playing house

a hundred years ago, when i was little, i had a little cabin tucked in the woody part of our backyard. it was just big enough for three windows, and a door. one on each side.
mostly it was big enough for my imagination.
every single night, as i lay my head on my pillow, as i beckoned sleep, i launched into reverie in which little cabin became little house on my prairie. i added little winding stairs and second floor, i put down braided rugs and curtains blowing in the breeze.
every night i arranged and re-arranged. this might go on for the better part of an hour. no wonder i’m not so good at sleep. the dreams with my lids open, i could direct. i could erase and re-roll the tape. i could shuffle all the players for hour after hour.
in fact, by day, my little house was dusty on the floor. the windows had no glass, only breeze. if i squeezed i could slide in a table. maybe a coffee can, upturned, for cookstove.
but that didn’t stop me. i played house by day, i played house by night.
so, no news flash here, when the real estate ad for the house where i now live said some silly thing about a “summer house” out back, i was intrigued.
you gotta love the imaginations of those frustrated fiction writers who pen the real estate ads.
well, there was a rickety old garage, one missing half its downspouts. and, on a sort of room attached to its front end, there were some holey screens pounded all around. on the floor, there was, there is, a dirty green indoor-outdoor carpet, the kind that if it had a rich imagination might think it was the 9th-hole green at pebble beach. but, really, it’s just a dirty, frayed-edge rug.
for the first few years we lived here, it made for a fine indoor-outdoor closet. it stored bikes and bats and balls, and lots and lots of boxes. when we were tearing apart the old skinny, ugly kitchen that got us such a deal on this old house, the indoor-outdoor closet did fine work holding, well, just about everything the builders could stuff in there: the old dishwasher, all the ugly ripped-out cupboards, the old kitchen door, a few spare windows, boards, lots of boards, and a curled giant’s tongue of sheet-metal.
but then, somewhere in there, i was slotted for major surgery, the kind that has you down and out for weeks. i started eyeing that old summer house (once it’s in the vernacular, it’s hard to strip it out), started my old pillow game of imagining, rearranging things, shoving this and that around yet another dusty room.
i saw that the rustic shabby nature of the indoor-outdoor closet might well be put to good use. i could in fact ditch the closet, resurrect the maison d’ete. i could build me a recuperating room. on no budget.
with two cans of paint, my flock of broken birdhouses, a wicker loveseat found in the alley, two wicker chairs and a chaise longue picked up at a second-hand store, i pretty much had me my room. the piece de resistance, the thing that makes me think “cover of shelter magazine,” i plucked from my beloved down-the-block neighbor’s backyard. well, she gave me permission, of course.
it is an old hoosier kitchen cupboard, one she left out in the rain and snow for a whole long winter. one that now is a study in how paint flakes, its archeology of coated color peeling away in a dandruffy cascade of scarlet and cobalt, seafoam and forest green that won’t be stopped. not even with the see-through varnish i slathered on to slow the flaking.
ah well, the flakes don’t matter. what matters is that we now have a room, an outdoor room, that is the very definition of retreat. in fact, it might well be summer house without need for suitcase.
to kick open the stubborn old screen door, to wiggle bottom onto wicker seat, to take deep breath, and then another, is to leave behind the worries of the inside world. the geography of just a little distance, the footsteps from all-year house to pretty-good-weather house, seem to shake off much that weighs us down.
fretting has no room in a room with only screens for walls. and besides, if you brought your worries there, they would only blow away. after all, that’s the point of porches and all their screened-in cousins.
i’ve been firing up the little screened-in get-away in recent days. shook off the cobwebs. vacuumed like a mad lady. went through a whole vacuum cleaner bag, if you care to know the dirty details. even took a chance on fickle weather, and hauled the cushions out of a box in the basement. the cat, now pleased, has a pillowed perch to salivate for birds.
it did well, the little house, the summer of my repose, and ever since, it is, for every one of us, a magic little place.
a place to watch the warblers and the woodpeckers, unnoticed. a place to watch the sun slant in through pine bough in the morning, play peek-a-boo through climbing rose on summer’s afternoon. a place to feel the breeze. a place that’s not the stuffy inside, but not bare-naked outside either.
there is, don’t you think, something to be said for carrying dinner outside on a tray. or even just a tall sweaty pitcher of lemonade.
there is, after all these years, still something magical to me about playing house.

do you have a magic place in which you could while away the hours? somewhere not under your regular roof? a porch? a fire escape? against the trunk of a tree? a place that sets you free, just you, your thoughts, and a long tall glass of lemonade?