WE have two young children, so it's seldom still around here. Yet our house has gotten uncomfortably quiet lately: Our cuckoo clock, that earnest if inaccurate marker of our minutes and hours, has broken again. This time for good, I think. The silence it leaves behind has made me think about time and the ways we measure it.
We got the clock a few years ago - used. Good friends gave it to our older daughter, Suzanne, shortly after her baby sister was born. They had seen Suzanne admire the clock and knew it would be something she could take care of. Winding it became her first chore around the house, and it quickly proved how useful she was. When she forgot to wind the clock, it forgot to tick.
Cuckoos are perfect for children. With their carved wooden curlicues and pine-cone pendulums, they're right out of a Grimm's fairy tale - to say nothing of the bird that gives a command performance every half hour. (Of course, you have to watch closely, because he sings his song quickly and then goes back inside his house.)
Very soon I came to think of the clock as part of the soul of our house, much like hearths used to be. I'm a great one for leaving the radio on when I run out on an errand, just so I'll have some sounds to welcome me home. With the cuckoo here, I didn't have to do that any more. There was that soft, gentle ticking whenever we stepped in the door.
What the cuckoo did best of all was keep us in touch with time told the way it used to be - with weights and measures and pulleys and good old gravity. It punctuated our days into nice even segments we could hear as well as see. Any ticking clock does this, of course. But cuckoos do it best because the little birds add a touch of whimsy, a laugh and a tease.
The cuckoo was by far our most independent-minded timepiece. We'd consider it a small victory when it chirped the hour anywhere near the time it was supposed to. Usually it was some odd number of minutes off - 21 or 35 - seldom the same for two days running. Let's just say we didn't use it when we had to catch a train. On the other hand, it ran well during power outages.
I know visitors must have wondered why we spent so much time on the clock. It was high-maintenance. In addition to winding it every 24 hours, we often had to reset it, too, if we wanted it to be even remotely accurate. Sometimes the little bird would go on strike, just refuse to come out. Then Tom, my husband, would take the clock down to his basement workbench, where he fixes splintered doll furniture and broken hobby horses, and somehow he would work his magic and bring it up, ticking again.
BUT one day, the magic didn't work, and the clock didn't tick. And now our house has just its ordinary timepieces - the mantel clock, pretty but boring, and the clock radio, deadly accurate and stationed halfway across the bedroom because of its tempting "snooze" button. These are fine in their own ways, but they're not the cuckoo.
I realize now what I've been missing. The tick-tock of a cuckoo is the rhythm of breathing. It sounds as if it were meant to be. This back-and-forthness is what lulled me so. When I'd wake up at night I could sometimes make out what time it was (or almost was) just by listening. How much more soothing it was than the high-pitched trill of a digital alarm that makes you jump no matter how many times you've heard it before.
We have too few items in our possession that are this human - that work simply and not always efficiently, that can be fixed at home, and that when broken cannot be immediately replaced. Things like these are more than possessions; they are companions. Put enough of them in a house and you make it your own. We haven't found another cuckoo clock yet. But we're looking.