Keeping Time

Mornings had been starting slowly. Too slowly. Once again, circumstances beyond my control had abruptly crushed hopes of launching to relocate where a new place to live and work held promise for moving beyond what I perceived as a stagnate-pond.  The cycle of dreaming, planning, and venturing something new, followed by Tsunami-like smack-downs over the past two years, had become exhausting. It seemed that time was marching on and my attempts to get in-step with something “core” to my abilities and values had been exercises in futility.  Redeeming time on some imagined clock had been my intention, but the idea of “The Best is Yet to Come” had now been challenged one too many times. Hope was becoming a distant concept, not something rooted in a future reality, as it had before.

Taking walks with my dog, cycling a few miles alone a few days a week, and losing myself in the construction of crafts with brightly-colored bargain-fabrics had become ways of coping.  I’d tried to avoid the garage where my Mom’s overflow of keepsakes and clutter were stored, but on one trip out to do laundry, I looked up to a high shelf where two boxes I’d labeled the previous fall called out to me:  “Please rescue us from this oppressively humid perch!”  Inside the boxes were two cuckoo clocks inherited from my Dad’s parents, who’d come from Germany just before Hitler provoked a previous world war.  One had hung in their bedroom and the other in their dining room.  My memories favored the smaller brown one that had once provided entertainment before and after special family gatherings.   As children, we’d come to rely on our Opa to wind the clock and set its hands, prompting miniature figures to spin on a circular pedestal as they waltzed to traditional tunes.  Then the Cuckoo bird would appear from behind closed doors, and “Cuckoo” as many times as the hour ordered .

  Since I had just completed my income tax return and knew a refund was due, I decided at that moment to take one of the two clocks to a repair shop my brother had told me about months before. I had no idea how much it would cost, but I took a chance it would be a good investment. Without asking for permission, needing a break from the house and care of my Mother, I carried one box to my truck and set it on the back seat.  After breakfast, I set my phone GPS to the shop address and made my excuses to leave for a couple of hours, without saying where I was going. Taking the initiative to do something without an explanation or in defense of my chosen direction, helped set into motion a feeling of freedom from time constraints and the suffocating expectations of others, who would want to know “how, when, why, and for how long?”  It was a temporary relief from the boredom inherent in sameness, and predictability, day in and day out. I was “taking space”, as my sister called it, apart from hearing about pain and the inevitable consequences of advancing age and debilitating “accidents”. 

Taking advantage of the Bluetooth connection in my truck, I found my favorite singer-songwriter’s stream and sang along with her, as much as my post-Covid breathe capacity allowed for the thirty-minute drive to my destination.  On arrival, I parked next to the sign “Keeping Time”, providing a little shade from the Florida sun.  I gathered up the box from the back seat and considered how singing made me feel better.  Pausing outside the shop’s front door to take in its Western European ambience, the outdoor display of a mechanical toy and a needlepoint sign in the front window made me imagine my German grandparents nodding their heads in silent approval.  Beyond the glass, scores of novelty clocks stood shoulder-to-shoulder as a community of time-keepers on the floor, joined by wall clocks covering ever vertical surface in sight.  Entering the shop became a surround-sound experience, as muffled voices of another customer and the shop-keeper seemed to lay a sound-track on top of the tick-tocks and chimes providing the rhythm and percussion baseline. Everything there was in-sync, even the moment the attendant called me up to the counter, asking about the contents of the box with the sketch of an Emu for some Australian liquor label on the outside.

Explaining the origins of the clock and asking how soon it might be repaired, the six-month turn- around time made me hesitate.  Then I saw his hand-written estimate on the tag meant to accompany the clock parts we’d just unwrapped.  The amount was half of what I’d imagined and decided to spend on repairs, as I’d pulled into the parking lot.  I knew then I ‘d return to the garage and retrieve the second box with the other clock to be added to the repair request.  Time wasn’t the issue.  Time had become relative.  It was a sign both clocks could be repaired, simultaneously, for some yet to be determined occasion in the future.  On time.

Divine meetings have a way of quickening the spirit.  Not only did I sing on the return trip, still under the radar of a napping Mother, but a song my maternal grandfather taught me as a child came to mind.  So, when I re-entered the shop as the only customer before closing, I asked the manager if I could sing him a little song about a Grandfather clock I’d been taught as a child.  Since we were in the good company of many now standing silent, he nodded with a curious twinkle in his eye.  Without performance fear, I sang a cappella from the heart.

It was a song written around 1875 by American songwriter, Henry Work, after a stay at the George Hotel in North Yorkshire, England.  He had been told a story by the new establishment owner about an old floor clock in the lobby that had stopped keeping time when the elder of two brothers, who’d lived there years before, died at the age of 90.   The popularity of the song Work was inspired to write and release back in America gave the common statuesque time pieces a new status and appeal as “Grandfather Clocks”.  (Of course, as a young student, I’d had no knowledge of the songs history, other than it being one of many taught to me by a music-loving grandparent.)

My Grandfather’s clock was too large for the shelf

So it stood ninety years on the floor

It was taller by half than the old man himself

Though it weighed not a pennyweight more

It was bought on the morn of the day that he was born

And was always his treasure and pride

But it stopped, short never to go again

When the old man died

Ninety years without slumbering

Tick-tock, tick tock

His life seconds numbering

Tick-tock, tick tock

It stopped short, never to go again

When the old man died

The surprise lifting me out of the doldrums for the rest of the day came when the shop keeper smiled, nodded his head, then without missing a beat continued: “Now, I have a story for you!”  With a note of serendipitous excitement in his voice, he told me about buying an old Victrola record player at a flea market, years ago, while his buddy hunted down a box of dusty 45’s they’d add to their cache for the day.  Only later had he dusted off the record closest to the top of the pile to set it in motion atop the hand-cranked music-maker.  “My Grandfather’s Clock” was the song on that disc, he mused, “except your voice isn’t raspy like the singer’s voice etched in those grooves. I like your version better!”  Both of us paused and inhaled deeply, before he spontaneous maneuvered from behind the counter to embrace me in a friendly European-style hug of recognition and appreciation!   I could handle going back to my Mother’s house, now. I suspected, too, he was encouraged to face his own father’s upcoming heart surgery with a little more assurance that the Universe delights in meeting us at unspoken places of vulnerability.

I trust my Grandfather’s clocks will be ready to awe and inspire a new generation when they resume keeping time and chime in again. And hopefully, the charm and mystery of Divine interventions will help us recognize we are not keeping time alone.

The days of our years are threescore and ten,

And if by reason of strength fourscore…

So, teach us to number our days

That we may gain hearts of wisdom.

(Psalm 90:10,12)

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