The Doll House Downstairs

“Don’t push!” I tell my little sister, Trudie.

“I’m not pushing, Anna,” says Trudie. “You are!”

“If you two fight, Mama will make us go back upstairs,” says our big sister, Sophie. Sophie is eleven, but right now she is talking to us like she is a grown-up and we are just babies. I hate it when she does that.

Sophie, Trudie, and I have spent most of the afternoon cleaning the doll repair shop our parents own and run. Now we are allowed to stay in the shop to play. But Sophie is right: if we quarrel, Mama will hear us and make us come upstairs. So I let Trudie go ahead, even if she does shove her way in front of me and step on my foot besides. Trudie is only seven so I suppose I should be understanding.

I’ve always lived above the doll shop on Essex Street. Mama says that a long time ago, when Sophie was a baby, the three of them lived in a different apartment, on Ludlow Street. But to me, Ludlow Street doesn’t count. It’s Essex Street, and only Essex Street, that is home. Out in front there is a sign that reads:

DOLL REPAIR

All Kinds of Dolls Lovingly Restored and Mended

Established 1904

 Underneath the letters is a picture of a smiling doll. Mama painted it. She can paint a picture of anything. She is the one who paints the dolls’ faces—the rosy cheeks, the red lips—so well that you’d never know they weren’t brand new. I tell her I think she is a magician, but she only smiles and keeps her hand steady on the brush.

Trudie runs ahead of me and reaches for “her” doll, which is made of bisque and has thick, dark hair. The doll is not really hers, of course. All the dolls here are waiting to be fixed by Papa. But while they wait, he lets us play with them. We each choose a single doll at a time—that’s the rule—and we have to be careful when we play. The dolls are very fragile and easy to break. The only time a doll can leave the shop is with its owner. We are not owners. We have no bisque or china dolls that belong to just us. Bisque and china dolls are expensive. We used to have rag dolls that Mama made, but they have fallen apart from so much use, and she has not had a chance to make new ones. Papa says that if the shop does really, really well, one day he will buy each of us a doll of our own. But it seems to me that day is a long way off.