sweaters and scarves, and crocheted afghan quilts. She painted rooms and hung wallpaper. She got bricks and concrete and built steps and a garden wall. She raised fruit and vegetables. She made glass pendants and silk flowers and stuffed animals and tartan wool plaid covers for my schoolbooks. One time she traced my feet on a piece of thick cork and cut it into soles and crocheted snug sandals out of cord with wool tops. I was excited about trying them on, but she threw them away because they weren’t as good as the ones that she imagined.
On Day 3, the back room was all cleared and swept.
“Where is the wood?” I asked.
“Go out back and look,” she said, mixing up a meat loaf in the kitchen.
I ran outside. There in the backyard under the neighbor’s dogwood tree was a brand new little house, just the right size for someone like me. The light solid wood shone palomino color in the sun. The house had a step, and a plank floor, and a door and window, and a peaked roof with a scalloped strip all around, like a gingerbread house in a fairy tale.
I ran in to the kitchen. “Mom! A play house? For me??”
“For you.” She patted the meat loaf into shape and lit the gas oven.
“Can I invite my friends for tea parties, and take the doll dishes outside?”
“Yes. It’s your play house. You can play any way you want.” She scrubbed the potatoes.
“Can I put my blackboard there and play school?”
“Yes! It’s your play house. Go ahead.” She wrapped the potatoes in foil.
“Can I grow flowers in the window and put crumbs there for the birds?”
“YES,” she laughed. “It’s YOUR play house! Wash hands for supper.”
That night I couldn’t fall asleep thinking about the play house. We can have tea parties with the doll tea set. We can put up the blackboard and run a school for the little kids on the street. In the window we can hang flowers. Like, red geraniums or something bright. If I put out bread pieces and stay still, the birds can come and feel safe there with me.
On Day 4 I ran home from school. At our house there was wood at the curb. They were light lumber pieces broken here and there with the nails torn out, and strips of scalloping all next to the trash can waiting for the garbage truck.
I ran into the kitchen. “My play house! What happened?”
“Oh I don’t know.” Mom was working hard, scouring the stove. “Some boys came through the yard and acted up. They wrote on the wall, or something. Don’t breathe in here, I sprayed oven cleaner. Go play outside!”
I went out under the dogwood tree and stood in the rectangle of flat grass. It was a wrong time to talk to Mom. She needed everybody to leave her alone and let her work. And even later, there was no point in asking. She moved on right away to her next project, designing and supervising every step when a construction crew put on a new second floor and new bathroom. Then she sanded down the floors, and got a team to put down varnish. She braided rag rugs for the doorways. She sewed upholstery covers and bolsters for the old sofa to make it look nice. She started running a Scout troop, and the church education program, and the school drama club.
Now it’s miles and years away, in a town full of fine woodcraft construction. Older homes and yards come with toy houses, child sized. Some are in branches with rope ladders. Some are on boulders in rock gardens. Some have little box hedges and tiny gates. Some have shutters, flower boxes and curtains, or tables and chairs. There are name signs, ceramic lawn animals, bright colors softened down by weather and moss. All of them look well scuffed and played in, by people grown and gone.
Passing by, I always stop and admire, and think back to a story with another ending that says “Sweetheart, sometimes when you build something beautiful, the world will come and try to hurt it. For us, it was boys who maybe don’t have a play house, or parents to build it. But you and I can scrub off what they threw at the walls, or paint over what they wrote there. Maybe the house won’t ever be as good as new. But we can still care for it. It can still be ours.”
Little houses in older-fashioned yards have a cozy sentimental appeal. But they don’t shine like mine did, the night I jumped out of bed to look at its window and door and scalloped roof. In my dreams it’s gleaming there still, moonlit palomino wood and trim angles and fresh smell. It’s spilling over with red flowers and eager birds. The lady of the house is caring for them all, serving bread bits and tea for everybody.