Monday, December 6, 2010

My Father's Watch

When my brothers and I were divvying up the stuff left behind in my parents' house, we laughed over the fact that my parents never threw anything out. I found a set of dessert goblets they'd been given as a wedding gift in 1958, that they'd moved to their new home in 1960, and then again to their next (and final) home in 1976. When I found them in a top cupboard, they were still wrapped in newspaper from 1960, meaning they had sat unused for 16 years, then been moved -- and sat untouched for another 33.

They saved boxes from every piece of electronic equipment, in case it ever had to be returned under warranty, and then kept the boxes long after they'd replaced the equipment (and usually kept the outmoded/wornout/broken piece itself too).

The most emblematic find
of our scouring of the house were these can openers in the basement [right] which had all obviously lost their ability, and been superseded by an under-cabinet model in the kitchen, yet they stood in silent vigil in an old coal bin area. Did my dad save them in case he needed parts?

At the end of the week, my brothers hired a moving van to carry tons of furniture, a piano, a snow blower, and dozens of boxes, across the country. I, being a New York City apartment dweller, already had so much of my own crap stowed there that I had to retrieve, that I didn't have room for much more. I took a bunch of photos winnowed down from a plethora of albums, and some personal mementos, including things like my Dad's broken watches, which he'd kept on his dresser. They seemed small and personal enough that I didn't have to discard them just yet.

My younger brother had asked if I could resuscitate one of them. I brought it to the old-worldish watch repair shop tucked away in Grand Central. But they told me it must have gotten waterlogged at some point, because the works were beyond repair. They basically would have to rebuild the whole thing from scratch, and it would cost a ton. We just kept the watch as is.

Today when I was going through some of the things I had carted back to the city, I found a few more watches, including the one my Dad wore at the time of his death, a heavy Swiss Army model. When I looked closely at it. I saw the calendar date was still at "2."  The self-winding mechanism had ceased to move the watch forward since the date of my Dad's death (Feb. 2, 2009).

I thought of two things: one, a passage in Paul Auster's terrific memoir about his own father's passing, The Invention of Solitude.
Three days before he died, my father had bought a new car. He had driven it once, maybe twice, and when I returned to his house after the funeral, I saw it sitting in the garage, already defunct, like some huge, stillborn creature. Later that same day I went off to the garage for a moment to be by myself. I sat down behind the wheel of the car, inhaling the strange factory newness of it. The odometer read sixty-seven miles. That also happened to have been my father's age: sixty-seven years. The brevity of it sickened me. As if that were the distance between life and death. A tiny trip, hardly longer than a drive to the next town.
I also recalled when, as a young kid, I went into my grandmother's bathroom years after her husband, my dad's dad, had died, and found his electric razor still in the medicine chest.I had opened it up and found beard shavings -- perhaps the last cells of him.

I own several watches which have all stopped working because ever since I got a cell phone, I stopped wearing one. Occasionally this screws me up, if I'm on the subway too far underground to get a signal, but mostly I don't miss the encumbrance.

I put my father's watch on my wrist, and found the metal snap-band he used too tight.

I learned in that moment that I have thicker wrists than him, even though he had thickened around the middle by age 77. I guess that's no surprise, he was always a thin-boned guy. There's this photo of him getting his Eagle Scout badge, I think, where his legs look like a flamingo's [right]. 

But I think I'm going to get a new watchband and try wearing the watch from time to time. Maybe it will be a way to honor and remember my dad, to take his watch for a drive. To put some more miles on it.


Sal Nunziato said...

Nice story, David. I don't have much of my father's. An old pool cue somewhere. That may be it. But I've been told on more than one occasion, that I have his laugh. Very ironic, but that's a whole other blog piece.

Anonymous said...

Ok so now that I know this works I will continue....
My dearest uncle owns an antique clock which at best keeps sluggish time. 10 yrs ago, my uncle survived a massive heart attack that left only 30% of his heart beating... On the day of his heart attack, his antique clock had stopped for the first time. The doctors gave my uncle 5 yrs and recommended minimal physical exertion for survival. My uncle chose his own path; jogging 3 mi. per day, working with a personal trainer and devoting his life to philanthropy and helping others. It's now present day and my uncle continues to thrive. He has, however, enlisted a clock doctor to make regular house calls every month to keep his precious antique clock working...Some things just can't be explained, you just have to believe---
David, wear your Dad's watch often so you two can share in your adventures! Thanks so much for posting, it really touched my heart!!! NK

Anonymous said...

Personal possessions all have life stories of their own, and though encumbering as it may be to hold on to them beyond their useful time, as cleaning out the house so perfectly demonstrates, to me it is an expression of love and caring much like what is evoked in the toy story movies - kids' toys, grown ups' electric can openers - same difference. Nice story david.