The construction crew showed up in my backyard just before my seventh birthday—a team of big beefy men hauling slabs of wood. Yes, I know what that sounds like but you need to get your rotten filthy mind out of the gutter.
When the men arrived, my mom ushered me from the backyard into the house, all secretive and giddy. She was practically bouncing out of her overly arched Dr. Scholl’s sandals. She darted about, yanking closed all the curtains in the rooms that looked out into the backyard: the kitchen, the family room and my own bedroom where my window overlooked the exact spot where the builders were hammering and sawing and making a whole load of noise.
My mom bustled around the house, tossing loads of laundry into the dryer, entertaining my brother and keeping one eye on me to make sure I didn’t go outside.
“Be patient,” she told me. “You’ll see.”
Apparently this was some sort of surprise. For me.
The last time my mom had surprised me was for my birthday in Kindergarten. She’d driven the whole carpool straight to our house after school for a surprise birthday party. In the middle of the party sat the brand new cherry red Schwinn bike I’d been admiring for months through the window of the local bike shop. It had a banana seat with pink roses on it and hot pink, pale pink and white tassels hanging from the handlebars.
It was the best surprise ever.
Could she possibly top it?
I played twenty million questions with her about what was going on in the backyard but she was tight-lipped, feigning being wrapped up in various household chores while my curiosity piqued.
Finally, just before dinnertime, the beefy dudes cleared the yard. My mom eagerly ushered me outside, a blindfold across my eyes. I’d never known her to be so giddy.
I walked across the cement patio, the cold concrete chilling my bare feet. I could smell fresh wood as she guided me up a step of some sort. I could sense I was no longer outside. Instead, I was inside… something.
My mom dramatically ripped the blindfold from my eyes and yelled out, “Surprise!”
And there I stood in the middle of a small house. Four oatmeal-colored wooden walls and a triangle-shaped roof surrounded me. To my back was a little door that anyone taller than me, like my parents, would have to duck to get through.
“It’s your new house! It’s a Happy House!” my mom said. Her grin was wild as she clearly waited for me to jump up and down or crash into her to hug her.
I burst into tears.
Not happy tears. Sad tears.
To this day, my mom seems devastated by my reaction. It’s clear that in her mind, that Happy House should’ve been my most exciting surprise ever. “I just wanted to give you the thing I always wanted as a little girl,” she tells me. The fact that I burst into tears comes up often, always prefaced with the heartbreaking words: Remember when you cried because I built you a Happy House?
I have tried so many times to explain to my mom why I burst into tears that day. The answer is simple: I thought she wanted me to live in that house. In that small Happy House with the four bland walls and the tiny door that my dad couldn’t fit through.
No bed. No bathroom. No pink-and-white-checkered bedspread or record player.
I imagined sitting alone at night in my miniature house, staring up at the yellow glow of lights in the upstairs bedrooms where my parents and my brother slept. I pictured my family sitting on the couch in the living room to watch Happy Days or in a circle on the floor, playing Monopoly, while I lay alone on the wood floor of my so-called Happy House.
I thought my family would be a family without me.
And still, to this day, I feel like I disappointed my mom so greatly, so irrevocably, that I almost wish she would surprise me with another Happy House (preferably on a walk street near the beach) so that I could give her the reaction she so deeply craved that day so long ago.
Did I ever get psyched about the Happy House?
Once I realized that it wasn’t somewhere I had to live permanently, it did become a fun place to play. My dad painted it white with yellow trim and my mom hung hand-sewn curtains in the windows. I had a fake stove, refrigerator and sink. There was a flowerbed, stuffed with yellow and white daisies, sitting outside the door, making the house look every bit like a little home for a little person.
But as I grew, the house became less fun. It eventually became our family’s storage shed. Discarded Big Wheel scooters and trash bags full of clothes for the Goodwill took over the space. Weeds sprouted in the flowerbed. Rust covered the door of the fake metal fridge.
Finally, the Happy House was broken down and hauled away in portions by the gardener my mom had hired when my dad got too sick to mow the lawn anymore. The gardener reseeded the lawn and new grass grew in as if the Happy House had never been there.
The actual house we lived in, as a family, is probably like that, too. My mom sold it after my dad died because it was too hard, too sad, to live there anymore. Are there reminders of us there? Are the wood steps that my dad built still intact, leading up to the front door? Is the wrought iron gate with the initial of our last name still in place at the entrance of the backyard? Are my baby footprints still in the cement at the back door to the laundry room? Is my name still scrawled underneath those footprints as a reminder that I once lived there?
My life there, in that house, has been hauled away and reseeded elsewhere. People I’ve never met live there now. They know nothing of me.
Perhaps they have a little girl who would love to have a Happy House.
© Copyright 2012 Marisa Reichardt. All Rights Reserved
© Copyright 2012 Marisa Reichardt. All Rights Reserved