Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Laughing Box

My dad's uncle John Tony (strangely enough, my namesake) used to give the best presents. He was a father figure for my dad and for several years was my father's guardian (those lost Del City years I talk about). He was also the closest thing I had to a grandpa, since my mom's dad died when I was still a toddler. Every so often he would send unusual gifts just to me or my sister. When I was growing up, I viewed Oklahoma as an exotic land; that's where John Tony lived and worked as an air traffic controller and where all these amazing things came from, and even though I know now that my own parents could have found these same items, there was just something awesome about being five years old and having odd treasures coming to the house addressed to me.

Among the gifts we received were an early clock radio with an illuminated "digital" time piece (the kind that loudly flipped from minute to minute) roughly the size of a pizza box; an inflatable Weeble punching bag; a Spike Jones cassette with "Cocktails for Two" on it; and on my sister's 18th birthday a $600 money order for her to put a down payment on a car and a $40 money order for me to buy a new Intellivision game. Having a money order instead of cash or a check seemed unbelievably cool and grown-up to me at the time.

The best by far though was my laughing box. It was a battery-operated hand-held box that, with the push of a button, emitted a loud laugh that bore a striking resemblance to that of Krusty the Klown.

As you can imagine, this was a dangerous thing to put into the hands of a 4-year-old. For a solid week it laughed at everything that went on in my house, funny or not. There were many threats to take it away, and like the leg lamp in A Christmas Story, my mother eyed it every day with murder in her heart.

While she was on the phone one day, I got the laughing box out and, starving for attention I guess, pressed the button and made it laugh right in her face.

Well, it was only a matter of time before the inevitable happened. She jerked it out of my hand and, in a white-hot fury, flung it into the living room. Where it shattered into chunks.

It was not fixable. I was devastated. Realizing she had taken her punishment a step too far, my mom tried to find a replacement and could not. She didn't want anyone to tell John Tony that his gift had been tragically broken, so we never did find out where he got it. We eventually got over it.


It remains for me a day that will live in infamy. During teenage battles with my mom, if she told me that something I had said hurt her I would retaliate with, "You mean, like I was hurt when you broke my laughing box?" When she tells me now that I am being too hard on Ainsley, I zing her with, "Yeah? Well, at least I didn't break her laughing box." I have used this so often that I just reduce it to one word; if she says to me about Ainsley, "Now, don't quarrel at it, it's the most precious thing in the world," I just roll my eyes and mutter, "Laughing box."

But the sins of the mother are revisited on the daughter. I have become my mother. Only the object in question has changed.

Last night shall heretofore be known as "The Night of The Flute." It will be its own chapter in my kid's tell-all memoirs, and will someday be the focal point of a therapy session.

We have instituted a three-strike system of punishment in the Cranky house. When Ainsley misbehaves, doesn't do what we ask, or talks back, or whines and pouts, she gets a strike. Three strikes in one day and we take something away; a privilege like watching a video or having a treat, or a toy. She has to earn that toy or privilege back the next day by correcting her behavior. It mostly works.

Last night she mouthed off to me and told me "No." It was the third strike; I had had a bad day at work, and she was tired, and we were not getting along.

"Well, Ainsley, I'm going to take something away now," I said, reaching for her red plastic flute.

Said flute was a dollar store find made two weeks ago when my mom and Ainsley were spending time together while I worked my extended days. Ainsley had fallen in love with the flutes, and since they were only a dollar, mom let her pick out two. The red one is the only one she played with and it just happened to be on her bed when I needed something to take away.

"NO YOU'RE NOT!" Ains screamed at me. "You're NOT going to take something away!"

I saw red. The flute was in my hand. People had walked all over me all day; my kid was not going to talk to me that way and get away with it. I threw the flute.

Even as it was leaving my hand, I was thinking, "No! No! Bad mommy! Big mistake! You better hope that thing doesn't break!" But we have carpet, and the flute was made of the finest plastic 14-year-old Chinese workers can manufacture, so I didn't think the damn thing would actually break.

But it did. The end snapped off in a jagged, unfixable shard.

My child, much like I did with the laughing box, broke into heart-broken sobs. I stood silent. I had screwed up, big time.

When Ains was bordering on hysterics, I found my voice.

"Ainsley, I'm so sorry. I didn't mean for it to break. But you have another one. You have a blue one."

She looked up at me, face blotchy and red, nose running, actual grief in her eyes. "That one's not mine! I wanted it for you! It's supposed to be yours and only yours! The red one was mine, and I loved it!"

I. Suck.

I got her calmed down by telling her that, even though I wasn't excusing her behavior that afternoon, I had gone too far and that it was my fault the flute was broken. I told her that when we break another's person's things that we should replace them, and that I would be replacing the red flute. I apologized profusely and told her I had no idea the flute meant that much to her, to which she responded that it was one of her favorite things and that she had wanted to get good at it so that we could play songs together. I had played a few simple tunes on the blue one the day she brought it home, and I guess she wanted us to hit the local circles with a mother-daughter act.

She settled down, and we hugged.

"The worst part," I told her as I held her, "is that I have to tell your daddy what I did when he comes back from running."

"Yeah," she said. And then she launched into an "angry Jason" impersonation I didn't know she had in her, even addressing me by my first name like him. "He's gonna say, 'Cranky, what did you have to go and break her toy for?' "

So I guess she's learning great anger management from both of us.

I went to bed knowing that I had probably done permanent emotional damage to my kid. It's not a good feeling. Jason and my mom both tried to make me feel better when I vented to them last night, telling me that parents make mistakes and lose their temper and that I shouldn't be beating myself up so much over it. Though my mom at one point did get a little holier-than-thou to which I replied, "People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw laughing boxes."

Someday, when a 17-year-old Ainsley looks at me and sulks, "What are you gonna do? Break my red flute?", I will know I had it coming.

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