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The Story Behind this Swedish Dollhouse Will Being You to Tears

Last Thanksgiving, Eliana and Isabela McGee, ages one and three, had the chance to play with their first dollhouse. Designed in the style of a Swedish cottage, the three-foot-tall, six-room home is a sight to behold: working chandeliers, hand-stenciled oak floors, a heart-shaped cake in the refrigerator—there's even a pint-sized tête-à-tête rocking chair. Isabella, in particular, couldn't get her hands into the house fast enough. "She would hold the little pieces of furniture and run to show us, laughing," describes their great-aunt Laurie Muriello, 60, of Oak Park, Illinois. "The excitement was palpable."

Growing up, Jo DeYoung, 87, always dreamed of having her own dollhouse. But money was tight in her family—her father was a tool and die maker; her mother worked at a Chicago department store—and Jo never dared ask. Instead, she played with friends' dollhouses, and sometimes traveled to downtown Chicago with her mother to see the Thorne Miniature Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Jo's three daughters—Jan Metzger 63; Trice Stevens 56; and Laurie—recall hearing their mom occasionally mention her love of dollhouses while they were growing up. In 2015, when the trio was brainstorming for Mother's Day, the idea to fulfill her childhood wish was born. An empty, unpainted plywood house was procured, "and when we told her to open her eyes," Laurie recalls, "both hands went up to the sides of her face and she gasped, 'A dollhouse? I have a dollhouse?' Then she cried."

"Legacy projects create a physical object for the patient's loved ones to keep after they've passed, to honor and remember their life and shared experiences."

Jo assumed the role of head designer, with Laurie as her trusty decorating sidekick. (Jo has severe rheumatoid arthritis in her hands, so Laurie carried out most of the physical labor.) They painted it barn red with white trim, in the Swedish farmhouse style so loved by Jo—her grandfather immigrated to the U.S. from Sweden in 1893—ordered shingles, and pored over a book of Swedish city and farmhouse interiors. "She fell in love with it," Laurie says. "I encouraged her to make it everything she'd want it to be if there were no rules." Jo christened the house Carlsson Stuga; Carlsson was her maiden name before the spelling was Americanized, stuga means cottage in Swedish.

As part of Jo's in-home hospice care with Seasons Hospice & Palliative Care, she received weekly visits from a nurse, a chaplain, and a social worker. During one visit, the social worker spotted Carlsson Stuga and suggested that Jo meet with Seasons' resident art therapist, Kate Gilbert.

Labor of Love

Kate told them about Seasons' Leaving a Legacy program, where she works with patients and families on an art, music, or writing project in an effort to help them prepare for the uncertain future. "They create a physical object for the patient's loved ones to keep after they've passed, to honor and remember their life and shared experiences," she explains. Sample legacy projects include capturing the voice of a loved one in a recordable storybook, so children and adults can forever hear the voice of their loved one; creating 3-D plaster molds of patients and a loved one holding hands; upcycling patients' clothing into pillows, blankets, or stuffed animals; and writing scores of cards so that a child or grandchild will grow up with letters to open on every major milestone, from high-school graduation to marriage and beyond.

Together, Kate, Jo and Laurie crafted a plan to turn Carlsson Stuga into a living, breathing representation of Jo's life. Hints of her childhood, secrets of her past, and emblems of her passions would be planted throughout the dollhouse. When Eliana and Isabella are old enough, it will be given to them, a forever memory of their great-grandmother.

From March through November 2016 , Laurie and Jo worked under Kate's guidance, painstakingly imbuing each room with Jo's memories. Childhood photos of her hang in multiple rooms. Silver coins from one of Jo's beloved aunts are sewn into the third-floor bed linens, which themselves are fashioned out of material woven by that same aunt. A Grand Fair ticket, dated 1903, is sheathed in a baseball card-sized picture frame and hangs in the upstairs hallway. Jo's signature is concealed by a porcelain tub in the bathroom.

Jo, a lover of "bling," as Laurie describes, has hidden various pieces of treasured jewelry throughout the house. Laurie and Kate are writing a book to lead the children through the journey of finding the dollhouse's secret treasures. (Two sapphire rings and a gold butterfly necklace are wrapped in boxes and stashed in a dresser drawer.)

Making Memories

Hospice art therapy has a number of goals. First, working on a personal project helps a person maintain their sense of self, even in the midst of medications, therapies, and end-of-life processes. "Jo used to love getting dressed up and entertaining," Kate says, "but now, she's in bed or a recliner all day. This is an opportunity to continue expressing herself, even though it's through our hands."

"She's happy every day and I don't know a lot of elderly people in hospice who can say they're happy every day."

Jo also seems to do better, physically speaking, when working on the dollhouse—Gilbert says she seems to experience fewer respiratory symptoms on those days. Adds Laurie, "She's happy every day and I don't know a lot of elderly people who've lost their spouses and home and are in hospice, but can say they're happy every day. I'm so grateful for that."

Lastly, the finished legacy project serves as a transitional object for the family once the person is gone. "The family has memories of making these things together. I know this has brought a richness to Jo's relationship with Laurie; they feel so much more at peace because they've had this experience, with so much talking, laughing. It's a time they both cherish."

Laurie says the joy on her mom's face has made the all the splinters and hand cramps worth it. Every night, as she tucks Jo into bed, they share the same inside joke: Laurie will say, "Uh oh, I think somebody's in the kitchen" (or dining room, or bathroom) and then she'll turn the lights on in the corresponding dollhouse room, and the two share a giggle. And almost every night ends with Jo telling her daughter, "I will never know how to thank you for this."