Time's chariot

Nancy Keen Roche

January 07, 1993|By Nancy Keen Roche

EVERY Sunday I wind our tall case clock.

It is an eight-day clock, which means that the mechanism that drives the clock needs winding once a week. Before I wind the clock, I open the glass door which protects the face. Then, by inserting a brass key into a lock framed by an ivory escutcheon, I unlock the clock's wooden waist. The waist houses lead weights the size of grenades, suspended on gleaming filaments of brass chains.

By the force of gravity, the weights drive the gears which turn the hands. A newly shined brass pendulum hangs almost the whole length of the waist resolutely regulating the ticking and tocking of the gears behind the clock face. The winding mechanism is in the face of the clock -- two metal holes into which I fit a metal sleeve attached to a short wooden handle.

Turning the handle clockwise turns a rod which raises the weights to begin another eight-day cycle. While I turn the handle with my left hand, I gently press my right hand against the wooden frame of the face so the clock doesn't teeter on its delicate feet.

Every Sunday I look forward to the intimacy of this event. Winding the clock is a sensual experience. I touch the smooth mahogany scarred by hairline cracks. I see my face in the depth of the mahogany patina as though at the bottom of a well. My wrist balances the density of the lead weights. I hear the clicking of the winding gears and the ticking of the clock.

Our clock was made in New Hampshire sometime between 1790 and 1810. It is Federal in both style and period, named for the era beginning in 1879 when the original 13 states fashioned a federation into a republic. It is a particularly American style of furniture. Graceful, simple, relying on the richness of the wood and skill of the craftsman, the clock's beauty is the integration of inlay and veneer rather than rococo flourishes.

Antique buffs call this a tall case clock. The rest of us call it a grandfather clock. The clock is like a person. Its base stands on feet. The middle cabinet section is called the waist. The hands of the clock's face tell the hours and the minutes. The wooden frame that houses the face is the bonnet and is decorated with pierced carving, like a baby's cap frilled with pleated ruching. The clock has sound and movement. It is alive. And perhaps it is clockwise.

Unlike many grandfather clocks which chime every quarter hour, ours chimes only on the hour. Unlike other grandfather clocks which chime with deep resonance, ours has a fey "Tinker bell is alive" sound like a child hitting the treble end of a xylophone or the tinny sound of the Sanctus Bells in the mass of my childhood. Our clock reminds me of someone who grew up on the outside -- all very proper -- but whose voice never changed. The clock's hollow bell is curiously like the new electric phone ring. In the middle of the night, I am occasionally startled, thinking the phone is ringing.

Our clock is quirky -- like a person. I like to hear it chime the small hours of the morning when I am not sleeping. Sometimes, though, a mischievous gremlin mucks up the works. At 4 o'clock, it may chime 11. At 6:20, it may chime 10. Midnight is particularly dicey. Frequently the chimes only reach 11. One Sunday morning, the clock chimed 9, paused, then belatedly added the tenth note. When I stopped laughing, I got up and wound the clock. It becomes most idiosyncratic as the week wanes. I know just how it feels. I love the regularity of its irregularity. I like that in a person, too.

Our clock's face has, in addition to the delicately scrolled minute hand and hour hand, a moon dial, its paint faced and alligatored, a second hand, and even a date dial -- tangible connections with universal forces of time and tide.

Our clock connects me with past and future time. It also connects me with values that transcend time. It becomes a bridge with the past, first with those who crafted the clock. Two hundred years ago, somewhere in the hills of New Hampshire, in rudimentary working conditions, artisans created something beautiful not only with their hands but with their souls. When I open the clock's waist and smell the dry weathered pine boards, colored like aged strapping leather, I touch a part of those artists.

Later, there were other craftsmen. On July 30, 1860, W. Taylor cleaned our clock and inscribed this information near the top of the inside of the door. He must have realized that it was an action worth remembering. I am glad that he did, and I am sorry that those who worked on the clock most recently didn't add their names and comments to the clock's recorded history.

I bought our clock with money that I inherited from my parents. When I wind it, I am reminded of them, as I am when I set the table with my mother's flower garden china from pre-World War II Japan or when I store pens and pencils in the blue mustard jar on my desk that my father's father brought from England. When I wind the clock, I touch those I love once again.

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