It started with a doll house. My desire to create a place of my own was present, even at the age of eight. The dollhouse was a sturdy, wooden structure, that belonged to my grandmother. It had a bold navy exterior and various fabric remnants covered the floor.
It sat in my grandmother’s basement for years. The shoebox-sized rooms remained mostly empty, with the exception of a few handmade chairs and odd childhood collectibles. I wanted to fill the dollhouse with the finest furniture. I remember walking the aisles of the local hobby store, looking at tiny loveseats and dining tables, floral and plaid designs. I was always drawn to the fanciness of the Victorian furniture. These beautiful pieces were never in my budget, but always in my dreams. I would select the perfect living room set and begin mentally arranging each item in the dollhouse, creating the welcoming environment I longed for. It was a place of my own creation, where I could express myself without the fear of judgement or expectation.
As the years passed I made subtle modifications. A handmade painting framed with popsicle sticks for the living room, and a few small pillows, sewn from grandma’s fabric scraps adorned the modern wood chairs. The chairs were never really my style, far too square, and never quite fitting the image in my mind. But, the pillows helped.
I loved that dollhouse, and dreamed of the day I would have a space of my own, decorated with soft fabrics and inviting wall displays. It would be my safe place, where no one would question my thoughts or mock my quirks, where I could simply be me.
The truth is, at the time, I didn’t know how to be me. I was merely a character in a play I didn’t write. I learned what was expected and did my best to fit the part, falling short on numerous occasions, and exposing myself as the obvious outlier. I spent my life seeking the approval of those around me, never really finding my place or the acceptance I desired.
Until the age of 13, I shared a room and a bed with my younger sister. Very few things were mine, and space was limited in our small mobile home. My father worked to build his business and a proper home for us, simultaneously. Both took time and money. The time was often spent in pursuit of the money required to keep our small family afloat. At the end of the day, very little of either was left to put towards a new home.
While our home was small, it provided what we needed as we slowly gained ground on something more. When I was seven my parents purchased a one-room school house with plans to renovate it, to make it our dream home. I remember seeing it for the first time, too young to understand its true beauty. It was late in the day and sunlight poured through large windows along the west wall, illuminating scratches and grooves in the hardwood, left by school children over the years. The significance of that space overwhelms me as an adult, but in the eyes of a child, it was just another empty room.
My father did most of the work himself, which took more time than I was able comprehend. I remember the boxes that covered the floor and lined the walls of our, already small, living room. My mother collected beautiful things to fill our new home when the time came. Each box held a different treasure– plush comforters, lace curtains and fancy wicker baskets.
It would be seven years before those boxes would be unpacked. We moved over Christmas break in the winter of 1996. My mother was adamant she be allowed time to decorate before my sister and I were permitted to see our new rooms. Our own, separate rooms.
I remember the reveal; the soft ivory carpet, and the plum colored flowers that covered the lavish bed spread. Lace curtains hung loosely from the windows, allowing soft slivers of light to flow freely into my sanctuary. My mother beamed with pride, this was her dream as much as it was mine.
When I was finally left alone, I spun in circles, both arms extended before falling backwards onto my bed. I remember feeling like Shirley Temple in The Little Princess, when she wakes to find herself surrounded by beautiful furnishings, certain she is dreaming. I finally had a place of my own, a retreat.
Over the years I would cover the walls with posters and wild artwork. I would move furniture whenever the mood struck—adding a vintage bedside table and a lava lamp to express myself during those angst-filled teenage years. That room was my first safe place, where I was free to be exactly who I was. It was a place I could be alone when life required solitude and reflection.
Since then, I’ve learned much more about life, and about myself. I now have a family of my own. I work tirelessly to ensure my kids have their own safe place, although my idea of this has evolved greatly since my childhood. While tasteful furnishing and elegant décor were once a constant obsession, I now place a higher value on what we share between the walls of our home—love, patience and understanding.
We are each other’s comfort and reassurance. We are the fluffy pillows and warm blankets. Together, we create a safe place. We bare our hearts and souls here. We don’t judge or mock. We are kind. We are deliberate.
I hope I am able to instill in my children what took me years to learn, to understand. A safe place isn’t just a structure, it’s not about what you have, or what you want. It’s about unconditional love, support and acceptance.
My family is my safe place.