I don’t believe in ghosts. And I don’t believe in anything more supernatural than the taste of a Häagen-Dazs coffee ice cream or the sound of a laughing baby. So when I tell you this story about the clock in the dining room, you know it’s not a ghost story.
The clock is an eight-day kitchen clock, made in the United States about the time of the Civil War. It’s about a foot-and-a-half tall, made of wood and not quite plain; there is molding at the top and bottom that adds depth and interest. Fingers point from filigree hands set on delicate metal arms, singling out Roman numerals as if they were picking teammates for kickball. A round glass door protects the white face.
Twice per hour the clock reminds you that there is forgotten movement in the dining room as it chimes out the hour and strikes once on the half-hour. There is nothing pretentious about its chime; it doesn’t play a tune, or cuckoo, or whistle Dixie. Methodically, reverently, it counts off the hour with a seriousness and sense of duty reminiscent of Big Ben himself. When it’s not busy chiming, one can hear the movement, kept steady by the brass pendulum, tick, tock, tick, tock, a metronome waiting for a musician who never appears.
The clock is the only possession of my father’s I still own. I remember being with my mother when she bought it, circa 1966, at a shop in San Francisco’s Marina District. He treasured the gift, already a century old, and placed it in the center of the mantel where no one was allowed to touch it or dust it.
For a decade, the clock carried out its responsibilities in a most professional manner, every tick on time, every chime announcing the correct hour. Each Saturday morning my father spent half a day at his office, then picked up the laundry and bought the week’s groceries on the way home. Food and clothing stowed, he gave the clock its weekly winding before retiring to the garden to tend the roses. That was every Saturday I can remember until December 1976, when my father, 35 years younger than the clock, expired. Sometime after the funeral, someone, probably my mother, noticed the clock had stopped, too.
For nearly 30 years the clock moved around the country with me, visiting repair shops in a half-dozen towns and at least three states. In each case, the clock was pronounced cured and the repairman paid. Admonishments to place the clock on a level surface were heeded, winding instructions were followed. But the clock never worked.
In 2006, just before our first son, Raymond, was born, I decided to try one last time to have the clock repaired. In the melee of the birth and sleepless nights that followed, the clock was forgotten for a while, but within a month or two the clock was retrieved and brought to the house.
This morning, trying to persuade myself to lift my head from the pillow, I heard it strike six. I looked at the perfectly synchronized atomic clock on the nightstand, which read precisely 6:00. It has been ticking and tocking for nearly five years now. Only I am allowed to touch it, and I wind it carefully every Saturday morning.
But when I was out of town recently, Raymond made a proclamation to his mother: “Daddy’s not here,” he said. “So I’m in charge of winding the clock.”