A Dollhouse Built With Love

From the April 2008 issue of the Cobequid Check Up

In 1931, an eleven year-old Donald Mackenzie and his seven siblings faced the loss of their mother. It was during the depression and their father had already warned them that this Christmas “Santa is hard up.”

At the local Rexall Drug Store in Oxford, NS, anyone who spent over a dollar received a raffle ticket for a dollhouse. The people in Oxford knew of the Mackenzie’s loss and many put Don’s sister Dorothy’s name into the raffle. On Christmas Eve, the owner of the Rexall Drug Store came to the Mackenzie’s door and told them they had won the dollhouse. On Christmas morning, Don and his sister, with wagon in tow, went to the store for their Christmas miracle.

This is just the beginning of Donald Mackenzie’s story. Now 89, Don sits in the Cobequid Community Health Centre Foundation Office patiently waiting as I organize my notes and fetch additional paper from my desk. He wears a black leather jacket over a white button up sweater and a sharp red tie. Though his hair is now white, his spirits are still high and the man exudes a certain gentle energy.

Don served in World War II. He was part of the North Nova Scotia Highlanders and was in France on D-Day. During his five years overseas, he attended the party of a group of girls. Originally the party was for wounded soldiers, but when the men got sick, the girls invited soldiers from the local YMCA and surrounding bases. At the party, he met a girl named Jean, 17. The two spoke briefly and the following day he was invited back to the house to eat supper. The couple who invited him happened to be Jean’s parents.

At 21, a few months before the war ended, Don had a weeks leave to go to Britain. While his buddies explored the city and visited the local pubs, Don married his soul mate, Jean.

After the war, Don returned to Canada with his war bride. He joined the RCMP as a civilian and became a Finger Print Technician. The couple lived in Dartmouth, but when their apartment was robbed, they moved to Ontario. When they retired Don asked Jean whether they should move to Florida, British Columbia, or Nova Scotia.

He smiles as he recalls her answer. “Oh, give me Nova Scotia,” she said. At the time he thought it was a strange choice, but reflecting on it now he admits it was the right one. “You couldn’t get a friendlier place,” he says.

If you recognize the name of Don Mackenzie it’s probably from the Chronicle Herald article that appeared in December 2007. At age 65, Don began making a dollhouse for a little girl. With Christmas three weeks away and a family too poor to buy presents, Jean knew Don would not be able to say no when she asked him to help the family out. Since this humble beginning, Don has built 36 dollhouses and sold zero. Each dollhouse has been given to a hospital, a care facility, or a child living in his neighborhood.

Jean was the reason he built that first dollhouse. Seeing the family, Jean knew that her husband would be willing and able to grant the girl’s Christmas wish. As he continued to make the dollhouses for charities and local families, his wife would help by making curtains and offering suggestions.

“If I built furniture too big or too small I heard about it,” Don recalls. “Sometimes I would make windows too big. I wanted to just throw them out, but she would say, ‘No, we’ll just make the next house bigger.’ She was good at that.”

Each dollhouse is handcrafted by Don and takes three months to make though he admits that these days it takes a bit longer. When asked how he starts, he doesn’t hesitate explaining, “I just keep cutting wood.”

On occasion Don has built dollhouses with a particular model in mind. While living in Ottawa, a young minister asked for one of Don’s dollhouses. Don replied, “If you get married, and have a daughter I’ll make you one.” Years later, when the minister had a daughter, Don already had one made based on a picture of a farmhouse that the minister grew up in.

Jean passed away this year and is survived by the couple’s two children, two grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren. Each of Don’s three great-granddaughters has her own dollhouse. He gave his latest dollhouse, his 36th, to the Cobequid Community Health Centre to be raffled off in memory of his wife.

This dollhouse wasn’t his first and it certainly won’t be his last. As I shake his hand, he considers the future. “I might get a few more made yet,” he says. “I think I’ll stop when I get 95 years of age.”

He volunteers to sell tickets at Superstore as we take his picture with the farm house style doll house and as he leaves the office I can’t help but think that Don didn’t just give us a dollhouse. Don offered us a lesson in charity, love, and kindness and gave us a legacy of a war bride, her soul mate, and a town that took a little time to help a family on Christmas.

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