Today I am washing doll dishes and pots and tiny whisks and tea-pots without lids. I run the warm water into our deep sink and dump a milk crate full of childhood into the suds. The girls who played with these were New York City girls, raised in Manhattan long enough to feel it will always be their home. And the oldest, Miranda, is on her way home to Ohio now, flying from LaGuardia to Akron, where her dad will meet her and bring her home.
Home. Now a lovely house on the campus of the school I lead in a suburb of Cleveland, a house much bigger than our two NYC apartments, which were designed by my husband with careful shelves and unexpected drawers that housed and contained all our girls required.
Once our younger daughter, Cordelia, was born, I realized I couldn’t manage the four-story walk-up with a toddler and an infant strapped to my chest. So, we gave up that home where we had become parents, the doll-house built into the bookshelves by my husband as a magical surprise for Miranda’s second birthday. When she came down the spiral staircase into the living room in her footie pajamas, white with pink bows, her dark brown hair mussed from sleeping, her great blue eyes widened.
“Oh,” she whispered. “For me?”
I, enormously pregnant with Cordelia, and her father, master craftsman, smiled at her and invited her to join us as we knelt in front of the tiny doll brownstone—eight rooms, all furnished and, one apartment later, electrified.
We moved around the corner when Cordelia was about eight months old. A doorman building with an elevator! Magical. Doormen are to New York City children what I imagine uncles might be to other children—benevolent, consistent, kind, interested.
The dollhouse is in the basement of this Ohio home. By the time we arrived, that long ago summer when I was again hugely pregnant with our unexpected son, the girls had outgrown dollhouses and play kitchens. It was as if, at nine and eleven, in a move from city to suburb, they became tweens in an instant, the Disney Channel replacing Madame Alexander dolls.
But washing out the plastic cups and spoons, the tiny whisk, the plastic grapes and cups, I see them in the room Seth designed and built for them: two loft beds reached by a small carpeted staircase; a playhouse in between their beds, with a secret entrance from the top and another from the bottom lit with twinkle lights. After 911, the girls wouldn’t go into their room alone for several weeks, and when I finally, in a cross voice, asked them what was going on, Miranda, eight, looked up at me, her eyes wet.
“We’re afraid Osama Bin Laden might be hiding in our playhouse.” Cordelia nodded, solemnly. Two dark heads tilted up to us, hair in neat pony-tails or braids, courtesy of Joanne, our Trinidadian babysitter. One set of blue eyes, one of brown.
“What? Why in the world do you think that, girls?” I asked, too slow to mask my incredulity, to really hear their fear.
“Mom, they don’t know where he is.”
Exasperated, I exclaim, “Well, he’s not in there.”
Silence. I try again, “The doorman never would have let him come upstairs.”
Today, letting warm water spill through the holes of a miniature colander, I think about that moment, and I wish I had been kinder. But we were all on edge that fall, all frayed.
Once Cordelia asked me a few months later, “How do we know another plane won’t just fall out of the sky?”
Seth built two desks beneath the girls’ loft beds and rigged a rope swing for them to twirl on, perching on the knotted seat. He hung a shelf to hold their Madame Alexander dolls, my own dolls unwrapped from cartons brought from my mother’s house, their American Girl dolls. All were frequently taken down and played with vigorously, quarrels about who would be Jo March or Marie Antoinette. Against one wall, the wooden kitchen—a stove and three stacked baskets with a shelf on top. A gourmet restaurant, the kitchen for Ma and Pa Ingalls, Cinderella’s domain, a center of pretend. And behind the kitchen, in another corner, a stage, about eight inches off the ground, carpeted in maroon plush pile, designed for plays, with drawers beneath to hold dress up clothes and costumes.
So much of the detritus of the girls’ lives came with us to Ohio, parked here in our basement, testament to time passing. Somehow, when we left NYC, we never did the purging I imagine other families doing; we just carted it all here in a moving van. We discovered a waste-basket, still full of trash, when we unpacked. Well-organized families weed things out, re-organize, move forward. That is hard for us. Today, however, we make a start, pack up some bins, sort and consider, give away or move to storage.
Miranda is not much taller than she was when we moved her eleven years ago. But she has become an adult. Competent, confident, smart, empathetic, she has taken up her grown up life on the Upper West Side, a boomerang returning to its point of origin. Some days, I imagine her moving through her life, discovering the city once again as I did when I moved there at 23.
I used to listen to the girls playing at the dollhouse in that second apartment; Seth secured it against a door we did not use, a little nook for make-believe. I hear them playing:
“I’m the Mommy,” asserts Miranda.
“No, I am,” bleats Cordelia
“Mommy is busy right now, girls. Can’t you entertain yourselves?” scolds Miranda in my voice. At my desk, I freeze.
“Say the part about having too much work to do,” hisses Cordelia.
“I have too much work to do, girls. Stop fussing at me. No more TV. Clean up your room.”
Harpy, shrew, tired working Mom. Guilty as charged. Many years later, I hear that voice coming from my mouth still, fussing at my son.
“Can’t you please pick up your shin guards and put things back into your soccer bag, Atticus? Hush, Daddy’s resting. No, you may not have a cupcake before dinner.”
Remembering that conversation by the dollhouse makes my heart sting. We don’t get do-overs as parents; we carry the past with us the whole time, moments swim back to us as we stand by the sink, arms deep in suds, washing up, calling up, the past. Memory reminds me how fast the time goes, how few opportunities we get to mother better. In a different life, years later, I still ache to be a different version of that doll-house mother, even as I rinse the foamy suds away, dry and place the little dishes in a clean box.