I still remember the Christmas I got my Suzy Homemaker oven, the sweet smell of those little cakes that magically seemed to slide out, the heat of that lightbulb that wouldn’t pass today’s safety standards. I actually remember most of my toys from my childhood years of the 1960s. That’s because they were few and far between and therefore appreciated and treasured.
Our family was poor even in the days when most were starting to get their heads above deep financial waters. Each Christmas my parents gave each one of us a nice and thoughtful gift. My favorite toy was for my 6th Christmas and was a little wooden piano like Schroeder’s in “Peanuts.” I snuck out of bed in the middle of that Christmas night and in the dark found it. Somehow I knew it was for me. I hugged it to my chest and took it back to bed with me. Plucking out songs on that little piano awakened the beginning of a lifetime of composing my own music.
I guess the neighbors felt sorry for my sister and me and gave us some of their children’s cast-off dolls. The clothes were missing so with scraps of material from my mother, my sister started making clothes for them at the tender age of 8. Little snaps, lace, rick rack trim transformed these dolls into something special and my sister has been able to sew and design her own clothes ever since. From odds and ends, she also made a dollhouse for us. . My sister is now so crafty and able to make something out of nothing she could have her own craft channel on YouTube.
The most memorable toy I recall that my brother Tim had was one of the first GI Joe dolls. He was just the right size to go on a date with my Francie doll. Come to think of it, I think he married her once. With not many toys to play with, Tim starting disassembling objects around the house just to “see how they work.” I remember he got in some hot water taking apart my dad’s wind-up alarm clock. Tim must have learned something because he now has his own automotive repair shop and holds a patent for a cart he invented.
My brother Mike received a few Lionel Trains here and there, but to make his trains longer he started building to scale more train cars. He also built mostly from scratch a train layout. In later years, he wrote articles for train hobby magazines about how to do these things.
Chris, another brother, in his desire for motorized toys, started salvaging lawn mower parts from neighbors and relatives and began building his own. He still works as a mechanic and once ran his own small engine repair shop.
The Sears and Roebuck catalog that we devoured at each arrival caused us to drool over its offerings of above-ground pools and swing sets. But no problem, my brothers with shovels in hand found the perfect spot in our woods and dug out a swimming hole in the yellow clay. We came out as yellow as the clay but it was cool and refreshing on those hot summer days. A plank thrown over an oil drum became a sea-saw, a board attached to chains hung from the hickory tree at the barn, a swing, and my train-loving brother built a flat car train ride for us.
Making our own amusements awakened creative, engineering, and mechanical skills in all of us. Not having many toys turned out to be “a good thing.”
We found benefits to not having many toys.
I had come in search of a pair of black ballet flats I had seen earlier in the week at the Jamestown United Methodist Outreach Center Thrift Store. After realizing that they had been sold, I disappointedly turned around to leave and saw it – an old, roughly made dollhouse. Its roof shingles brittle from age, its white paint now a creamy yellow. Real door hinges positioned in the roof allowed access to its upper story. A nearby cardboard box held its contents. Almost breathless, I started pulling out what appeared to be a combination of bought and handmade furniture. But when I saw written in red ink on one of the box flaps, “Doll Furniture $20,” I slowly put the box down.
One of the volunteers quietly moved toward me and commented on the house. “What a labor of love,” I said. “Some parent probably made this for a child years ago. Maybe they couldn’t afford to just go out and buy a big gift.” “People did what they had to,” agreed the kindly gentleman seated at the cash box. “I’m glad someone appreciates it, This came in on Monday. We’ve decided to price it all for $5,” I was stunned and pleased. “I don’t have any use for the house but would like the furniture” I explained. “If you want me to get the house out of your way, I can dispose of it.” “Oh, just leave it here,” the man said in a tone I would later understand. “Perhaps someone else would like to have it.” I paid for the furniture, excited to find it for a project I had in mind but as I descended the steps into the darkening parking lot, a pang of regret and sadness hit me. All that time, all that love, all that Christmas excitement to put together this dollhouse, and now I was pulling it apart. It all needed to stay together. “I’ll get the house,” I decided. I was just too tired that night and then found I could not get back to the thrift store until the following Saturday.
I made sure to get there early and was relieved to find the house still there. Unlike most old items that reek of must and mildew, as I drove home, the sun coming through my car’s back glass heated the house, and the most wonderful aroma reminding me of hot wax, pine and leather filled the air.
I first took the house to show to my brother Chris. “Look what I found at the thrift store,” I began. “Someone might pay a fortune for that in an antique store,” commented Chris, like most men thinking of a monetary value. “No, this is priceless,” I thought. “It’s a gift of time and love to a child.”
I asked my friend Nancy Willis, who is 88 and has an excellent memory, to help me date the house. She saw items dating to as early as the 1920s, perhaps pieces from an earlier generation passed down. Her father had made a dollhouse for her when she was around 3 or 4. She recalls him using dolls like the ones in this house and a couple of similar pieces of furniture. I noted the house goes back to the days when modesty prevented even the representation of a commode, back to the days when our society knew how to blush. Nancy commented that perhaps the house goes back to the days when most people didn’t have a commode in the house.
When I look at the house, I imagine a time that seemed to move much slower, when evenings weren’t filled with staring into screens and being entertained. When families sat around a stove and talked about their day, the mother’s hands still working on some darning or perhaps knitting something like the little rug in the dollhouse, the man carving out something like its tiny bathtub. Perhaps a younger member of the family was reading out loud a story from Reader’s Digest or the latest Saturday Evening Post or they were listening to “The Jack Benny Show” on the radio.
I imagine back to a time when most families couldn’t afford to buy elaborate gifts for their children. When Christmas was a time when hushed tones were heard and secrets were kept about homemade gifts being made. Any crafting of gifts had to be done during snatches of time grabbed between chores and duties that were necessary for a family’s survival.The thought of a parent, who obviously was not skilled in woodworking, creating this for a child, touches my heart. Surely, it meant something to that child for it to have survived all these years.
Now, even the trudging from store to store looking for that perfect gift is disappearing. Now a purchase can be made by the picking up of a computer, flashing through a few screens, and a few pressings of a finger. I show the house to others every opportunity I get, Young people seem the most interested, probably not as a museum piece as to how things once were, but hopefully as an inspiration.
Finding an old hand-crafted dollhouse at a thrift store and imagining its history.
I hurt for the land and the way it used to be.
It was a beautiful old farm
where little children with bare feet ran through the fields,
climbed the creek banks,
and where their excitement for their next adventure
sometimes caused a missed step into a fresh cow pie.
Bee stings, copperheads in the paths,
bumps against the electric fence,
and stuck clothing while climbing the barbed wire fence
didn’t dampen for long the joy
of those seemingly endless summer days.
The old hickory nut tree out at the barn
continues to lose its limbs
and will soon be cut down.
It holds the strongest memories of the trees in my childhood
and seems symbolic
of the passing and death
of those sweet things.
It is sad
but life has to move on.
Grieving because of the changes to the old farm where I grew up.
Excuse me, I should have said “lightnin’bugs” as the folks in my part of the woods call them. Every June in the early evening, my eye catches the sight of one and I start counting, “one,” “two,” “three.” There are never many more than that. And then I feel a sadness, a dread that one day there won’t be any left at all.
When I see the pesticide signs and exterminator trucks at people’s homes, I think about the fireflies. Not to spread any false rumors but I am thinking these type chemicals can’t be too discriminating as to which flying insects they kill.
What older adult doesn’t have some happy memory as a kid running around on a long summer evening catching fireflies? I have never been comfortable seeing anything in captivity, so I didn’t trap mine in a jar. I’d gently cup my hands around one, peek inside to see where that little miraculous light was coming from, then quickly release it.
The other evening, I was sitting in my chair out at my old home place. The grass was green again from the recent rains. A nice breeze was blowing through the trees around me. A cat was curled up in my lap. Then a golden spark rose from the ground and disappeared, then another, then another. As my eyes scanned out across the fields, hundreds of fireflies were rising, blinking their lights, just like they used to. They were back. They weren’t gone forever as I had feared. At least not now, not this year, not in this yard. I was so happy, I almost cried. Mesmerized I watched them. I was a child again. Life was fresh and new, full of awe and wonder.
As darkness deepened, the fireflies rose higher into the trees around me. I always ask people if they remember how there were once so many lightning bugs that they made the trees look like Christmas. No, not that many this time, not like it used to be, but I never thought I would ever see anything like this again.
Remembering the days when there were so many fireflies the trees looked like Christmas.