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Essay: Music box

Music of the night soothes, no matter the age

February 11, 2011 | 12:00 a.m. CST


Photo by Jonathan Stephanoff

A gentle turn of the key and the gears emit a faint lurch. The machinery begins to turn, and the music starts. The sound is faint alone, but the sides of the music box magnify the twinkling chimes. I smile. Breathing a sigh, I close my eyes and empty my head of thoughts. The key turns slower. The melody fades. Listening to the last few notes that hang in the air, I fall asleep.

Lovely things

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At the age of 7, performing this nighttime ritual helped me conquer my fear of the dark. I imagined scaly talons reaching out from under my bed. Shadows shifted into monsters and went bump in the night. On these sleepless nights, I often found solace in my music boxes. Their tones rescued me from the terrors of the dark.

Every night, after my parents had exhausted their lullabies and bedtime stories, I would walk to my bookshelf and pick one out from my collection. The boxes stood in rows like a choir ready for a performance. I had only collected three or four at that time. Returning to my bed, I cradled the delicate instrument next to my pillow. My music box would sing to me, and the nightmares kept away.

I didn’t originally start collecting music boxes to help me sleep. Both my sister and I had received our first music boxes for Christmas when I was 6 years old. The music box was the nicest thing I possessed at the time. It made me proud to call something so fancy my own. The finely lacquered wood was stained maroon. The front sported a clock-face framed with gold. Someone had hand-painted a graceful cream-colored flower on the lid. It played “Somewhere Out There” from the movie An American Tale. This is still my favorite music box. I will always love it. This music box has never lost its beauty or changed its tune.

Like a musical treasure chest, I stored miniature keepsakes in that box: a strand of faux pearls, a Susan B. Anthony silver dollar, the only love note I ever got from a boy and the key to my diary.

By the time I was a teenager, my collection of music boxes had tripled in size. A ceramic replica of The Wizard of Oz sat next to a Faberge egg that played “Music of the Night.” I was a pubescent middle-school girl who didn’t fit in. Loneliness replaced the fear that kept me up at night. Still, I could depend on my simple maroon music box to sing me to sleep. Its faithful friendship comforted me.

On my older sister’s 16th birthday, I met the most beautiful music box I had ever seen. Her boyfriend stopped by to drop off a present. I watched as she opened the box and lifted it out. She held a collector’s edition music box, a replica of one used on the set of Mary Poppins. It had a glass globe with a miniature model of St. Paul’s Cathedral inside. When you shook it, tiny white birds would fly around. Its pedestal was bronze and ornate. When my sister wound up the key, it played “Feed the Birds” and instantly stole my heart.

Compared to the Mary Poppins music box, my entire collection seemed childish. They sat on my shelves as a taunting reminder of my immaturity. I didn’t have a boyfriend to give me beautiful music boxes. I was in eighth grade with acne and baby fat. My sister was driving a car, in high school and beautiful.

When she left the house, I would sneak into her room to wide up the Mary Poppins box and listen. It wasn’t the same. I didn’t love this music box because it could help me sleep at night or because it could offer me emotional support. I loved it because it was special and ornate, and I couldn’t have it. But the music box didn’t love me back. It wasn’t mine to love.

My sister eventually broke up with the boy; she kept the music box. I eventually grew out of my acne and baby fat. I got over my jealousy and continued to add music boxes to my collection. During a trip to Europe, I bought a Swiss music box and a beer stein that plays drinking songs.

I left my music boxes behind when I went to college. I moved four hours away and had to accept their absence. The dorms weren’t the safest place for my prized possessions. I miss them, and when I go home, I still frequently wind them up to help me wind down at night.

I do have one music box here at school with me. It came from an antique store off the highway. It’s shaped like an old bottle of Hennessy. When you lift the neck of the bottle, it pops up to reveal a bouquet of tin cylinders that were used to hold the owner’s cigarettes. The song it plays is unfamiliar but pretty. It’s an amusing party favor with an entertaining past.

My boyfriend gave it to me for Christmas. It’s the first music box that wasn’t bought by my parents or myself. It’s the first time I’ve ever had a boyfriend. He didn’t get me a collector’s edition of the Mary Poppins music box because I didn’t want it anymore. I want the Hennessy bottle that holds cigarettes. It belongs to me just as I belong to it. It’s delicate and fancy, and I’m proud to call it my own.

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