I’m a sucker for nostalgia, especially when it comes to things. It’s a streak in me that winds around my every sensibility and has undue influence over the decisions I make. I hold onto shoes far longer than is reasonable. I’d much rather use a rugged old heavy toolbox that came from my great-grandfather than a lightweight flexible one from Harbor Freight. Growing up, I was surrounded by the things built, bought, or plain scavenged from previous generations. Rocking chairs, beds, blankets, old china, wood stoves, prints, juice pitchers, you name it. There were new things, but new things were relegated to a position of disposability. If the new electric pancake griddle crapped out, toss it, get a new one. No big deal. If the several generations-old green shag carpet needs replacing, well that requires convening a committee of cousins on how to replace it in the most aesthetically similar way possible.
This attitude was definitely born of the pre-WWII era. The generation of my grandparents had an outsized influence on the generations to come, and certainly on me. Their attitudes were formed by twin understandings. On one hand, this generation grew up during the scarce times of the Depression, followed by the scarce times of the War. They lived by the motto: use it up, wear it out, make it do, do without. On the other hand, they lived during a time before cheap plastic crap. Their bicycles might have been heavy, but they were sturdy. The same was true of everything built before the War, from bookshelves to bed frames. I don’t know if the members of my family from that generation actively venerated well-made old things or not, but they certainly kept well-made things for a long time. Part of me wonders if it’s simply a matter of, if you wanted a warm coat in the thirties, your choices were: wool or wool. Stuff was well made because there really wasn’t an alternative, and all the better if there was a serviceable old version that could be brought into use.
Meanwhile, I love building and fixing things. My cat needs a way to get from the basement floor up to the cat door at eye-level? Build a clever ramp. Need more counter space in the kitchen? No problem – just build it. And of course there are shows for that. My absolute favorite are the YouTube videos of people who “rescue” old rusted swords and knives and axes and make them beautiful again. I can disappear down that rabbit hole for a long time…
The Venn diagram overlap of these two sensibilities came to a crashing head recently.
The other day, I was admiring an old wall clock at my brother’s house. We got to talking about how hard it is to maintain these old clocks, how our community does have a fellow who repairs old clocks, but that his talents are a rare commodity and when he retires, we’ll all have to send our clocks to Seattle or Portland to get them fixed. Ah ha! A little light-bulb went off in my head. I maintain an old clock too, and it was long overdue to be oiled.
It’s one of my most prized possessions, though a quick search of the interweb shows that it’s not really worth that much in dollar terms. I’ve noticed that the value I put on old, well-built things is usually far in excess of what they would actually fetch on the open market. This clock came to me by way of my paternal grandmother, who, in turn came by it from her mother, who received it as a wedding gift from her brother in 1914.
That brother would number among the more than 26,000 Americans who perished in the Argonne region of France in the last days of WWI. This little bit of information is a good example of what drags me so deeply into the singularity of nostalgia. When I look at the clock, accurately ticking away in my living room, I am in direct contact with those lives who also looked into its silvered face, who also dusted it’s adamantine shoulders. When I wind it’s mechanisms, my hand is operating the same levers my grandmother operated and her mother before her. It’s as real as I think ghosts can be.
I pull the clock from it’s overlook and set it out on the table. I’ve laid a towel on the table so no little dropped parts will go bouncing off the edge. In a fever-dream a week before, a few clicks on Amazon bought me a little bottle of synthetic clock oil and a book on how to repair clocks. The book is dense, written by someone who doesn’t write books. It has interesting information, but is far less handy than the hours of YouTube videos I have watched in preparation for this moment. I take a deep breath. Am I really going to do this? Am I really going to put this object at risk of my, admittedly, shaky hands? I am. I figure, the worst that can happen is that I’ll have to take my clock to the old clock repair dude to be put to rights.
I open the back of the clock. The innards stare back at me. They look insanely complex. After a minute or two, the chaos settles down and I can see two different sections – the chime and the movement. The chime runs the chime. The movement runs the movement of the hands. I realize that if I can successfully get the face of the clock off, I won’t have to take out the movement. The chime also looks easy to remove, though I decide not to this time.
Ever so carefully, I pull the pin that holds the hands to the face of the clock. Then I slip two washers off followed by the minute hand and finally the hour hand. I lay them out on the towel in the order I pulled them off. Then, from the inside of the clock, I find the three little brass screws holding the face to the wooden body of the clock. I find my long skinny flathead screwdriver and begin to back them out. When it seems like they’re almost free, I carefully grab the heads of the screws with my needle-nosed pliers as I turn them the last little bit of the way so they don’t fall into the clock’s innards. With a click, the face comes away from the clock.
My goal is to clean and oil the little spots where there are gear bearings on the front and back plates of the movement. YouTube has told me that the little applicator on my bottle of oil will put too much oil into each bearing. Each bearing hole is around 1.5 mm in diameter – oh so very tiny. If too much oil is applied, it will spill out and down the face of the movement. Because of physics this dripping will pull all the oil out of the bearing and the bearing will dry out, leading to wear and ultimately the end of the movement.
I get out the needle I use for extracting kiddo slivers. If I’m careful, I can lodge a tiny droplet of oil on the end of the needle. Then, ever so gently, I apply that drop to the bearing. It is insanely pleasing to watch the oil suck into the bearing and hold there. Every day contains multitudes of beauty. This is the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in a long time. The movement, which sits right behind the clock face has a dozen or so bearing points. Caught in a robust flow moment, I fill each hole. None leak. The bearings look good.
I only drop the needle into the depths of the clock body once. The clock is like the TARDIS from Doctor Who – it seems much larger on the inside than it looks from the outside. There are many horrible places my little needle could land when I drop it. It finds a merely moderately inaccessible spot to land. My heart pounds in my neck as I carefully fish it out with the needle-nosed pliers. Clock repair people have a special tool for applying oil to bearings, which I swear silently to myself that I will acquire before my next foray into the heart of this beast.
I oil the couple bearings on the chime, which I don’t ever use, and sigh deeply. A few anxious minutes later, I have the clock face back in place. What’s left is adjusting the hands to show the correct time and setting the internal pendulum in motion. A day later, the time is holding correctly.
About half the time, I wake up in the morning to a very quiet house. In the stillness of the first lights of day, the only sound, aside from the small breathing sounds my cat makes, is the ticking of this old clock. It is a heartbeat. It is the sound my grandparent’s house made when all was still. I feel that sound as a permanent childhood memory. The ticking of the clock sends me straight back to that living room – the light from the big south windows, scrolled edges of the sofa, yellow reclining nap-chair, baby grand piano, agate-topped coffee table, my grandmother setting the table for lunch, my grandfather stirring pea soup.
I wonder about the living room my grandmother would have remembered, hearing that sound. What stirrings of daily life held residence in the corners of her memory? Did she hear that clock and think of her mother fussing over dinner, her sister fussing about having to practice the piano, the hours of joy she found playing the same. Did she think about an uncle she never met? Did the sound bring her peace, the way it does for me? And of course, I hope, beyond hope, that my own children will absorb this sound as a memory of my living room – games played, meals eaten, fires built, episodes of Star Trek watched – and with that memory I hope they feel connected, as I do, to generations of ghosts that came before.