How Father Kept Things Ticking

Dad was the family timekeeper. He owned a fantastic collection of shelf and wall clocks, pocket and wrist watches. On Sunday nights - every Sunday - he wound one timepiece after the other, calling time on the telephone before setting each clock's hands. It was an important job, and he needed to be accurate.

It took him awhile. In every room in the house there was at least one antique clock. Each had a history: where it had been and what it had looked like when Dad first saw it; how it had been bartered for or given to him; what Dad had done to the clock to refinish it or repair it. The three of us kids knew the clocks' stories as well as our own.

On the hour, there was a tremendous cacophony of dongs, bells, and chimes - with a lesser chorus at the half hour. Visitors would stop talking, an amazed look on their faces, as the racket vibrated the house.

"What's wrong?" we'd ask, puzzled. "Why did you stop talking?" And then, as our company gestured toward the nearest clock, "Oh!"

We were so used to the clocks that, during the daytime, the noise didn't really register. But at night, if I'd awaken, I'd count the bongs. The sound comforted me in the darkness, like voices speaking of family, tradition, reminding me I was home. Before I was done counting, I'd be asleep again.

When we'd get home from vacation, the house would feel strangely empty and lifeless without the ticking of dozens of timepieces. Dad would bee-line for the clocks as soon as he stepped in the door. "There," he'd say when each was set, pendulum swinging. "Now it feels like home again."

When each child married, he or she was ceremoniously given an antique clock, refurbished by Dad. With the clock came its history. My gift from Dad is an oak school clock. An octagon of honey wood frames the yellowing face. The black numbers - once watched impatiently by long-ago schoolchildren - are streaky, showing signs of decades of wear. The pendulum is a brass disc. On the pendulum window is "REGULATOR," painted in golden letters.

Dad found my clock propped up in the corner of a store. "That old thing?" the store owner had said with contempt. "I'd trade it in a flash for a nice new electric one that worked!" Within the hour, the deal was done. As in all good bargains, each man was sure he'd gotten the best end of the stick.

DAD spent hours and hours on my clock. He tinkered with it to get it running, then fine-tuned his tinkering to make it run accurately. He lovingly stripped the wood. "Ten coats of white paint," he'd marvel, shaking his head. "On this wood! Can you imagine?"

My clock is the first thing I carry into each new home. Once it's up, set, and ticking, I can get on with the rest of settling in. First things first.

Now it's my turn. On Sunday evenings, I wind my four old clocks, knowing Dad would shake his head at my meager collection. I call time on the telephone before setting the hands of each one. I know that, should I awaken in the night, I'll be able to count off the hour. The familiar ticking underlies the dailiness of life. That pulse ties me to my past, leads me to my future, and reminds me I'm home.

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