My grandfather was a terrible magician. That didn't stop him from trying, and his enthusiasm and meager skill were enough to carry him through the endless shows he put on for very young children, At six years old, there was little on earth more exciting than my grandfather pulling a quarter out of my ear- unless it was his magic box.
The box was green and red, with what Grandpa said was a Firebird in a cage on the front, and it was magic. He'd tap it with a wand, and snakes or skunks would appear. Each time we went to visit Grandpa, my sisters and I begged for the magic box, fought each other for turns to hold the little skunk, who sniffed our ears before returning to the box to either disappear or turn into a another creature. Whatever Grandpa did, we were riveted.
By the time I was nine, I had figured out the box. Sort of. I knew it wasn't magic, it was a simple trick, but it was cool. At that point I caught the magic bug myself a little bit. I started teaching myself a few card and coin tricks- my specialty was making a quarter travel between my hands. I never got REALLY good at it, but it was good enough to impress my friends. I could pull a quarter out of somebody's ear as well, if not better, than Grandpa.
My grandfather kept up his routine far longer than I was willing to watch. When I'd have my high school friends over to visit, he'd rope them into being his assistant for interminable tricks I'd seen a million times. Usually, my friends were good sports about this. Occasionally, they were even impressed. When he couldn't perform for his grandchildren or their friends, he volunteered at community centers, entertaining bands of preschoolers around town.
Magic was part of my family heritage. My grandfather's father was a real stage magician, working bits of the Borscht Belt. He had the charisma, skill, and charm that my grandfather never mastered. Grandpa spoke of him rarely, but reverently. Stories of my great-grandfather sounded like legends to my impressionable ears.
It was natural that my grandfather would want to follow in his father's footsteps. And it was inevitable that so much of his family would become interested in stage magic. My uncle dallies, my cousins all know a few tricks. It's what we do.
When Grandpa died, I was fortunate enough to inherit his magic box. Not just the magic box alone, even, but his treasure trove of tricks. Inside the box were hidden not just the secrets to his acts, but a sort of history of amateur magic. I learned the skunk I'd loved so much as a child was named Lily, and that she was made the year I was born. I wonder sometimes if the birth of each grandchild might have inspired my grandfather to learn a new trick, and if maybe, my favorite trick of all wasn’t the one he learned just for me.
Now, I perform my grandfather's illusions, complete with my grandfather's magic box, for my daughters and their friends. I win the hearts of my twins' classes when I make Lily the skunk turn into Boris the snake and back again a dozen times, when I pull quarters out of ears and make a big red ball disappear. I find myself thinking longingly of a magic shop I know on the north side of Chicago, of how I could add a few new tricks to Grandpa's repertoire. One of each of my daughters, maybe. His great-granddaughters.
The magic box lives in my home, on display with other family heirlooms, out of reach of little hands. My children stare often at it, a wistful and desperate looks in their eyes. When they're very good, I do a bit of magic for them. And when they're very bad, I make my voice stern and warn, "Keep your hands to yourself, or I'll make them disappear!” It's a threat that only holds weight when your kids believe you have the magical powers to do it.
Someday, I'm sure, they'll figure out the tricks of the box. But there will be day when I must pass the box along. If not to one of my daughters, perhaps to one of their children. Whoever catches the family magic bug.
I know, if only with their enthusiasm and their joy, they'll make their ancestors proud.
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