This morning it was time to wind the clocks. Among the many items of busy work I found to do this morning after my coffee and toast, this one seemed important. If I forget to wind the clocks—there are three of them, all antique—they stop, and in their silence they accuse me of losing it, of not being able to act on a commitment, of not measuring up in various ways. Still, this morning I didn’t manage to wind all three clocks at the same time. I milled around weighing and washing yarn plied last night, made the bed, looked around for a project I knew was in a bag somewhere, and finally got it together to wind the banjo clock in the bedroom. Then it was a few minutes before I got to the school clock in the kitchen and the grandfather clock in the living room. Now they’re ready for another week, and all I have to do is wind them next Monday morning.
Thus is it always: we do a task that will need to be done over again, only to know that we will have to do it again. For me there is always a question: will I manage to pull it off, pull it out of myself, the next time? The opportunities to fall off the wagon of recurrent housekeeping tasks come frequently, and I fall off probably as many times as I stay on. But clocks and dishes and laundry are quite forgiving, and that’s a small everyday mercy.
And up close to these tasks, there are homely little details that are part of the texture of my life. The place where the key goes in is different for each of the three clocks, and there are certain times each clock cannot be wound because the hands are in the way. The banjo clock has a lead weight that can be seen only part of the way up as it is being wound. After a few winds, it becomes invisible in the thin shaft of the clock, where the frets of the banjo would be, behind painted glass. The man who fixed the grandfather clock spent a few minutes on it in 2011 to get it going. He warned me that I must not wind it until the weight hit the top: the little stop for it was missing, and it might strike the works of the clock and get in the way of its operation. So I count how many times the winding key goes around, and slow down as I reach about ten, to be sure that if it does hit the top it does so gently. It’s a little bit of guesswork that I must do each week, and I do it with something like affection, and with a flash of memory. This clock was my parents’, and my father’s parents’ before that, and I know not whose before that. It is a small window into the past.
So are the grandfather clock and the schoolhouse clock, and each offers its own little details in the process of winding. I have to get up on a stool to wind the schoolhouse clock, which is on the wall in the kitchen above the sink. It is spring-wound and has no weight, and it winds counterclockwise, unlike the others. Like the grandfather clock, it also indicates the date, and once in a while, when I’ve neglected my winding, I need to reset the date. The glass window has a small crack, and I recall the time when my mother, in her nineties and infirm, remembering the crack in the window but not how small it was, insisted that I must have had the glass replaced.
The brass key for the grandfather clock has an ivory handle, with grooves around it à la scrimshaw. There are two holes in the face for winding both the clockworks and the striker, but the striker is decommissioned, and its weight lies in one of my closets. Thus I wind only the right side, lifting the weight for the clockworks. The clock man told me to wind until the weight reached the top of the top hinge of the door, but after a few times I noticed that there was a chalk or crayon mark a couple of inches above that. It must be a mark made by either my father or his father.
The schoolhouse clock was in my mother’s life in her childhood, and the other two in my father’s. They are part of my heritage, and every time I wind them, they bring me in contact with generations before me. It amuses me that under normal conditions I cannot see the escapements of any of the clocks, rocking with the seconds. But I hear all the clocks, ticking away the seconds of my life, and I love the company of these mechanical presences.