First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.
“Languishing.” That’s the word the pandemic gurus have come up with to describe what we’ve all been feeling after a year and a half of being cooped up, locked down and generally burned out by COVID depression.
How, then, would you describe an 18th-century mahogany tall-case clock not just missing the time, but also showing clear signs of languishing?
Every Friday around 3 p.m., this magnificent timepiece, which has been running like, well, clockwork for more than 320 years, stops, for no apparent reason. It’s not as if the clock is saying “TGIF, let’s party,” it’s more a resignation. “Yes, I’m still here, but I’m not enjoying life any more. I don’t have the energy even to pass the time.”
I toyed with the idea that it’s really a clock of Abraham, a Jewish clock that observes the Sabbath by stopping early every Friday. But it’s part of a family that lives as if we barely know we are Jewish.
I wish I could say that George – that’s what we call the clock built by Robert Scholfield in Rochdale, England – was an heirloom, handed down from generation to generation and lovingly cared for through the decades. But we can barely trace our roots earlier than the late 19th century. Any heritage in our home was strictly acquired, by my mother, conferring prestige on a decidedly unprestigious clan. She tried her best to create an identity for us: landed gentry, vaguely British style. George was a key component of her gentrification plan.
The clock came to us from one of my mother’s antiquing adventures. George was acquired during her “English” period, when only 18th-century English antiques were good enough to grace our Georgian-style house, built in the early 20th century, in Melrose Park, just outside Philadelphia. Porcelain from china houses such as Wedgwood, elegant Chippendale furniture, hand-made crystal chandeliers and hand-woven Persian carpets all helped to convert our home into a pseudo 18th-century tableau. (I was never permitted to bring my friends into our home, lest they break something!)
Our clock, technically a grandmother, not grandfather, because it is shorter and lighter than the better-known masculine version, fit in perfectly with my mother’s vision. It always stood in the hallway, where it enjoyed pride of place. George was practically the first thing that caught your eye as you entered the centre hall through the outside door with its 18th-century brass knocker.
My father, who had next to no interest in my mother’s antiques and never stopped complaining about paying for them, loved George, the object of his tender loving attention. Dad made it his job to wind the clock every week, same day, same time, and there was something about its intricate parts that fascinated him. A pediatrician with a mathematician’s bent, Dad was intrigued by the inner workings – the movement that powered the hour hand, strike and chime; the pendulum, a deceptively simple rod with a brass circle at its bottom; and what my mother called the “dangly bits,” the two heavy weights that hung off a sort of chain made of catgut.
Only now do I realize how much I loved watching Dad set the clock every Sunday. As long as my father was alive, George stood tall and proud. But after he died, all too young at 68, my mother decided she was finished with her English phase. Now, she would be a châtelaine of a French domain, embracing 18th-century French antiques. Even before selling our Georgian-style house, she decided, somehow, to buy the house of her dreams not two miles away – known in the neighbourhood as “the château.”
Poor George. This was his first experience of languishing. He didn’t stand a chance in a Louis XIV milieu, where curlicues, filigree and ormolu replaced classical Georgian lines. The clock somehow made the move down the street, but in the process lost one of his naughty bits and cracked his hood. Sadder, though, was that Mom fell out of love with the clock, which she relegated to her growing heap of “brown furniture.” (As she said herself, she could “never bear to give up any of my antiques since I am an accumulator, not a ‘divester.’”)
When I visited her after the move into the château, I found George in pieces, the repaired hood in one room, others parts scattered around the house, one of the weights never to be found. I was crushed seeing the clock, which had been so lovingly cared for by my dad, in this state.
She knew how special George was to me, so Mom offered to let me take the clock across the border to my home in British North America. So, 20 years ago, my husband and I rented a van long enough to accommodate a tall case clock for the trip to Toronto, where I was living. My mother swathed each part of the disassembled clock in her favourite wrapping materials – bubble wrap, old blankets and diapers – for the nine-hour trip ahead.
Henry and I drove slowly and carefully with our precious cargo, and felt triumphant when we reached Toronto with the pieces intact. But not knowing how to assemble the clock once we got home, we needed to find an antique clock expert. Enter Peter, the Clock Doctor – a doctor of horology, as he told us. Not only did he get George back into working order, but he also researched the clock’s provenance and gave us tips on winding (not too much, let the weights hang) and weekly maintenance, with Sunday morning rewinding. Peter also appeared every year, like clockwork (sorry, couldn’t resist!), to service the clock with polish for the brass face and special catgut oil.
And then the pandemic hit. That’s when George showed signs of fatigue.
Now, George can’t seem to face another weekend without stopping on Friday around 3 in the afternoon. I try to get the clock working again by gently pushing the pendulum back and forth in a regular rhythm. George then keeps time for a while, but when I go downstairs the next morning, I usually discover he’s stopped again overnight. Sometimes I can coax him to restart on Saturday and carry on into Sunday when I give him his regular rewinding. But now I can feel his reluctance to face the week ahead.
Maybe George needs a COVID clock vaccine, if there were such a thing. In the meantime, I’ll try whatever tricks come to mind until the Clock Doctor returns with his special remedy.
Jane Widerman Auster lives in Toronto.
Sign up for the weekly Parenting & Relationships newsletter for news and advice to help you be a better parent, partner, friend, family member or colleague.