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The Time Machine

My dad had a fondness for clocks. He was selective about those that he added to his collection, but his pride and joy was one he bought at auction in the early 60’s. It was impressive, intricately carved and huge, designed to sit on a matching shelf. The whole thing had been painted black, and as the story goes, his momma thought he had lost his mind when he admitted paying $75 bucks for it. It took him months, but he lovingly restored it, carefully soaking the tarnished gold plates in an ammonia solution and painstakingly removing the coats of offending paint. Piece by piece, he cleaned the internal parts, patiently fitting them into their proper place, until it sprang to life. With the turn of a key, it chimed, a melodious symphony of bells. We were all thrilled.

I remember one Christmas, when a picture of the same clock appeared in a magazine ad for bourbon. It was captioned, “What makes a legend?” referring to both the booze and the clock. Daddy was so excited that he actually wrote an inquiry to the company, who sent him a nice letter about its history. Today, he would have simply done a Google search for comparable images. I don’t think that would have been nearly as gratifying. The clock, it seemed, was a rare find, one of the few in existence. Theirs was a centerpiece at corporate headquarters. He was pleased to share that bit of information with his momma, who had to eat crow over her objections when he bought it, although being a staunch Southern Baptist she did grumble over the evils of bourbon.

She was a character, “tough” as my daddy liked to say. I still have her blue and white china clock, and although it no longer works, I keep it on the mantle, in her honor. Perhaps it reminds me of my childhood spent watching the hands slowly move until just the right time when it rewarded my patience with a cheerful tune. It is interesting how inanimate objects can spur such memories, isn’t it?

Every other day, my mother carefully wound the walnut grandmother’s clock that hung on the den wall with a big fat key she kept in the top desk drawer. And as a teenager, when I’d tiptoe into the house well past curfew, the darned thing would often ding to signal my arrival, loudly broadcasting my transgression. Timing, as they say, is everything. Later, she added a cuckoo to her kitchen, and the annoying little bird would stick its head out every quarter hour. She thought it was cute; we all threatened to murder it on a regular basis.

As a child, I always slept through the constant ticking, the gongs that marked the hour, but as I became older, grown and on my own, a visit to the place where I grew up was unnerving, the rhythm of the passing minutes both unfamiliar and irritating. It is always interesting to me how life changes us. Perception always shifts. But memories are often triggered by the sensory, and now, so many years later, I can still close my eyes and hear those sounds that remind me of her. And home.

As I look back on those days, I realize that the significance wasn’t so much in the value of these clocks, although I am sure that my folks would have argued that point. No, their importance came from that the fact that they marked time in a special way, forcing us to stop and pay attention to an instant that would never be recaptured. Like peasants in the fields who would hear the church bells toll at mid-day, and then stop to pray the Angelus, being aware of time forces us to be present in life. There is something sacred there.

Today, few people wear watches, periodically tapping their cell phones to check the time. Homes no longer have Granddad’s stately clock in the entrance hall. In fact, lots of folks don’t even have a clock on the wall or by their beds, instead asking Siri or Alexa to set important reminder alarms. Everything is digital, a nod to technology. I am not even sure if kids even learn to read a clock anymore. Gee, that’s kind of sad.

And so, I wonder if that has made us less aware of the passage of time? Somehow, we squander the days as though we have been given a limitless supply. But nothing is further from the truth. If anything, the past eleven months have taught me just how special every moment is. I often think about how to measure my future, which some days seems so very uncertain. But then, I am reminded that I am not unique. Time marches on for all of us. I am just more aware of how important it has become.

I have inherited my dad’s precious clock. I dusted the living room yesterday where it currently resides. It hasn’t been wound for a year, silenced by my illness. Perhaps it is time to see if it runs. It might be nice to hear it chime once again, reminding me of each precious minute.

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