Posted by: Kate | March 11, 2009

A Music Box without Music

I got to spend a lot of time with my mother’s parents, growing up.  My father’s parents, too, but it was different: my father’s parents would provide me with activities and then expect their space, my mother’s parents – especially her mother – would spend time with me.  No structured activities, no timetable, just time with me.

I didn’t know enough to appreciate it at the time, but I’m glad I learned to do so in time to tell her.

My grandmother told stories about Rosina Rubylips, the witch that lived in the curve of the road on the way into town.  (I was devastated when they excavated the area to create a wide-open highway in its place.)  She would drive an extra few miles out of the way so that we could see the Door to Nowhere, a simple wooden door, painted white and stencilied, standing alone in someone’s backyard and opening directly onto a creek (pronounced, in upstate New York, “crick”).  She would play hours’ worth of Uno in the garage, doors open to the one-car-an-hour traffic.  She was just my Nonny, and I loved her.

One of our favorite activities was to spend time in her bedroom, just checking out her stuff.  She had a low-quality reproduction of a little girl with long red hair, undoubtedly a reproduction of a masterpiece but, for us, just “Julia.”  And she had a jewelry box.  Actually, she had jewelry spread out across the top of her dresser, and I’ve never yet seen a box sufficient to contain it.  But a core collection did live inside the box, which was wooden with mother-of-pearl and other stone inlays, creating a Chinese pond sort of scene.   Much of it big and costumey – let’s face it, you can’t live that far out in the country and successfully avoid the “redneck” tinge – but all of it exquisite to a young girl.  I would try it on, sort it out, just play with it.  She never spent a single second cautioning me not to lose something or worrying about me being careful enough.

A few years ago – five?  six? – my grandparents decided to sell the house on the hill and move into town.  They wanted to be in a smaller, easier-to-maintain place, close to doctors and grocery stores and neighbors, before they couldn’t make the decision for themselves anymore.  Once that process started, my grandmother got fired up about Getting Rid of Stuff.  She wanted to make sure that her children and grandchildren got whatever knickknacks and doodads they enjoyed – “admired” would really be too strong a term – before the possibility of squabbles and grudges settled.  Having watched my father’s family melt down repeatedly following those sorts of squabbles, I think this decision shows some prescience.

I didn’t want much; we already had a house full of stuff and not much storage.  But I got the redhaired girl, and a promise to get their sleigh-style bedroom set when they’re done with it.  And I got her jewelry box.

None of the jewelry is inside – she still wears it – and it had fallen into disrepair.  The music stopped playing long enough ago that I can’t remember the tune, and a few of the hinges had broken.  It was a risk just to open it, and soon enough it got buried under the miscellanious crap on my own dresser – future treasures for my own granddaughers, perhaps, but right now a hodgepodge of good pieces and plastic toys.  Buried enough that I didn’t even notice, two or so  years ago, when Willem quietly slipped it from my dresser to his, with plans of restoring it as a gift, and then promptly forgot about it, himself.

But, this year, for Christmas, I opened a package containing the jewelry box, cleaned up and restored and pretty.  The music box still won’t play, because we live in Podunk, New Hampshire, and there’s no one within a reasonable drive that is willing to tinker with it.  Someday.

Quite to my shock – again, redneck, costume jewelry, not a family of wealth – it turns out that the jewelry box is a pretty solid, high-quality piece.  And quite old.  My grandparents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in December, and it was purchased on a honeymoon-ish sort of trip to New York City in early 1959.  They had spent the day wandering around, seeing the sights, doing the touristy thing, and somehow ended up shopping in a small, crowded little shop in Chinatown.  This music box came carefully home with them, and was used casually and comfortably as a daily, household sort of object, until it fell a bit by the wayside.

I’m so honored to have it, and would still love it if it had been branded a complete piece of junk with no more worth than the cleaning solution used to dust it off.  But knowing it’s a solid little piece makes it that much more special, and somehow epitomizes the relationship of my grandparents: a bit homely on the outside, a little dinged and easily mistaken for simple, but with a heart of gold and strong bones.




This is the carnival for the week; the topic is “Generational Hand-Me-Downs.”  Let me know if I should add your blog to the list… so far, there’s JMLC, Baino, fraught, Aitara and Heather.



  1. What wonderful memories, wonderful photos and such a beautiful box! I’m glad you have it and that you have a husband sweet enough to know how much it means to you.

  2. I think I prefer the little nick nacks that have memories rather than jewels attached. Mind you would have been nice to find a 2 carat diamond buried in the box!

  3. That’s a great post – full of rich memories.

    I have a sewing basket with a similar story.

  4. I think it’s beautiful and has a beautiful story to go with it.

    (Psst…you can add me to the list. I wasn’t going to write, but found some time.)

  5. I loved reading this!! I need to excavate my dresser — I bet I have at least one similarly special item that I’ve totally forgotten about. The music box is gorgeous!

  6. Oh, what a wonderful story! So nicely written, too!

    I have my MIL’s old jewellery box. It is also broken and without a key, and I don’t have the same childhood memories associated with it, obviously, but I’m very fond of it because it was hers.

  7. OMG, my Gramma had a musical jewelry box with the same picture on the lid. I used to play with her costume jewelry, hats and shoes by the hour.

  8. Yes, my friends Mom had the same one.
    I know you can buy new music box inserts. I have 4 I’ve taken out of the kids jewelry boxes. You can put them on a table to use for the sounding board, it’s cool to hear how quiet they are w/o a sounding board, and how you can touch the little whirling bow to stop the sound. If you take it out, one of the kids might be able to fix it. Probably not, but it’s fun to play with. You can replace it with a song you like.

  9. So lovely.

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