This clock hung in the hallway of our old house for over 30 years. It’s an 8-day clock. You wind it every week. Each Sunday after Mass, my mother would take the key from the top of the case, wind the clock and re-set it to ticking by swinging the pendulum, if need be. The tick echoed in the hallway of our Edwardian Dublin townhouse. You heard it in the hallway and on the stairs –anywhere outside a closed room; a constant, steady assurance that all was well.
Technically, that clock wasn’t my mother’s at all. It was originally a school clock. My paternal grandfather, an electrician, worked on the modernization of this school, replacing the old wooden wind-up clocks with plastic, modern, electric ones. This clock and several others were destined for the skip, but Grandad rescued three; one for each of his two married children, and one for his own house. So I guess it was my father’s clock, really. But only my mother could set it to telling time. If someone else tried to get it going, it would tick for just a minute or so and then stop.
I was always fascinated by this clock, with its doors and secrets.
I used to beg my mother to allow me to "help" her wind it, to let me swing the pendulum (at bottom of this frame), which -quite literally- made it tick.
My mother died when I was five. And while the clock still hung in its place above the hall table, it was quiet and still. Fitting, I suppose, that the heart of our house no longer beat. Many tried to make it tick for longer than a minute or two, but it refused. Finally, it was declared “broken”. But it still stayed in its place, semi-regularly cleaned and polished (by me. Cleaning the hall and stairs was my ‘job’).
My mother’s brother visited us one day, when I was maybe 9 or 10. “That’s a lovely clock. Why are you not using it?” he said. “It’s broken” said I. “Are you sure?” he asked. I wasn’t sure. Tim spent the day going back-and forth between the conversation in the kitchen and the clock in the hall. “You just need to find the right 'tick'” he told me confidently and confidentially. “Every clock has its own 'tick'. You need to find the one for this clock, learn it, and it will work for you”. So every few minutes, he would take a trip to the hall clock. He would swing the pendulum high, close the wee pendulum door, and go back to his cuppa tea. He would check on the clock a few minutes later, sigh when he found it quiet; the minute hand having moved a faction. He would then try again, this time setting the pendulum to a different swing. He did this over and over again. I lost interest and went upstairs to my room.
Some time later, I heard a shout of triumph from the hall. The clock was working! Tim was beaming. “I told you I’d find the right 'tick'! Here. I’ll show you. I hope I can find it again.” He stopped the clock, then stood me on the antique table and guided my hand to the pendulum. He put his hand over mine and gently moved it and the pendulum to one side, feeling the various internal landmarks of the clock for the right place. “…right about …here” he said, and told me to let the pendulum go. The clock started to tick. It stopped after a few minutes,but Tim had me try again until we got it. He taught me to listen to the ‘tick’; to know when the rate was correct. It wasn’t hard once I knew what I was listening for; -that old, steady, heartbeat from the days when I had a mother.
After that day, I was the only person in the house who could set the clock to telling time. So it became “my” clock, and the heart of the house beat again. Sometimes, anyway. I wasn’t as consistent with winding it as my mother had been.
After my father died, this clock was the one thing from the house that I wanted to keep. My bestest childhood friend kept it safe for me, and then had it shipped to me in New York one year as a birthday present.
It was one of the best presents I ever received.
Tim died years later. I have no other memory of him, but I cherish that one I do have, and the lessons I learned –and continue to learn- from him and the clock:
You have to find the right 'tick'. Set it going too fast or too slow, and it will stop. Set it going at just the right speed, and it will go until it needs winding again. Sometimes you can hear when the tick is wrong, but it is hard to know when it is right. You often (usually) need to try several times before you get it –especially if it’s been a while. But practice makes it easier. And sometimes –rarely- if the clock was wound too tight, you have to unhook the pendulum and let the clock run right down to exhaustion, so you can wind it up -gently this time- and start again.
I realize that these rules are true for me, too, since I became sick. I need to find my own 'tick'. If I over do things, I will shut down. Similarly, if I set off too slow, there is no momentum to continue.
It’s not easy to find one’s own 'tick' under these circumstances. And I suspect –people being infinitely more complex than clocks- the 'tick' is slightly different on any given day. Still. I have a visual reminder to keep trying.
My mother’s clock now hangs in my home, close to the front door. It still works, but I rarely wind and set it now.
…but I did today.
It took several efforts to find the right tick. I’m out of practice. But find it, I did.
Funny how a ticking clock speaks of hope.