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A Symphony Of Clocks at Noon

By Jewel Becker Simmons / September 13, 1994



The sound of a clock ticking has always made me feel at home. My earliest memories of listening to a clock are while I sat painting or drawing at the kitchen table of my parents' house.

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In the early 1960s, we moved to a larger house in the Philadelphia suburbs. As my mother collected antiques, my father's passion for timepieces began to take hold.

My father has always worn a wristwatch. It is as much a part of him as his bright blue eyes and broad smile. For many years, he wore two or three watches to see if they were keeping good time.

Each timepiece was unique, the variety reflecting my father's taste and interest of the moment. An elegant 18th-century grandfather clock in the foyer and a corner-hall clock in the living room were courteous hosts to guests. These tall clocks re-minded children to enter and exit with respect; if you slammed the front door too hard, their chime rods would rattle.

AT the foot of the stairs was my favorite clock. Its face was round and trimmed with brass, and it looked like a banjo hanging upside down. A tall ship in full sail was painted on its glass front. I loved it because it made an abrupt twang when it struck the hour.

Throughout the house were shapely mantle clocks, noisy cuckoos, temperamental anniversary clocks with shiny four-ball pendulums rotating back and forth, a mission clock, and a carved oak kitchen clock from the Appalachian Mountains - another one of my favorites.

Tucked into small spaces were gold carriage clocks with handles and round alarm clocks with shiny bells on top. Under the mantle in the den hung more than a dozen pocket watches, shiny gold and silver medallions.

``Come here, close,'' my father would beckon. ``Listen.'' So many individual high-speed hums sounded like a swarm of bees.

Steadily, clocks and watches found their way into our home faster than my father could repair them. If I were playing the piano, I would have to stop until the chimes were finished. Overnight guests commented that the clocks had kept them awake.

When my mother was talking on the phone in the evening, she could often be heard to say, ``I'll have to call you right back, it's almost on the hour.''

One day I was curious to know how many timepieces there were in our home. The official count was 87.

To pander to his growing interest in clocks, my father constructed a small workshop in the basement. When he wasn't home, I would often creep into the work area to stare into the many boxes of disassembled clocks.

The workshop was dark, quiet, and secret. He kept the watch room locked. When he was repairing watches, I would come up quietly behind him and ask him to explain what he was doing. Scattered before him on a shiny marbled-mirror surface were dozens of tiny wheels, crystals, springs, and minute black screws.

I usually asked the same questions: Were all the pieces from the same watch? Who did it belong to, and did he think he could put it back together again? He answered my questions without looking up, using needle-nosed tweezers to place the tiny parts in their correct positions.

Of special interest were the sparkling little gems for the pivot holes. ``How many jewels does this watch have?'' I would ask. ``Seventeen'' was often the assured answer, as he pointed to the inscribed movement. ``See? It says so right there.''

If I stayed long enough, the watch magically came back together. Presently, he would look up through his black loupe and ask me to go play.

On Saturday nights, my father would wind all the clocks. We followed him around the house - first the key in the right winding hole, then the left, and sometimes a third spring. The rapid clicking sound became slower as the springs got tighter.

Sometimes he would let my two brothers and me do some winding. My older brother would concentrate and bite his lip, winding a spring almost the whole way. But my father could get several more complete turns of the key after we were done.