My grandmother’s teaching watch hung upside down from a long chain around her neck so that as she monitored how her lesson plans were unfolding, and scooped the watch from her bosom its face would be right side up.
It belongs to me for now. It still keeps perfect time.
My grandfather had a small chiming clock that he kept on the shelf behind his reclining chair. It chimed “Westminster Bells” every quarter hour, ringing in the hour with its rhythmic gong. The chimes reached every corner of the old farmhouse. Especially helpful if I had promised Grandma that I would be ready in time to ride into town at three o’clock, or when I woke, startled, from a dream in the big squeaky four-poster bed in “Mom’s old room” which was mine when I visited.
Ding-dong ding-dong, ding-dong ding-dong….
I had learned to play the tune on the piano, from my mother’s old exercise book found tucked inside the piano bench, yellowed and crackly at the corners, with its own lyrics:
Ding dong, dong ding
Hear the chimes ring!
We hear them now,
chiming the hour!
I never heard the time again without those lyrics: “Ding dong dong ding” were the words for quarter after. “Hear the bells ring” meant half-past. The quarter-to bells left you hanging mid-sentence: “We hear them now….” The sentence fragment let me know I had only ten minutes left to wash my face and find my shoes out in the yard before Grandma would cluck and scold me for always leaving things to the last minute.
It rings in my house now, and tells me exactly where I am in the throes of a night of foot cramps and hot-flashes, night-sweats and anxiety dreams. How many hours left of insomnia? Is it late enough that I should just say fuck it and commit to being awake for the next hour and a half before taking the kids to school? Or the clock braces me for a long night of tossing and turning when the bells tell me that I am wide awake after only an hour or two of sleep.
When I was very little my mother had a tiny diamond shaped Timex watch with a stretchy metallic band that she would hold up to my ear when I had a bad cold or a possible ear infection: “DO YOU HEAR IT TICKING?” she would holler, terrified out of her mind that I had burst an ear drum.
I never heard it, which made her more frantic. Sometimes, I’d sneak into her dressing room, find the watch on her vanity and hold it up to my own ear. I never heard a thing, which made me wonder if my mother had ever tried to listen to the damn thing herself or if she had just gone completely around the bend.
I have an indelible image in my mind’s eye of the red glowing numbers of the digital clock that sat next to my bed through high school. For years, I woke regularly to see its numbers flashing “4:00am.” My step-father told me, unhelpfully, that four in the morning was called the Hour of the Wolf.
“The hour of death and poetry” he elaborated, which didn’t make it any better.
In college, at a Bergman film festival, I learned more about the Hour of the Wolf than I ever wanted to know from the movie of the same name:
According to the ancient Romans the Hour of the Wolf means the time between night and dawn, just before light comes, and people believed it to be the time when demons had heightened powers and vitality, the hour when most people died, and most children are born and when nightmares come… ~ Hour of the Wolf
During daylight I am nearly well enough to press it out of my mind for large chunks of time – until the reality of cancer asserts itself through fatigue, neuropathy, or my daily medication reminders. But it is at this ominous hour that I begin to wonder how much time I have left, how old my children might be when I die, until I catch and collect myself, forbiding my brain to indulge in such useless, torturous thoughts.
This is the hour that I release my mind to drift over my past, now that the future has become taboo. I review and reinterpret old dreams in light of my current circumstance. Or lose myself in snippets of the deep past.
My first watch: Donald Duck in his sailor suit his puffy gloves pointing out the minutes (not Mickey, everyone had Mickey). Mounted on a wide lemon-yellow patent leather wristband that closed with a row of adjustable silver snaps and left me with a wide patch of untanned skin in the summer. My prized possession in first grade, until I lost it. And then found it a few years later and then eventually lost it again forever. I kept searching in all my secret spots until we moved away. A gift from my paternal grandfather – or rather my paternal grandfather’s second wife. Gramps would never have thought to bring his many grandchildren souvenirs from a quick trip to Los Angeles, nor would he have any idea what to select (he barely knew our names).
I visited him a few weeks before he died.
“I guess I didn’t spend too much time getting to know you.” he said.
“I guess not.” I replied.
“And now its too late…” he said.
It is the only conversation I recall ever having with him.
I wear my deceased mother-in-law’s watch for the infrequent special occasions I am asked to attend: fundraising galas and weddings. It is the smallest ladies watch ever manufactured by Phillipe Patek, with a face as small as the tip of my pinky. I don’t remember who gave it to her, but I think it was for her wedding, and who ever bestowed it upon her must have loved her very much. A mechanism so tiny that when it was given to me by my father-in-law who informed me that it was in need of a good cleaning, I had to trudge all over New York City from specialty jeweler to watchmaker before I could find anyone brave enough to open it up.
“I wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole.”
“No way, too small.”
“I wouldn’t do it, but there is one guy I know who might do it – he’s nuts but he is hands down the best…”
He directed me to a dingy second-hand jewelry store near Washington Square Park. The shop was dark, lit only by the sunlight from the display case filled windows. An older man behind a high counter screwed a jeweler’s loupe into his right eye, and took off the back of the watch with a special tool.
“Just look at this…” he said, his voice an awe-filled whisper. “You don’t see these running much, they were novelties really. No replacement parts and the cogs are so tiny that once one snaps or skips you never get them running again. This one is a little dirty, does it run slow?”
“But basically its perfect. Look.” He placed a magnifier between me and the little opened watch that he had positioned on a piece of green felt. He showed me all of its delicate pulsating magical springs and wheels.
“You can pick it up next week. Fifty bucks. No guarantee. But I can do it. I’m the only guy in the world who can.”
And he did.
That was twenty five years ago and it still keeps fine time when I take it out of its box once a year and carefully wind up its miniature mechanics.
I never met my mother-in-law. She died of cancer before I met her son, before we fell in love, before he asked me to promise never to die of cancer, before marriage and careers and children. And long before I would ever have to consider breaking my promise to him when I was diagnosed myself.
When my parents married my dad’s mother presented my mother with an electric “grandmother” clock, (which I suppose just means a standing clock, smaller, shorter and less imposing than a grandfather clock) as her wedding present. It stopped running, practically predictably, shortly after my parents’ divorce, but my mother kept it anyway. She may have hated her ex-mother-in-law with an abiding passion but she liked the clock enough to keep it, although not enough to repair it.
The electric cords had been cut, the motor jammed for decades when I closed up my mother’s apartment and moved her into residential hospice care. I brought the clock to my new home and ordered a cheap set of battery operated replacement hands to put on its old face. I took a photo and showed my mother on my cellphone how perfectly it fit in the small nook between the stairs and the hall closet on the first floor. My mother was supposed to move into the house with us but she never did set foot in it.
“Perfect.” she said, looking at the photo, a week or so before she died. “Just perfect.”
A small but strange thing occurred after I started writing this, the same day that I wore my grandmother’s teaching watch around my neck. During a session with a client, I decided to check the time on my grandmother’s watch, instead of on the serviceable, everyday wristwatch on my left-wrist.
It had stopped.
I decided that must not have wound it enough (I am always scared to over wind both my grandmother’s and my mother-in-law’s watch). I set it to the correct time according to my wristwatch, silently noting that we had fifteen minutes left, and wound it some more as my client and I continued talking.
Therapists must watch the clock, surreptitiously, not merely to be vigilant about ending-times, but throughout to shape and pace the session, to be aware of how much time is devoted to each topic or resistance. And to prevent, if possible, a client from opening up a raw vulnerability too late in the session to resolve before leaving, or to avoid cutting clients off too abruptly. Errors of pacing, timing, closure, and time-telling, are often (not always) indicative of the countertransferential responses we are having toward our clients.
We have complicated relationships to our clocks.
Ten minutes later when I checked my wristwatch I saw that it had stopped at the very moment I reset my grandmother’s watch. And that my grandmother’s teaching watch on the chain around my neck was the one, now, that was keeping correct time.
“Excuse me,” I said to the client as I described the confusing coincidence, “I just want to confirm the time on my cellphone so I can be sure that we haven’t fallen into some Twilight Zone episode or that I haven’t suddenly become a ghost.”
My phone confirmed that my grandmother’s watch was the only one with the correct time to the minute, which meant that my wristwatch had indeed stopped at the very moment I had last glanced at it.
Perhaps something of us continues to tick, to spin and to ring long after our time has stopped. We are all carried by an unfolding cycle that was set in motion long before we are born, and will continue long after we are gone.
Maybe each and every one of us is a time-piece.
I have one more clock story to tell.
When we moved to the new house and my mother moved to hospice, our friend Pam came to stay with us, to help unpack, to care for the kids, to help with my mother, to keep me sane.
The week that my mother died, while I was in the middle of one of many bereavement-naps, Pam unpacked the chiming clock that rang in my grandparent’s home. My mother had inherited the clock, but had told me that it was broken, that she looked into it, and that it was not worth repairing. She had kept it, for sentiment’s sake, wrapped in a dusty blanket in her storage bin. Pam unwrapped it, knowing none of this, and activated it and forgot it as she moved on to the next box.
When I woke, I was suddenly surrounded by the sound of my childhood and my mother’s childhood. The quarter-hour bells were ringing.
I had not heard that sound in over thirty years, although the clock was present in a dream that I’d had many years earlier, just before my mother became disabled. I was in my grandparent’s kitchen, the clock chimed the dangling quarter-to “We hear them now…” And my grandparents entered the room and asked me to take care of my mother for them.
And when my mother died, I knew that it was time for me to transfer that responsibility back to them, so I summoned them for her, and told her to go directly into their care.
And she did.
So the sudden, spontaneous, self-repair of the chiming clock felt like a thank you gift, a reward for a hard task well done.
And every fifteen minutes I hear a sound as familiar to me as my hearbeat, that consoles and connects me to one hundred years of family behind and beyond me. And its chimes fill our home and keep us all oriented, the sound of my mother’s childhood, and my own, and now my children’s childhood too.
And an astronomer said, “Master, what of Time?”
And he answered:
You would measure time the measureless and the immeasurable.
You would adjust your conduct and even direct the course of your spirit according to hours and seasons.
Of time you would make a stream upon whose bank you would sit and watch its flowing.
Yet the timeless in you is aware of life’s timelessness,
And knows that yesterday is but today’s memory and tomorrow is today’s dream.
And that that which sings and contemplates in you is still dwelling within the bounds of that first moment which scattered the stars into space.
Who among you does not feel that his power to love is boundless?
And yet who does not feel that very love, though boundless, encompassed within the centre of his being, and moving not form love thought to love thought, nor from love deeds to other love deeds?
And is not time even as love is, undivided and paceless?
But if in you thought you must measure time into seasons, let each season encircle all the other seasons,
And let today embrace the past with remembrance and the future with longing.
~ Time XXI, Khalil Gibran