My five-year-old daughter knew exactly what she wanted for Christmas of 1977, and told me so. Yes, she still would like the pink-and-green plastic umbrella with a clear top she'd been talking about. Great to observe patterns of rain spatters. Books, long flannel nightgown, fuzzy slippers — fine. But really, there was only one thing that mattered: a Barbie Townhouse, with all the accessories.
This was a surprise. Rebecca was not a Barbie girl, preferred stuffed animals to dolls, and wasn't drawn to play in a structured environment. Always a make-up-the-rules, design-your-own-world, do-it-my-way kid. Maybe, I thought, the point wasn't Barbie but house, a domicile she could claim for herself, since we'd already moved five times during her brief life.
Next day, I stopped at the mall. The huge Barbie Townhouse box was festooned with exclamations: "3 Floors of High-Styled Fun! Elevator Can Stop on All Floors!" Some Assembly Required.
Uh-oh. My track record for assembling things was miserable. Brooklyn-born, I was raised in apartment buildings in a family that didn't build things. A few years earlier, I'd spent one week assembling a six-foot-tall jungle gym from a kit containing so many parts, I spent the first four hours sorting and weeping and the last two hours trying to figure out why there were so many leftover pieces. The day after I finished building it, as if to remind me of my limitations, a tornado touched down close enough to scatter the jungle gym across an acre of field.
I assembled the Barbie Townhouse on Christmas Eve. Making it level, keeping the columns from looking like they'd melted and been refrozen, and getting that elevator to work were almost more than I could manage. And building it in curse-free silence so my daughter would continue sleeping — if, in fact, she was sleeping — added a layer of challenge. By dawn I was done.
Shortly thereafter, my daughter walked into the living room, stuffed bear tucked under her arm, feigning shock and looking as tired as I did. Her surprise may have been sham, but her delight was utterly genuine and moves me to this day, 34 years later. Rebecca had spurred me to do something I didn't think I could do. It was for her, and — like so much of the privilege of being her father — it brought me further outside myself and let me overcome doubts about my capacities.
Now that I think about it, there probably was real surprise in her first glimpse of her Barbie Townhouse. Not, perhaps, at the gift itself but that it had been built and remained standing in the morning light. Or maybe it was simpler than that: Maybe she was surprised because she'd planned on building the thing herself.
• Floyd Skloot is the author of 17 books, most recently the story collection Cream of Kohlrabi. Rebecca Skloot's debut book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, was a New York Times bestseller.