Time

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.

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16 thoughts on “Time

  1. Tough relationships and items left behind. I have a vague memory of Willa Cather saying something about family as the tragic necessity of life. I think about these things, but I don’t write about them, because the people are all still around.

    I’m glad you’re doing it.

  2. Given your few clues, it’s not hard to imagine a guess as to what you told him and why he reacted badly. That he reacted badly for more than about ten minutes says nothing good about him, I’m afraid. But as a music teacher he surely had more redeemable qualities than most.

    • Actually, no; you couldn’t begin to guess. It was fairly complicated, and nothing that you hear about on Oprah or Dr. Phil.

      It was disappointing, more than anything. But the music is all still there.

  3. Just by chance I got to see my father about a month before he died. During the same trip I saw my mother – she died a couple of years later. I’m not sure this was meaningful, though these last (separate) meetings with my parents were pleasant enough, so perhaps it was nicer to leave things on a somewhat positive note. But if anyone had told me how sorry I’d be if I didn’t make an effort to see them one more time… well, I’d have just told them to piss off.

    I didn’t choose to be related to these people. And I’ll dare to guess that, like myself, somewhere along the road you made the decision that if these people had wanted to be treated like beloved parents then they should have been loving parents themselves. I gave up on that whole “blood is thicker than water” crap about 25 years ago and save my love for people who deserve it. Way less stressful and much more honest.

    Nice post.

  4. pretty please from me, too, in that case. Writing like that deserves more of an airing.

    And that’s a truly beautiful watch.

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