The Shape of Our Dignity: Grandfather’s Clock

Posted inCreative Voices

I remember the ticking sound that echoed through their house in Genola, Utah; a cadence to the moments spent with them. The walls of their home, filled with love and warmth. Grandma’s cooking, and grandfather’s clock. The clock was like a time machine. You’d arrive for your visit from the world of a normal pace, only to fall asleep and wake to a universe where time slowed, as if to be sure and provide you with every single possible moment with them.

The first thing I did on any visit was run straight for grandma and grandpa’s bedroom. It was like a museum of treasures. Grandma’s beauty trinkets lay askew on her bureau; remnants of meeting the day fresh and put together as she’d say. Her yellow floral-patterned powder box, its top tilted open. Sand & Sable, a soft proverbial scent. Her Avon brand lipsticks of ruby reds and plump pinks and curvy glass-topped bottles of perfumes neatly aligned, ready for use. Their bed with it’s elevated head. Down-feather pillows. A quilt made with love from a family member. An afghan crocheted by grandma draped at its feet. All of these things held grandpa, reading the Saturday morning cartoons or his most recently selected book.

I’d crawl up on top, scootch on in to his side, and pretend I was reading along with him. That is until I finally listened enough I could recognize the words and began reading for him. He taught me about Beetle Bailey, Snoopy, and Blondie. He’d read me the greats, like Hemingway, Faulkner, and Steinbeck. We’d often team up on a word search, of which he taught me his speed search technique and of which I still use today. There we were, two curious explorers, reading about adventures and spending the best time together.

I had him all to myself during this reading time. No one else came in to bother us. Not even grandma, telling us to finish up to come eat. The clock in the hall, still ticking away, as reading time turned to tickle time, and tickle time turned into afternoon naps.

Across the room, their wedding photo–displayed in an antique silver frame–sat on their dresser. One of the items I vividly remember, resting there gently for 62 years. The photograph holds them now; grandma with her wide welcoming smile and grandpa as tall and handsome as ever; evidence of their love and devotion.

It now hangs on my wall, among the memories my wife and I have collected of our kids, and our dreams. The wall has become a mural of artwork that reminds us we should travel more. School photos of the kids saddle the large mirror in which reads “Home is Where Our Story Begins”; a cliché quote that has become a stalwart virtue. Clear plastic clamshells encase dried corsages and boutonnieres from daddy/daughter dances. Among the asymmetrically oblique aligned frames and canvas lay broken clocks of various themes we’ve both discovered in rummage sales and have loved.

His clock was broken too. As the years of winding the key, the swing of its pendulum, and the collection of memories it held, began to lose control of the mechanics. I have one that reminds me of him on my wall. I found it at a yard sale. Nonetheless, it brought him back to me.

When we helped grandma and grandpa minimize their belongings to move them into an easier to care for home, the clock was a bit of a heated item. Everyone wanted it. Grandpa said it was broken junk, and the fighting wasn’t worth it. Toss it out, it’s not something we can fix. Little did he know just how much it held for me.

My aunt, knowing it was more than just a broken clock, took care of hiding it away so that it would once again hang in love. I was invited to speak about grandpa for his funeral, telling this very story of the magic of the clock; the very last time I wore a skirt to hide me. My aunt had no idea just how much I revered the time piece and let me know it was among some things she had. I’ve asked recently about it, as my memory seems to be forgetting the intricate details that muscle memory has had to overtake for space. It hangs in her home, after years of waiting for me to come collect this treasure. I’m not sure where it belongs, as long as it continues to hold what once was.

Grandfather’s clock, hung with love by my Aunt and Uncle.

Speaking with family has been hard for me. I’ve increasingly become more brave to just ask and tell about the missing time between youth and this aging me. I’ve sheltered myself, because of the fear of losing so many people in my life over the simple fact that I am queer.

When I came out the first time as a lesbian, it was a definitive line of stay or leave. It became so routine to just stop saying anything at all and only talk about the parts of me I knew loved ones would be fine with. Clearly today I’m no longer soft-spoken about who I am, and what fight I’m willing to scream for. I should have made the connection that I am me, take me as I am. In the long run, I think I’ve actually been the one to make that decision for them, and have unknowingly caused some of this disconnect. Something I’m exploring, working on, and hoping to be forgiven for.

Grandpa’s clock was magical. As we snuggled into large flannel-lined, canvas-covered sleeping bags, grandpa would stop the pendulum from swinging. He thought it would bother us in the dark of night. The clock, in its daily chore, chimed on the half-hour and would strike the toll of the hours as they passed. I knew it was the stop and start of the magic it held.

We slept soundly through the night. The first sounds of the morning were grandma and her BYU devotionals. She was most productive as the rest of the house lay a slumber. She’d listen to an hour of talks, clean and dust the living room, and prepare her famous chocolate chip pancake mix. The warming aroma of her cast iron skillet, seasoned with years of love and butter, greeted your nose as grandpa sang Good Morning Merry Sunshine.

He’d wind it up again, tapping the pendulum, and the echo of its ticking began to bounce against the walls. The chimes, round and pronounced, kept track of our hours and days together. It held the laughter of grandchildren. It witnessed the sound of grandma’s piano as we’d bang on its keys, and learn to play her favorite hymns. The metronome seemed to fall in step with the ticking of the clock. Or maybe it was the clock that seemed to play its own melody.

The magic the clock held gave us summer evening walks along the canal on the winding dirt road that led to the pond behind the cherry orchard. The one filled with thousands of dancing dragonflies, scuttling about, catching their fill of twilight dinner. It gave us more time helping grandma in her giant prize-winning rose garden, where overwhelmingly aromatic buds and blooming flowers seemed to be larger than my head. Time in grandpa’s perfectly worn leather chair, while my love for National Geographic shows was born from his passions. Time spent pouring over his Reader’s Digest and listening to him read me wonderful stories.

The clock holds all of our time; all of our memories. It holds our family and the love we share for one another. Grandfather’s clock, its ornate and calculated structure and brass pendulum, a shape of many of the favorite parts of my childhood, in a place where I was safe and loved.

Sean Childers-Gray is a designer, writer, trans advocate, and educator. This essay was originally published on his Substack, The Shape of Our Dignity.