June 1, 2014 by The Citron Review
In the backyard of my parents’ house where I lived from birth until I married at seventeen and left, two playhouses stood side by side. Wood frame cottages measuring six feet by eight, built by my father, silvered many times over with his favorite aluminum paint, they aligned perfectly with my mother’s line of sight from the window above the kitchen sink. Neither playhouse was mine.
The better one belonged to my eldest sister Sara. By the time I was old enough to notice a playhouse, she was a teenager and almost always gone. The second playhouse had been built to accommodate my sister Betsy, eight years my senior and cognitively impaired from birth. When I came along, Betsy’s was designated as the one to be shared with me; I inherited full title when Betsy first left home for a residential facility at around age fourteen, when I was six.
No one—not Betsy, not me, not the neighborhood kids nor the cousins who occasionally visited—was allowed to play in Sara’s playhouse. My mother, originator and enforcer of all family codes, forbade us even to open the door.
That door had a window, and each wall a double casement window with nine panes and cut glass knobs, but the once-starched, now-cobwebbed organza curtains blurred my view of the interior even when I mashed my nose against the glass. I seldom got that close. My habit of nervous compliance with the smallest of my mother’s discernible wishes gave the entire little building a negative charge. Sara’s playhouse had no locks—wooden blocks rotated ninety degrees on a screw to impede or allow the doors’ and windows’ opening—but I seem to have believed without quite knowing I did that my mother would know if I cheated.
Betsy’s playhouse door sported a small metal knocker but had no window; its face was blank. Each wall had a glazed window, but one was a slider, one a casement, and one had to be lowered, two hands supporting the heavy glass, from hinges at its base. This effort and the disunity of effect I found aesthetically displeasing despite my inability at that age to think in those terms. A truly lovely small dogwood grew by the front door, and a flowerbed with a river-rock border graced the side with the awkward window, but it is only now that I can see this was so.
There came the day, of course, when I did open the forbidden door and cautiously enter Sara’s playhouse. In my memory I transgress alone, but it’s possible the rudest of the neighbor girls dared me to do it. A perfect vision of dust-furred elegance greeted me: built-in corner shelves stacked with miniature Delft china dishes and candelabra dangling plastic prisms atop lace doilies. A broad, wall-mounted counter-table at just the right height for a child-housewife, a range with an oven that according to the attached and batter-spotted directions heated up to bake muffins, and a sink that ran water via a hand-pumped reservoir.
A down-sized ironing board, an iron with a cord and, at the juncture of wall and floor, a functioning electrical receptacle. Cookbooks and household diaries on book shelves with book ends. A silk parasol hung from a coat hook by the door, and beneath it, a tiny baby-grand piano with plastic keys that disappointingly only plinked when struck. But the plaster bust of Brahms on the miniature broad plain of its lid left me speechless with envy and awe.
In Betsy’s playhouse, nothing was built-in. None of the kitchen appliances worked nor had ever been meant to, and anyone inclined to play-cook had to kneel or sit on the mud-tracked floor. Dishes and pots abounded, but in metal or plastic—mismatched, dented, or warped. Betsy’s playhouse had no lace, fine china, or silk, and no instruments of art. Plenty of beat-up furniture—a couch, table, baby bed, rocker, and high chair of assorted scales, plus a full-size baby carriage in which I’d once been perambulated—and plenty of babies, a dozen at least in varying degrees of manglement. A little blue steamer trunk bulged with doll clothes, some of them elaborately embroidered and well constructed, but all of them decades out of date and almost none of them fitting the naked babies stacked willy-nilly in the crib.
Once I experienced the inside of Sara’s playhouse, the shock of the distinction between her house and Betsy’s never left me. I went to school with children who lived in our town’s government-subsidized housing project; I’d even gone there after school with a classmate, once, before my mother put a stop to it, clarifying for me what the word trash meant when used to describe people. I don’t remember a time when Betsy’s playhouse had for me a meaning beyond her compromised status in the world and in the family. Because her playhouse was the one I got to share, I resented what that implied about my status. Perhaps in protest, and definitely in preference, I set us up with an alternate dwelling, pulling a few dolls and some dishes out to the bare damp dirt behind the playhouses, in a kind of cave beneath an overhang of quince I furnished with rock tables and stools, and flower-blossom foods.
I doubt it ever occurred to me that parental pragmatism—Betsy did tend to break, lose, and chew on toys—might have accounted for part of the difference in intricacy between the two houses. I know I never imagined that the mess in Betsy’s house might have been partly of her own choosing.
I thought of her playhouse as mine to manage and evaluate because Betsy was my responsibility—and my social liability—when we played outside together, despite her being, by the numbers, my “big” sister.
More than once, when the rude neighbor girl insisted more aggressively than I could withstand, I allowed Betsy to be exiled alone to the dirt flat behind her house, which I and my cohort then occupied, me skewered with shame and both of us smoldering with desire for what lay locked away behind lace curtains next door.
Christine Hale’s prose has appeared or is forthcoming in Arts & Letters, Spry, Still, Saw Palm, and Prime Number, among other journals. Her debut novel Basil’s Dream (Livingston Press 2009) received honorable mention in the 2010 Library of Virginia Literary Awards. A fellow of MacDowell, Ucross, Hedgebrook, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Ms. Hale teaches in the Antioch University-Los Angeles Low-Residency MFA Program as well as the Great Smokies Writing Program in Asheville, NC. Her just-completed memoir, In Your Line of Sight: A Reconciliation, is set in southern Appalachia where she and her parents grew up.