10/28/2013 09:24 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Wind-Up Clock Chronicle

by guest blogger Renee James, essayist and blogger

On April 17, 1915, my late uncle's parents, Tony and Anna Sabatino, selected and purchased furniture to fill their home as newlyweds. Their entire order, totaling $202.45, included the following, and I have the handwritten receipt to prove it:
  • 2 tables: $16.50 and $2
  • 1 stand: $5.00
  • 1 princess bedroom dressing table / 1 bedroom dresser: $38.50
  • 1 buffet: $30.00
  • 6 chairs: $22.00
  • 2 chairs: $4.50
  • 12 chairs: $9 or .75 each
  • 1 couch: $16.50
  • 2 rugs: $17.50 and $8.00
  • 1 spring: $6.75
  • 1 bed
The bed was a gorgeous, sturdy double-size frame, and brass from head to foot. It was also the most expensive single item on the list: $34.20.

More than 98 years later, as we settled my aunt and uncle's estate, I took the bed. When we brought it home, the brass was a color that can politely be described as having "the patina of age," but would more accurately be called army gray-green, plus a finish I called "the perfect blend of murky and dull."

I was undeterred. With brass polish, an old toothbrush, a pile of clean cloths that quickly turned black and green, and windows thrown wide open, I spent evenings and weekends wiping, polishing, and repolishing the headboard and footboard until they gleamed. After almost a century, there was not a nick on it, not a scratch. It was pretty much perfect.

Tony and Anna also owned a Sessions Mantle Clock of unknown vintage. It may have been a wedding gift, or they may have purchased it around the time they furnished their home. I never saw it working at my aunt's house, since it was positioned on top of the kitchen cabinets. After decades of silence, it now sits on a shelf adjacent to every bit of (confounding) entertainment technology in our family room.

What I love about the clock is that unlike every single gadget that surrounds it, I know exactly how the it works. It doesn't blink. It doesn't glow. It depends on not one satellite for accuracy, nor on one voltage amp of electricity. It doesn't have a remote control (or three) and features no menu. It makes noise because one object strikes another, not because it has a sound programmed into its software. A tinkling bell announces the half hour, and sonorous "bongs" count off each hour.

I've learned how to wind it weekly to reach just the right amount of tension in the brass springs, and how to use the small end of the key to adjust the time if I find it runs fast or slow. In just a few weeks, the ticking and chimes of the clock have become part of the soundtrack that says "home" to me.

I've been thinking about the bed and the clock a lot lately. Yes, they remind me of my aunt and uncle (and Tony and Anna), and I cherish them for that reason, but they do more than that. They are real-life, hands-on proof that not everything is disposable; not everything becomes entirely outdated and useless in a matter of months. I've never seen a municipality or school schedule a "turn in your old brass bed" day or read a notice about a recycling center accepting antique wind-up mantle clocks.

But I'm a little fearful as well. When I explained the workings of the clock to one of my sons, and showed him how to wind the springs, he asked: "Isn't that a lot of trouble?" When I showed off the brilliant brass that resulted from my elbow grease, another asked if the finish would stay or if it needed repeated polishing. Both fair questions, I guess, but they voiced their default position on many things: If it's not automatic, if it's not wired, if it's not maintenance free, are we sure it's worthwhile?

This thinking isn't specific to their generation--I get that. Society seems to react to "progress" similarly, from doubts about the horseless carriage to skepticism about Google Glass. I'm certain thousands of 1960s-era parents begged their children to get those transistor radios away from their ears before they went deaf.

Back to the unasked question: Is it worthwhile? Well, here's my answer to my sons--and no, it's not in the spirit of "Come the revolution...." I hope when they're my age that they still know what authentic means. That they recognize craftsmanship, and not just because the latest technology (assuming anything is still handheld) comes in a sleek new package that's 0.006 ounces lighter than the previous version. I hope they know that not all possessions are disposable and some things can outlast a generation--or two or three--and still be as functional as they ever were. Finally, I hope they see technology as useful, even as amazing and critical and phenomenal, but always, always temporary at best.

And some day, when they're cleaning out our house and choosing their own keepsakes, I hope someone really, really wants that brass bed the same way I did--and carefully polishes it back to perfection. I also hope someone loves the Sessions clock and winds it dutifully each week. For all the same reasons I did, way back in 2013.

Renee A. James works at Rodale Inc. and also wrote an award-winning op-ed column for The Morning Call, the Allentown, PA, newspaper, for almost 10 years. Her essays were included in the humor anthology, 101 Damnations': A Humorists' Tour of Personal Hells (Thomas Dunne Books, 2002), and are also found online at Jewish World Review and The Daily Caller. Her blog, It"s Not Me, It's You, addresses topics that mystify her on a regular basis.


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