Time marches on

Time seems to stand still in these days of isolation, each day feeling much like another with little to break the monotony from dawn to dusk. There are reminders all around us though that time moves inexorably forward, from the hum of desktop computers to the steady ticking and hourly ringing of a lovely old mahogany caseclock gracing one corner of our family room.

The clock, with its hour-striking calendar movement and painted pendulum visible through a little round window, was made by William Parkinson (1739-99) of Lancaster, in northwestern England. The engraved silvered dial, signed by Parkinson – most likely early in his apprenticeship or career since he failed to leave enough room to write “Lancaster” in full – is flanked by four chased brass figures. The seven-foot-tall case, with period seaweed marquetry, has a flat, canted top, a stepped, chamfered trunk, and a rectangular base set on four bun feet, one of which requires a small wedge to properly balance the pendulum’s swing. Even so, there’s a deep oval depression inside the wooden case where the heavy disk has swung a tad too far over the past couple of centuries.

I know nothing of the Georgian caseclock’s early life in the 18th and 19th centuries, I just remember it standing at the end of a long hallway in my grandparents’ stately home in Michigan. I doubt it was an heirloom; more likely selected in 1914 while their house was being built – along with volumes of uncut, leather-bound books to fill the library shelves – by an interior decorator tasked with replicating the style of an English Renaissance manor.

My grandmother was in her mid- 80s but still an elegant, imposing woman of six feet by the time I was old enough to be her “best beau” and escort her down that hallway, enveloped in the delicate fragrance of her Wood Violet perfume, for an awkward amble to a decade of Sunday lunches – terrified that she might trip and topple on me along the way. We moved slowly and cautiously from the sherry-scented library, over a series of long, Oriental carpets, pausing near the old clock to navigate the entrance to the dining room, and then on through to the small Chinoiserie breakfast room that looked out on Lake St. Clair.

After she died in 1974 the grandchildren were told to make a list of a few things we would like to have; the longcase clock was at the top of mine because it had been such a familiar friend from Sundays past – and because it was ancient, mechanical, and exotic all at the same time. The clock was carefully crated, put into storage, and then shipped to California when my parents moved west later that year. My father and I set up the clock in their living room where it fit perfectly and where it ticked away (with weekly windings) for the next 43 years. When my parents’ house was sold three years ago, my grandmother’s clock finally came home to me in the back of a station wagon, and today, as it has for the last 260 years, the antique movement keeps perfect time – as long as you remember to wind it.