Thursday, March 31, 2011

Keeping Time

I can still hear them ringing - the clocks in my grandfather’s house.  In fact, that is probably the single most lasting memory I have of my grandparents’ home in Illinois.  No matter which way you looked or into what room you ventured, there would be a clock waiting to greet you.  Many of them were silent, but a large number chimed, rang or cuckooed.  It was not one loud, cacophonous sound, however.  Grandpa had set them all a few minutes apart, so the chorus played throughout the hour.  Once while sitting on their couch I decided to take a mental inventory and see how many clocks I could spy from that vantage point.   I believe my final total was 11.  A cherished childhood memory was watching my grandfather go from clock to clock, fish the key from behind each one, and begin winding.  It was a ritual I saw repeated many times over.

Many were traditional clocks.  I can still picture the mantle clock arching up from its base.   To this day, I look at a mantle clock and see Napoleon’s hat.   Near this sat a less traditional mantle clock.  Designed to resemble a temple, it was box-shaped and black in color with small marble columns on either side of the clock face.  A gold lion’s head adorned each end.  Although not large, this clock had the deepest and richest sound of all my grandparents’ clocks.  There was the traditional, dark, Bavarian style cuckoo, as well as a cuckoo clock fashioned after a hunting cabin, of which there is an identical clock hanging in my father’s home.  But there was also the small whimsical cuckoo with the little Swiss girl bouncing up and down on a swing.  In another room, sitting neatly tucked away beneath its globe, sat a white anniversary clock on which was painted small, delicate flowers.  Less impressive was a little clock designed to look like a giant die, an ode to my grandparents’ love of games.  

One particularly favorite clock sat on a stand near the front door along with my grandmother’s bell collection.  It was designed in the 1950’s and looks like a small fireplace with a very realistic looking burning fire.  The effect is achieved through an irregular foil cylinder that rotates while being lit by a small light bulb.  The effect was charming, and to a boy that had never had a real fireplace, it was a wonderful substitute.  My bed whenever visiting my grandparents was the couch in the living room.  Each night, after making sure I was tucked in, Grandma would then turn on the fire in the little clock and I would drift to sleep watching the dancing flames.  When my grandmother died in the late 80’s, the estate was divided up and sold.  Thankfully, my parents claimed the fireplace clock for me, and as I write this it sits off to my right on a shelf in my library, its little fire still burning.

Another clock that has remained in the family, although with my father, is the large, classic Regulator.  It hung in the hallway leading to the “back room” at my grandparent’s house, next to an old painting of a scantily clad woman from the 1920’s or 30’s.  Its lazy pendulum counted out a slow steady beat that set the tempo for life in my grandparents’ house.  To me it was the grand old gentleman of all their clocks.  It is not necessarily a thing of beauty.  The case is oak with simple carvings, but it has taken on the patina of age.  The clock face is faded and stained, and the Roman numerals are smudged, yet it still holds all of its original dignity.  It now keeps a silent vigil in what used to be my bedroom at my father’s house.  Once I had left home, this room evolved into a guest bedroom.  Visitors who tried to sleep in its tight quarters did not find its hourly striking as enchanting as I had as a child.  At first only the chimes were silenced, but eventually Dad allowed the springs to wind down and the pendulum to stop.  Now, the only sounds are those that exist in my memory.

The little anniversary clock took on new meaning after my grandparent’s passing.  My sister had been at the estate sale and unknown to any of us, placed the winning bid.  The year was 1988 and it not only marked the passing of my last grandparent, but it heralded the 40th anniversary of my parents’ wedding.    The anniversary clock, by its very name and through its association with my grandparents’ 65 years of marriage, seemed the perfect gift for the occasion.  Sadly, this will be the first year my parents will not celebrate their anniversary together, since Mom passed away last August, but the clock will still sit by my father’s bed, a symbol of their 62 years together.  I, too, am a clock addict and purchased an anniversary clock for my then fiancé nearly 25 years ago.  It still adorns our living room.
The anniversary clock joins my parents on their 40th anniversary.

In the early 1980’s, my grandfather died.  I joined my family in Illinois for the funeral services, and while there my grandmother slipped into her bedroom and re-emerged with a small box.  With tears in her eyes and a trembling hand, she reached out and placed it in my hand saying, “Your Grandpa Jesse had intended to give this to you.  His parents gave it to him for not drinking or smoking. And because he was so proud of you and happy that you didn’t drink or smoke, he wanted you to have it.”  I opened the box, and there wrapped in one of Grandpa’s old handkerchiefs was a gold pocket watch.  I could see that once it had contained decorative etchings on its surface, but those had long since been worn smooth by nearly 70 years of use.  I pushed the release on top, and the front lid opened.  Inside my grandfather had glued a photo of his then young wife and their first daughter.  I can still see him now as a young man opening that watch during his busy work day, pausing and smiling as he looked down upon his new family.  I then proceeded to open the back lid where it was etched that the watch was a present to “Jessie E. Fifer on his 21st birthday, May 29, 1915.”  To make sure everyone knew the significance of the watch, Grandpa had long ago written the explanation for the gift on a small piece of paper glued it inside the back cover.  I can’t think of any gift that has meant more to me.  I loved and admired my grandfather, and to think he thought enough of me to pass on his beloved watch means more to me than I will ever be able to explain.  And the fact that it was a form of clock, the prime symbol of my grandfather, made it all the more special.

Clocks seem to have always been a part of our lives.  When my great, great, great, great grandfather, George Fifer passed in the early 1800’s his estate was appraised.  He was a simple farmer with possessions, and very little of what he did possess was of much value.  Yet recorded along with a few farm animals, tools, bedstead and kraut knife, was an eight day clock.  It seemed so incongruous with the simplicity of his remaining property.  It must have been a great luxury, and for all I know may have been a family heirloom from his German parents.  I smiled when I found this because it seemed so fitting.  I now believe my family’s love of clocks in genetic.  I, too, carry on the family tradition.  Every quarter hour various clocks ring out the time, including our stately grandfather clock at the top of the stairs.  I think I fell in love with my first grandfather clock when as a small boy I would watch Captain Kangaroo great Grandfather Clock each morning.  I don’t say hello to it each morning, but it tells me goodnight each evening.

Clocks are a good metaphor for our families and lives.  We are the gears in the clockworks, and we must all work together to make the apparatus (family) function properly.  We mark the passage of time and chime out regularly, announcing birthdays, anniversaries and holidays.  Sometimes life becomes too rushed and we get ahead of ourselves, and at other times we are so burdened we fall behind, and we must pause and reset.  But like the swinging of the pendulum, the days tick off one by one, and time forever marches on.   


  1. The anniversary clock is so pretty, and I love the pocket watch too. I don't remember clocks from my childhood, and never really took much notice of them I suppose. I love clocks now though, and if money were no object would love a Grandfather Clock, or the smaller Grandmother clock. We have a collection of clocks here... a pyramid clock where it is in sections that go slowly round changing the hour and minutes. A devil to clean! We have 1930s mantel clocks in the two main reception rooms and in the hall a wall clock from the same era, which is when the house was built. I hate electric alarm clocks... my husband has one his side of the bed, but since we don't need the alarm any more, I keep my eye out for a nice bedside clock to replace it, battery/electric free.
    Pocket watches I love too. I think the age when a man wore a three piece suit and had a pocket watch was just so much more elegant than today.
    Once again, lovely writing and memories shared, thank you.

  2. Hi Scott,
    My Mom & Dad owned that exact same clock in your second picture (the "faux fireplace" one). That photo brings back a lot of memories. I wonder whatever happened to it.

    Keep up the good work! I've added a link to your blog on my blogroll at Bibliophilopolis.

  3. I feel greatly honored to be added to the blogroll of the great Bibliophilopolis. Thanks!

  4. Thanks for this amazing post. Anniversary clocks have a rambling type of clock.