Recently I have become reacquainted with my grandfather’s grandfather clock. And the timing (no pun intended) couldn’t be better. As I join what I hope is the vast majority of us and “hunker down,” I do so in the presence of a beautiful antique grandfather clock that belonged to my grandfather. And as I often sit in near-silence and think and ponder and relax, I am kept company by the steady tick-tick of this centuries-old timepiece. Occasionally my meditations are interrupted (happily so) by the hourly chimes announcing the time. But for the vast majority of the time, it is the rhythmic tick-tocking that I hear.
They say that smell is the most powerful memory evoker. I agree. I have this crazy thing that happens whenever I chop garlic (which, if you know me and my love of cooking, is quite often.) As soon as I get a whiff of the garlic, I immediately think of my aunt and uncle’s kitchen, where we watched my now-deceased Uncle George prepare many wonderful feasts. Occasionally he allowed me to help, and once, years ago, he even turned over his kitchen to me so that I could prepare a meal for some friends. These are the memories that come flooding back when I crack a bulb of garlic.
I also think that sound is a powerful memory trigger, at least for me. For instance, every time I hear Saint-Saens Symphony No. 3 – “Organ” – I immediately recall my very first symphony concert, which my parents took me to in middle school. This piece was the featured selection that day at the Kennedy Center, and I can still picture the full orchestra arrayed on the stage, bows moving in unison, the conductor’s arms wildly swinging and waving, and the mighty organ chord that begins the fourth movement. That launched my (thankfully) brief foray into playing the cello. I’ll leave that to the pros.
And the tick-tock of my grandfather’s clock also brings back many memories, of their house and our visits there over the years. Christmas seemed to be where most of my memories reside, getting dressed up and making the drive to their house after a morning of present opening and enjoying at home. In my early years, I remember their house being decorated with lovely ornaments and holiday plants. As we entered and shed our winter coats on their long hall bench (which I am now honored to have in my home), we were greeted by delicious smells of a roast beef dinner to come. We would enjoy the holiday snacks as we patiently (or maybe not) awaited our turn to see what Santa had diverted to their house for us to enjoy. And at each holiday gathering, the clock tick-tocked steadily on.
Beyond Christmas itself, I also recall afternoons sitting on their incredible Persian carpet in the living room, playing with some of my father’s old toys. I remember a set of wooden blocks with letters and numbers that particularly interested the future architect in me. And my cousin, brother and I staged many a battle with my father’s various mismatched tin (yes, they were actually made of metal) soldiers. It wasn’t until later that it occurred to me that my father actually grew up during the dark years of the Second World War. He likely played with these toy replicas without any real sense of how – or if – it would eventually end. Yet just as I am sure he was kept company by the clock, so to was I, as sat Indian style on that magnificent carpet, building and fighting and imagining.
As we got older, we continued to make visits to my grandparent’s house. They later added a pool, which greatly increased our desire to visit, and kept us outside more than in. Still, after a day of sun and water, we would come inside to change and perhaps have dinner in. And still the clock carried steadily on, as it had for many years.
Now, as we find ourselves suddenly and dramatically facing a disruption to our lives, we each are challenged to find ways to cope and adjust and carry on. As we hopefully heed the advice of so many to isolate and hunker down, we are faced with a paradox. At times like this of stress and fear, in the past we have sought comfort through gathering together. Yet now, on the urging of everyone, we are instead being told to stay away from others. My scientific mind is fascinated by how this incredible social experiment may unfold. We are but at the very edge of this uncharted territory. With so much uncertainty and panic, I imagine each of us will dig deep to find those things that help us stay calm, and to remain hopeful. For me, it’s includes the comfort I get from the steady tick-tocking of my grandfather’s clock. This fine timepiece has stood by my family for centuries, through wars, economic upheavals and pandemics. And so it does its duty again. Not only announcing each hour (as it just did as I type this) with consistency and steadfastness, but also providing a constant soothing rhythm of tick-tocks.