Clockwork Heartbeat

When I was young, I spent almost every weekend with my grandmother, so my parents could fight or fuck without me looming around the house. Of all the things I enjoyed at that age, Super Mario, Star Trek, building forts, my favorite by far was digging through my grandmother’s old jewelery box. Musty and yellow from endless coats of nicotine, the box protected nearly a century of family history. Beneath the cheap costume jewelry, old foreign money, and the hospital bracelets given to my uncles after they were born, at the very bottom, tucked away in its own special white box was my great grandfather’s gold Elgin pocket watch.


As a child it was heavy in my palm, I remember tracing the laurel leaves engraved on the front rim with my fingers. It took a great deal of effort to simply open the watch, and get a look at the mystery behind the dial. The gears had a duel-tone swirl, which (had it worked at the time) would have kept me occupied for hours. I had a lot I wanted to take my mind off of when I first found it. My parents always fought, usually when money was tight (it was always tight), or when my mother ran out of her medicine. She could destroy an entire room if provoked while off her medication. My step-dad at the time was slowly being crushed under the weight of life’s failures, and a newspaper gone broke, so he settled those issues with a 1/5 of whiskey a night. I was afraid of everything, so to me, my life felt a lot like the inside of the watch: alluring, but broken none-the-less.


I begged my grandmother to let me take it home, she refused, and for good reason. Just a few months prior I pried open one of her old telephones, because I wanted to see how it worked, and I think she feared I’d do the same thing to the timepiece. So every time I spent the night, I’d dig out the watch from its hiding place and polish it, and gently spin its hands. One day I spent a few hours writing the numbers on the face because they’d been worn away. It’s best she didn’t let me have it at that age, I probably would have destroyed it by accident if nothing else (it’s not like I put her phone back together, I just tore it apart and left it at that).


A few years later, my mother and stepfather separated. I was never sure how much of it was my fault. I threatened to leave and go live with my biological dad. I told my grandmother late one night, and she told me she didn’t want me to leave. The next morning she gave me the watch. I know they knew I was terribly unhappy, but I also know my mother punched my step-dad right in the face, and she’s not a weak woman. I thought things would change after we moved into our new apartment. For a long time I believed my step-dad was the problem, so things would get better if it were just me and my mom, and for a short time they did.


I remember the last night there that I looked at the Elgin. It was around nine, and my mother was in the room beside mine, crying uncontrollably. Half an hour earlier she was cooking chicken nuggets, and she filled a skillet with half a bottle of oil. I made fun of her for using a ton of oil and she took it wrong, and started screaming at me: “Cook your own fucking food then!” After yelling back and forth she grabbed the center of my shirt and pulled me so close I could feel her heart beat. She swung her arm back, balling up her fist–and I mirrored. But we couldn’t do it, we couldn’t hit each other. She shoved me away saying flatly, “If you want to go live with your father, go, I don’t care.” She had a look like I’d deflated her soul. I’ll never forget it.


I reached under my bed and brought the watch out of its new home. I don’t know why, perhaps it was just the familiar feeling of my grandmother. Throughout my childhood, she became a symbol of peace, and break from the fighting. Holding it then I felt just as faded as the watch’s face, but with the decision before me, it may as well have been a compass. I could fly north and live with my Christian zealot dad, who I’d only met once before, or I could stay and wonder when the next fist fight would erupt over my mother mistaking a skillet for a deep-fryer. I called my dad, and asked if he would let me stay there—he agreed. I told my mother I was leaving. I packed up my belongings, save the watch, which I gave to my mother to keep for me.


I didn’t see it again until four years later, after I’d graduated high school. I went home to visit family, and try to raise money for an upcoming trip, part of which included a two month stint overseas, so my mother insisted I see her before I left. I spent a week with my parents who had quickly gotten back together after my departure. It was the most time I’d spent with them in four years. And the old adage of time and wounds proved true, not that I’d hold it against her; a raised fist isn’t 1/100th of the nightmare the woman could unleash. And age brought empathy for my step-dad as well, we cultivated a great relationship over the years. After a few days my mom brought out a few boxes of old things I’d left behind, and there buried under childhood photos, and a corn coated Christmas ornament I’d made in the third grade, was my prized pocket watch.


After a week of reunion (and me trying desperately to squeeze extra money out of my parents) they told me they didn’t have enough to support, but my mother offered to pay to have my watch fixed. I promptly found a jeweler in the phone-book (yes, those used to have a purpose other an filling garbage cans) who could repair it. Four days and $200 dollars later it ticked, for the first time in God knows how long. The gears spun, the hands turned, and the long smashed watch face had a clear new crystal.


As much as I wanted to take the watch, I couldn’t risk it getting lost in my travels, so I left it with my mother again, tucked under my old school projects and photos. After three short years of traveling though 36 states, 6 countries, and marrying the woman of my dreams we moved to be near my parents, and find work. We got jobs at the mall—a minimum wage hellhole—thankfully the stay was short-lived, but not without an immense loss. In late June of 2006 my uncle called me, and bestowed upon me the responsibility of telling my mother the bad news he didn’t want to deliver himself—my grandmother had died from a stroke.


She lived a life of misery: a violent alcoholic husband, a sex is shame mindset, and her last 15 years of life was spent in chronic pain, and loneliness. Whenever we spoke though she only wanted to talk about how much she loved looking after me. I was lost in my head over her death, and as horrible as sounds, I just couldn’t find the tears when I told my mother. She’s finally free, was all I could think. She’s become something bigger than all of us, and her life and heritage were ticking in my hand like a clockwork heartbeat.


A few months later we moved away, and I once again entrusted my mother with the precious relic because I knew it would help comfort her, help her grieve and find her own peace. Not a full year had passed, when a fire destroyed a quarter of their house. Starting from our old room it spread and destroyed most of our belongings, and a fair amount of my parents things as well. But when my mother rummaged through our old closet she uncovered one small, unscathed, corner. And there was my great grandfather’s watch, completely untouched.


Twenty years have passed since I first held the watch, a testament to those passed, and the power of family, however complicated. My watch holds a thousand memories, a million feelings, and still it ticks even after 89 years, a fire, and every conceivable up and down in between. When held, it’s like having my entire family in my hand, and when times are hard I find it, and bask in the peace it brings.


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