Sawhorses shaped our Christmas growing up in Cape May. The sawhorses and an oversized slab of wood created the platform for mother’s holiday dollhouse display.
My dad, Mark, would lay the wood on top of the sawhorses with a clunk. Then, my mother, Libby would cover the makeshift table with a white tablecloth that became an instant snow scene; one of the rare moments of synergy between my parents.
My mother got the World War I-era dollhouse from a store in West Philadelphia, after saving for more than a year. It was brand new then.
Every Christmas in our house on Jefferson Street in Cape May, she created a miniature world that was better than the real one. She collected miniatures right up until the moment she died in 1997.
Over the years, dear friends gave her petite dining room tables and newborns the size of a fingernail. After the divorce and her second marriage to my stepfather, John, he would craft tiny items for the dollhouse. It became a relaxing ritual for him and part of what made their marriage so strong.
Everyone who visited us at the holiday season would gaze at the dollhouse in a raptured expression that engulfed their whole body. It was as if anyone who peered at the tiny family and their perfect world was so emphatically transported back to childhood, it was as if they were really there again.
There were two floors and the porch detached from the front so you could closely examine their world. There was a Christmas tree and a Hanukkah menorah. The presents under the tree were just the right size for the family that lived there.
Their snow-covered lawn was adorned with tiny sleds and even a carousel. It was right out of a Norman Rockwell painting.
It’s a different world now, but the same. My 14-year-old daughter, Madeline, has become the new queen of miniature Christmas.
Every December, we sift through the tiny treasures that my mother collected. Madeline seems to channel with her late grandmother, Libby, at that moment. Almost like from some divine inspiration, she blueprints that year’s scene.
This year, the family has two daughters and one son, probably a little fantasy of her own since Madeline has three brothers in the real world.
The baby has a crib on the second floor. Dad is sitting in the living room by the fireplace and mom is in the kitchen - with a teen girl downstairs who appears to be just pondering.
Maybe a bit of a stereotype for my feminist daughter, but that’s how it looked when my mom set it up back when. Not because she wasn’t a strong woman - but because she was portraying something from the past. A kind of Midwestern hearth - a contrast to her row house upbringing on South Redfield Street in Philadelphia.
Back then, every Christmas my mother tried to build the idyllic holiday scene. Now in our Collingswood home, it’s like Libby and Madeline are working together across the ages.
It’s as if, every year we have two Christmases. A full-sized holiday with all the flaws of our real lives and the miniature one that speaks to who we want to be.
ED. NOTE: Keith Forrest is a professor of communication at Atlantic Cape Community College. His late mother, Libby Demp Forrest Moore, wrote the Joyride column for this newspaper for 20 years.