Playing House

Before we even walked inside the Wal-Mart, I spotted the bed on the sidewalk in front of the automatic doors. It was the most magical bed I had ever seen. My four-year-old eyes consumed it, starting with the gigantic plastic headboard in the shape of a house, then the cotton-candy-pink walls, the Crayola-blue roof, and finally the lime-green shutters that opened onto a shelf just above where my pillow would rest.

My father whisked me onto his shoulders. “I think that one’s yours,” he said.

We bought it that day, and I became a homeowner for the first time. The bed’s first residence was in our rented house in Woodstock, Georgia, before it moved, with us, into my parents’ first owned home—a gray stucco on Brandonshire Road in Dunwoody, Georgia (just past the swim-tennis, fourth house on the left).

For the next ten years, the bed was my universe, my retreat, my secret enclave. I sat on the roof when I was in a ponderous mood, gazing up at the glow-in-the-dark constellations that the previous inhabitant had left carelessly on my ceiling. On rainy days, I hung a hairy mauve blanket over the headboard and sat in the tiny three-by-three nook I’d created, reading hand-me-down British boarding school books and Peter Pan. When I woke up early on Sunday mornings, I stayed in my little house, chatting with my imaginary friends as I cooked them plate after plate of fictional omelettes and toast.

At night, I entertained more real guests. My father read my brother and me stories from the Tales of Brer Rabbit (a copy translated from the rough Southern dialect into clean British-colonial English), and my mother lingered after to sing me songs. As I slipped into dreams beneath the plastic roof, she sang on, songs in languages I’ve never known.

A floor below, my mother busily played her own games of house. When we arrived in Dunwoody, the gray stucco looked like a perfectly brokered real-estate match. It was quietly regal, with a neat lawn, a wooden deck out back, an unfinished basement and two staircases—one with pristine white carpeting snaking up out of the front foyer (foy-ay). Perfect for new families. And we were new: when we arrived in Dunwoody, my parents had lived in the country for only eight years. We had been in Georgia for one. Our money jangled discomfitingly in my parents’ wallets, thicker and heavier than the sixty dollars they’d left India with, or even their slim salaries as Residents and junior doctors. At thirty-eight, they finally had money to spend, new toys to buy, a new life to build.

They filled the house. The bookshelves got ancient encyclopedias and coffee table books with glossy photos of the Taj Mahal and Darjeeling tea gardens. The white tiled kitchen got a new fridge from Sears, and we covered it in magnets from our road trip vacations to Disney World and South Carolina beaches. The red Honda in the garage got new waxes and washes until we retired it, replacing it with a slightly used but like-new Volvo station wagon, which we admired for its lack of cupholders (the Swedes knew not to rush their morning coffee, my dad exclaimed with delight, always impressed by cultures who knew how to enjoy their food, and therefore, life). We hung complimentary grainy cloth tote bags collected from events at public libraries and museums in the closet next to the mirrored elephant-embroidered bags bought from the Cotton Company in Madras. The new china and glass figurines we picked up on a trip to Italy sat on display in a buttery mahogany armoire in the formal dining room, and the steel plates from India with my brother and my names on them were relegated to the back corner of a drawer under the kitchen sink. We finished the basement, adding a sixty-inch big-screen and a ping-pong table for my brother and me; a temperature-controlled wine cellar for my dad, and a gym, with a treadmill, elliptical, mirrored walls, and a mounted TV for my mother, where she could watch the Today Show.

My house-bed began to shrink around the time I turned thirteen. Its once mansion-like walls, looming endlessly around me, looked suddenly cheap, and my friends were no longer delighted by the chance to sit on a roof and ponder life from on high. Teenage fights with my parents took the place of bedtime songs and stories, and my bed became too small of a hiding place, too childish to be my home.

The same year that my mother replaced the white tile in the kitchen with Black Galaxy granite, I found a new bed in a Pottery Barn catalogue. Its gently curving white headboard looked elegant, like a snow-spotted sleigh, and the pristine bow carved into the base reminded me of my Victorian-era American Girl Doll. The pink house was stripped of its blankets, disassembled into its plastic skeleton and moved to the storage area of the basement, the only part we had left unfinished.

When my mother drove the thirty minutes into the city to take my brother and me to our school, she sometimes stuck around to drive through the nicer neighborhoods in Buckhead. Looking at the houses there, my mother must have felt the tight pains of our Dunwoody house, and soon she officially outgrew it. She had done all she could to it. After we went to Spain, she painted it yellow and exchanged the black shingles for red tiles in a tribute to her new Mediterranean aesthetic sensibilities. She hired a landscaper and installed a fountain in the front garden. And when the homeowners’ association called to yap at us for painting our home in boisterous colors without prior permission, my mother won, her voice sounding creamy and smart on the phone, (professional and without the twinge of foreign accent that slipped out when she sang prayer-songs or talked on the phone to her cousins). We were now a family who ate baguettes with olive oil and chevre for lunch on Saturdays. The suburbs wouldn’t do any longer.

When we moved into our new red brick, the pink house bed came along too. It lived in the new basement until, amidst a wave of spring-cleaning the May I graduated from high school, my parents thought to offer it to my six-year-old cousin. It must not have suited her tastes. She never used it, preferring her own wooden trundle bed, and my little pink playhouse sat disassembled for years in yet another musty basement. The bed was a remnant from mid-way up the ladder of immigrant upward mobility, and it couldn’t have belonged in our new lives.

The day we drove away from the house in Dunwoody, I was fifteen. My mother hadn’t sung me to sleep in nine years. My brother had gone to college. As we drove off in the blue BMW with the top down, my father and I exulted our move to the actual city, where we’d be living five minutes from the best restaurants in the southeast instead of from a Kroger’s or a Domino’s. Only a few years earlier, I had burst into tears when I heard my parents talking about moving. But that day I felt no weight, and only a twinge of nostalgia as we departed from the place we had lived for twelve years. I turned to look back at the winking yellow house retreating away from us. It might have been as small as a playhouse.

Sanjena Sathian grew up in and around Atlanta, Georgia. She has lived in the rural areas (Woodstock), the suburbs (Dunwoody), and now lives in the city across the street from where “the Real Housewives of Atlanta” cast goes shopping. She likes Yale better. Send her an email at

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