Shared Stories: My Doll House

Karen Borrell grew up in rural New York in the Adirondacks. Like many at the time, her family struggled financially; but one Christmas her mother still managed to give Karen the gift of her dreams.  Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns

By Karen Borrell

My mother always know how very much I wanted a doll house. It was the war years and our family, like so many others, was barely making each month’s rent and other costs. I know mother longed to give me that special gift.

Somehow, probably through my stepfather who worked in a lumber mill, she found a lumberjack who said he would make a doll house for her.  I’m sure it didn’t cost her much, as it was not what you would call a fine piece of work.

Somehow she managed, without me seeing it, to install this large and very heavy, finished gift into the bay window area of our dining room and on top of the window seat.

We always opened our gifts on Christmas Eve after a special and delicious dinner. That was followed by the gift opening, and then a long drive to late church services in another town. That would get us back through the heavy snow-banked roads well after midnight.

I cannot imagine how my brothers, mother, and stepfather could have moved that doll house into its position at the last minute, and I didn’t see them do it. I only know that when my few little gifts were open, I felt a bit disappointed, but knew not to expect a great deal.

Then I was told to go into the dining room. A blanket covered my treasure. I pulled it off, and there was the most beautiful and happy surprise!  I was thrilled.

Looking back, what filled my hours and made me so happy was a very bulky, crudely made house of heavy plywood.  It had a front door that opened to a small space that had oversized stairs leading to the second floor.

There were two rooms downstairs and two rooms upstairs. I made a kitchen under the stairs and a bathroom at the top of the stairs.

The back half of the roof, with its real, heavy, life-sized shingles, had hinges and lifted up. I found a stick to hold it up when I played in the upstairs section. If the roof had fallen on me, I’m sure it could have knocked me out.

Everything in that doll house was thick and heavy, but I didn’t care. It had big windows and I could reach into every room as I played. I nailed up curtains, cut out paper oriental rugs and pictures for the walls from our Sears catalogue. Very gradually I collected any sort of thing to furnish my ungainly house. The furniture didn’t match and was of various proportions. I barely minded. 

My brother Richard was very handy, and wired in Christmas lights so that I could see to play during our dark winter afternoons. He was already headed towards his degree in engineering at age 11 or 12. He had an Erector set and made me a battery-run elevator that would lift my dolls up the imaginary “hill” that their house sat on. 

Richard’s recovery from rheumatic fever kept him home for a few years, and he was my constant companion. Sometimes I could even get him to play with me and the doll house. But that was very seldom. He preferred to solve my technical problems or make a new kind of car for my small dolls, or something else that would amuse me.

When I was almost thirteen, our family made the big move from the mountains to a small city and we had very cramped living quarters. This was done mainly for better schooling and to be closer to the hospital where my mother worked. The decision had to be made to leave the bulky dollhouse behind.

I don’t know what mother did with it but it was quietly done without my seeing it go. It had been one of my greatest enjoyments, but now my life was opening to new possibilities.