Thursday, April 10, 2008


Old clickthings always have a story attached to them, and if we're lucky, it's revealed to us. The story of my great-grandfather's watch is exactly this way. I first met the watch when my sister and I would rummage through my mother's jewelry box. Here was this large, heavy railroad watch with some brassing on the case sitting in amidst the bracelets and necklaces. It didn't work any more, but it was still a family treasure, and thus too valuable to part with. I loved this watch, even though it was more inert than functional. I loved its spindly arms and delicate numerals, and the unfufilled promise of the small second-hand dial sitting where the "6" belonged. If you knew the secret, you could remove the back and admire all the intricate detailing inside the works, and the luxurious promise of a "nineteen jewel movement," (whatever that meant.)

Years later, The Watch (now capitalized in my mind) was restored and given to me for a college graduation gift. The crystal had been replaced, the setting/winding mechanism reconnected, the entire thing cleaned and brightened, and now it made the most subtle tick-tick-tick as the second hand swept through its miniature dial. The Watch now sat in a small cloth bag inside a bracelet box supplied by the jeweler who repaired it, and inside the box was a typed note that spelled out in a few sentences the life of the owner.

Born in Ohio, my great-grandfather moved with his family west to Kansas to homestead, but were driven back east but dust storms. He met my great-grandmother, and took a job as the switchman and telegraph operator on the railroad junction near his home. I imagine his thumb wearing the finish away from the case as he checked the schedules to know when to throw the switches to keep the lines running on time. The Watch passed through the family, landing in my care. Since that time I've carried it for two graduations, my wedding, the Christening of my children, and briefly as an everyday watch. It's since lived in three states beyond Ohio, had its mainspring replaced once, and its crystal replaced one. It's been neglected, then cleaned, then worn, and then dropped (argh!), and now just kept safe in a drawer, wound daily so that my children can share in the same whispered tick-tick-tick that a man four generations distant used to measure out his day.


Olivander said...

That's a great story. After my dad passed away, I was given a small cedar box of his in which he kept small items like tie tacks, a pocket knife, and such. There was also a Waltham sidewinder pocket watch. It didn't work, and nobody knew anything about it, because no one in my immediate family remembered him ever having a pocket watch.

I took it in and had it cleaned, which is all it really needed to run well again. The serial # dates it to 1885, which is really anomalous, being so far removed from my dad's lifetime, even before my grandfather was born.

Then I was going a manila envelope filled with old family photos, and I came across a photo of my dad and all his classmates, dated 1939. He would have been 13 then. Lo and behold, there is the outline of a pocket watch tucked into the front pocket of his coveralls! It has to be the same one.

My suspicion is that *his* grandfather may have given him the watch for his 13th birthday. Now, my great-grandfather himself would have been only 8 years old in 1885, so it's possible that it was in fact his own childhood watch given to him by my great-great grandfather, who I am coincidentally named for. If only we knew!

I carry the watch with me these days, even though I probably ought not to. It would seem a shame to keep such a fine and storied timepiece shut away in a drawer or caged under glass.

Then there is the Seth Thomas clock that has been passed down in the family for generations, of which we know much more history. But that is another story.

mpclemens said...

I think these sorts of stories always make for a much better family history than sterile lists of ancestors. I've nothing against genealogy, and I think it's fascinating to know where the Family Nose comes from, but to have something tangible in your hands and say "this is the watch my grandfather wore" has much more significance to me. I'm not stuff-obsessed, but it's somehow comforting to me to realize that you're holding and using something that was a part of someone's life.

I agree that it's a shame to keep a timepiece locked up. If I hadn't dropped The Watch flat on its crystal (!) dislodging its hands (!!) on a granite tile floor (!!!) I would do the same. The repair guy informed me that the face is actually made of porcelain, and that I was very very lucky that it did not crack. My heart stopped for a few minutes as I scooped up the pieces and wrapped them carefully in my handkerchief. I was actually too embarrassed to take it in to the repair shop for some time, since I had just had it cleaned some months prior, in anticipation of carrying it as a timepiece.

The typewriters and pens stay on my desk, but The Watch is safe from my fumble fingers.

mpclemens said...

I've got some pictures up in my flickr stream now: