My grandfather’s clock

My mother does not have much by way
of a literal inheritance to leave her children,  but she tells me each of us can have one of the ‘precious’ items from our childhood that now take pride of place in her living
‘I don’t want you to fight over them,’ she said when I visited last week.  
I don’t see that we would, at least not overtly, but there is one single
item that to me stands out above all others – the grandfather clock – my grandfather’s clock, the one he
sent to my mother in Australia from Holland way back in the 1960s. 
‘It’s the only thing of real
value,’ my mother said.  ‘It’s an
I’m not sure I can speak for the clock’s actual value but its sentimental value to my mother and to her children is
great, or at least I imagine it is great for my siblings as well.  
My mother has elected to give this clock to one
of my brothers.  It is the only
item that she has itemised specifically for one or another of us, except for her
piano, which goes to my older sister, the only one who ever learned to play properly.  That is a given. 
I don’t know where the idea came
from, but for several years now I have lived with the belief that one of my
younger sisters coveted that grandfather clock since we were children.  
You know how it is, in those conversations
children sometimes have with their parents: ‘When you die, Mum, I want you to
leave me your banjo…’
In this way, my daughters divide up my
jewellery – what there is of it – again not for its actual value, but for its emotional value, particularly my wedding ring.  Given the fact I have four daughters and only one ring, a
ring created and cast in gold by a friend now long dead, we have thought to
make a fresh cast of the ring so that all my children can have a copy.  But that’s another story.
My mother says she wants to be
buried with her rings, or else they will need to be cut off.  
That’s fine, my older sister reckons,
but to her it seems a waste to bury diamonds. 
There seems to be a debate between
the actual value and the emotional value. To me, my mother’s diamonds hold little
value.  They come from the rings her second husband gave her.  I
care only for the rings and things that come from my childhood, narcissistic as
that might seem.  
The things that
existed in my childhood that live on in my memory, they are the things I desire
most:  the paintings of windmills in Holland,
and of Europe in the winter, the wall hangings my mother hand embroidered, the
statue of the blessed virgin Mary, and the crucifix.
I sensed my mother was a little
surprised when I asked if I might have the crucifix, not for religious reasons – though I did not tell my mother that – more for its significance as an icon from
my childhood that sits in my memory like a beacon.  
‘Take it down now then,’  my mother said.  ‘Write your name underneath.’  I suggested that – with help – she might
like to write behind or underneath each object or painting the name of the
person to whom she wants to leave it. 
‘But I prefer to give each of you
something you like.  I want you each to choose.’
All except the grandfather clock, and I told my mother then how much my younger sister had always wanted that clock,
she perhaps more than any one of us. 
But no, my mother still wants to give it to my brother.
Why, I asked, why this
‘He never married,’ my
mother said.  ‘He lives
A clock like this could make his
home homely.  A clock like
this belongs in a cosy house.  A
clock like this would keep him company.
My mother went on to tell me how
she had stopped the clock from working when the grandchildren came along.  She did not want any of them to get
hurt playing with the brass metal weight on the end of the chains at the base
of the clock. 
But my brother could reassemble
it, she said.  He could get the clock working
And so he could measure the passage of time, tick tock, tick tock, the
grandfather clock his constant companion.
I do not know what will happen to
the clock or the crucifix or any of the other memorabilia of my mother’s life,
but at least I can write about it, as I did once in a short story – literary license and all that: 
The girl hesitates
at the front door as she pulls it shut behind, long enough to catch a glimpse
of the statue of Jesus hanging from his crucifix on top of the piano
in the front hall.  His feet are cracked
where the nail has been driven in and although someone has tried to glue the
feet back in place the plaster has split up to his knees and he now hangs
loosely from his arms and swings in the updraft from the open door.

44 thoughts on “My grandfather’s clock”

  1. Many years ago when my mother asked me which of her items I would like when she died, I was a little taken aback. For to me, having any of these items would mean she was dead – and at that stage, the thought was unimaginable. So I demurred. My sibling didn't – and gave Mum a detailed list, including all the larger items of value.

    So, guess what?

    Like you, however, it's all about the sentimental value so I shall be happy with the few items of ephemera left to me.

  2. This brings back so many memories of my in-laws estate and the petty battles that ensued despite all the measures put in place to avoid that very thing.
    All my rings were lost in a robbery and it seemed pointless having them replaced if the same could only happen again.
    Now I have one ring left and 3 sons.
    What to do? I do like your idea of having recastings but I doubt I could afford the diamonds to go in them.
    There is something about the image of a crucifix that more often than not creates a chill. It's associations are myriad.
    Karen C

  3. My mother has been telling my sisters and me to put a piece of tape on the bottom of our favorite things in my parents' house so that when they die, we won't fight over them. I also feel sort of creepy about that, though —

    Again, your snippet of story at the end took me by surprise. I especially love the image at the end.

  4. When my mom died my dad wanted me to come and take whatever I wanted that was special to me. It seems 'vulture-like' but I did go in and take some things a few months after she died because they remind me of her. Nothing expensive. A charcoal drawing, a vase and a plate and a knick knack of birds. As my dad has severe dyslexia and is not able to read I took her journals and high school year books. I also have one of her rings. When she was dying she gave me the ring, the first piece of jewellery she ever bought for herself. To my (step) sister she gave a ring her dad (my step dad) had given her.
    At the end of the day none of the things I took were any value. Other than the ring, they are all things that would end up on a thrift store shelf. But these item speak to me and I love them. The were things my mom loved too. That means more than anything.

  5. My mother did the same thing, asking each of us to write our names on things that we might like to have when she died. She had three cabinets filled with ornaments from various places she had travelled to and some things that had travelled with her from Germany when we migrated in 1953. I told her often that I didn't want ornaments as I wasn't going to be bothered with all that dusting, but I would love to have two of the cabinets. when the time came, I was living in a much smaller place and had no room for any extra furniture, so my brother got them after all. He cleaned, polished and sold. And in the end, I didn't care about those things. I hadn't grown up with mum, so none of those things meant anything to me. All I have now from my childhood is a little elf ornament and my mother's rolling pin.

  6. My parents weren't materialistic. There was nothing of real value left when Mum died other than the house and even that didn’t fetch much. There was little any of us wanted. The one thing I thought we’d squabble over were the rabbits but, no, I was the only one interested. They found their way into Left:

    There was a tiled fireplace in two shades of mottled beige/brown with a raised kerb – Dad did it himself (typical nineteen-fifties) – with a pair of matching SylvaC Big Beige Snub Nose Bunny Rabbits perched precariously on either end. The rabbits sit on his windowsill now. They don’t work there. I wondered where I’d end up putting them. If I emptied the whole flat there was no way I could part with them. They were symbolic. And you hang onto symbols. They’d bought them on honeymoon in Dunoon of all places and they were the only thing that had survived the marriage undamaged, ugly things that they are.

    It’s not true that my parents bought them in Dunoon. That was where my first wife and I went on honeymoon. The rest is true; the rabbits were the only thing that us kids never managed to break. I’ve just been working on one of the old reel-to-reel tapes I was telling you about and, Christ, were we a handful. The machine was new, this sounds like their first go at recording and already Mum and Dad are talking about me having damaged a tape.

    The other two items I wanted were Dad’s writing bureau (and since I was the only one with a van that was an obvious although, again, no one else wanted it) because I’d spent hours hunched over his old typewriter there—it doesn’t go with anything in our living room but we’ve got used to it—and his Bible. By this time I’d made my decision to quit religion but I still coveted it. My brother did too and I wish I’d let him have it. He took Dad’s tapes instead. Dad was registered blind when he died and had the whole Bible on a set of tapes. There were precious few music tapes. I’d bought him some Bing Crosby and Mum some Ella Fitzgerald but neither of them listened to them more than once to be polite. They never listened to music once the TV arrived and the elegant old radiogram got thrown out and they never read anything other than Bible literature and nonfiction.

    Divvying up the photos was an interesting experience. Many were of relatives we had never met and even those few we had met we couldn’t identify but not one got tossed. It seems we were all in agreement there, that it was wrong to destroy any photo. (I once tore up two photos of an old girlfriend to impress a new one and to this day I’m filled with a deep regret bordering on actually guilt for that.) I took charge and marked on the back of each photo who wanted what and when we got home Carrie and I scanned them all and made sure that we all got copies; the originals were also split up as fairly as I could manage. And my sentimental daughter will take my box, stick it in her garage and in some 50 or 60 years’ time some stranger (her half-brother or sister, so a stranger to me) will decide their fate.

    I started writing Left with two things in mind: firstly I wanted to examine my own apparent inability to grieve and secondly, because I wondered what my daughter would make of me when she found some of the things that are lying around the flat. I remember looking around my parents’ house and it had so little character left. One couldn’t say that about this flat. Everywhere I look there are aide-mémoires but she won’t remember that the Linda Edwards elephant we got in Oban along with the print of the cow’s head (by a guy called Colin Bullock of all things). All of that will be forgotten.

    They say the Internet never forgets. That’s a good thing because none of the things I own matter nearly as much as the words I’ve cobbled together over the years. I would mourn their loss.

  7. Our mother had very little of value left; she made children and grandchildren take it away while she was alive. She told my sister to take her engagement ring and keep it for any grandchild or great grandchild who wanted to use it. She wanted her wedding band to go with her, and it did. How thin each was, after fifty five years on her finger.

  8. Much to my and my sister's amusement, one day we went around putting stickers with our names on things around my mother's house. My mother pretended she was amused, but I don't think she was. So who are you going to leave your computer files and blog to?

  9. you hit exactly upon the essential. you write about mortality and nostalgia, our hope to hold, in some way, time. after all, this is what these things represent to us, if not (and hopefully not) monetary value. i was surprised though and humbled to learn of your mother's thoughtfulness in regards to your brother and the clock, although the metaphor in its own way for him might be painful. but perhaps it is the best metaphor for holding onto nostalgia. the diamonds – i laugh to see them return to the ground, where they came from.

    in the end we must determine that the only place to hold nostalgia or history is in the intricate web that we have built over our lifetimes. this can be very painful if we don't accept it.

    i marvel at the poetic resonance of your story, as life writes itself so beautifully. can you imagine being in your mother's place and thinking of leaving these tokens of her life? what must she be feeling of life, love and existence? what will we when we are her?

    beautiful, elizabeth. your writing is beautiful and important.


  10. Enjoyed this very much. I remember when there were things I want. But I never could get past thinking how unimportant they were to having my parents still in my life. Over the years those things continue to loose importance. They have faded. I don’t even remember what I’d look for when the day eventually comes. I wonder if this comes with being now as old as they were when thoughts of them eventually not being here first began?

  11. When I was in the weekend market game I often went to auction rooms to pick through some Loved One's worldly goods, dumped there after relatives have torn through it all like a bulldozer. Aside from the furniture, kitchen drawers, etc, had been emptied into cardboard boxes. Among the knives and forks were broken biros, flat batteries, personal letters, gas bills, and even the odd diary. Other items swept from shelves were in there as well, including books, ornaments, keepsakes and wedding photos. There were always photos, lots of photos.
    Mr Youngs auction rooms in Camberwell – favoured by the suave – is where you'd find most of this.
    I'm out of the racket now but get amused when I see funerals on television. Relatives step into the pulpit for their Big Moment. "She's looking down," they say. "She's smiling." Oh sure, with phone bills perused by strangers and wedding photos on show for a joke at crappy weekend markets.
    If you've got money people will suck up to you. When you're dead it's payday. There's one sure thing at funerals: the bigger the inheritance the greater the emotion.

  12. There is very little association between the value of something and the sentimental value, I feel.

    I like your mother's reasons for giving the clock to your brother – do you think he will appreciate it, repair it and do as she hopes?

  13. my mother did the same. had us all select what we wanted and put our names under it. there wasn't much I wanted, didn't care for her taste in furniture. except I wanted my grandfather's morris chair and I wanted the antique garnets that had been handed down, both of which my mother has already designated to my brother, my brother who lives 2,000 miles away and didn't want any of it except because the garnets were specified in her will so they went to his wife who never ever wears them. so I did end up with the morris chair since he did not want to pay to have it shipped.

  14. It's such a complex business, distributing these precious things in a family. Luckily in my family we all wanted something different, and after my parents died it was quite easy to distribute a few things and sell off the rest.

  15. Our daughter has asked for her mother's rings, but otherwise it has mostly happened that family have chosen something from the deceased effects after death. I've heard tales of fights and squabbles among other families and can quite see how these might occur, but have had no experience of such.

    A really fascinating post. Thank you for it.

  16. It's a confronting thing to discuss and to consider and, in these past few weeks when my parents have been holidaying with us, my Dad said, "It'll all be junk after we die."

  17. It's hard among siblings, as in groups generally, Red Nomad. the most forthright and forward generally get the most. So perhaps it can be a lesson for both of us, 'ask and we shall receive" otherwise the others will get the lot. And as you say as an alternative we can comfort ourselves with the notion that the greatest value that lies in the sentimental.

    Thanks, Red Nomad.

  18. My wedding ring does not contain diamonds, Karen, so to cast it in silver even is not a drama. Gold of course would be more expensive – but four times over….

    As for the squabbles over what we leave behind, the best we can do is set a good example of how to behave in life ourselves, with gracious goodwill, alongside a good dollop of self-regard – and hope our children will learn to do the same.

    Thanks, Karen.

  19. I'm glad the image at the end worked for you, Elizabeth.

    It might seem a tad ghoulish or mercurial to add your name to an item in your parents' inventory as if marking your territory but it might help in the long run.
    Thanks, Elizabeth.

  20. I agree, Birdie, the best and most valuable things are those imbued with memories of our loved ones. the actual value counts for little. Though people can still fight over these. And vulture like as it might seem, i reckon the best time to give is before you die, when you're thinking you might be on your way out, but that takes a bit of maturity and an ability for all parties to bear the reality of death.

    Thanks, Birdie.

  21. That sounds sad, River. To have only an elf ornament and your mother's rolling pin to remember her by. But worst of all is the notion that you did not grow up with her, if I read you right. And you were born in Germany and came here in the early 1950s I take it. My folks arrived from Holland in 1950 and 1951. We share something in common here as children of European migrants.

    Thanks, River.

  22. I once destroyed a series of photos of a previous boyfriend, Jim. I cut them in half if I was in the shot too and kept the image of me but burned the photos of said boyfriend in the kitchen sink. I'm not sure I regret it. The gesture helped me to 'move on' as they say but I wish I'd kept a few more photos. I now have only one of this man and it has helped me keep his image alive in my memory and that's important to me. Given I once loved him.

    Your rabbits sound wonderful, rather like my mother's crucifix, valued for their connections to the past and for no other reason, certainly not for the aesthetics.

    As for unrelated people who have no compunction at getting rid of our precious objects in the long years ahead, I imagine that's inevitable,

    I occasionally sift through those old sepia toned photographs from yesteryear, the ones they sell in second hand book shops here and wonder about the stories of the people captured there. The photos are now so far from their origins.

    When I was in a writing class years ago our teacher encouraged us to buy the odd photo or two from such motley collections as an aide to writing. I gather the writer, Carol Shields did just this in writing the book The Stone Diaries.

    It's a fictional account of the life of one Daisy filled with photos, all of whom you imagine to be Daisy's relatives but all the photos are from different sources and few of the people in the photos are related to the character – no some are related t the author as i recall. Come to think of it they could not be related to Daisy. She is a fictional character. But strangely the p[people in the photos look related.

    What one person can make of another's cast offs never ceases to amaze me.

    Thanks, Jim.

  23. Those wedding rings on aged fingers can become so thin, joanne. mine too although it stayed as a thick band is beginning to thin after thirty plus years. After fifty years, it will almost disappear.

    I think it's a lovely thing to give things away while you live, that way both get the pleasure, the giver and the receiver.

    Thanks, Joanne.

  24. That's a good question, Andrew. In whose care will I leave my writing and blog? I suppose it depends on who might want the responsibility. It's not something you could easily divvy up.

    Now you've set me wondering.

    Thanks, Andrew.

  25. Thank you for these kind and lyrical words, erin. You give me cause to think again. How would I feel in my other's shoes. How do I feel when my daughters half jokingly squabble over my possessions, my rings. A little humbled perhaps. A little more aware of the business of my mortality.

    Thanks again, erin.

  26. There's quite a gap between being a young person imaging you might go on forever and your realization that your parents won't, Anthony. Soon enough as you suggest, our turn comes around and with it our attitudes to these matters change.

    Thanks, Anthony.

  27. My sister in law has salvaged a series of sewing baskets from rubbish tips, Robert. She imagines the families of the dead didn't see any value in these items and reckons it's sad that some one's handiwork had so easily been trashed. At least she can find a use for them.

    I once bid at Young's auction rooms for a set of six chairs when I was young and naive. I was so terrified after I put in my winning bid that I ran away. I worried that they'd come looking for me. What had I done? I thought. How could I bid at an auction? It wasn't an expensive set of chairs or anything, but still the gesture felt too impossible for me then. I haven't been back since.

    Thanks, Robert.

  28. You ran off? That's funny, I could imagine you doing it back then. I've wanted to do the same after bidding too much for something; it's called 'getting into a bidding war'.
    I suppose old Mr Young is a deceased estate himself by now, I haven't been there in twenty years or more. His two sons were trying out with the hammer then, one was pretty good, the other a dud.

  29. Nice clock and I have seen them before in Holland. My mother has also asked us to choose each one item but she hasn't written down anything. I don't have much emotional attachments but I like some pretty things.
    Lovely piece at the end!

  30. It's funny… my parents weren't particularly sentimental growing up with objects, and so neither are us three children. I can't imagine, besides the house, any of us wanting something physical to remember our parents by, and the house only because it's the only thing of monetary value, really.

    I'm trying hard to think what I would ask my mom for… but all I can keep thinking is, "One more day. One more day. One more day."

  31. I can't say how my brother would use that clock assuming my mother leaves it to him, Ellen. It would be good to think he'd take care of it, and then I wonder to whom he might leave it to when he dies, given he has no children of his own. The question of whether my mother wants it to stay in her family via grandchildren and great grand children into posterity is one I suspect she as not yet considered.

    Thanks, Ellen.

  32. I agree Jenny, the value of things more often than not lies in their meaning to us rather than in their actual value, unless of course we sell them when they get reduced to mere money.

    Thanks, Jenny.

  33. You're fortunate, Juliet, to have such an easy redistribution of your parent's assets. No squabbles. In my family I suspect it will not be so comfortable, though we might not brawl overtly only behind the scenes.

    Thanks, Juliet.

  34. You don't often hear of sons asking their fathers for their wedding rings after death, but it's commonplace with daughters, Dave, as far as I can see.

    I think sibling rivalry is a potent force alive and well in most families if not all. It just manifests itself differently.

    Thanks, Dave.

  35. I wonder, Kath, do you agree with your father that it''ll all be junk after he dies. I think not . Some will be deemed junk but there's bound to be stuff you'll treasure and your daughter likewise after you.

    Thanks, Kath.

  36. There's nothing set to stir up emotions like a bidding war, Robert. Imagine it in Youngs auction rooms – what happens when tempers flare and folks get into fisticuffs. Safer to stay away perhaps.

    Every time I walk past Youngs now I'll think of you.

    Thanks again, Robert.

  37. My mother tells me clocks like the one I describe here are everywhere in Holland, Marja as you confirm. I think I too would prefer to ask my children to choose, but I'd also like to hand things out well before I die.

    Thanks, Marja.

  38. Tracy, I agree, time with loved ones is more valuable – even invaluable -than anything they might leave behind, object wise, and yet, given that they will leave us inevitably, it's good to have a memento. But for you, young as you are, maybe not yet.

    Thanks, Tracy.

  39. Disputes are not uncommon among auctioneers and bidders but I've never seen fights between bidders. I sure wouldn't expect any among the posh crowd at Young's.
    Bidding is a contest, there might be times when you'll pay too much for something just to come out winning. You keep bidding when you know you should stop. It's called getting caught in a bidding war. Even old professionals can get sucked in.
    Mr Young senior had a good wit, he'd soften them up with some jokes. One day he was about auction a Blackwood table. Some fool had glued laminex across the top. "Oh," he said brightly, "that's a good idea."

    'Toorak Auctions' is actually in Hawthorn Road Caulfield South. The owner is (or was) a grumpy (but cuddly) Dutchman named La Ponda. Maybe you know of him.

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