My Grandfather’s Clock

When I was in second grade or so, my class sang the old song, “My Grandfather’s Clock,” by Henry Clay Work. The lyrics to the first verse are

My grandfather’s clock was too large for the shelf,
So it stood ninety years on the floor;
It was taller by half than the old man himself,
Though it weighed not a pennyweight more.
It was bought on the morn of the day that he was born,
And was always his treasure and pride;
But it stopped short — never to go again —
When the old man died.

Grandfather ClockUnlike the clock of this song, my maternal grandfather’s clock did sit on the shelf. It also differed from the song, because it did not mark his age. It was manufactured long before his birth and it has survived more than forty years past his death. Nevertheless, whenever I hear this song, my mind immediately goes to this clock and to my grandfather.

I don’t recall when my grandfather became the possessor of the clock. It dates back to the 1800s, maybe as far back as the 1830s. I don’t know when it came into our family. All I know is that it became ours a long time ago.

Family lore says that it sat in my great-grandmother’s kitchen, above a smoky old stove, and was covered with soot and grime. It has since been restored to its earlier glory, and (with some maintenance) it has kept good time as long as our family has owned it.

Although my great-grandmother died young, her husband, my great-grandfather lived until July 1965, and died just six months before his son, my grandfather. I know my grandfather owned the clock for several years before his death—in fact, he owned it as long as I can remember. So I don’t know when it left my great-grandfather’s house and became my grandfather’s.

My memories of the clock date back to when I was a small child. The clock sat in my maternal grandparents’ house, and my grandfather wound it religiously every Sunday. It chimed the hour and the half hour, and it ticked off the seconds—tick, tock, tick, tock—regardless of whether the day was happy or sad, busy or boring.

After my grandfather passed away, my grandmother kept it. I don’t remember her winding it, but she must have, because it continued to count away the hours throughout her many moves. Tick, tock, tick, tock.

When my grandmother finally downsized into assisted living, my parents acquired the clock. My father took over the weekly chore of winding the clock. From that time forward, the pendulum marked the hours of my visits home, and the chimes sounded through days and nights. Tick, tock, tick, tock.

Some members of my family didn’t like the clock’s ticking and gongs, but I always found them comforting—a sign that I was in fact home. True, if I had a sleepless night, hearing the hours I laid awake could be disconcerting, but for the most part, the clock reminded me of the good times of my childhood.

My father died on a Monday in January. He must have wound the clock for the last time on Sunday, the day before he died. When I arrived to stay at his house the following weekend, it was still ticking. Tick, tock, tick, tock. And I thought of my father, knowing he would never wind it again.

Because no one would be staying in the house after I left, I let the clock wind down. Sometime on Monday, a week after his death, it stopped. The silence was an eerie reminder my father was gone. Unlike in the song, it hadn’t stopped short when my father died. But because of my decision not to wind it, it didn’t last many days longer than he did.

Now the clock is on its way to my home, weights removed and pendulum secured. When the clock body and all its parts arrive, I will set it up in my house.

And then I will wind it. My grandfather’s clock will again mark the time, as another generation assumes responsibility for this family heirloom. Tick, tock, tick, tock.

What family heirlooms remind you of generations past?

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10 Comments

  1. My parents have several clocks that have been passed down through generations. I don’t know what it is, but a ticking clock is a lonesome sound to me. I’m glad your father’s clock will reside in your house, Theresa.

  2. Anna Quindlen wrote a lovely essay 20 or so years ago about the death of her sister-in-law. In it she made reference to the “continuous presence of absence.” The clock stopping after your dad’s passing reminds me of that sorrow, but the fact that you will now wind it up and think about all the memories associated it makes me smile. Thank you for such a touching post.

  3. Theresa, this is a lovely lovely post. I liked it a lot and could see and hear the ticking, winding, years and history. I’m so glad you’ll have it now – to care, clean, wind, remember. Very touching that it stopped ticking a week after he died and that you heard the silence. The clock’s going to revive a lot of memories for you, I expect. They say smells are the strongest memories, but for me, it’s sound.

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