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Houses in Boxes

Updated: Mar 19, 2022

I’m building a house. It’s been stored under my daughter’s bed for about 9 years because I kept telling myself that I could not build it until I had the space and time to do so. It was a gift from my daughter and her dad for my birthday or mothers day one year; I forget which. Many years before that I had decided to throw away my old house that had traveled with me through five relocations and had begun to fall apart. It was a beautiful Victorian that my former husband and I built when we lived in New York, that had replaced a smaller house I had built who knows when and where…….maybe when I lived in Washington Heights. It was a smaller house with shingles that somehow disappeared when the beautiful Victorian was built. What did I do with it, and why, after all those years, did I not fix up that Victorian and save it for my future daughter?

The answer to those questions are buried under many layers of unorganized thoughts within an unclear timeline.

My collection of miniatures began with a gift from my mother who had been collecting miniature furniture and saving it for me until I was old enough to appreciate and take care of it. When she gave it to me I was about 8 years old and, upon receiving such a gift, I became instantly enamored with the idea of creating a small world to put it in. The wooden pieces seemed to be hand painted and had the smallest hinges I had ever seen. I wasn’t sure what could possibly go inside those tiny drawers that I so loved to open and close and I loved that the bathtub had legs just like our own bathtubs in the apartment on 98th Street and Broadway.

My first dollhouse was a three-story apartment building that my stepfather designed and built for me; a design that made perfect sense given our location. My doll-building was tall, had a spiral staircase, an elevator and a water tower. It was even painted red with a brick pattern on it and plastic tubing that came down from the water tower so I could fill the bathtub and sinks. I remember the wood glue and the clamps he used to hold certain pieces together while the glue dried, and when he finished building it, I was thrilled to finally have a place to display my collection of miniature furniture for all to see.

In elementary school, I found out that my friend Kate also loved miniatures and one day she took me to a store on Broadway that sold them. The store, ironically, was tiny and crammed with all kinds of wonderful little collectables, and it was there that I bought my first set of silverware in a tiny wooden box smaller than a matchbox. The purchase of the worlds smallest silverware set me on a lifelong path of collecting miniatures and carrying small worlds with me wherever I went.

The houses in the catalogues were nothing like my three story doll- building. They were elaborate replicas of the homes one only sees in old movies or driving through old towns and had names like The Glencroft, The Garfield, The Fairfield and Coventry Cottage. My doll-building did not have a name but I knew its address was my address: 240 West 98th Street New York, NY 10025.

From my bedroom window I looked down on Broadway and across rooftops all the way up to at least 115th Street. The movie theater below on 100th Street was rated X and I thought it was strange that I never saw anyone come in or out of there until the big blackout in the summer of 1979. I do not actually remember the exact year, however it was a big one and I remember running to my window and looking down at all the people running and screaming as they came out of the X rated theater. As I settled back into bed I could hear glass breaking and horns honking from behind my closed windows. I remember my mom walking passed my room in her long robe, her hair, dark and unruly, while holding a candelabra to light her way. That was kind of creepy.

As the years passed, the dust collected and stuck to the raw wood surface of my doll- building. Its water system no longer worked and life carried me along its chapters which included the divorce and the move to another building, another neighborhood and a new room that I initially thought I hated. My miniatures went into boxes with the ceramic bathroom pieces wrapped in newspaper and the boxes taped shut so no items could get lost in transit.

Rearranging my physical room had to happen at least once a year. I would draw out a floor plan that indicated the door, closet and windows, and where I drew squares and rectangles to represent my furniture. It was a skill I learned from my mom. I guess I never felt a sense of balance or permanence within any configuration I came up with because this continued throughout high school.

The bed next to the door The bed under the window The dresser on the other side of the door The bookshelf needs to be by the outlet so I can plug in my stereo system Don’t cover the phone jack Maybe the dresser by that back wall This is a good time to sweep Oh good, I found that little yellow thingy for the 45’s

I don’t remember the day I said goodbye to my three-story building which by then had walls and floors coming unglued. I do remember the shoe boxes and plastic boxes of miniatures stored on the long high shelf of my closet and having to take them down to place them in larger boxes when it was time to move again.

When I was dating my future husband I was already living with my friend Neli in the basement of a house on Leland Ave in the Bronx. It was small and cozy down there with mauve carpeting and small windows where we could see peoples feet when they walked by. It was there that I ordered my first Victorian and where my boyfriend and I took five months to build it with a hot glue gun. We sanded pieces, glued in every last shingle, carefully overlapped each piece of siding, and painted.

The task was done silently and with patience and care. Does anyone do anything under those terms anymore?

In hindsight, I understand the irony of accomplishing this build, one raw piece of wood at a time with the person who I would end up marrying and building a family with. Then, in time, I watched the house fill up and empty out, relocate, deteriorate and, despite the effort and time invested, get discarded in shambles.

When I received the large box with a new house to build, I was thrilled. I thought it was the sweetest gift ever from my daughter and her father and I was looking forward to sharing the experience of building it with her. She was about seven at the time; about the same age I was when my mom gave me my first miniatures. “Wow” I thought to myself, “this is going to be perfect” until I began to read the actual dimensions of the house and realized that to really enjoy this build (did you mean this building or did you mean building this?) , I would have to wait until I had the perfect work space and plenty of free time. From past experience, I guessed it would take us about five months to complete, so with that in mind, I stored the heavy box away in a closet so it would not be in the way and until I could carve out space and time.

So life and time took over as I was raising two children and teaching dance and performing and, and, and, and,…………until once again I found myself packing away the small boxes of miniatures that sat in a closet into bigger boxes; preparing for a new house with three rooms for myself, my two children and our cat.

These things happened in South Florida. Where the skies are blue and sunny. Where I lived in homes with triangle roofs. Where I thought I could finally stop rearranging the furniture.

“Why does that box need to be under my bed?” Under my daughters bed was the only place I could store the house. I also figured it was a good way to keep other things from accumulating under there, but she hated the fact that it was under there even though it was not disturbing anything. I now understand that her irritability with that unseen box was her way of expressing her disappointment in me. It was a special gift that she gave me and which I now ungratefully store in closets and now under her bed. She did not understand how important that house really was to me. She did not understand that conditions had to be just perfect for me to break open that box and that there had to be a place for its massive size. She did not know how I longed to build that house and finally furnish its small rooms with all the wonderful things in those boxes that now sat on a long shelf high up in my closet.

My daughter is nineteen now and living in a college dorm.

I, along with my son and his bird, occupy our small home where I have left the configuration of my bedroom the same as the day when I moved in nine years ago. I felt settled here in this little house where I watched my daughter rearrange her room a few times and where my son ran wooden train tracks from the living room, down the hall and into his room. “La Casita de la Bruja” (the witch’s little house) is what my friends call it. It is the house where many convene, take refuge, get fed, sleep, dig in my garden, and store boxes. I’m the Bruja that gives everyone bundles of lemon grass from the yard, listens, advises and scolds. My little house is unruly to some.

Too many colors Art on all walls Scattered shoes at the door Paper, markers, paint, crayons I put a cinnamon broom on the door many Octobers ago It remains there till this day

“Excuse the mess. People live here.”

When is it the perfect time to do anything? Perhaps the slowing down of the journey is caused by asking and trying to answer such a question. Waiting, starting and stopping, planning and pausing, creating a series of holding patterns while you wait for that perfect moment which doesn’t exist.

“Ok Dee……………what the hell are you going to do next?”

That was the voice in my head as I scrolled through a list of bills that had to get paid with a trickle of funds allocated well before they reached my account. Not being able to see the light at the end of the tunnel I fell into a state of stillness and unfocused contemplation and it was in this state of mind that I surrendered to the possibility that I would not be able to fulfill my goals anytime soon because something else had to happen first. Not knowing what that could possibly be, thoughts of moving, quitting, re-starting, reorganizing and reconsidering my direction, began to appear before me in the form of a dismantled puzzle that was asking to be reconfigured. I made a list of all the wheels currently turning and not being attended to which then opened a long lost file in my head that made me remember the sensation of time slowing down as I glued in those tiny shingles one by one in that basement apartment in the house in the Bronx. And just like that, I marched into my daughter’s room, reached under her bed and dragged out the large, dusty and heavy house in a box.

I was not sure what I would find in that box after so many years. Had the bugs gotten to it? Was the wood frail and rotted? I dragged it outside of the house in case things scurried out of it and got myself mentally prepared in case it would have to be thrown away. How sad that would be to know its walls would never take form and it’s rooms would never fill up with tables and chairs and tiny silverware.

I stood behind the large cardboard lid and pulled it back to quickly realize that not only was it in tact, but there were no multi-legged tenants anywhere in the box. After dragging it back into the house I pulled out the instructions and began to go through the large sheets of wood with pre-cut shapes of all sorts. Some made perfect sense and others did not, but what was really firing up my senses was that smell of the fresh sheets of thin wood and the sound they made when I punched out the pieces I needed. I also quickly remembered the feeling of the first splinter that would remind me to slow down and to prepare for many more like it as well as the inevitable burns from the hot glue gun.

The pieces always splinter as they are separated. I must sand all the sides. I must constantly sweep up the sawdust and wood bits off the floor. I separate the weird pieces I need from the weird pieces that are garbage.

The smell of the wood is now coupled with the smell of the burning hot glue gun.

My son, despite me inviting him to help out, stays far away from my project. He knows that he will just get frustrated with my weirdness and give up after fifteen minutes. I don’t insist since, after all, it is my project, my therapy, my portal into moving my thoughts and my actions forward with every piece that comes together. I also know that I must build it for my daughter.

The walls are never straight. I once replaced the vanity in one of my bathrooms and found that although the bottom was flush with the wall, the top remained disconnected from the wall. I was glad that the walls were crooked because it justified all those drawings of buildings I did as a kid which had crooked lines and strange angles that represented my perspective from my thirteenth floor window overlooking Broadway. There are no straight lines as far as I was concerned, and this drove my older brother, who is very meticulous, insane. This new house I am building would drive him even more insane because nothing is labeled and the directions aren’t much help. I am also not using a level, or sanding down every single piece, which would absolutely send him over the edge.

So far the foundation is backwards. This did not aggravate me because it is part of my everyday battle with the orientation of angles, letters and numbers, which I have learned to accept and adapt to. Rather than fret about it, I simply ask myself: “Can I just keep going? Can my house just face the other way?” If the answer is yes, I continue. If the answer is no, I dismantle and rebuild. Adaptation and having no interest in conforming to norms, has been a huge gift and has made me fully aware of what does NOT happen when we do not allow our thinking to flow outside of all the boxes that contain things, created by others, and placed before us to construct. How do we arrange our furniture and pick our colors without having to look at the picture on the front of the box?

Can I just keep going?

As I bring dimensionality to the flat sheets of wood in that large box, I begin to attend to the accumulation of ideas and possibilities that make up that dismantled puzzle in my head. It is a puzzle made from loose bits that come together no matter how they are configured. To do so I must understand that perfect placement and positioning does not exist. I must believe that, when attended to, the pieces will provide clarity and flow within the understanding that everything is unfixed. Yes, the walls are never straight and the foundation sometimes faces the other way. Of course I can keep going.

Today I write Tomorrow I dance Yesterday I tore and glued paper ‘til it became something I will read I will choreograph I will build a house.

PS……from mom. “ The blackout was July 13, 1977”

[excerpts and images from Loose and Connected Thoughts by Damaris Iva Ferrer Santana]

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