What a Good Dad Knows (Even If He Doesn't Finish the Dollhouse)

When I was 5, my dad brought home a unfinished plywood dollhouse. It was two stories high, plus an attic. He brought me wallpaper samples, squares of fake-wood laminate and linoleum for the floors, and a plan to hang wooden shingles on the roof in the future.

I loved playing with the dollhouse. Over time, it filled with tiny couches, doll-sized dishes and families with children. Once, in a fit of possessive sibling rage, I wrote my name in red crayon across the dollhouse’s attic floor.

Time passed, and my adventures with the dollhouse grew. The sample-sized wooden laminate, never permanent, provided endless rearrangement possibilities. Roof shingles went unhung. The missing front door and porch railings went unnoticed.

Growing up, we ate dinner as a family every night. With three daughters spanning seven years in age, my dad would usually listen thoughtfully to our stories, occasionally chiming in with a witty pun. He got really excited, however, when an unfamiliar topic arose. He would leap from the table to the maroon, leather-bound encyclopedias, their wafer-thin, gold-tipped pages both fragile and exotic.

These encyclopedias were our Google, and my dad, our search engine. A scientist to the core, he shared his enthusiasm for learning. How does blood clot? Grab the letter B! In what time period did Cleopatra live? Someone look under C! How does electricity work? Newton! Time passed and our interests waxed and waned, but my dad and his encyclopedias were a constant.

As I grew older, I played with the dollhouse less, and the floor samples and wallpaper pieces yellowed and tore. The shingles still went unhung. My younger sisters spent many happy hours there, ignoring the crayon graffiti, as I grew up and moved on.

Cherkin, her dad and daughter.

I later learned that my dad felt tremendous guilt about not finishing the dollhouse. At my high school graduation, Dad teared up, perhaps realizing that he never would build that tiny porch railing or shingle the roof of my three-foot-high house.

Though my father may measure his success as a parent by the incompletion of the dollhouse, I see instead how much he offered me. Recently, he watched me struggling with my two quarrelling kids.

He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “If I’ve learned anything about parenting, it’s that there is no such thing as a perfect parent.”

What makes a good father? It is not the man who puts the finishing touches on a dollhouse.

It is the man who provides his daughter with a dollhouse to inspire her imagination, whose excitement for learning is contagious, and who shares this love and enthusiasm with his family.

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