Great-Aunt Nelly's cottage
a home for my own psychic great-aunt and for a ghost in a novel-in-progress
Nelly Rasmussen was a spirit-medium in the Danish town of Gilleleje, which is on the north coast of Sjælland (the island home to Copenhagen and Elsinore, and the town from which Danes smuggled Jews across the water to Sweden during the Nazi occupation). I've thought a lot about her lately ... A rather unattractive young lady--and one who would always be young, because the more time she spent on the Other Side, the harder it became for her to leave, and she died while in a trance Beyond the Veil.
Or so goes one story, the story I like best and the one my mother told me. My grandmother, very pragmatic, insisted that Nelly had epilepsy or cancer, something recognizable. And just this past fall, my aunt told me that she'd heard Nelly died (well before my aunt was born) as a suicide--that the things she saw in her trances were so awful that she killed herself to make them stop. Aunt Gunver remembers something to do with water; perhaps Nelly threw herself into a well or a pond.
Poor Nelly. I feel for her. In 2012, I suffered some head injuries that left me with permanent migraines and occasional hallucinations that go beyond the usual ocular disturbances. (Greg tells me to stop mentioning these visions to doctors, as he's seen those doctors jotting notes and then asking follow-up questions about schizophrenia.)
Life gets very small when you're chronically ill. Simple tasks are all but impossible; tiny objects carry vast significance.
Full disclosure: I'm also, maybe, reluctantly, a wee bit psychic myself. No joke. I am very good at predicting pregnancies and baby genders, even birth defects. I've never been wrong, and it's eerie, even to me; so eerie that I've stopped doing it out loud, so don't even ask!
Great-Aunt Nelly is also a character in my twins/ghosts novel, Influence, which is set between 1917 and 1921. Those were around the last years of the real Nelly's life.
Of course, fiction can't exactly replicate reality. In Influence, Nelly is a middle-aged ghost who died in a village like Gillelje, but in Scotland--Arbroath, one of my favorite places in Scotland--and she combines some qualities of my other great-aunts: Elsa was very fat and (so my mother used to say) used a bicycle to lean on so she could walk to the town center for shopping. Elsa, Vida, and Tora all wore big bonnets as workers for the Salvation Army, and I gave the fictional Nelly a very big black taffeta bonnet that shows up in photographs when Nelly, who loves visiting on the living side of the Veil, too, is in the mood to issue a family member a dire warning.
I'm also giving Nelly, both Nellys, a house. As I've been writing this story about twin sisters and ghosts, I've found a dollhouse creeping in. In the first draft, it was an accessory; by now it's a full-fledged plot device. In order to do it justice in the novel, I had to research what's available online ... and to add real authenticity, I absolutely "had" to build a new house and decorate it in the spirit of one Great-Aunt Nelly.
So the Nellys will have a little seaside cottage in which to be happy. I bought the cheapest kit I could find, the Orchid dollhouse by Greenleaf, and maddened myself with the splintering plywood and endless sanding. As of Christmas Day 2018, I've spent over six weeks prepping the materials, painting, papering, just plain getting ready. The door that came with the kit looked silly, so I upgraded ... and down the rabbit hole I've gone, as the door is so nice it makes the windows look shabby. Anyone who's painted a house knows the conundrum.
A few things I know belong in or on the Nelly house: a black parlor suite, because that's what the Nelly in the novel has both while she's alive and after she's dead; her parlor is always ready to welcome spirits with a cup of tea. And the name Mindet, which was the name of a cottage where my other great-aunts lived in Gilleleje (not the family home; that was right by the churchyard).
Mindet means "the memory" or "the reminder," and that's just perfect.
These are my inspirational great-aunts Elsa (on the left, in her Salvation Army uniform) and Nelly (on the right; she was the oldest and is holding a baby who is probably my great-aunt Tora, who was youngest.
Nelly was the psychic, but Elsa's portrait has blotches of light that some people would say mark the presence of spirits in the photo.
This is the only photo I have now of the original Mindet. The house was pale yellow stucco and had a black tin or tile roof. Here I am after a swim with my great-aunt Tora (the youngest Rasmussen) and her lifelong companion, Aunt Mildred.
Nelly's kitchen. There's cake in the parlor, but her kitchen is prepping fish.
Sewing room ... Because Great-Aunt Elsa was said to be so hefty that she needed a bicycle to walk, she would have had to make her own clothes.
A spirit-medium's parlor. My mother made the little pillow from a Viking design about thirty years ago. The china pattern is Royal Copenhagen, which is what my great-aunts used. A fantastic miniaturist in Doune, Scotland, made the tiny sandwiches--smørrebrød, assorted open-faced things Danes like to eat. (I want to learn to make tiny food well.)
Psychic's bedroom. I bought the bed damaged and fixed it; the lace is an antique antimacassar, and the bits of wood furniture were made from kits and modified. I used battery-powered light fixtures because wiring up a dollhouse is beyond my limited skills as electrician. I don't know if the real Nelly had a cat, but everybody important has to have a cat. The embroidered wall hanging was made by my mother in the 1980s and plays a part in the novel I'm writing.
I love the stories of Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen), and though they are past the time of both Nellys, at least one of Blixen's books had to make it in here. The painting over the bed is also Blixen's.
Whenever you visited any of the great-aunts, you expected to stay the whole day and be fed constantly. Here's afternoon tea in the garden: Mildred, Tora, my grandmother, and my cousin. Plus a dog, whose name was King.
Beach bodies of 1982. Whatever body you had was the body you took ... I loved how flat the water was, with very tiny waves hissing. Sweden is not far off ... The water is clear, and it doesn't hurt your eyes to stay open as you swim. Also, bathing bridges. Love 'em.
How I Made It
I used a kit from the Greenleaf company; they make the cheapest dollhouse kits. The plywood is notoriously splintery, though, and requires a LOT of sanding. But people love this model (the Orchid) especially; you'll find lots of blogs featuring this house and its modifications. Now here's mine ...
I bought my Orchid kit on eBay. Someone had punched out a bunch of the pieces, painted a few, and returned it, probably claiming it as "new." I had a devil of a time figuring out what each piece was, beyond the big and obvious ones. I found a PDF online and some youtube videos from others who had made the kit--very helpful.
I decided to use the kit stairs when I discovered how little space there was for a stairway in the kitchen. I'd bought a solid staircase that was much nicer, but it seemed to take up the whole space. So Nelly has a humble staircase to take her to the attic.
Incidentally, some people leave the stairs out entirely, but I couldn't do that. Somehow I needed a logical way for people to get around the house.
Here you can see how Greenleaf imagines the interior of the house. Oddly enough, I have a few of these pieces, and they may in fact find their way into Nelly's cottage.
The neighbor's peacock, whom I call Mr. Speckles, started watching as soon as I started building this wee house.
That was early November 2018.
The interior color scheme needed to go with that black parlor suite and with the mood of that imagined part of the story. I found a blue Victorian wallpaper and a pale green, and I used very thin real wood for the floors.
I started disliking a few parts that had come with the kit. The door, for example (at left in the picture to the right here) looked too childish. I bought a bunch of doors in a single lot on eBay and chose the one I liked best for the house--then got a "stained glass" panel to go into it--now, which door would you choose?
The trouble with making one upgrade is that then you start thinking other parts need to go with the upgrade ...
I wanted the exterior to suit what I knew of the character, my family, and my own favorite colors and decor. What I knew of the character Nelly (my creation) was that she had a black horsehair parlor suite on which she welcomed visitors. I built the house around the idea of that parlor. The real-life Mindet was yellow, but I figured my great-aunts' spirits would be happy with gray too.
I really liked the blue-and-yellow paper I found in a tile pattern. I used it first for the kitchen floor, then decided to extend it halfway up the kitchen walls. For the rest of the kitchen, I used embossed paper in a subway-tile pattern and spray-painted it light yellow. Here you can see samples from all the interior walls. (It's easier to get the right fit if you paper and paint everything before putting it together.)
These colors are more Swedish than Danish or Scottish, but to me they feel right for the (imaginary) person who will live in the house.
Big moment: putting walls and floors and all together ... after TWO MONTHS of sanding and fitting and changing my mind about using the original woodwork (I went with milled trims I cut to smaller window sizes). This was 7 January 2019 ... Projects take a long time when you need to pause and order new/different supplies.
As usual, masking tape became my best friend. The hot glue from the gun dries too fast for good fitting, so I used tacky glue, then held everything in place with the tape, with stacks of books to weight things properly. Bubble wrap covered the windows during glueing.
The books: a vintage Beany Malone book (1950s serial for teen girls), a biography of Olivia de Havilland, a guide to birds, and Paulina Porizkova's novel about a teen model in Paris for a summer (she makes lots of mistakes with the French).
My tiny projects took over lots and lots of space. Greg is very patient.
So then I occupied the kitchen because we have high counters and they put the house at the perfect level for things like attaching dormers. This was not quick. I ended up using both tacky glue and a hot glue gun--the hot glue was almost like basting, another way of holding the pieces together while the "main" glue dried.
The naked exterior. It took a day to get the porch right (I added some depth to the carving by cutting little pieces from scrap wood and gluing them on). Then ... shingles.
Time for Shingles
The kit came with sheets of fish scale shingles. I wanted a slate look, so I spray-painted them black. (I've had slate roofs on two houses in Richmond; they look fabulous, especially in the rain, but they are very expensive to repair.)
I painted the edges of the dormers and other roof bits black in case anything showed through. Then I got out the hot-glue gun and started applying shingles and burning fingers.
With dormers, gable, and stretches of ordinary roof, it was hard to line up rows of shingles.
Okay, it was impossible. For me. Don't judge! They are of varying widths and they undulate. But there they are ...
And I ran out just a few shingles shy of completing the front roof. I had to order more, which I did through eBay. Turns out the Greenleaf shingles sold separately are thicker than the ones that come with the kids.
Also refrain from judging the strings of glue left behind by the gunning process. They will go away.
But you may judge, if you must, the way the black "slate" shingles look with the attic/bedroom color scheme of delicate green and walnut wood and white trim: not good. Why did I fail to realize the black would be so imposing? Maybe I can fix this problem with furniture. Or just learn to live with it. How often do we compare our roofs to our bedroom wallpaper in life?
With shingles done, I started to play around with trims. Some of them I'd thought I wouldn't use, such as the finials that look like little men standing with their arms on their hips. Those turned out to add a good touch of color against the stark black roof. I also tried out some gingerbread on the ridge lines, but I didn't like it--too much stuff going on.
Some of the trim (for which I used chair rails that I painted and stained, and 90-degree corner strips, and even (at the top of the roof and the gable) two lengths of baseboard painted black and glued on and together--was necessary to hide the tabs of the kit and/or the joining of walls.
Some people get around that conundrum by using wood siding or paper with various effects. I might try that next time I make a kit. This time, I had too much invested in that perfectly smooth gray exterior.
I finished inside edges using pieces designated as handrails or banisters (made by Houseworks)--they come with milled grooves that make a perfect fit for the plywood. The walnut-stained strips are more chair rails (chair rails are a gift from heaven to Nelly, I think). For corners where some bulky crown molding joined a wall, I used bits of square trim with circle detail. They're sold as window corner ornaments--the big version adorns every window in the old farmhouse where I live.
I had a devil of a time with the bay window. I could not get the pieces to fit together and look good, and I started to think I'd toss it. But then I realized I could use pieces from that lot of molding seconds I'd bought--some inverted crown molding covered the awkward seams in the wood, and I went on my way rejoicing. Oh, and I made a little slant roof for it, since those original pieces seemed to be missing from the secondhand kit I'd bought.
It needs something to sit on ... and in.
First of all, aesthetic reasons: A house needs an environment to make sense of. The "real" Nelly might have killed herself in water, and Gilleleje is a watery town, so I wanted to put in a pond as both good and bad.
And in the novel Influence, the fictional Great-Aunt Nelly and the departed twin sister make their presence known through abundance of white roses and purple iris, so I had to have those around the house. And Arbroath, Scotland, where that Nelly lived, is also a watery town. The main industries in the nineteenth century were making jute rope and, minimally, fishing. Arbroath smokies, a smoked haddock, are still world famous.
To make the base, I bought three sheets of chipboard/MDF and figured out where the house would sit. I drew in a pond shape and cut two of the sheets open so the pond would have a little depth. The top layer has the biggest hole; the middle layer has a smaller hole; the bottom is solid.. Tove the Peeing Cat was interested in that process.
Then I tacky-glued the layers together and sprayed them with lacquer finisher so they wouldn't warp during the next stages. Rosie the Tiny Cat decided to have some lunch on the glued-together base. (The pond shape is a little hard to make out, but it's in the corner facing the camera.)
PRACTICAL CONCERN: Seven cats. Big dog. One cat who already peed in the Nelly house while it was on its side being glued. In short, I needed to protect the house and its contents. I started emailing people on Etsy and eBay for quotes on sheets of plexiglass from which I could construct panels for the open parts of the house, a box for the entire environment. Prices were daunting, much steeper than for the kit itself ... but my work and family and labor of imagination demanded protection.
The pond is colored with paint and sand mixed with Mod Podge, with some real rocks around. The dirt is sand with brown paint and of, course, Mod Podge. I added some tufts of ready-made grass that's usually made for model trains and/or war-games settings. The fake grass comes in various colors on paper-backed sheets. Mine arrived all crumpled up in an envelope from China. I'm hoping to make it look better.