Ticking out the days of our lives


Dave’s mother, who died not long after our Alice, had discretionary funds from an old family estate but, while she could have, she never flaunted her modest fortune. She traveled a lot, and loved to buy something that caught her eye, live with it for a year or so, then box it up to make a post-Christmas or birthday present for one of her children or grandchildren.

She couldn’t resist old clocks, guns, knick-knacks from Europe, and our house looks a lot like hers. My mother would sniff at “more doodads that have to be dusted.”

All this to lay the groundwork for today’s little epistle, about the possible demise of one of the clocks. Years ago I did a couple of columns on the subject and I can’t believe I’m doing it again.

At the lower landing of the stairs of our first house, on Pebblestump Point, we had a plain-Jane box clock – a wooden clock with few embellishments that sits on a shelf. It’s large, heavy, has an alarm that hasn’t rung in decades, and wouldn’t keep running for more than three or four days at a time.
That’s one stubborn clock. It has two 5-pound weights inside the case, ticking with authority. (You understand, of course, that we purists are talking about true clocks, notbattery-driven timekeepers, she sniffs.)

For some reason, that clock would not run more than a few days before it simply quit. Dave owns these clocks because he’s the only member of the family that can clean them, tinker with them, shim them level, speak rudely of them, but the eight-day box-clock had its own way in the end.
When we moved into this house in 1984, we shoved that clock unceremoniously into the closet under the stairs for attention later – where it both ticked and chimed for nearly two weeks, unattended.

We rewarded it with a new, better shelf and hung it right inside the front door. Its chime was so loud we didn’t wind it up, but the steady pulse of the pendulum sounds like the heartbeat of a quiet house.

The tall-case clock (a.k.a. “grandfather clock” that we call “Grunt”) stands in one corner of the two-story great room, the only spot in the house big enough for it to look right. Dave winds Grunt every Sunday on his way out the door to church, and that clock keeps time to within seconds every week.

Okay, here’s where the deja vu starts all over again. About 15 years ago, we had a houseguest, and were just getting into the car to go to church, when Dave let out a call that meant something bad had happened. I turned around and there he was, clutching the heavy box-clock against the wall. It took several of us to heft the clock to a safe place and try to minimize the damage to the other doodads on the shelf. Only a really pretty carved candle crashed onto the tile floor.

After church, Dave studied the wreckage and came to the conclusion that the molly bolts (is that right?) that were holding the shelf, hence the clock, gave way when one of its weights fell to the bottom of the box. The clock was not seriously damaged.

You know, I’m sure, that the value in these old tickers is based on the survival of the painted glass in the doors, and the glass in this clock is intact.

So. For the next 20-something years, Grunt has marked time in the living room, accompanied by the box-clock on the front hall shelf. We also have a ship’s-bell wall clock labeled “Chelsea,” and several more not running, like the Seth Thomas above my sewing machine.

But I was about to tell you what happened last week. Dave was winding the box-clock on its shelf in the front hall, when the same bolt let go again.

Dave caught the clock and I the shelf. Not sure how we decided who should do what, but one of us hung on for dear life while the other looked for a temporary fix.

There is no such thing. We worked together, holding and fixing, until we were certain that the shelf was in the right position, then tenuously pried our fingers from the shelf. If you want, take a look at the column above and you’ll notice I never mentioned whether the clock fell to the floor. It hadn’t. I had relocated the doodads safely as each new effort to stabilize and secure the clock was completed and Dave added a couple of stronger wall brackets under the shelf. When the whole project was reassembled, it looked much like the original, and felt very solid.

Until New Year’s Day.

On New Year’s Day, Dave checked his creation and began to wind the clock. And the pivoting movement necessary was all it took for the shelf to start a cartwheel toward the front door. I caught it once. I caught it twice. But the third time it got away from me and went all the way to the floor, stopping on one corner. The crash echoed in my head, seeming to rise from broken glass.

The glass I heard breaking was from the round frame that protected a crocheted doily that might have been made by my Mom.

The works of a pretty little kitchen clock are in the hands of a clockmaker, and Dave is touching up the case, and this is the one that will tell the days of our lives from here on out. It is better proportioned for that shelf anyhow.

What a way to start a new year.