This Side Up

A smile when time stands still


The clock stopped at 10:10. The hands couldn’t have been more perfectly positioned. Through the ripped glass of its door was a smiley face. Or was it mocking us? Time had stopped; the clock was not ticking.

That has happened before, most commonly when I let it go beyond its seven-day winding. That’s a simple fix, although it took some doing to synchronize the chimes with the time. Sometimes I didn’t bother and it would faithfully strike 12 with the hands showing 6 and day just beginning. There were other days when I would have preferred the chimes to the time.

Then there have been occasions when time stood still, but not for a lack of winding.

The first I can document dates to September 1909.

In my grandfather’s neat cursive on the inside of the door, he wrote:

“This clock was given to me by Rev. H. G. Quick Rector of Springfield Center, NY August 25 1909 on consideration that I repair one similar to this for him.” It is dated Sept. 24 1909, Sewickley, Pa., and signed by my grandfather.

I can see him doing it. He kept good records. And he was good at making connections. Open a book from the shelf above his desk and inside the cover were clippings, either about the book or relating to the author, or the book’s topic. He would have been a good librarian, but that’s not where life took him. He was a preacher.

Clocks played a unique role for him. They were a form of therapy. As my father tells the story, a doctor advised him to get a hobby as a means of relaxing. The suggestion was repairing clocks.

My grandfather’s workshop was filled with clock parts; from trays of tiny gears and spindles; to boxes with chains, weights and pendulums. There were jars of solutions where parts bathed, and bottles of oil with long, needle-like applicators. On his bench was an assortment of miniature tools, like screwdrivers no longer than a nail and tweezers. His workshop was a special place. It had a musty-oily smell and there was always a ticking, sometimes the heavy, deliberative rhythm generated by a slow-moving pendulum; other times, the racing tick-tick of a pocket watch. I loved it when he let me use a jeweler’s loupe to get a view of the smallest mechanisms.

Long after my grandfather’s death, my father gave me one of the clocks he inherited. It’s nothing spectacular; in its era it was likely the equivalent of a Timex, a people’s clock designed to be practical and cheap. It is a Chauncey Jerome made in New Haven. Jerome, who was born in 1793 and died in 1868, made a fortune selling lots of clocks, some for as little as 75 cents.

But my clock didn’t end up being cheap by the time I got it.

My father probably spent a couple of hundred dollars before handing it over to me in splendid working order. It soon found a place in our kitchen, where it has been for more than 35 years.

During its tenure, it had to be cleaned and one of the springs was replaced after it snapped. It has kept good time until about two months ago, when it stopped at 10:10. The problem was obvious. It needed to be wound. I reached for the key, always perched on the corner of its case, but it wasn’t there.

Had I put the key elsewhere, perhaps inside the case?

No key. I then searched the counter on the chance it had fallen.

Carol, too, hadn’t a clue where it had gone. She removed everything on the counter, even looked into a potted vine that sits beneath the kitchen window.

A week went by and we intensified our search. Could it have slipped behind the counter? That seemed remote, as there is only a narrow crack, but stranger things have happened. I angled the beam of a flashlight into the crack to reveal a few cobwebs, but no brass key.

Another week went by. We would catch ourselves looking at the clock even though its tick-tock was silent. I tried keys from other clocks we have that, over time, have all gone silent. None fit grandfather’s clock. It was always 10:10, that smiling face framed in Roman numerals.

I went through all the tools in the cellar, hoping to find something that fit the square key shaft, to no avail. I stopped at Place Jeweler in Apponaug, thinking Rodney might have spares. He didn’t.

“How idiotic,” it occurred to me, “For want of a key that had mysteriously disappeared, a clock that keeps time for more than 140 years was silenced.”

Or was it me? Had I placed the key elsewhere and just forgotten? That was a more frightening thought that, thankfully, dissipated with Saturday’s spring-like weather:

We were doing yard work and I had just switched blades on the mower to thatch the lawn when I spotted Carol frantically waving at me from the back porch. I shut down the mower. She was speechless – holding a rake in one hand and the clock key in the other. She found it pressed in the dirt outside the backdoor. The only explanation we could muster was that it fell into a can of sunflower seeds for birds she keeps on the counter. She must have tossed it to the birds one snowy day.

Now things are ticking again; and the chimes are in sync with the time. Could someone else be smiling at me?


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