Family Matters: A Dream Remembered
Fond recollections of a youthful self infuse the bric-a-brac of childhood, whether it is a beloved doll, a well–used ball or a coveted music box.
My daughter recently got married. Weeks after the beautiful wedding ceremony and the rounds of sheva berakhot, I stood in the doorway of her room, watching as she and her new husband sat on the floor sorting through belongings collected during childhood.
Dusty bric-a-brac from a high shelf lay scattered before them. These things, one by one, were placed in one of three piles: to keep, to discard or undecided. “How about this?” came the question about a music box decorated with a glass dome that contained the figure of a white unicorn lying down on grass. My daughter took it, wound the key and out danced the notes of “Some Enchanted Evening.”
“Hey, it still works,” she said. She held it up and then placed it in the “undecided” pile. I remembered the first commandment of the father-of-the-bride and new-father-in-law guidebook: Hold thy tongue.
But I clearly remembered when I bought that music box. It was late December, and the winters where we lived at the time, in the northern Midwest of the United States, were dark, bitter, ice-coated and endless. I was stretched between several part-time jobs, trying to juggle payments for rent, health insurance, day care and the numerous maintenance costs of two rusting old cars.
My daughter’s birthday was in January. So right before New Year’s Day I brought her on an outing to an immense suburban mall, intent on taking advantage of the holiday sales. Gaudy and lavish Christmas decorations engulfed us. The mall was jammed with families escaping the gray, frozen day. Under an immense domed sunroof were gardens, a small amphitheater and even an amusement park. Outside it was 10 degrees below zero, but inside people milled around in light sweaters and shirtsleeves as if visiting a summer carnival. As we waited in the long line for the carousel (my daughter had already chosen the horse she wanted and stared at it each time it appeared), I marveled at the precise planning, at the absorption and incorporation of technologies that combined to create this self-enclosed world, all calibrated to help us buy, buy, buy.
This was 14 years ago, before Blackberries, iPods, wi-fi and even cell phones. But the code of our age was fully entrenched; dazzling, cutting-edge, mass-produced technology that must be bottled, packaged, wrapped and displayed as quickly as possible. Once on display, it is on the road to obsolescence, and once purchased, it is already devalued. For while the customer is still trying to decipher the instructions, a glitzier, glossier version is being shipped to the warehouse, with an advertising campaign to follow that highlights the absolute need for its improvements.
The quantity and variety of specialty shops in this free-market Taj Mahal were astounding. There was a shop selling only socks; others specialized only in puzzles, stuffed animals, computer games, electric trains and accessories with baseball team logos. In the hologram store, I felt as if I were seeing an early nickelodeon, where people pressed their eyes to an eye slot and turned a crank to rotate a series of sequential photographs and give the illusion of motion. Perhaps a grandchild one day will say to me, “You mean, in your day, Grandpa, movies were flat!?”
But as we passed one shop, my daughter’s grip on my hand tightened. She pulled me in, and we were surrounded by music boxes of every shape, size and creature: horses, clowns, farm animals, dragons, giraffes and, of course, unicorns. At age 6, my daughter could sniff out a unicorn like a bloodhound.
Most of the pieces still ran mechanically. Here in music-box land there were no technological advances, no sparks, no exploding heads on digital screens. Most were modern, mass-produced models made in China. But a special display case held hand-made music boxes, crafted by someone I pictured squinting over a workbench like Pinocchio’s father. I imagined these pieces in a movie of a long-gone era in which the camera panned a child’s room filled with wooden soldiers, a china ballet dancer, a piggy bank, rocking horse and music box.
In this eddy of old-fashionedness, with the mall bustling around us, my daughter studied the music boxes. She noted the details of horses and unicorns—the rose garlands, the braided manes, the golden horns. She gave them names on the spot: A horse mantled in spiked armor became Army Unicorn.
She methodically moved along the shelves, asking me to wind up one after another until the tinny tunes mingled. As I turned the keys I glanced at the price tags. These things ran 40, 50, up to 100 bucks, and I thought, there is no way I can do this now. I marshaled the reasons I would give; it is expensive, a waste, it doesn’t even do anything, and how often can you listen to “The Impossible Dream” or “The Sound of Music” thrummed out to the rhythm of a marching band?
But she never asked, and that more than anything made me wish I could just pick one up, admire its artistry, check the price only as a curiosity, then hand it to the sales clerk and casually say, “Wrap it brightly, please, for a very special little girl.” No, she never asked, but she did take a lingering look behind as we left.
One or two mornings later, as she sat drowsily on my lap still smelling of sleep, she told me she had dreamed of a dragon that chased a unicorn. But when she confronted the dragon and asked what it wanted, the dragon answered that it only wanted the unicorn to come live with it. My intrepid daughter demanded a gift from the dragon, and the dragon gave her a whole music-box shop.
Wow! I was mush. Had she worked for the Jewish Federation I would have pledged everything. I returned to the shop alone, perused the merchandise and chose a box with a large, milk-white unicorn stretched languidly in the grass that played the tune of “Some Enchanted Evening.” As I handed over my thinly stretched plastic, I remembered what I had earlier desired: “Wrap it in something wild, for a very special girl,” I said.
After the young couple left to bring a load of boxes to their new home, I walked into the room, and felt almost embarrassed at my relief on seeing the music box now sitting in the “to keep” pile. Maybe, I rationalized to myself, it will be valuable someday, like an early Mickey Mouse lunchbox.
Or maybe, it will not be sold, broken or chipped. Maybe someday an old woman will pick it up with parchment-skinned hands. She will wind it up and that melody will chime and stir in her images of a dragon chasing a unicorn and a shop full of music boxes, and she will hand it over to her wide-eyed granddaughter. I hope so. H
Allan Rabinowitz, an Israeli tour guide and a writer, lives in Jerusalem with his family.