By Katie Haegele | I have a dollhouse in my living room. I can admit it. One day, for no reason that I can remember, I decided to get it out of my mom’s storage closet and bring it back to my apartment. It weighs a ton and I don’t drive so I had to ask my sister Liz to give me a ride, but once it was at my place I could look at it a while, and I started to think about fixing it up again.
My dad built the house for me when I was five and my parents gave it to me that Christmas; they did the same for Liz the year she turned five. You can buy a dollhouse kit that comes with all the parts, but he did it himself by following patterns in a book, cutting the wood with his father’s old jigsaw. Some years after that, when I was a teenager but my dad hadn’t yet gotten sick, my mom told me how they’d worked on the house that winter, at night after my sister and I went to bed. They kept it in the basement, and they sneaked down there in the evenings to wallpaper and paint one little room at a time. We loved playing with the houses when we were kids, especially Liz’s. Mom and Dad had become more expert the second time around, so her house had extra details, like a staircase and a kitchen sink with exposed pipes.
I had a revival of interest in my dollhouse when I was around 11, at that age where you’re just about to become too old for things like that so you really go all out for a little while longer. I dragged the house downstairs from that same storage closet and set it up in my bedroom, trying hard to be little again. I remember the day I got my first period, I’d spent hours trying to construct a garden in the carpet next to where the house sat on my bedroom floor. My stomach had felt funny all afternoon and when I finally understood what was going on, that I’d finally gotten my long-awaited period, I felt stupid for having played with a toy that day. For a long time after that, just looking at the house made me feel vaguely embarrassed. But no more! I’ve been bleeding monthly for more than 20 years now and I figure I’m allowed to play with anything I want.
As an adult I have developed a deep interest in castoff things and secondhand junk. And although I’m not one of those people who collect toys, I do play. I’ll stop at all but the most awkward-looking yard sales, and I know the folks who work at my local thrift stores by name. I bring home weird old books and magazines; some I read, others I use to make stationery and pieces of “art.” I pick through piles of clothing at church rummage sales to add to my already impressively large wardrobe so that, when I get dressed to go out, I can look like whoever I feel like that day. I have some of my dad’s old things, too, not counting the dollhouse—like the jazz and Motown records I rescued a few months after he died, when I caught my mom stacking them up in the Goodwill pile, and the Charlie Chaplin poster he got on a visit to Germany. In general I get a huge amount of pleasure out of filling my home with the things that other people used to have in theirs. What can I say? I like the company.
With my dollhouse back in my possession, I set up a work area in my living room and cleaned the dust off the roof and the shiny wooden floors. The original wallpaper was the only thing that was really ruined by time and needed replacing. Without thinking about it much I figured I could use leftover scraps or samples of real wallpaper, which is something I often see in thrift stores, but I soon realized this wouldn’t work. Picture it: If you put up real wallpaper the designs would look terrifying, with huge flowers blooming nauseous on the walls, or parrots like prehistoric predators. Everything in a dollhouse has to be done to the same scale or it will look crazy, like an Alice in Wonderland hallucination. After some research I learned that my house was done in a 1:12 scale, with one inch representing one foot in a real room. I found and ordered wallpaper made especially for dollhouses this size—in the bathroom teensy seashells line up neat along the top near the ceiling—and put it up with paste and smoothed out the bumps, just like in a real house.
Then I went shopping for accessories. In the catalogs I browsed online I found sewing machines and spinning wheels you could get if you decide your dolls are into needlework. There were delicate wooden quilting racks, their skeletons only a little thicker than toothpicks. I learned that you can make a colonial-era kitchen, or decorate the house for Christmas or Halloween. I even found an entire category called Egyptian, meaning the ancient one: You can buy painted sarcophagi, thrones, and god and goddess figurines. Even I raised my eyebrows at that one. It’s hard to imagine the dollhouse where these objects would belong, but hey. This whole hobby is pretty weird. May as well go whole hog.
For my house I bought a clear goldfish bowl with “water” and a “fish” inside it, blue-and-white checked napkins for the kitchen table, an Oriental rug, and a roll top desk that slides open and closed. I still had some good things left over from childhood, like a porcelain-looking plastic vase that has a red and gold design of cranes and lotus flowers. It looks just right with the rug.
Then I started thinking about who should live in the house. There is a difference of opinion regarding dolls that divides the adult dollhouse collecting community, I soon found out. Some collectors feel that the people are distracting, since they can’t really interact with the objects and they’re so often awkward and clunky looking. Others think it’s a necessary detail, almost philosophically so. Like, what’s the point of a house with no one to live in it? I knew I wanted some dolls for my house, but not the kind I had growing up, the dorky mom and dad and son and daughter with their soft bodies and only somewhat bendable limbs. You could sit them down on the furniture but they looked terrible, stiff and rigid, and eventually they’d slump over onto their sides, ruining the dignity of the perfect scene around them.
I found the website of a shop in Indiana that carries “contemporary” dollhouse dolls, detailed figures cast in hard resin that look charming and realistic. I had a nice phone conversation with the woman who runs the store and ordered two figures from her, both young women, thinking it would be cool if my unconventional family consisted of two grown sisters who lived together. Somehow the idea of a standard mom-and-dad-style family made me feel tired. One of the dolls stands with her hand on her hip, a little sassy, and the other one is mid-stride, holding her brown leather handbag, like she’s perpetually on her way out the door.
The dolls arrived in the mail a week or so later; when I took them out of their box they had a surprising heft to them, which I found touching somehow. I held them and pressed my fingers over their details—their eyebrows and elbows, the seams on their jeans and the wrinkles on the backs of their knees. Later I emailed the woman and told her how lovely I thought they were. “I was thinking of you and your dolls today,” she wrote back. “I knew you’d love them.”
And I do. They look like real people, only perfect. I named them Lily and Hyacinth van der Spiegl. Lily and Hyacinth because I like flower names for girls, and van der Spiegl because it means “from the mirror,” which sounded appropriately magical to me, and because who doesn’t want to have a last name with three words in it? Once they had names, stories about them started forming in my mind, and most of their biographical details were a satisfying kind of wish-fulfillment. Like, I’ve always had this romantic idea that I could be a lexicographer, so I decided that should be Lily’s job. Lily the dictionary editor, organized and brisk, always on her way to some important place. It was so easy, making it up, just like when I was a kid. I almost got giddy, remembering this thing I’d forgotten: If you want to be something, you can just pretend to be it.
It’s practically as good, I swear.
Katie Haegele C’98 lives in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania. This essay was adapted from her debut memoir, White Elephants: On Yard Sales, Relationships, & Finding What Was Missing (Microcosm Publishing, 2012).