Our memories of elementary school have a special flavor. Always sharp in focus - some enchant us, others make us cringe. Most people, no matter their age, can easily name their elementary school teachers from kindergarten through sixth grade without pause.
The good ones inspired us, the bad ones damaged us. Elementary school memories are preserved as clearly as the tiny school photos that remain stored in a shoebox, on the top shelf in the back of the hall closet.
Music class is one of my favorite memories. I had no talent, but I loved to sing. The songs inspired me. I loved the Woody Guthrie song, “This Land is Your Land.” I imagined our country spanning from “California to the New York Islands.”
Living in the middle of Ohio, I had no idea what those places were like, but I was sure they were as wonderful as the song described. Smack in the middle of the button-down 1950’s, sitting at my little desk, hands folded, I sang my heart out about holidays and patriotism. I felt safe and secure. My family life was not always so serene, so I looked forward to singing about peace and harmony.
I especially loved the song about grandfather’s clock. The song described the clock and how it was too big for the shelf – so it stood 90 years on the floor. Each time we sang the song, I heard the tick-tock and the hourly chime. I could see the kindly old grandpa. At the end of the song, the clocked stopped, never to chime again, when the old man died. I loved the drama.
My own grandfather owned a clock and I heard it chime on the few occasions we visited. My grandparents lived very far away and we rarely saw them. Their charming country farmhouse fit into the fantasy the song created for me, but the similarity ended there. During those few visits, after my boisterous brothers and sisters and I bounded into the carefully kept, distinctively child unfriendly home, tension mounted and our mother tried to keep us still.
Most of the time they put us in the den, in front of the television, far from the bone china, antiques, and Grandma and Grandpa. Above the din of the television, I heard the soft chime of a clock, calling out the hour from the forbidden living room.
From a carefully hidden position in the hallway, I could see the elegant beamed ceilings and floral carpet, the overstuffed chairs proudly placed in front of a red brick hearth. Perched high on the mantel, the clock sat, quietly chiming every fifteen minutes. I never forgot that distant, soothing sound.
After my dad died, my mother, sister and I divided up a lifetime of household goods and prized possessions. Keep this, toss that, donate this, cherish that. The three of us looked at a clock that came from my grandparents’ house. It was big and boxy and none of us wanted it. The chiming mechanism had been silent since my dad inherited it; he never got it repaired.
We decided it should stay in the family so I took it home with me after the funeral. Curious, I took to a clock repair shop to see if it was worth repairing. The repairman hit the chime and I was taken back 40 years, to a hallway in an imposing house, listening once again to a sound, and a feeling, that I had long forgotten. “Fix it,” I said, “no matter the cost.”
Two months later I cradled the clock in my arms and took it home. I don’t have a red brick hearth so I placed my heirloom on a shelf in our living room. The first time it chimed I was flooded with memories: of my grandfather’s lovely but unfriendly home, the song I loved, and the possibilities the clock held for my own grandchildren.
Some day, when I am gone, I hope a grandchild will hear the sweet chiming of each quarter hour and recall a generous and giving grandma who got down on the floor and played with blocks, baked cookies and played make believe amidst the steady chime of a lovely clock.
This grandmother’s clock is just right for the shelf and just right for a grandchild, and ready to pass down with love and care, every quarter hour.
Kathleen Vallee Stein