Pearl’s Music Box

This diary entry isn’t about the music business…but I think it’s an interesting story that explains a little bit about where the music came from in my life, so I’ll include it here on my site.

My friend Tia Sillers gave me some bath salts – the old fashioned kind in a tin can – with a wonderful scent.  They say that your sense of smell is one of your strongest senses when it comes to memories, and I believe it.  It took me the better part of a year to figure out why that can of salts captivated me so much…they smelled sad, romantic, and so evocative of my childhood.  This morning I finally realized why.

When I was a little girl, I had a music box/face powder holder that belonged to my Grandma’s sister, Pearl.  My Grandma sat down with me one day and told me her story.

My Grandma’s parents were very poor Irish immigrants who settled in Toronto around the turn of the century, back in the days when people turned up their noses at the Irish (it wasn’t unusual to see a sign posted in a storefront window that said “no dogs or Irish allowed”).  My Great-Grandfather found a menial but respectable job as a night watchman at a factory, and put aside every penny he could to educate his three daughters.  The idea back then was to raise cultured young ladies who would rise above their lower-class roots to find good, well-bred husbands to take care of them.  Each of the three sisters studied an art; Grandma was a concert pianist, Lorena was an elocutionist (that’s the lost art of delivering monologues and reciting poems – like Anne of Green Gables did), and Pearl was a classically-trained singer.

In the 1920s, Pearl was a young woman, just out of high school and still living at home with her family.  She had landed a coveted position as a stenographer for a respected company in downtown Toronto.  One day in the middle of the afternoon, she turned to her coworkers and said “Why did they turn the lights off so early?”  The lights weren’t off.  She had suddenly gone completely blind.

Some of the ladies at work helped her home on the streetcar that afternoon, and the doctor was sent for.  He diagnosed Pearl with detached retinas, and prescribed the “treatment” of the time – total immobilization.  Pearl was to spend months on end lying in bed with her head encased in sandbags, completely still, in hopes that her sight would return.  Her sisters took turns reading to her by her bedside.  But after the better part of a year, nothing had changed, and the doctor finally gave up hope.

Eventually Pearl came to terms with her condition and learned how to deal with it, studying Braille, learning music by rote, and relying on a lot of help from her family.  The world was less accommodating to the handicapped back then – it was a lot tougher to make do.  Eventually her sisters moved out and started lives of their own, and when her parents died a decade or so later, Pearl was unable to take care of herself.  I remember the tears welling up in Grandma’s eyes when she told me about the day she and her sister had to move Pearl into an asylum because neither of them were able to take her in (husbands and children, so hard-won, had to come first).  The asylum wasn’t a pretty place, but it was the only option.  When the sisters visited Pearl there she would beg and cry and struggle against the nurses, wanting to go home – but there was no home left to go to.   She didn’t last very long in the asylum– she died in her late 30’s.

I never met Pearl, but her music box sat on the dresser in my room throughout my childhood.  It was a beautiful little round green metal box with pink flowers on top and it played a delicate, unidentifiable Victorian tune that I can still hum to this day.  That music used to tell Pearl where the box was so she could put her face powder on more easily.  There was no face powder left in the box by the time I got it, but the faint scent of it always lingered under the lid, and every day I would open it up and breathe it in.  Those bath salts Tia gave me have that same scent.  They make me think about Pearl, and how different her life would have been if she had been born in my generation instead of her own.  It seemed so tragic that her condition could have been so easily remedied today with a simple surgery.  How sad.

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