BLOG |Miniature Memories by Danielle LeBrun

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Like many miniaturists, I can’t remember a time I didn’t want a dollhouse. I remember every Christmas I would cover the dollhouse page in Sears Christmas catalog with stars and hearts, as a subtle reminder for both my parents and Santa. It was on every Christmas list. Visits to the mall toy store were mostly spent in the tiny dollhouse section, which was all behind glass. Money from chores, good grades, holidays, and birthdays bought tiny bits from good old Grandmother Stover.  I was a born miniaturist, but I didn’t realize how much they would come to mean to me.

SearsWishbook-1983-P541
The 1983 Sears Wishbook. Imagine this page covered with lots of hearts and stars drawn by six year old me.

I’m pretty sure my parents thought I’d outgrow my desire for a dollhouse. They indulged my love of small things to a point. All my favorite playthings had an element of small to them–Barbie, My Little Pony, Sylvanian Families (now known as Calico Critters), and even the newly introduced American Girl dolls. “Yes, I love my Molly doll, but did you see her tiny school bag! It even has a tiny lunch!” My mom even got some cheap Duracraft kits and put them together for me. When my paternal grandparents moved to Texas, I was the natural choice to take possession of the beat-up Greenleaf Arthur house my grandfather had glued together for us grandkids to play with. Yes, I was not bereft of miniatures by any means, but my dream of a grand decorated dollhouse was ignored.

The First Dollhouse

That was until a fateful day in 1989, when the local craft store had a huge moving sale and the entire store was marked 50% off.   I went with my mom and my maternal grandmother, my Mimi . It was truly fortunate timing because post-holiday, post all A’s and B’s marking period, I had quite a bit of money to spend. That’s when I found it–a Greenleaf Pierce kit marked down to 50% like the rest of the store–a big dollhouse that I could actually afford.

My mom tried to talk me out of it, pointing out correctly that someone would have to build it, and my parents were in the middle of a big remodel on our actual house. My Mimi promptly volunteered my grandfather, my Papa. So, the kit was bought, and Papa conscripted to build it. After leaving the store, we took the kit to my grandparents house. My Papa complained about the quality of the pressboard kit, but agreed to build it. Our adventure in the world of miniatures began.

As previously mentioned, my parents were remodeling their kitchen and putting on a new addition complete with new bedroom for me. I came along with them when they went to meet with the kitchen designer, and much to my surprise and delight, the designer had an elegant little room box behind her desk. It turned out that she was a miniaturist and gave me directions to my first miniature store–The Greenhouse in Toledo, Ohio.

A few weekends later, I went to check it out with my Mimi and Papa. At the time, they were located in the back room of an Ace Hardware (later they would relocate to a larger building in Sylvania, Ohio). It was small, but for the little girl who could spend forever looking at the dollhouse shelf at the mall toy store, it was heaven. My Papa was drawn to the tiny working lights and insisted that my dollhouse be lit. My Mimi and I poured over wallpapers and furniture. We left with much of what was needed to finish my house, and I left with my first copy of Nutshell News.

That little magazine opened up the world of miniatures not only for me, but for my grandparents as well. We discovered other stores–our regular store became Dollhouse Miniature Studio in Southgate, Michigan. Also, every year my family went to Frankenmuth to celebrate my mom’s birthday (and get her a free chicken dinner at Zender’s ). Thanks to my new access to the mini world, we added two more stops to our trips: Pinocchio’s and Rau’s Country Store. We also started attending the dollhouse and miniature  show in Toledo every year. We would spend hours in those shops and at that show, Papa going through all the different miniature construction products and Mimi, a full size doll collector, looking at the miniature dolls.

My first dollhouse.  It got a little beat up in storage and is one of my current restoration projects.My first dollhouse. It got a little beat up in storage and is one of my current restoration projects.

My Sister’s House

In 1990, my house was finished, and I brought it home to my new bedroom. In my family, there was always a sort of unspoken rule that if I got something, it was only fair that my sister got one too. In theory, I’m sure this seemed really fair, but it didn’t work out so much in practice. I was the girly-girly dress wearing, tea party having, hearts and flowers type. She was the tom-boy, athletic, action adventure type. While I had longed for a dollhouse all my life, she had never really been interested. Still, my grandparents were insistent, a kit was ordered (a Greenleaf Westville), and my Papa got to work.

On our annual trip to Frankenmuth, my grandparents tried to get her to pick out wallpaper for the house. She picked out a red, white, and blue star pattern for the bedroom and blue Peter Rabbit for the kids room. Then she abandoned my Mimi and me for the  more interesting baseball card section at Pinocchio’s. Mimi would continue to decorate it, making furniture and curtains for it.

It was while working on my sister’s house that Papa began to talk about creating his own house. He started a notebook with various designs and sketches. Both my mother and myself do this when we have a project, and I’m pretty sure we get it from him. Mimi turned her craft skills to miniature projects. She had always enjoyed embroidery and crochet and began to make miniature versions of some her full size projects. She also began to experiment with miniature doll making–making over inexpensive toy dolls. When we’d go to shops and shows, my grandparents began buying things for themselves more than they were for me. Which was all right by me. At this point I was in high school, and I had babysitting and tutoring jobs to fund my miniature hobby. Also, my parents had come to accept that I was a miniaturist, and almost every gift giving holiday included some miniatures and renewing my subscription to Nutshell News.

danielleandpapa1993Papa and me in 1993.

The Second House

Papa would have to put his house on hold for just a little bit longer, however. Both of them were avid garage-salers, and Mimi in particular was really good at going through the classifieds and picking out the choice sales. One day, they gave me a call to let me know they had got a large dollhouse at a garage sale for $40. I came over, and there a rather worse for wear Greenleaf Harrison.  While technically I already had my dream dollhouse, the funny thing is that your dream house tends to change as you grow up.  Between my first house and this one, I had stumbled upon a book on English country interiors and fallen in love. And here was a dollhouse just like the ones in my book. I fell in love with it, decided to make it a house I would actually live in, and convinced Papa to help me fix it up.

Papa started repairing it and electrifying it as Mimi and I set to work finding wallpapers and furniture. Mimi was a great book lover and had always encourage my reading and writing such that I grew into a book lover myself. I decided that my dream home would have huge library and my Papa lined the walls of the huge second floor room with shelves. I had originally planned to fill the book shelf up gradually over time, saving up and buying books over time. But Mimi had Papa cut out a ton of book sized blocks. Then she painted them either white or gold to mimic pages and covered them with faux leather and card stock to create covers. She cut out book covers from magazines and book club catalogs, or she’d write the titles out neatly with a gilt pen. She also made a few books with real pages. My library was filled with in matter of weeks.

My Second DollhouseMy Second Dollhouse

The house was also involved in the only time I remember being mad at my Papa. At 16, I had definite ideas about design and taste. While most of the house would be English Country, I had decided that the spare bedroom should be deliciously Victorian Gothic with deep reds and dark woods. I bought a lovely little wall sconce to fit my theme, but I was having trouble finding the perfect deep red flocked wallpaper. I came over one day, and Mimi warned me, “He went ahead and finished the wallpaper. He wants to get the house out of the basement, so he finished off that last room.”

Indeed, he had finished to room with wallpaper from his own stock, and it was very, very pink. Not only that, but he also put down a very pink carpet. All that remained of my Gothic room was my forlorn little wall sconce. I was so mad and frustrated, but I was also very grateful for all the work he had done, so I didn’t say anything. I figured I could always change it later. The house came home with me shortly thereafter.

IMG_3849The Library from my second dollhouse. Almost all of the books were handmade by my Mimi.

The Grand Cabin

I was too much of a teenager at the time to realize it, but the reason Papa was in such a hurry to finish my house is that he really wanted to get started on his own. The cabin he designed was no small shack, but a huge hunting lodge where he and Mimi could “retire”. He was remarkably good with wood, and every time I showed him some wooden miniature, he would tell me that he could make it himself. He put his money where his mouth was when it came to the cabin, it was entirely made from scratch–the doors, the windows, even it grand curving staircase. While he still used some commercial lighting, he also experimented in making his own. He created the base light fixtures which my Mimi then beaded into elegant crystal chandeliers.

Much like their own home, the cabin reflected both their tastes. Mimi’s love of florals was reflected in some of the wallpapers and her love of kids was apparent in the nursery. Papa filled it with the things he loved too–hunting, fishing, and the outdoors. In some ways, they were sort of a strange blend, but it worked so well. They loved each so much, and the house reflected that. I remember going down to the basement to see finished project. As I admired all his work and detail, Papa said something to me he would continue to say, “When I’m gone, this is all yours.”

All Things Change

I kept working on miniatures, mostly room boxes. I often went to Papa for advice, and he taught me how to work with wood. Honestly, I think he’d been trying my entire life, but at last I was actually interested and feeling confident enough to try it. He’d help me with my first few room boxes. I’d bring over my latest projects, and we still had our trips to Frankenmuth every year.

But things were changing. I went to college, dropped out, got married, and gave birth to a beautiful little girl. And my grandparents were getting old. I mean, they had always seemed old to me because they were my grandparents. Their health was starting to get them though–arthritis made it harder to move, and they did less. I still visited when I could so they could see their new great-grandbaby, and we talked about miniatures, but there was very little doing on their part. And every we time we talked about his cabin, Papa would remind me that he wanted me to have it when he was gone.

2004 is what I called THE VERY BAD YEAR. In the matter of a few months, I found myself divorced and unemployed. However, I was lucky enough to have a wonderful family who’d support  me through one of the roughest periods in my life. I needed to put my life back together, and there was no room for miniatures, both figuratively and literally. I packed up my dollhouses and room boxes, stored them in my parents’ basement and attic, and concentrated on my career and my daughter.

The Only Dollhouse I Didn’t Want

It did get better. I got my B.A. in English Lit, found reasonable steady work as a substitute teacher, and met a wonderful man and fell in love. We got engaged on Christmas Eve 2007. A week later, on New Year’s Eve, Mimi passed away very suddenly. It was a shock and left my family feeling very empty, no one more so than Papa. I was lucky enough to be in position to cut my work schedule so I could go over a few times a week and help him around the house. Mostly though, I just kept him company.  We talked, and he told me about growing up in Detroit, how he met Mimi, his time in the military, and funny stories about my mom. Miniatures would come up too, and when they did, he’d remind me that the cabin was mine. He made me promise I wouldn’t sell it.

Here it was, the first dollhouse I didn’t want–not because it wasn’t beautiful or amazing, because it was. I simply couldn’t bear the thought of what it would mean when it fell in my possession. I could barely deal with a world that didn’t have Mimi in it, I didn’t want to think of one without Papa too.

I kept going over and helping Papa out until 2009 when I became pregnant and my husband and I decided to move to a bigger house. I still lived close by, but I was in position to give stay-at-home motherhood a try. Also, I had big new house to fill, and my mother wasted no time bringing over all the things I had stored at her house, including all my miniatures. Sadly, many of my room boxes that had been stored in the basement had suffered flood damage. Luckily, the dollhouses had been stored in the attic and, other than some mice nibbles on some of the carpets, were still in good shape. My first dollhouse was missing most of its floors, so I put it in my new basement workshop until I could get new carpets for it.

The second dollhouse was in better shape, and I set it up in my living room. One day, while my six month old son slept, I pulled out the boxes with all the furniture and accessories and set the house back up. I had thought it was just miniatures packed in those boxes, but there was also joy, memories, and love. Here were all those tiny books Mimi made and the tiny afghan she had crocheted for the bed I had made. Here was the field stone fire place Papa had designed himself and that horrid pink room. The room I had hated at 16 now made me laugh. I briefly considered changing it, but it was so–Papa. The whole house was him and Mimi and me. I remembered how much fun we had, and suddenly miniatures were back in my life.

IMG_3846The dreaded pink room. I’ve since come to love it and have finished it as tea room/game room.

I organized my new workroom and started working on miniatures again. I started blogging about them on my new blog. I searched out artists and stores I had loved before and discovered a whole plethora of new artists thanks to the internet. I told my Papa all about my new adventures and he gave me a few boxes of his old supplies. I excitedly told him about Smallisimo and how I’d be able to combine my passion for writing and miniatures.

I wasn’t blind however. His health seemed a little worse each time I saw him. I was relieved when he agreed to have a handicap accessible bedroom added to the first floor of his house so he wouldn’t have to worry about stairs anymore. I was surprised, however, this past October when my mom told me that he wanted me to take the dollhouse now. He wanted to clear some things out of the basement so they wouldn’t be in the way of contractors working on the addition. I hemmed and hawed. I put it off for weeks.

Finally, after Halloween, I went over one day packed up the contents of the house. I ran upstairs every so often and showed Papa some forgotten treasure. I also found two boxes of extra components Papa had made–door, windows, and fireplaces. I took it all home and promised I’d be back next weekend to get the house. A few days later, my parents would take him to the hospital, and a few days after that he left this world to join Mimi.

There were things to get in order, and I didn’t worry about the dollhouse. I figured I would go get it eventually when things had settled down. But since they still needed to move it to allow the workmen to finish the addition, my parents brought it over one day. I was out. I walked into the house, and there was Papa’s cabin sitting in my dining room. I cried of course, but they were tears of joy. I hadn’t wanted the house because I thought it would mean I had lost Mimi and Papa forever, but the truth was that house was a way that they would be with me forever.

IMG_3840Papa’s Cabin

They say the ones we love are with us forever in our hearts and memories. My grandparents are with me in that way, but the dollhouses connect me to them too. I still admire their handiwork, still laugh at the pink room, and still smile at their initials carved on the side of the cabin. I will always be happy for the small world I shared with them.

A special thanks to Jason at WishbookWeb.com for use of the page of from the 1983 Sears Wishbook. If you wish to take a trip down memory lane, they have preserved many old catalogs and flyers from the 20th century.

Comments

  1. Ronda Vallejo

    Ronda Vallejo

    April 24, 2014

    What a wonderful story! I am so impressed by the time you shared with your grandparents. What a gift. Your grandfather’s cabin is a masterpiece! 🙂

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