Clocks

One day, just before Easter, a slight man named Joseph wandered into my shop on Piazza Duomo. Easter, including Easter Monday when the Italians all go out into the country for a picnic, is generally the busiest time of the year. It is the first wave of tourists coming to what they imagine will be sunny Italy as they leave their cold northern winters behind so it was no surprise to have someone who spoke English cross my threshold. Joseph though was different and didn’t seem particularly interested in the earthenware pitchers from Ficulle or the brightly colored ceramic figures from near Rome. He wondered if I might have a box and could help him pack a clock he had bought from the antique dealer on the corner of Via Maitani. He was traveling by train and needed to get the clock back to Nordheim where he taught English.

Of course I had a box and would be happy to help. He seemed to be alone and since it was Easter, I invited him to join my family in the country for Easter dinner. My parents, whose command of Italian was minimal, would have someone to talk to besides me and my two sons. They were all already there, the boys taking turns on the swing my father, all of 75 at the time, had attached to the top of a tall chestnut in the woods behind the house. How he had managed to shimmy up that high will always be a mystery. I hadn’t taken into account the fact that my father always insisted that visitors try out his swing, of which he was particularly proud. So when we arrived, my father was his usual bullying self and before we could say no, Joseph was hanging on for dear life, flying through the air. I only hope the lamb roast and pasta made up for this unexpected adventure.

Back in Orvieto I found the right box and the next morning drove Joseph and his French clock to the train. He later wrote me that his clock from Orvieto had made it safely through customs and that it was now all his joy in a joyless world, his sole solace in the night of the nothingness of Nirvana. And that his 12 wall clocks were all chiming 10 a.m.

They have their own revolution, he said. So do the Earth and the Moon and the Sun.  But then he also considered selling art or arty things as swimming against the stream, a private revolution, not to speak of teaching, a dangerous revolution within. I wasn’t always sure just what he meant but it was stimulating to converse, in writing of course,  with this newfound friend and philosopher.

While I don’t have twelve clocks all striking the same hour, my house does have its share of clocks. Time seems to be so important. Yet our lives are spent waiting for time to pass. And then when it’s come, it is already past. If I had to choose, I would keep only the clock serving as bookend on the middle shelf to the left of the main door that leads to the balcony. I treasure it even though it no longer tells you anything aside from what it is or what it was – a rather heavy cube of a contraption of shiny brass gears and crystal in a leather case that leaves its face visible.

I have other objects that I might think of as real antiques since my clock might not be much over a hundred years old, which, if one lives in Italy, makes it almost contemporary. I can imagine the owner taking it along, carefully setting it next to his portmanteau when he traveled by coach, or perhaps even by train. It’s more recent history includes a goldsmith who had become a priest simply because his mother had made a vow dedicating her son, who had no say in the matter, to God. Somehow though in trying to get it to tick again, my charming goldsmith managed to break a tooth on one of the gears and it no longer keeps time. To keep time. To squander time. But one does not “keep” time – it always escapes one. That would make a good riddle. What do you keep but can never get hold of.

Then there’s the clock my parents brought my sons from Switzerland.  A cuckoo clock naturally, and it certainly lived up to its name. Eventually we told the cuckoo enough was enough when he insisted on calling out the hours every fifteen minutes, day and night. So the clock with its chains and weights hangs on the wall by the desk, mutely observing the surroundings and gathering dust.

I’m always a bit surprised when I start counting up the clocks scattered through the house. Each room has at least one – sometimes two. Alarm clocks – a curious name. They sound an alarm, telling you it’s time to get up even though you had  only just succeeded in falling to sleep after a restless night. Some, probably Chinese make, seem to delight in making it impossible to figure out how to set the hour or the alarm, particularly when daylight savings time comes along. Most are battery run, one or two still need to be wound up. A ritual that no longer exists. Now we just take them for granted. Most have no particular meaning and are just timepieces, there to remind you to take the pot off the stove before it runs over, or to go and get a friend who is arriving from Rome, or that it’s time say good night or to get up and start the day all over. Yet a clock can also keep a memory alive and not just call to your attention the passing of the seconds, the minutes, and the hours, all to be gone forever.

There’s the one that belonged to my sister-in-law, green enamel with pink flowers, (photo here) a boudoir type, and the miniature one with its face set in a wreath of silver roses, a gift from a former student. Somewhere I’m sure, hidden away in a box, is a large round face, the numbers in Roman letters, like the one that hung by the teacher’s desk in the schoolroom, eyed by the fidgety students who couldn’t wait for that bell to ring, as the hands crept inexorably on.

And now? Now we depend on the computer, smart enough to move the time forward, or back, every spring and fall, all by itself, or our iPhones. An unexpected dilemma arises when you find yourself trying to teach your grandchildren how to tell time, for clocks ticks on by themselves and no longer have a long hand for the hours and a short one for the minutes.  Often a clock doesn’t even tick any more to comfort you when you can’t sleep. Yes, time changes and not just that of the clock.

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