The Witch and the Dollhouse
When I was eight years old, I lived on the 6100 block of Ellsworth Street in West Philadelphia, a street of semi-detached houses on both sides of the block. The north side of the 6000 block had houses also, but the south side had only one home: a stately mansion with an iron gate surrounding the massive property. A friend of mine lived across from the mansion, and she said no one ever saw anyone come or go from the house. She told me a witch lived in the house. She dared me to climb the fence, and go up to the house, look in the window, and see what the witch was doing.
One Saturday afternoon, I decided to accept the dare. I climbed the fence and sneaked up to a window off the front pouch. Before I could get a look at the inside of the house, the front door opened, and an elderly woman came out. She said, "Can I help you?" She had white hair and was wearing a sweater and skirt. Resting on the sweater was a string of pearls.I told her the truth: I wanted to see the inside of her house. She said, "Then come in." Not sure whether or not witches are known for their lovely jewelry, I bravely followed her into the house.
The witch led me into the mansion's living room, a large, paneled space with velvet couches and tapestry chairs. She said, "Let me show you something." In the middle of the room was a magnificent dollhouse, a domicile filled with miniature people chatting on a porch, dining around a lace-covered table, playing with children on the lawn, sleeping in canopied beds on the second floor.I think, but I'm not sure she said her name was Miss Elizabeth. The dollhouse mesmerized me, and after Miss Elizabeth took a crib with a baby in it out of the nursery, I was hooked for life. After a while, I followed the witch into the mansion's kitchen, where she served me hot chocolate.
I never told anyone about my visit to the mansion; I was a child of lots of secrets. But every year after that, I asked for a dollhouse for my birthday. Making her children happy was not high on the list of my mother's life goals, so a dollhouse never showed up. Also, I had the misfortune of having a late-August birthday, which meant panties, an umbrella, socks, and other school necessities that were needed in two weeks, things I would have gotten if it hadn't been the anniversary of my birth.
Over the next few years, I visited Miss Elizabeth from time to time to see the dollhouse and have hot chocolate. When I was twelve, we moved from West Philadephia. I said goodbye to the witch and the dollhouse. I vaguely remember someone calling the property where the mansion stood "the Anderson Estate." And many years after I left the old neighborhood, an elementary school was built on the property; it was named the Anderson School.
This is the odd part of this story: I didn't remember the mansion or the witch who lived there or the hot chocolate or the dollhouse for sixty-six years after moving from the neighborhood. As an adult, I bought a beautiful dollhouse, and then another. I filled them and a half-dozen wooden bread boxes with charming miniature rooms. I created a wedding party, a Hanukkah dinner, a Christmas scene, a Veterinary office. Friends gave me gifts of beautiful furniture and pretty people. Not once did I recall climbing the fence and meeting Miss Elizabeth when I was young.
Last month I read in a neighborhood Facebook post that someone was selling a dollhouse. I have three grandsons and a granddaughter, my son's children, siblings who visit and love my dollhouses. I know I should say to them, "Look but don't touch," but I'm not that kind of grandmother. Many a miniature has crumbled in their dainty little hands. I bought the neighbor's dollhouse for my granddaughter, not a Barbie doll plastic thing but a handmade, wallpapered gem. I purchased an indestructible wooden family and furniture on Amazon to fill it with. The night after I delivered the dollhouse to my son's house, I had a dream so vivid it abruptly woke me from a deep sleep. There was a fence in the dream, a woman in pearls, a mansion, and a beautiful dollhouse. I was stunned by the long-forgotten memory. I grabbed my iPad and tried to discover the Anderson estate history and the people who lived there. There was nothing to be found. I researched the name of the man the school was named for. Again nothing.
I suppose the mystery of Miss Elizabeth if, in fact, that was her name, will stay hidden from me for the relatively few years I have left. What will remain is the joy I get from decorating my dollhouses, a gift from a witch, a good and kindly witch, who lived on Ellsworth street so many years ago when I was young and far more courageous than I am today.