Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Pop-Up Piano: An Unintentional Christmas Story

My parents have as friends two couples who were mutual friends. These two couples had children of the same approximate ages, and their children began to exchange Christmas and birthday gifts.
Through a presumably innocent and unintentional yet misunderstood act of gift-giving from one family or the other, the gift exchange evolved into a contest as to which parents could find the most outrageously obnoxious  gifts to give to each others' children. The children were not in any way slighted by this initially-good-natured-but-eventually-malevolent competition. On the contrary, the slime throwers, the loud drum sets and amplification systems, the high tech Whoopie Cushions, the remote control fart machines with olfactory effects, and the "homework helper packets," stuffed with answer sheets to all the recipient's school district curriculum's  pre-printed practice exercises, quizzes, and tests,  were often the highlight of the gift-receiving portion of their holidays.  The parents, however, seethed for months as they plotted ways to exact revenge. My parents, much to their relief, were never included in this vindictive ritual. Just once, however, we ended up with a gift that was on par, if unintentionally so,  with many of the gifts of the more malicious variety.

When Matthew, my twin brother, and I were babies, we received as a gift a seemingly diabolical toy with the innocuous name of  "Pop-Up Piano."  It was made by Fisher-Price. Suffice it to say that the device had a battery that was powered from some unearthly source, be it good or evil, and that the toy itself held other seemingly sinister properties. The Pop-Up Piano had just three keys -- as imaginative and original fashion would have them, in  red, yellow, and blue. Each key was about one-and-a-half inches wide. When  a key was pressed, the "music" commenced. Regardless of which key was pressed, the thing played a rotation of melodies always in the same order, of "Frere Jacques," "London Bridge," and "Old McDonald."   It played the songs in order, continuously. One thing and only one thing -- not a tornado, not a nuclear holocaust, and not a simultaneous edict from the POTUS, the Pope, and the Prophet and President of the Mormon Church -- would stop it. The one and only action that would halt that  repetitive "music" was  to press another key on the Pop-Up Piano, which would, in effect, cancel out the pressing of the original key.

Matthew, by the age of eighteen months or so, had developed an unpleasant habit of pressing one of the keys to activate the Pop-Up Piano, then just walking away, leaving it to drone on, much to the chagrin of everyone else in the house, who at that time included my parents and me. One of us would have to find the thing, which Matthew had usually hidden to the best of his ability (to the best of his ability meant in plain sight) but still  it involved interrupting what one was doing to go to where the toy was placed and to press down another key in order to deactivate the rotation of songs. My dad read his medical journals from a recliner in the family room, and he did any paperwork that he brought home at the dining room table so he would not isolate himself from us in the rare times he was at home. He made it a point to keep at least three throw pillows with him at all times when he was reading or working, and became quite the expert at using his armor of throw pillows to hit and silence the Pop-Up Piano anywhere within the living room to family room range from his vantage points at the table and in the recliner.

If my dad was not home, my mom and I pretty much had to physically go to the  Pop-Up Piano and push one of its keys to end what we had come to consider the musical/auditory version of Chinese water torture. My mom's pushes to the Pop-Up Piano gradually grew more aggressive, eventually becoming punches, and before long evolving to kicks. (I remember her saying to me as she kicked the Pop-Up Piano, "This is not a real piano, Alexis. We never kick real pianos." Then she'd give the Pop-Up Piano one more kick just for good measure.

One might have thought Matthew was rather clever to devise a way to vex so many members of his family with so little effort on his part. One might have thought incorrectly. The truth was that Matthew actually liked the music of the Pop-Up Piano. Despite being the spawn of a Ph. D. in piano / vocal performance and a  rock guitarist  (He's not just some garage band wannabe, either;  for all my disparaging comments  in his direction, my father worked his way through medical school touring as a lead guitarist in the summers for an artist I'm not allowed to disclose; he completed dual undergraduate majors, including music and one a more typical pre-medical curriculum of chemistry; he's a legitimate musician in every sense.) Matthew had the musical taste of a typical and not terribly musically gifted pre-two-year-old.  What was cacophony to the rest of us was music to his ears. Despite Matthew's deep and abiding love of the toy, however, it had to go.

My dad's  initial solution, which had been simply to ditch the so-called incubus, was rejected by my mom because the Pop-Up Piano  itself had been a gift from Great-Aunt Eileen, who rarely if ever gave gifts.  If she ever happened to show up on our doorstep, she would expect to see the toy in use. Eventually, that sentiment gave way to the more prevalent, "Great Aunt Eileen did this to us on purpose because she obviously never liked us in the first place, and she's NEVER coming to visit us. SCREW THE  TOY!"  I distinctly recall "screw the toy" as being part of the conversation. In my still very literal mind I held an image of my father taking out a screwdriver and somehow using it to twist screws into the Pop-Up Piano. How this could possibly alleviate the misery exuded by the Pop-Up Piano remained a mystery, but my father said it, and I assumed he meant it.

Then  it became clear that  my parents had every intention of exorcising our family of the Pop-Up  Piano and its demons within.  The methods of disposal were debated, though not within earshot of Matthew, who still held a peculiar affinity for the accursed toy. My mother wanted to donate it to the poor.  My father convinced her that it would be even more cruel to inflict such a device on a child whose parents could not afford to replace it with something more appealing than it would be to give it back to Matthew, only to snatch it away again. Left to its own devices, both my parents were convinced, the toy would almost certainly lead to child abuse or worse.

Late one Wednesday night, long after Matthew had succumbed to the charms of the Sand Man or the Sleep Fairy or whatever ridiculous form of mythology my parents foisted upon his clay-like lump of a brain, I, already manifesting symptoms of insomnia, heard my parents plotting the demise of the Pop-Up Piano. My father held it in his hands, having taken it from the floor beneath Matthew's bed, from where it had serenaded Matthew to sleep. (I personally would have preferred the sound of fingernails screeching on a  chalkboard as a bedtime serenade over the endless sounds of the Pop-Up Piano, but that is a subject for another day's blog.) The plan, as I heard my parents detailing it, was for my father to slip the Pop-Up Piano into the trash that night so that it would be carted away with Thursday morning's trash at the break of the very next day.

It was a good plan, and it might have succeeded had trash pickup not been delayed by several hours that day. Mechanical failure was the official reason for the delay. My parents and I knew otherwise. It was the simple act of fate rearing its ugly head.

Early Thursday morning, Matthew walked down the driveway with our father, as he often did, in his pajamas and slippers, to bring the empty trash receptacle back inside our gate. The five-foot high trash receptacle, however, was not empty. The first sign of its un-emptyness was the sound of electronic music, of the repetition of "Frere Jacques," "London Bridge," and "Old McDonald" in succession. Before my father could blink, Matthew, every bit as gifted physically as he was un-gifted cognitively and common-sensibly, had scaled the side of the five-foot trash receptacle. He wormed his way under the lid, dove into the bowels of the filth of civilization, and emerged with a filthy grin on his face, and with his left hand tightly clutching the dreaded Pop-Up Piano.

"I finded it, Daddy! I finded it!" Matthew exclaimed. "Pop-Up Piano got in the trath [not-yet-two-year-old Matthew's articulation as well as his English usage still left a bit to be desired at that point] but I finded it!"

"You certainly did, son," my dad responded in his best mock-cheerful voice, holding onto the shoulder of Matthew's pajamas with the very tips of his fingers. Matthew would be stripped down in the backyard and hosed thoroughly before he would be allowed even into the outside pool shower. This wasn't as harsh as it might have sounded, as the hose was hooked up to the water source for the hot tub, which put the water from the hose at a very comfortable temperature. Still, the kid was scrubbed thoroughly, and his toothbrush was thrown directly into the rubbish after that use, as were his little pajamas.

That Christmas, my parents bribed the organizers of the Living Nativity Scene, which was set up annually outside our parish, to take the Pop-Up Piano off their hands. My parents read The Littlest Angel; they talked about how the Littlest Angel had his box that he gave the Baby Jesus, and how much more Jesus might like a wonderful toy that plays music continually.  They sang "The Little Drummer Boy" to us, and talked about how much the Baby Jesus loved the Little Drummer Boy's drumming, and how much he'd probably like the music of the Pop-Up Piano.  They sang "In the Bleak Midwinter," with its "What can I give him?" verse. They talked about how yes, we should give Baby Jesus our hearts, but we could also give him our Pop-up Piano. I was 100% on board with this. Matthew took a little more convincing, but eventually he came around.

So then came Christmas Eve. We went to the Children's Mass, as, at  barely two years of age, we weren't quite old enough to stay awake for Midnight Mass. Following the children's mass, which ended at about 6:00 p.m., we went one last time to visit the Living Nativity Scene. We petted the animals, oohed, aahed, and knelt before  the Baby Jesus, and presented our pre-arranged gift, for which my dad had given the event organizers one hundred bucks to keep. Matthew, of course, couldn't merely hand the gift over to Mary or Joseph. He had to thrust it into the sleeping newborn's face, pressing a key, which started the whole "Frere Jacques" sequence. Baby Jesus, quite predictably, gave a piercing shriek at being so rudely awakened by the harsh electronic tones of the gift with which he was practically hit in the face.

"Jethuth doethn't like my prethent,"  Matthew wailed.

"He just has to grow into it,"  my dad tried to reassure him as he hurried us away.

Soon enough  our minds were on to  the other traditions of Christmas. We had stockings to hang, cookies and milk to put out for Santa and carrots for his reindeer, presents to deliver to a less fortunate family just in case Santa didn't have time to make it there himself, the Christmas Story as told by St. Luke to hear, as well as Clement Clark Moore's A Visit from Saint Nicholas, which I could recite along with my dad as he showed Matthew the pictures. Relatives came. Songs were sung. One present was to be opened by each of us on Christmas Eve, which miraculously turned out to be  .  .  . pajamas. Every year thereafter, we knew what to expect, but that year, we totally fell for the ruse. It didn't matter anyway, because they were fun pajamas, and just opening packages is exciting for two-year-olds.

Four days later, it was Sunday, and time for mass  again. We attended mass in our parish before heading off to the airport to board a plane bound for Utah to visit our relatives there. As we walked from the parking lot to the church doors, Matthew ventured off the sidewalk a just a bit to the area where the Living Nativity Scene had been just a few days earlier. Traces of straw were still on the ground.  Also on the ground was something small, white, and plastic,with rectangular keys of red,blue, and yellow. Matthew picked up the small plastic toy. "Jethuth didn't want my prethent!" he cried as tears from his eyes rolled down his cheeks.

Our mother thought  fast.  She pulled from her purse a Christmas card on which had been written a message for one of the Utah relatives. Showing it to Matthew, she read "it" aloud to him:

 "Dear Matthew, Thank you so much for the very special toy you gave to me. It scared me at first, but once I learned how to use it, I loved it. My mommy played it for me when she was too tired to sing for me anymore. She had a long ride across the wilderness on a donkey, and she is still very tired.

"I am going back  to heaven now. I won't need the Pop-up Piano anymore because there is music everywhere in heaven. Will you take the Pop-Up Piano back now, and use it, and maybe sometimes think of me when you use it?

Baby Jesus"

"P.S. Don't play it in church because there's lots of music in there, too."

Matthew carried the Pop-Up Piano into church, and he clutched it tightly all the way through mass.

After church, Dad said, "I suppose we're stuck with it for good now,"  but he didn't sound so bothered by the idea as he had sounded before.

Matthew's big  and almost grown now. He no longer plays with little white plastic toys that repeat three songs over and over until everyone around him has been driven crazy. Instead, he drives people crazy by playing  the same songs over and over on his guitar or on his Ipod.  He also plays more than our parents would like with a black plastic box called an X-Box that's hooked up to the television. He plays baseball,too.

Every December, when it's time to get ready for Christmas, our mother takes  boxes of decorations down from the attic. Matthew and I and our Mom and Dad use the ornaments to make the house look pretty and festive. One decoration stands out because it isn't quite s beautiful on the surface as the rest of the ornaments. It isn't shiny and is not all that colorful and doesn't really look like a Christmas ornament. It's white, with three keys-- in yellow, blue, and red, and it still plays three songs over and over. To Fisher-Price,  it's just a toy. To Matthew and me, even though we're old enough now to know that it didn't happen exactly the way we thought at the time that it did, it stands as a gift that Matthew gave to Jesus, and that Jesus gave back to him in return.


  1. Alexis Anne! You are something else, really. :) Thank you for being such a good friend to me during this really sucky time. I can’t find the exact words so, I’m just going to say Thank You!!

    And I am glad to report that they're kicking me out of here tomorrow. The cultures have been clean since they pulled the line, I think I've managed to scare the majority of my doctors (7 of them visited me, and Boyle stuck around for a half an hour just talking about life.) and now they're kicking me out because he doesn't want to risk me getting another infection being here. I'm going to be on anti-fungals for another 2 weeks just to be sure it's gone. I've known people who have had Candida and have had it return worse because it's become immune to the treatment or something. So they're being careful.

    I hope that you're enjoying the rest of your vacation, and you're able to make up for being injured in the beginning. Thank you again for everything you’ve done.


    1. PS, if you ever want to skype, you know where to find me. :)

  2. Becca,
    If the Internet knows of what it speaks (and we all know that it does, because if you read something on the Internet, it HAS to be true)you just beat some fairly significant odds. I'm so glad they're kicking you out. I'm almost past croup.Timmy broke his leg and I cant help take care of him because he's having surgery tomorrow, plus I can't risk making Jillian sick. Jillian and Scott are taking care of Timmy because Jillian's four-year-old niece Leah just had surgery for a twisted bowel. The surgery went well. So glad you're being paroled.
    Talk to you soon.

    1. Oh geez, when it rains it pours, doesn't it? I hope all of you feel better and I will direct my prayer warriors in your direction. I really hope everyone starts to feel better soon.

      And to odds, well-- it is what it is. I don't read statistics because they seem to never work the right way for me anyhow. Meds that are supposed to work don't, I come out of septic shock with a prescription for Caspofungin for 2 weeks instead of the obviously more tragic outcome. I'm sure there is some "official" rule or something to describe that or whatever... but, yeah. Sometimes I don’t think my life makes very much sense. My mom would say I'm not empathetic enough to the people who were worried for me, but truly, I appreciate everything. A lot. Especially everything with Judge Alex. We did hear from him. You really went over and above and it was incredibly sweet of you to message him about me. Thank you.


    2. I'm just glad you're moving in the direction of being OK. Don'y worry about empathy. Just get better. And I am glad Hizzoner made contact with your family.

  3. P. S.
    Did The Judge get in contact with your parents?
    He was trying.