For two and a half months now, my partner Susan and I have been arguing about how often to pull the chains on her grandmother’s clock. Although she’s had this clock for decades and we have taken care of it together for almost all of that time, she recently decided that I was winding it too often.
It’s an odd time piece. The clock is just a face, and not a pretty one, that’s connected to works within a small, simple box, which is hung on the wall through a hole on the back. A pendulum allows pine cone weights on one end of the chains to drive the clock forward by pulling cogs inside the works. Rings at the other end of the chains stop them from going into the worn holes and up into the works. The face is beige, stained by time, and the numerals are Roman. In my mind, there’s a strange bird painted at the twelve, even though there is no cuckoo inside. In reality, there is a design at the top, above the circle of numbers, comprised of what might be flowers. Upon examination, it makes sense that they are flowers, since at the four corners of the face there are flower sprigs. I guess, thinking about it clean, in its original colors, and mounted inside a frame instead of sitting as a bare face, it’s not that ugly or odd.
Though I don’t care for the clock’s appearance, I have certainly become a caregiver for it. When we moved into the house, it needed to be mounted into a stud, a solid piece of wood inside the wall, and onto a dowel angled just so. As is so often true in old houses, however, there wasn’t a stud in the middle of the space between the doorways where we wanted to mount it. I puzzled a bit, then determined we could center a horizontal piece on the wall long enough to accommodate offset screws, each of which would go into a stud. One might say that I am the analyzer, the engineer of the household. (In my case, “stud-finder” doesn’t feel like the appropriate moniker.) Susan cut the horizontal piece of wood and added a vertical one just short enough to allow the box’s two bottom prongs to hang over the edge. She drilled the carefully angled hole for the dowel. Then she stained the wood so that it almost matched our 19th century varnished doorways, leveled it in perfectly, and screwed it into the studs I’d identified. One might say that she was our household’s patient implementor, the do-er. (For this blog, perhaps “anal” is too crass. Then again, perhaps not.)
We combined our skills to mount this old clock. Together, we learned how to occasionally re-adjust the box on the mount, keeping it balanced along the x, y, and z axes the way it needed to be to so that the pendulum swung correctly to keep the clock on time. Without explicit coordination, we took turns pulling those chains and remembering to stop the pendulum when we would be away.
Together, we have taken loving care of our Grandmother Clock, and let it cause very few spats between us over 24 years. Susan is definitely “in charge” of the clock’s overall well-being, whether or not I always act according to the letter of her law. We are not to pull the chains all the way to the top; the pine cones must not touch the bottom of the box. We are not to pull the chains simultaneously, so as not to put too much stress on the works. When moving the hands, we are to pause at six minutes before the hour and half hour, so that the chime’s pawl can fully engage before it releases again to let the clock ding, as we move the hands past twelve o’clock and six o’clock.
And, as of two and a half months ago, we are not to pull the clock chains too frequently. Susan complained that the chains were wearing unevenly because the length at the bottom, nearest the pine cone weights was used much more than the length nearest the rings that stop the chain from going into the works. For ten weeks now, she has been giving me grief about how often and how far down I pull the chains.
The problem is not that I disagree that we should be more careful about keeping the chains’ rings healthy. It is that how often is “too often?” is difficult to determine. The clock’s hands and chime can each run for about, but not exactly, twenty four hours. I’ve always made sure the pine cones are near the top before I go to bed, and checked the chains in the morning to see if they need some extra running room for the day. Between the two of us checking and pulling chains, the pine cones have rarely reached bottom.
It’s a good thing our system of keeping the clock going generally has worked, because resetting it is a pain in the neck, particularly when the dinger and time become mismatched. To set the time, you move the arms around and around. IF you remember, you can wait until the hands are just about synchronized with the current time, and then move the arms forward only an hour or two. Otherwise, you could do almost a day’s worth of time. However, to set the chime, you have push up a piece of metal that, I think, engages then disengages the pawl, causing the cog and chain to move, thus causing the clock to ding, ding, ding ding, ding, ding ding ding, ding, ding ding ding ding, etc., until, having moved through dinging twice each hour, it’s set correctly. If you lose track, which is especially easy from 12:30 until 1:30 because all three ring only once, you have to go all the way “around” again. I dislike the incessant dinging and the oxymoronic way time, as kept by the hands, is standing still. I am not the patient one.
When Susan started complaining about how I took care of the clock, I decided, passive aggressively: fine, then YOU wind the clock.
The clock ran down. The chime and hands became mismatched. Sometimes I reset it and started the pendulum swinging again. Sometimes I waited for her to notice and take care of it. In a rare show of maturity, I kept this a non-verbal argument; I let the clock speak for itself. I’ve believed it’s humanly impossible for a fallible person to keep the clock going without attending to it twice a day.
Then, My Susan died, a month and a half ago. Near the end of her life, she couldn’t control the speed with which the cancer was degrading her body. Her need for oxygen was going unfulfilled by her lungs, no longer able to process air on their own. Even using pure oxygen through a nose canula, she grew weaker. She became unable to go upstairs, to dress herself easily, to breathe. The more circumscribed her life, the more orderly she became. She began creating daily charts for her medications on graph paper and keeping bedside table items in very specific locations. In this context, she instructed me to take better care of the interlocking metal rings that drove our clock. Her clock. Her grandmother’s clock. She knew if it were not me, her much less precise proxy, but her, she could keep the clock going with just one set of pulls each day.
Since she died, every day for ten weeks, I’ve been arguing with her about winding the clock. I’ve tried hard to obey her wishes, by pulling the chains less frequently. Then the pendulum comes to a standstill and I tell her, “see: if I don’t pull them a bit at night too, they run out.” Now, she says to me, my memory of her says to me, I say to myself: “try pulling the chains a little less each time,” and I do. But the pendulum still stops. The clock stops ticking and dinging. Time stands still.
I think it’s time to end this spat. I recognize now that as her life narrowed from work, to the house, to downstairs, to just the living room, she needed some control in her life. No longer able to do it herself, she wanted her things taken care of “properly.” No longer her caregiver, taking care of our clock the way I know I am best able to can be one of many ways that I carry on her memory, my memory of our lives together. While she stays fixed, I move along, pulling the chains twice each day, listening to the ticking and dinging, looking for other ways to find peace than fighting over our clock.
Post script: six months after I wrote this, I had the clock cleaned and repaired. The speed of its dings has slowed back to its correct pace. It turns out the time cog is what’s worn, not the chains, so I lift the pine cone weight off that chain when I pull it. In exchange, the clock has kept running, its ticking and dinging comforting me by reminding me of Susan.
Clock Spat: Past by Kim Brookes is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at Permission to Use.