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Time Piece

November 2, 2005

My mother’s clock stands in my hallway now, as silent as it was the day she died.

It’s a “grandmother” clock, barely six feet tall, with traditional woodwork and a maple case finished with that opaque stain they used in the ’60s — brown and bland and quite unlike the rest of my grizzled oaken antiques.

The clock was one of Mom’s prized possessions. She had a fair collection of prized things, to be sure, but it spoke to me more than the figurines or the china, I think, because of the sense of fragility it gave me. When she got it, around 1965, she threatened us kids in the direst terms with what she would do if we were to break it, and in all the decades after, it survived running children, rumbling trucks, teen-agers jumping down the stairs, bicycles in the living room and God knows what else.

Its Westminster chimes ran their gamut rather quickly. Mom claimed she liked them that way. I never knew why she wanted the clock, except possibly because her mother once had one — removed during a ’50s modernization, so I never saw it — or because her sister-in-law kept a huge one in her dining room, where it loomed imperiously over Thanksgiving dinners. Perhaps Mom’s clock was merely the capstone to the renovation of the living room, which got a new floor, couch and chairs around the same time.

For at least a decade, the clock reproached me when the house was quiet and I was wasting time, mournfully tolled the hours when I lay awake in sickness or worry, and chanted the quarters when I wanted to read just five minutes more. Mom adjusted it and kept it wound, and I suppose it spoke to me as she would have: “When are you going to get your homework done!” or, “You need to take out the garbage!” I never thought of her as fragile, but I felt the most acute anxiety when my brother would run past the clock, playing with the dog.

I liked it more when I came to understand how an escapement works and what regulates the orderly gears behind the face. Once I had another epiphany when I understood how a vibrating crystal might drive a digital clock’s tiny chip to count to 65,000 some 85,000 times a day — but there’s nothing in a digital clock to see. Give me the measured tick-tock of the pendulum any day. Our clock always needed some adjustment, however, and I always took its assertions with a grain of salt.

It stopped not because of an accident but from simple wear. Years ago, it quit because a fragile brass part expired. Dad didn’t know what to do about it and let it sit for quite a while, till Mom got mad at him and complained, and I intervened to take the works away and have them cleaned and fixed. I was proud to do something for them an adult could do, for they were always so self-sufficient. About that time, Dad complained that he had never liked the clock, for it echoed through the house at night and disturbed his rest — and as he grew deaf, it was a half-heard noise he had to stop and listen to in order to identify.

By the time Mom died, one of the clock’s brass chains, the one that held the heavy weight that rang the hour, had disintegrated into a bagful of separated links. Caught in the coils of Alzheimer’s then, Mom may not have even noticed. But the hands stood still until Dad died and we had to break up the household.

Returning home in my own grief, I un-swaddled the clock’s case, reinstalled the works and spent an hour painstakingly reassembling the fragmented chain. I wound the clock and it chimed again!

I kept it going, with frequent attention to the pendulum and its inability to keep pace with a church clock half a mile away, for about six weeks. Then one day the repaired chain jammed in its gears and, for safety’s sake, I pulled out all the weights again.

I figure that if I restarted the clock in Mom’s memory, now I should let it be quiet for a while, in Dad’s. And then, soon, I will have it repaired — for my own sake.

Written by P.

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  1. November 2, 2005 at 5:09 pm

    I love this meditation on inheritance, just “taking it to bits,” as the English say, and leaving it open to the daylight. Thank you.

  2. November 3, 2005 at 3:26 pm

    My own father has taken up clock-repairing as a hobby, and people now bring him clocks to see if he can fix them. It’s a perfect hobby for him, since he is very good with mechanical tinkering, and has a lot of patience as well as wood- and metal-working expertise. But what gets to him is the way each clock has a story, which the owner nearly always tells him along the path to the repair. Most of them are quite poignant – explaining, probably, why these particular clocks have been kept rather than discarded, even though they haven’t run for years. The gratitude of the owners when the clock comes back, running, also says something about what the clock has come to represent in their lives. I wonder – do other objects carry this symbolism with them quite the way a clock does? Is it the kinship of the heartbeat and the ticking that creates the subliminal and powerful connection to a particular person?

  3. November 4, 2005 at 1:05 pm

    Ah, very nice. I do love the personal stories, I do, I do! Especially when they’re as nicely written as this one.

  4. November 4, 2005 at 4:42 pm

    My mother has one of those clocks, too–probably purchased around the same time. I remember the day my parents bought it at a jeweler’s and how proud they were of it. The chimes, dispassionate and poignant at the same time, are such an enduring sound. Just hearing them brings back my childhood home
    so vividly–the darkness of the upstairs hallway, a certain loneliness you sometimes feel growing up. Thanks for writing about the clock in your life and bringing that all back.

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