My maternal grandfather was a grumpy recluse who preferred to leave the practical business of running the household to my extremely frugal grandmother. His word remained law, but he rarely imposed it as long as the cuisine matched his tastes and his eccentricities were indulged.
The only exception to this arrangement was the holiday season, the one time of year where the old man took absolute control of the pursestrings and did the shopping himself (as opposed to idling his oversized Chevy in the parking lot while my grandmother did the heavy lifting). My grandfather adored Christmas, and would go hog wild assembling massive mounds of present to shower on the family. Many of his gift selections were downright bizarre, but the sheer volume of the beneath-the-tree windfall made it a great time to be an already overindulged grandchild.
While my grandfather would use to occasion to impose his personal interests on Lil Bro and I — we got a lot of art supplies, military-themed stuff, and engineering-related gadgets — he also tired to humor our passing obsessions by tossing a copy of the current Sears Wish Book our way and asking us to compile a wishlist on the notepad my grandmother used to jot down recipes from Gus Saunders’ radio show. It’s how we got some of our bigger Star Wars playsets and GI Joe MOBAT tanks (“One for each of you, so no complaints!”) and knowing ahead of time did nothing to spoil the magic of obtaining a Desired Thing.
By the time I hit my teens, my grandfather gave up trying to figure out what I wanted and just asked me to pick stuff out of the catalog. The videogames scene had entered that post-Atari/pre-Nintendo lull, I’d gotten too old for action figures, and my grandfather was too willfully old school to decipher my interest in comics, music, and role-playing games. (He did express some interest in the latter, because he was a semi-closeted Tolkien freak, but hid it behind leading questions phrased to avoid his ignorance about the subject.) He left the clothes part of the holiday shopping equation to my mother and grandmother, and threw in a few science books or a boardgame to fill out whatever else I’d selected.
Even I wasn’t sure what I really wanted for the Christmas of 1986, but my grandfather insisted I pick something out in time for it to arrive in time. After thumbing through the “gifts under X dollars” section a few dozen times, I settled on a trio of items.
The harmonica was the one thing I truly wanted, as my Blues Brothers fandom had hit its peak and unleashed fantasies of walking in Elwood’s musical footsteps.
The ukulele seemed like an easy way to pick up the basics of guitar-playing on the cheap — emphasis on “seemed.”
The bongos were another “starter kit” fantasy. Using a pair of cheap sticks I bought at the music shop in the town center, I attempted to play along to my favorite soul “stompers” to get the beats and fills down.
Blame the golden age of music video, which set loose fantasies of superstardom on the impressionable youth of America. Or blame my junior high’s token garage band, which was fronted by a girl I had a massive crush on and whose rendition of “You Give Love a Bad Name” at the holiday talent show made me weak in the knees.
My parents were positively thrilled by the resulting cacophony, but the assault on their eardrums didn’t last past the following February. The trio of cheapjack instruments didn’t teach me how to be a musician, but they did help me realize that I was partially tone deaf.
It’s true. I love and appreciate music, but the the nuances of notation and creation are moon language as far as my brain is concerned. It’s probably by why I gravitate to beat-heavy tunes, and certainly the reason why I drew a blank when trying to learn languages where intonation is crucial and in those elementary school exercises where you’re supposed to punch the air on a word’s emphasized syllable. I can usually discern clear changes in pitch, but the neural wiring for anything more complex simply isn’t there.
The instruments ended up being the last Christmas presents I ever received from my grandfather. He suffered a massive stroke the following summer and lingered in a semi-vegetative state until he passed away in 1989. The holiday wasn’t the same without him, setting into a begrudging round robin of cash gifts and “you pick it out and I’ll wrap it” jobbers.
The ukulele survived until 1992 or so, when my toddler cousin fell on it and turned it into kindling. I lent the bongos out to a skatepunk friend who wanted to form a ska band, and was later informed the drums fell apart after he brought them up from a humid basement.
The harmonica is still around somewhere, though in a very dinged-up and corroded condition. It has also been stored in a Tupperware bin full of lead fantasy miniatures for over thirty years, which gives it serious “heavy metal cred” in the most literal and toxic sense of the term.