My mother-in-law’s home is a symphony of clocks. A grandfather clock that sounds like a church organ plays its deep, sonorous dirge every hour. The cuckoo clock in the hallway, the gentlest timekeeper, chirps so softly it sounds like it might be outside, like it doesn’t want to disturb anyone. The tarnished brass wall clock in the living room with its four enormous, heavy, organ-like brass tubes, clangs with each hour and half hour, and gets double the playtime of all the others. The wood clock on the roll-top desk, with its heavy bold black numbers, sits silent, its hands still, long dead.
I think of my mother, long dead, and of the clocks I no longer remember.
My mother-in-law, barely-five-feet of her in a lovely, soft, matching pantsuit, legs crossed, sitting close on the couch with my son and my daughter, paging through old photograph albums of their lives; the woman who quietly cooks and serves dinner for 4 or 20, with little or no notice; the woman who does the daily crossword and shoves the folded newspaper my way and asks if I might know the leftover answers.
I rarely do.
I’ve got time on the brain. I keep thinking about my grandparents’ cuckoo clock, that spectacular work of intricate art in the house on Locust Street. The clock that Grandpa Red, a master woodworker, made; the details of its glazed wooden leaves; the cuckoo bird’s delicate, colorful beak and soprano chirp; its gentle, sweet song; the longish acorn-shaped brass weights, hanging low and then high, from my grandmother’s chains. It was her job, after all, to set it every night. The master built it, but it was, like all things in our family, her job to keep that clock going.
I look around my house.
Every clock is digital.
Decades ago in shop class, my brother Butch built a grandfather clock. My mother’s husband still has it, and he’s holding it hostage. I have not heard my brother’s voice, or his grandfather clock’s chimes, for years.
The hands on my watch stopped a few months ago. The battery is dead. I haven’t worn it since. I try not to notice.
My mother-in-law’s home is a symphony of clocks. There’s a little white plastic ticker in the guest bedroom where I sleep, and I always forget about it until everyone’s in bed and all the lights are out and I suddenly hear the tick-tick-tick, like a grandmother slowly clucking her tongue, and the next thing I know I’m scrambling in the dark to find the little bastard and yank out the battery. Thankfully, she shuts down the brass banger before bed. And we rest. We rest until morning when I am wakened, a guest yet again, by my favorite new noisemaker in the kitchen: the lighthouse-themed clock above the sink that blows its foghorn at least a minute or so later than all the others. No matter when I’m here, this clock is always off. But its foghorn has grown on me. I anticipate its lagging “eee-uuuhhh,” “eee-uuuhhh,” its bellowing so out of sync with the rest of the house that it yanks me, every single time, back to who I am.