A Symphony Of Clocks at Noon

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.

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.

After a clock was wound, he would glance at his watch and adjust the clock's time. ``It's not 5 after, Daddy, it's exactly 8 o'clock now!'' I would often exclaim. He'd just chuckle to himself.

SUNDAY at noon was a symphony. My father had set all the clocks to play one after another. ``Listen, I set the grandfather clock to start second this time,'' he said. The first clock would play Westminster chimes, and before it had begun to strike 12 bells, the next would begin its roll of St. Michael's; others played Whittington, Winchester, or Ave Maria chimes.

He would look at me with a smile and eyes that sparkled and laughingly inquire, ``Did you hear how nicely the Winchester chimes came in right after the Whittington?'' I never wanted the chiming to end.

Soon my father went into the clock business full time. He set up large clocks in customers' homes and carried a small black bag filled with special tools and a syringe full of fine oil. The workshop in the basement was empty now.

During various stages of the next 25 years, my father's love for clocks provided a livelihood for his sons, daughter, son-in-law, daughters-in-law, secretaries, delivery boys, and friends. The salesroom floor that he operated displayed dozens of clocks. Tractor-trailers arrived from the South, and my brothers unloaded hundreds of grandfather clocks into the warehouse for Christmas delivery.

Across the drive was a repair house that smelled of sea-mist cleaner where they soaked dirty movements. Tables overflowed with small repair jobs, and brass movements hung on racks with their pendulums swinging. There was the whir of a watch-cleaning machine and jazz on the radio.

When I was old enough to drive, I would go to the shop in the evenings or on weekends. Into one of the smallest rooms of the repair house I moved my drawing board and art materials. I didn't make much money with my art projects; I just liked being there, keeping busy.

On a visit back to my hometown, I stopped in to see my father at his shop. It is smaller now; he and my younger brother are the only ones working there. I stood still and listened to the ticking.

Gone from the display floor was my favorite grandfather clock, which my father had taken care of for more than 10 years. It was a beautiful Waltham with a nine tubular-chime movement and beveled-glass side panels and door, displaying all its splendid brass. Its dark mahogany case was nine feet tall, and it had a graceful arched pediment. It sounded like church bells when it chimed. The price tag had always been $10,000. I had often imagined it in the entryway of a warm home, ushering guests into the living room.

In the repair room were close to a hundred clocks in various stages of disarray. The watch bench was littered with small white envelopes, watchbands peeking out.

I asked some old questions. My father said, glancing at the floor, ``I dropped a part the other day. Never did find it.''

We talked about how many repairs people were bringing in. ``On Mondays, I just lock the door,'' he confessed, ``but they still see me in here working.''

We talked about his life. He took a small metal vial from the watch bench. ``Look at these,'' he said, spilling tiny 24-karat gold numbers into his hand. ``When I worked at the watch factory in Lancaster, they used to throw these away.''

In my dining room sits my grandmother's Victorian black-and-gold mantle clock. At the top of the stairs is my husband's favorite Ansonia mantle clock. Throughout the house are clocks, some of which we have collected at auctions. Some need repair.

As I sit at the dining-room table, I can hear the sound of ticking. When the clocks chime, I stop what I am doing, look up, and think about my father.

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