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The Playhouse

By Maarten van Swaay

Our oldest daughter Aagje was almost a year old when we returned in 1956 from Princeton to the Netherlands. She took her first steps at sea, holding on to her doll’s carriage as it rolled with the swell on the Atlantic. Housing in Holland at that time was in short supply; the war had seen no building and much destruction. A well-intentioned policy of rent control did not improve matters, it held back new construction and modernization. Fortunately we could stay with my parents in Scheveningen for the first winter. They then helped us buy a house in Oegstgeest that was still under construction and did not fall under the rules of price control.

Our house in Oegstgeest, taken in 2009

The house had two floors, and two rooms under the roof on a third floor. One of those became Aagje’s bedroom; a room on the second floor was reserved for Marianna, who would arrive before long. The stairwell had a large window facing South. As I carried Aagje up one evening she let out a cry of dismay: “the moon is broken!” She was right: it was a quarter moon. We watched for the next few days as the moon repaired itself, much to Aagje’s reassurance.

Nearby was a small retirement community, with a pond with ducks, and houses that all had red doors with an upper and lower half. The pond and the ducks were inviting for daily walks, but the red doors provided its name for Aagje: “walk to the red doors.”

Then came Sinterklaas day; the first in our own house, in 1957. Saint Nicolaas shares his name with Santa Claus, but that is where the similarity ends. His day is December 5, and has no connection with Christmas. One can trace the origin of the good Saint to Asia Minor, but in the Dutch tradition he arrives by ship from Spain, accompanied by his white horse and a retinue of one or more Moors who serve as his often somewhat unruly aides. He serves as the patron saint for sailors, but presents himself as an imposing stately and benevolent figure for Dutch children.

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet, 1958

The prominent role of ‘the red doors’ in Aagje’s life led to an ambition to build a playhouse – with a split red door of course – for Sinterklaas. A simple enough plan, but our house had no space for a workshop, and the detached single-car garage was not inviting in the wet and windy weather of Dutch autumn. First things first: placing a small pot-bellied stove required chiseling a neat hole for a chimney pipe through the brick wall of the garage. Of course the playhouse had to stay out of Aagje’s view: Sinterklaas would be bringing it from Spain.

It all worked as planned; the red door proved to be the jewel in the crown. A major event was a visit by Aagje’s Grandfather to the playhouse; he did settle for visiting outside the playhouse, for quite visible reasons.

Aagje and her Grandfather, 1957

Since then the playhouse has traveled much, first to the three places where we lived in Holland, and then to Manhattan, Kansas. A neighbor with a family of growing children designed and built a top part that converted the playhouse into a stage for a puppet show. After our children had grown up we loaned it to friends in Manhattan, who had adopted a daughter from Korea. After she outgrew it, we were disturbed to find that the playhouse had been banished to the back of the garage. We had a better place for it, and a much better use: our growing circle of grandchildren. It became one of the main attractions for them, with a fixed ritual for which Christina would stock its shelves with ‘aapjes’ – little monkeys. The Dutch use the term for little presents such as pencils, erasers, sweets, and such.

The ‘Stuff Shoppe’ always had tightly controlled opening hours, and no grandchild ever tried to sneak in outside hours, even though that would have been very easy to do.

One of our grandchildren did not take it lightly when we visited his family in Overland Park: ‘why did you not bring the house?’. Because it would not fit in the car …. But you could have put it on a trailer! We lost that argument.

Of course our grandchildren grew up too, and the playhouse slept quietly for many years in our house in Manhattan, KS. But not in the garage…. When we left that house after 40 years to come to Village Shalom, the playhouse went home with Aagje, for whom it had been built. And now it stands, lovingly restored and repainted, ready for the third generation. Aagje’s granddaughter is expected early this summer, and Marianna’s year-old grandson will discover it at a family reunion we hope to have this Fall.

The playhouse restored and in place, 2012