My grandfather left my father a gold watch, old enough that I suspect it originally belonged to his father before him.
My father gave it to me; I couldn’t even tell you when. I loved the sensuality of a railroad watch on a chain, the heaviness in the palm, the smooth carapace of precious metal. You can feel the springs and gears inside coiling as you wind it, and the snick as it opens and closes has an authority unimagined by those who just consult a dial strapped to their wrists. Still, it needs attention to keep time properly for long, the kind I couldn’t afford when I first became its keeper, and it lives in my jewelry drawer, which I have been sorting out.
The year I turned twenty-one was the year I first crossed my father, if by “cross” you mean telling a person, one adult to another, that you think he is behaving shabbily. I believe it took him by surprise. In the ensuing shock he neglected to speak to me for thirty years, leaving no forwarding address the second time he moved. I decided that if he ever had a change of heart, he knew where to find me.
A smattering of sentimental people — among them my Albino Ex, who has a large Italian family — used to badger me with admonitions about how sorry I would be if I didn’t speak to him before he died. It is amazing how many people think they know exactly how you will feel at some future time.
Serpent Woman, my father’s elfin widow — all of six months younger than myself — tells me that after a stroke addled his brains, he got keen on watches. He couldn’t have enough watches; whenever she took him out, he wanted one, and if it was inexpensive enough she bought it for him. After a while, she found one of those vests they sell for photographers or workmen, with pocket after pocket for odds and ends, so that he had a place for all his watches and could carry them with him everywhere.
Somewhere in that few years, he decided he wanted her to call me. He seemed to want absolution, more or less, though I don’t think he was any longer quite sure what for (up till his stroke, according to Serpent Woman, he simply used to say “I have no daughter”). He died less than a week after the man I married. The timing was more poignant than the event itself, though I felt bad for Serpent Woman, who was left with a small military pension, a run-down mobile home, and his credit card debts.
She forwarded me some fond eulogies from his old students, whose horns he used to test and put back in good nick, polishing the brass with a jeweler’s cloth. Sometimes he used a favorite piece or two to take the instrument through its paces; he liked the tour de force of the Britten Serenade, a recording he played so often that the poems were the first I learned off by heart.
On the case of the watch there is engraving too faint to trace, almost worn away, but it has an undimmed patina. Gold is pure of rust, as Sappho tells us.