I know it’s May—and frankly, it could be October or July, it wouldn’t matter—but it’s always Christmas morning in our house. Helen has her Squeaky Bear and is trumpeting the triumphant arrival of the morning. The composition features the dissonance and repetition of Philip Glass interspersed with the flowing lyrical melody of J.S. Bach. She joins the sun in a duet of joy, contributing squawks, punctuating the sun’s dance as the rays break through the branches of the trees outside our window.
A true virtuoso, Helen is one with her instrument. Squeaky Bear is about six inches long and four inches wide, the perfect size for Helen’s crooked little mouth. The bear reminds me a bit of Yogi Bear from my childhood, with the goofy grin and mildly wacky eyes, but without the tie. Squeaky Bear’s body is a thing of genius. It’s formed by two squeakers with the sound quality and projection of a Bose Wave radio—the head and ears responsible for the top register of sounds and the generous torso and belly formed by one enormous bladder responsible for the lower register. Not only can Helen coax different pitches from Squeaky Bear, but her ability to vary their length is nothing short of stellar. The staccato of 16th and even 32nd notes punctuate the measures of her song, culminating in whole notes held long and strong to build drama. Sometimes, she even hums and howls along as she plays, dropping Squeaky Bear, throwing her head back like Etta James, belting out that emphatic final note. She is a true artist.
Meanwhile, Harley burrows deeper into his bed, head buried in the crook of his curled front leg. His front paw, turned slightly upward, rests on the bridge of his nose and covers a part of one eye. He’s careful to keep both eyes closed, for fear that she’ll see he’s awake and bring the offending squeaking toy closer to try and convince him to play. It’s an image that begs, “Dear God, take that thing away from her,” in the voice of a 55-year old man with a hangover. His memory is short but mine is not. Five years ago, he was the concert master, regaling us with impossible pitches and lyrical runs worthy of Carnegie Hall. Now he is the Grumpy Old Man, complaining from the Muppet’s balcony box.
We oblige Harley and ask Helen to take an intermission. She reluctantly agrees. Like any good performer, she takes this time to clean her instrument. Squeaky Bear is the cleanest of her toys. She gnaws purposefully at his stubby arms and legs, pulling gently to stretch them out. She moves to the torso next, nibbling gently at the edges of the fur surrounding the enormous squeaker. She bites just hard enough to check the pitch a few times, “squawk, squa-, squawk,” tuning as she goes. Next, she checks the ears for fur out of place and finally gives a lick to the tuft of hair sewn directly in the center at the top of his head. Satisfied, she tucks her instrument between her front paws and lays her head gently on Squeaky Bear’s enormous belly, and begins the deep, even breathing that leads to a nap. She has played her heart out and has earned a rest.