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Daddy Dream Home
The dollhouse arrived first as a concept. It was time, my wife said. There had been premonitions. Other children had them, always a problem. Some of these were reasonably sized, but many were not. They were room-fillingly large, a house within the house.
My wife ordered Barbie Dream Home from the North Pole. When it arrived in its multiple flat-pack boxes, she said, “You’re gonna need to get a head start.”
She was alluding to the play-kitchen assembly disaster of a few Christmases prior, which had culminated in a Christmas Eve midnight call to Kid Kraft customer service and a declaration that I would just drill the goddamned holes myself.
“I’ll see what I can do,” I said.
There was nothing else to say. Father Christmas was good at eating the cookies, but he was not mechanically inclined.
I live in Jackson, Mississippi, in my third house as a married adult. The houses is a grey shingled split-level at the end of a cul-de-sac. It is the sleepy end of a quiet street, the cave from which I sally forth to participate in the working world.
When the dollhouse arrived we had been in this house, in this town, about a year. I had moved back to my hometown for a job. (It’s a tale as old as time.) For most of that first year, I anticipated running into someone I knew from my childhood everywhere I went. I even expected to run into people while walking the dog. This hometown paranoia wasn’t entirely unfounded. On one of those first dog walks, a neighbor approached me and said, with an eagerness bordering on hostility, “Whose kid are you?” I gave him my parents’ names. “Uh-huh,” he said and turned back to his truck.
I came to expect that at some point I would run into my previous self. I would walk into the grocery store and there he would stand—my teenaged self, blamelessly waiting in line at aisle three.
I heeded my wife’s advice. We ended up ordering two structures: a dollhouse for the girl child, a fire station for the boy child. After the boxes arrived, I set aside the final quarter of Friday afternoon to get started. The problem was that I had nowhere to discreetly assemble them. The dollhouse especially was too big. It was going to require a room of its own to get built, and Father Christmas had no workshop. So I did what any middle aged father would do: I asked my parents if I could use their house. They live about five minutes away. That house has a small room upstairs that once served as the baby room back when my children were babies and we were visiting, but now it stands unused and mostly invisible. If I kept my head down and the door closed and worked consecutive Friday afternoons, I just might be able to build this house in secret and still manufacture a surprise.
That first day I primarily cut items free from boxes. The dollhouse contained numerous components. There were the walls and floors, at least what looked like walls and floors; there were the unidentifiable structural bits; and there were the decorative props, the beds, the tables, the baby grand piano. (We splurged for the upper-middle class dollhouse.)
Modern day shipping has developed into a Matryoshka-like complexity. There are the flat, unassembled planes, dusted in flurries of Styrofoam; there are the plastic encapsulating grids containing wooden dowels, screws of varying sizes, long blunt-end screws with their locking nut mates, language-less booklets of instructions featuring an enthusiastic genderless humanoid of Scandinavian descent, and then the Most Valuable Player: the Allen wrench. If one had the time, wrist strength, and necessary sense of perversion, one could break into peoples’ houses and disassemble all of their furniture with an Allen wrench. Before long I’m sure to buy a car that will arrive unassembled yet with its own Allen wrench.
My idea of building something is to buy the floor model. My potential for frustration and failure in a do-it-yourself project overrides any potential pride I might render from a job well done, or simply a job done. When my wife and I bought our first house, my in-laws came to visit, and while I was at work one day, my father-in-law built us a wall. I, of course, didn’t realize that a wall was something that one could build.
Each year I resolved not to stress about Christmas, the gift selection and procurement, the planning, the secrecy around the children. It had become one of those seasonal familial routines where I didn’t even do the majority of the work. My wife exerted the energy. I merely helped expediate, and yet even that seemed too much. I developed a personal tradition of pacing around the house in bad khakis, like a sweatier Charles Grodin, ranting at Amazon boxes, an Advent calendar of angst.
This year would be different. I set the categories of ingredients in different piles. I texted pictures of my progress to my wife. What am I actually saying when I text my wife? Please approve of my actions? One should be able to be comfortable by one’s self for longer periods of time. I have the memory of being a fairly independent individual, but I can’t remember when exactly that was. It feels vestigial. Perhaps this is simply a symptom of begin married for a long time. So many contemporary concepts seem so foreign as to be essentially incomprehensible: single people, smart watches, selfies, self-confidence, smoothies. I stared at the piles until she responded.
Occasionally I drive past my childhood home, an act of reckless sentimentality. I lived in this house from age 2 until age 10. Or was it age 11? The oak trees, which were pre-teens when I lived there, are now middle-aged men, fat with leaves. The fenced back yard, with its screened-in porch and multi-tiered deck, and which seemed in my childhood castle-like in its complexity and size, is a weathered splinter-factory now. The yard does not seem large. It does not seem the slightest bit challenging to throw a baseball across. The neighborhood has gone mostly Latino, at least from what I can tell of the people out and about and staring at my Honda as it makes its way through the neighborhood in the middle of the workday. The houses are undistinguished ranches, a sea of one-floor, three-twos, in a neighborhood tucked behind the decaying mall.
Once I drove my kids by the house. My conscientious daughter expressed a passing vague interest and that was all it took. While the car idled in front of the dirt yard, I pointed out which windows represented my room, the dining room. I attempted to sketch out the floor plan. I remembered my mother making sun tea, letting the pitcher sit in the narrow band of concrete outside the front door, the brown soaking in the brightness of the sun. When I turned 10 and began to complain about the daycare which picked me up from school, my parents decided to let me come home by myself, and so, a proud fourth-grade me used a key to unlock the front door and have the house to myself for at least two hours each weekday afternoon, an expanse of freedom that I pine for even now. I remember that year I was in love with a girl named Tracy, a classmate with fusilli blonde hair, white Keds, and a hip-thrust. After visiting all the empty rooms, I would announce this love to the empty garage every day after arriving home. I liked the power of all that sound.
When I was a kid living here, we were at the north end of town, which was still being developed. On one side of the neighborhood they were building the mall—a field of mud where dinosaur machines played all day. On the other side, the neighborhood was still becoming a neighborhood. My friends and I would ride our bikes through the unfished houses. The foundations were poured. The studs were up. But there was no electricity, no plumbing. It was a maze of would-be walls, a maze you could still see through.
Whenever I visit the house now, I don’t stay long. I’m afraid of drawing suspicion. And I’m afraid of imposing. It’s no longer my neighborhood, after all. I remember the delinquent child who lived on the other side of the neighborhood, whom my parents loathed, and who would show up each Saturday morning just in time for breakfast. I remember the kid up the hill, my idol in every way, who’d lost a father in a car wreck and had a cheek-wide scar where skin from his leg had been grafted onto his face. He seemed to know everything in the world worth knowing. I remember the kid with the deaf parents down the hill, whom he’d communicate with in a violent display of signing, accompanied by a harmony of grunts. I asked him why, if his parents were deaf, he wasn’t also deaf?
That house is splitting now, between where its brick facade once connected to the wood-paneled box of the garage. It’s a vicious break, wide enough to lose your finger in. It makes me worry over the house occasionally, as I move about in my current life on the other side of town. Is it the foundation? Has it suffered from an earthquake? Can it be repaired?
As a middle-aged homeowner, I’ve come to feel that each house is a correction of the previous house. Our first house as a married couple was a mid-50s ranch in Alabama. The builder must’ve cut a deal, because all the houses in that part of the neighborhood featured the same rust colored brick, hatched with little cuts of detail, as if to add textural intrigue. We painted it, and then moved inside and proceeded to paint everything there too. If you’re childless and in your 20s and need a hobby, just renovate a house. It can become one of those totalizing projects, like joining a cult. It shapes your worldview and feeding habits, your available topics for conversation. One of the phrases that now gets me middle-aged-yelling-at-the-TV mad is dream home. It had a multi-leveled back yard. The first level was a relatively small, rectangle of grass. There was a tree-house, a concrete porch—quaint, unkempt. But the lower level sported a greenhouse, made of torn Visqueen and aluminum poles. The rest of the level was a terraced wildness which was overcome in the spring of each year by kudzu, which slowly ate its way up toward the main level of the back yard. The property backed up to a ravine, which was also an easement for powerlines. At the time of purchase, it seemed picturesque, a buffer of quiet. But the ravine proved to be a powerline graveyard whenever a moderately intense storm swept through the area. The electricity burped on and off as crews rappelled down into the florid undergrowth.
Our next house was in Tennessee—smaller, two story, with a postage stamp yard in front and back, which was mowed by a neighborhood association-appointed grounds crew. The crew would wheel in once a week with a trailer full of bush hogs and spiral around my tiny yard. It was a bliss to witness. We had to spend entire Saturdays just thinking up things to do in the yard, which usually amounted to planting impatiens once a year, and even, once, constructing a raised garden out back. The house was practically new, only five years old, with one previous owner. The foundation had shifted so that none of the interior doors closed definitively. The house itself seemed to be built out of papier-mâché. It had a stage décor quality. It was practically maintenance free, but when the neighbors had guests, we could hear them murmuring.
Now we live in the split-level. Different state, different house, different job. Where is home, daddy? Home is where the work is. And where I worry about drainage. The main level is the living level, rooms with TVs in them, rooms with couches, the kitchen, the laundry purgatory, etc. The split signals the arrival of rooms with beds in them. Upstairs contains the adult quarters, the master and the guest rooms. The downstairs level is the child level. I enjoy this Freudian division of labor. The previous owners lived here for twelve years, during which they raised three teenaged boys. They remodeled away most of their sins shortly before we arrived on the market, which almost certainly means that every available surface in my current house has been ejaculated upon at some point in the not too distant past. This is not my beautiful house.
Where the second house solved the yard problem by eliminating it, we have regressed in our current digs. It sits on a pie-shaped lot which again culminates in a drainage ditch type situation. We have not one comprehensible backyard area but three separate areas at least. And we live in the sub-tropical south, so that by March everything is growing again, which it will do right up until Thanksgiving, a fecund madness, a kind of green berserk, an orgy of blooming, running, creeping, sneaking, travailing over every surface. I need Edward Scissorhands to visit daily. My yard is not so much nature contained as it is nature beat back on a weekly schedule so that it won’t happily smother us in our sleep.
I traipse upstairs to the adult wing and step on a Nerf gun. I can’t find my phone; it’s been forgotten in one of the children’s rooms. I read in the Times that Philip Johnson’s Glass House was just one structure of many on his Connecticut property and that each house assumed a separate function. Perhaps this is a more efficient division of house functionality—house tasks modularized. At parties, I joke that what I’d like more than anything is a studio apartment in an undisclosed location. It would be one of those apartments one reads about (also in the Times) every couple of years. It’s owned by an artist or a gallery curator, and everything inside is painted slate gray, and there is nothing inside, except, perhaps, a single chair. What I envision swerves slightly more toward the practical: a chair, a bed, a fridge, some kind of stove, maybe an iPad. I had jauntily narrated this desire aloud at several parties in front of my wife before I realized that this daydream incorporated no family members, in fact eliminated the duty of fatherhood completely, and perhaps it wasn’t nearly as amusing as I first thought. The line between charmingly irreverent and selfish asshole is a delicate one—so fine I’ve never seen it. Of course the problem with any such escape, whether it’s a vacation to the beach or a secret apartment, is that I would still be me when I got there. You can’t Marie Kondo yourself. Perhaps one day we will move into a fourth house—a fourth trade with the bank—which will hopefully solve all of my current problems.
On certain mornings, after the children have been delivered to school, I enter my daughter’s bedroom and stare at the now-finished dollhouse. How did I end up here? In this city? In this house? Enmeshed with these people? I realize all of these circumstances are the result of choices I've made, but it also feels like it happened to someone else, some slightly more put together version of myself that makes coffee, pays taxes, effectuates change, while my real self, the self that is standing here staring at a disheveled barely held together dollhouse, is lost, adrift, pulled and pushed by tidal forces beyond his control, led to this place by his other self, trapped by him.
Perhaps this is what middle age feels like. We have found the enemy and he is us, our compounded self, two halves undermining one another across the decades. My other self, my public self, insists that I stop mooning over the dollhouse, pondering the dollhouse as if it were meaningful, and get my ass to work, where I belong. My inner self—dare I call it my true self? that would seem too easy—notices the crack in the side of the dollhouse where it was never completely put back together. Notices the napkins, confiscated from the kitchen and used here as bedding for the dolls. Notices the beds fluffed with Kleenex. Notices how the boy doll has been kept chastely downstairs while the girl dolls sleep above at the room at the top of the stairs. Notices how everyone has been diligently put to bed, what a good mother they must have. Notices that the dollhouse quietly emits an aura of domestic chaos; everything is mismatched and out of place and somehow, simultaneously, safe. It's when staring at the dollhouse that I feel most strongly that my daughter is okay, that I, as a father, have yet to damage her too much. Per Philip Larkin, I know that I am damaging my children, but I just don't know how. I have ideas about how, but I am fairly certain that what's actually going to be damaging about the experience of having me as a father is an element I can't even see, like something stuck on the back of my head. That's my modest parenting goal: that I not fuck up my children too much. Each year becomes an escalating struggle to lower the stakes, a perennial limbo of self-esteem.
The dollhouse contains an additional bed taken from her brother's fire station. They argue intermittently about this borrowed piece of furniture, about who has true right to the bed, who has permission to play with it and when, who truly "needs" it. I try not to loom in the background when they have these arguments. I try not to make a fuss. I try not to overbear, though how else to be a father?
On weekends I take the dog on the long walk. It lasts a couple of miles and takes me by the second house I lived in growing up, the teenager house. The current owners have painted it a different color, a too dark shade of green, green listing into gray. They have indeed upgraded both the shingles and the gutters (architectural, copper). They have replaced the Elaeagnus with something less demonic to maintain. Most controversially, they have removed the giant oak tree in the front of the house, which the house semi-embraced with a partial courtyard. One hopes there was some latent tree virus or immediate threat level to justify such a drastic move. But paradoxically, the house still emits its same base-level house-ness. I walk the dog on the other side of the road from the house. I don't want to intrude. I have never spoken to anyone entering or exiting the house. I have not accosted them with my nostalgia. I let the dog linger in the yard to hide my extended staring. Once my mother returned from a business trip and brought with her a gift she'd received from some company—a real lasso. Perhaps she'd gone to Texas. She, quite naturally, was uninterested in playing with it, so I took it to the front yard and proceeded to lasso the fire hydrant at the end of our driveway all afternoon. That fire hydrant is still there, though hard to see. It's higher up into the shrubbery than I remember, which either means it has retreated from the road or the shrubs have grown downhill or that I just have a bad memory. I remember standing in the rain in the street lassoing that fire hydrant like it was a runaway calf, over and over again, a suburban farm hand.
I am reminded of a treehouse located in this very neighborhood, which I didn’t know about for the longest time. A friend had to visit—a friend from a neighborhood on the other side of town. He said, “You’ve got to see this treehouse,” and I told him there was no treehouse there, that he didn’t know what he was talking about. But as our bikes rounded the curve of the hill, there it was, unmistakable, like a constellation in the trees. Two-by-sixes threaded between the narrow necks of the pine trees, twenty feet in the air. It was on a wooded lot, tucked between normal houses. A ladder of 2x4 sections had been nailed to one tree. At the other end swooped a zip-line. It was an adolescent’s dream—dangerously high, barely a house, more like a catwalk in the air, swaying on the breath of its pine pilings, a perfect wafting space of freedom in which to smoke dope, defile friendships, plot destruction. It was like the promise of adulthood itself, hidden within plain sight, rickety but unforgettable once discovered.
No matter how far I walk the dog, I have been unable to find it again.
Christmas Eve. I had planned well. The two structures were completed well before Christmas. The dollhouse had taken several Fridays of meticulous world-building. The fire station was a breeze comparatively, completed in one afternoon. But the night before was still stressful. After doing all the other Christmas Eve prep, it was 10:30 and time to retrieve my structures for the surprise reveal. The fire station fit in the van, slid in through the back over the folded-down seats. I drove it back from my parents’ house to my own, unloaded it into the living room, Father Christmas’s staging area in the new house. Living less than five minutes away had its advantages. I returned for the doll house. I needed my father’s help to carry it downstairs. We got it out the door fine, down the front walk—all fine. Then I tried to slide it into the van. It wouldn’t fit. I rotated the structure in every conceivable way, but each new angle of approach simply confirmed more forcefully how much the dollhouse was not going to fit in my van.
“It won’t fit!” I said.
I then panicked in that special way only a parent can panic at approximately midnight on Christmas Eve. From the comfort of an April several years hence, I can see that I had become unreasonable, that I had fallen off into the cultural mass delusion of Christmas perfection a little too successfully, but in those the pre-dawn Christmas hours back then I had no perspective.
“I need a goddamned pick-up truck!” I said to my father. Our Mississippi family was anomalous in that no one drove pick-ups. It was as if we were barely men.
I looked across the brow of my too-small van desperately and there I saw the neighbor’s driveway, on which sat the neighbor’s pickup-truck. It was massive, with an extended cab and a militaristic grill. It was heavy duty enough to run a small logging operation. The neighbor is a plastic surgeon. On any other day of the year I would’ve pulled a muscle sneering at his choice of automobile, but not now.
“His truck! Call him. Get us his truck!”
My father remained silent. I’m not talented in describing people’s facial expressions, the gradations of emotional weather that manifests itself in the movement of eyebrows or the shifting sands of the lips, but I did recognize this expression. I knew what his face meant at that moment: it was the look of pure parental bafflement. I might as well have turned myself into a glyph right there in the driveway for all the sense I made to him at that moment.
“Nevermind,” I said. “I will figure something out.” He went back inside, and I stood in the darkness, feeling like an idiot. When I was younger I assumed that as I cruised into middle age that I would not feel the shearing shame of helpless incompetence quite as frequently as I do, but there it was. You go to school, you get a job, you procreate, and yet the smallest curves in the roadway throw you off the shoulder and into the wilderness.
In the end I broke it into two parts. I removed the extension, the egregious add-on room the dollhouse conspicuously sported. This made it short enough to fit in the vehicle. I drove it over to my house, and my wife and I arranged it alongside the fire station. I promised aloud that I would make sure to get it reconnected after installing it permanently in my daughter’s room. I thought the dollhouse was like one of those pre-fabricated mobile homes, built and shipped in parts to its final destination, but it turned out to be something much more old-fashioned, a site-specific project.
Years have now passed. Recently, we moved the dollhouse out of my daughter’s room. She needs room for a desk where she can do her schoolwork, or maybe it’s for some other work I am not privy to. We carried the dollhouse—still in two parts; I am terrible at keeping promises, even if they are just to myself—across the hall into the spare bedroom. This room is nominally the “music room,” my cluttered, emo-version of a man cave, but in reality it functions as a retaining pond. It’s there to catch the seasonal swells of life, the place to hold the tides of detritus that arrive or are discarded without an actionable, long-range plan; it’s a place to hold the shit. We slid it alongside the wall, behind my son’s tiny toy drumkit, rarely used. The room is becoming a graveyard of unused toys. As a parent, there are two ways to approach the unused toy. One, you can complain about it, publicize it, and make the child feel guilty for having asked for and received the toy but neglecting it out of spite or obliviousness or simple carelessness. Or you can remain silent. You can realize that you too have toys that you don’t play with. (Where do think all this other crap came from?) The gift exchange within a family, especially around Christmas, is mostly aspirational. I want to be the kind of person who possesses this object, or who has given this object. Should we really blame our children for not being the same people they were even six months ago? Twenty minutes ago? Aren’t they supposed to be growing? Should we even blame ourselves?
As we were clearing her room in order to remove the dollhouse (you have to clear the room before you clear the room), I said, “Be careful. It’s not connected there.”
Moving underneath my voice was the old Christmastime panic—that not only was the repair left undone but that by leaving it undone I had revealed that Father Christmas does not really exist, that it was all bad theater and I was a terrible actor, that I was in fact still mid-audition, that my entire grasp on parenthood was mostly provisional, that I, in fact, didn’t really exist. My daughter is 11, much more sophisticated than I ever was, completely at ease with the theater of Christmas. But suddenly I was retroactively paranoid about maintaining the myth of the man who brings the gifts—the myth of the man who stitches the world together.
“Oh, I know,” she said, removing the still un-connected addition. “It’s always been in two parts.”
We moved it across the hall. We positioned it against the wall. We sidled the addition up to its spot against the main house. There the structure sits, awaiting its next destination. It’s still not technically connected. If you get close enough, you can tell. It’s only seamless in your dreams.
Barrett Hathcock lives in Jackson, Mississippi. He’s published a handful of stories and essays in publications such as the Colorado Review and the Cimarron Review. He’s published one book of short stories, The Portable Son. He received an MFA at the University of Alabama several years ago where his thesis director was famed Hoosier Michael Martone.