Every Sunday evening I wind the grandfather clock. It has become a ritual, marking the delicious pause that Sunday evening provides before the beginning of the week. The clock reaches up about eight feet – made of walnut, with inlaid tracings of a lighter wood,topped by a curved crest and three wooden finials. Relatively plain as such clocks go. When I slowly turn the winding handle, metal gears rotate with a series of clicks and I can feel strain on the cord lifting heavy weights. The old wood of the case creaks.
One of the issues hovering in the back of my mind these days is the prospect of one day sorting my worldly goods in preparation for moving into smaller quarters. I plan to move to Kendal at Hanover, a continuous care community in the mountains of New Hampshire, just a mile from Dartmouth College – source of football games, interesting courses, art exhibits and, reassuringly, a good medical school. I’m at the top of the wait list for Kendal, which means I could move there any time. While my need for this move is several years off, I recently learned from a friend who is the admissions officer of such a place that, all things being equal, one should move in one’s mid-late seventies. “Some people come in their eighties and find that they don’t have the energy to make new friends and develop a strong social network once they get here. So they miss out on one of the strongest features of this kind of community.” Evidently, one should think of this as the next interesting phase in life and prepare to enjoy it, rather than viewing it as the last stop.
Even with a positive attitude, here I am, at 73, sensing a move on the horizon and dreading the disruption of sorting and packing. As I savor the details of life in my city apartment and my little house near the sea, I cast a more questioning eye than usual on the stuff that has accumulated there. While neither my family nor I were ever wealthy, there’s a lot of stuff; a bit that is old and valuable, most just old. Closets of linens, pots and pans, various appliances that trace the history of my culinary explorations, and lawn equipment. Which would I actually use in a very nice, but much smaller apartment?
I think often of the clock, as I mull this over. The feel and sounds of the clock when I wind it are likely much the same as they were for the generations of my family that owned it earlier. Winding the clock ties me to them. Over my morning coffee, in a kind of reverie, I imagine the day the clock came into my family in the early 1800’s. I picture the family living in one of those severely rectangular Pennsylvania stone farmhouses, surrounded by fields, softened only by a few shade trees next to the house and a nearby kitchen garden for vegetables and herbs. Farmers, they were, and the work was constant and hard. But times had been good and their savings had accumulated nicely. Recently they had bought a few things each year to make life more comfortable – good rugs, the newest model of icebox with a spigot to drain off the water. This year it would be a tall clock that would tick through the day and chime on the hour.
The day the clock came would have been one of high excitement. The three children were likely out of bed at dawn, chores finished, and breakfast gulped down before daylight was firmly established. After forever they heard the horse and wagon stop in front of the house, with the clomp of horses’ hooves and creak of harnesses being pulled. The clock would have been taken apart in the store (take off the bonnet, unhook the pendulum, remove the works from the case, put all four in the back of the wagon, cushion well with padding) and bumped over unpaved country roads the ten miles to their house. Once inside the house, Dad would have set the case in place against the wall and, after reassembling the clock, started the pendulum going with a touch of his finger, bringing it to life. The tick and chime, which seemed so loud at first that conversation stopped while everyone listened, gradually slipped into the background. The clock probably liked being backed up against the cool stone wall. In time, the moisture in the clock’s wood would come into equilibrium with that in the cool air around it. The clock would settle in, ticking away comfortably, as long as it lived in stone houses like this one, heated by fireplaces or wood stoves.
While children running around the house, the occasional negligent owner who didn’t oil it regularly, and more wagon trips to new homes would have been threats, I imagine the most dangerous moment for the clock would have been when it first encountered a house with central heating. This would have been after several generations of downsizing decisions, when it ended up in the fancy city home of the couple’s great-grandchildren, in the latter part of the 19th century. Central heating, when it arrived, dried out the air and the by-then very old wood of the clock as well. The fragility one senses today may have come from that time, when the wood lost moisture to the drier surround, every piece became a bit smaller, and the joints were no longer so tight.
My city apartment has central heat, as will the apartment I will be moving to. I run a humidifier in the winter when the heat is on and the air is dry – partly for my skin, partly for the plants, but significantly for the health and well being of the clock. By now, caring for it is an act of stewardship. My role, in the story of this long-running family, is to keep the clock healthy and ticking for the next generation.
“It’s a survivor,” said the clock repair guy who came to look at it when it first came to live with me. And the clock has helped all of us survive. Like a mother’s heartbeat to her unborn baby, the background pulse of the clock’s steady tick and its regular chime mean home.
As I come out of my reverie I realize that the clock is not just one of many possessions about which decisions will need to be made. It is a member of the family, and certainly cannot be left behind. It will live with me at Kendal and then be loved and cared for by one of the next generation, who may also have grown up with an ancient clock ticking in the house.
© 2016, Barbara Scott Nelson