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Syndic Literary Journal

Chiming Clocks

By LeRoy Chatfield


How did I acquire my fondness for chiming clocks?

My only early childhood recollection of a chiming clock comes from my overnight stays at my grandparent’s house on the LaGrande Ranch, west of Williams, California. Grandma owned a wall clock with a glass front that showed the swing of the pendulum. She hung this clock in the alcove above the china closet in the formal dining room. If I remember correctly, it chimed the hours and the half-hours but not the quarter hours.

This clock played an important role in the spiritual regimen of my grandmother’s day, because by the last stroke of 8:00 PM, everyone in the house was expected to on their knees in the dining room, ready to recite the Holy Rosary with her. Truthfully, it was grandmother who actually said the rosary aloud in a crisp and articulate voice, while the others assembled mumbled their parts of the Hail Mary and the Our Father with their arms resting on the chair seats with heads bowed so low their mouths could have kissed the cushions. In the background of grandmother’s firm prayer recitation, the rhythmic ticking of the chiming clock could be heard and by the time – oh, would it never come? – the chime struck the half-hour, the evening prayer was over and all assembled were free to leave.

I have no other family recollections of a chiming clock. My teen-age and early adult years were governed by the ringing of a monastery bell, which among other messages, called us to prayer, announced the great silence for the evening and woke us before dawn in the morning. Perhaps, the sounds of these monastic bells became so etched into my psyche that only the rhythmic sound of the swinging pendulum and the chimes of a clock can satisfy it.

Within a year after our marriage, Bonnie and I began to accumulate chiming clocks. It seems bizarre to me now. We had so little money but yet we managed to spend fifty 1968 dollars on a restored mantel clock which we found in an antique store in Porterville, California. The wood surround of this clock, approximately 24 inches high and 18 inches wide was carved into plants with large tulip-like flowers sprouting from the ends of their stalks. It chimed the hours and the half-hours with a no-nonsense, flat sound. Our Porterville clock was not as comforting as I remember my grandmother’s clock, which gave forth sweet, soothing and melodious tones. But our first chiming clock was more imposing and made its own special statement. For more than 26 years, it proved to a veritable workhorse of a clock. Today, it sits on our family room fireplace mantel and keeps perfect time as it bangs out the hours and the half-hours. It must be more than 50 years old by now.

Our second chiming clock, a squat-looking mantel clock made of iron with its plain recessed face flanked on either side by marble columns belonged to Bonnie’s grandmother. It had been a turn-of-the-century wedding present. The clock, made by Ansonia, originally came from Massachusetts or maybe it was New York. The sound of its chime was softer and more melodious than the Porterville clock and it also chimed the hours and half-hours. The Ansonia clock served us well for more than 15 years but despite the best efforts of several clocksmiths, it couldn’t keep the pace and now sits relegated to the closet waiting for a new owner to resurrect it to its former glory.

It was these two clocks in our Delano home that gave my Dad fits. He was a light sleeper and an early riser and during his occasional visits, he became annoyed with our clocks throughout the overnight hours because they did not chime in unison. In fact, they might be out of sync with each other by as much as five minutes. On the first morning after his arrival, he would take great pains to reset the clocks so that during his visit they chimed in unison. Chiming clocks not in complete harmony with each other violated his mechanical sense of law and order.

I am still embarrassed to admit, as I write this essay, that our grandfather clock was a mail order item from the American Express catalogue, eight hundred 1978 dollars.  It is a 7-foot replica of an early American grandfather clock. Having ordered the clock on impulse, I had no idea what to expect and when it arrived, unassembled, in a very large box, I went into a state of high panic. My innate ability to read and follow assembly directions is so poor, it cannot even be measured. By some miracle, or dumb luck, I succeeded in putting it together and after the first swing of the pendulum, that grandfather clock owned the house. A forty-inch swinging pendulum, three sets of chimes from which to choose and every quarter-hour marked by deep and resonating tones which filled our large two-story house. Mail order or not, replica or not, that clock keeps perfect time and commands the respect of all who see or hear it.

Our kitchen wall clock is known as a school clock. A vertical, rectangular looking clock with a glass front and a large, but plain face. It marks the hours and the half-hours with a clear, pleasant sounding chime. For many years we had to make allowances for this clock because despite all repair efforts, it ran up to twenty minutes fast. Much of our time was spent setting the clock backwards to the current time, knowing full well that within a day or two it would race ahead.

At some point in our marriage, perhaps a gift to the two of us from Bonnie, we acquired an anniversary clock. So named, of course, because the clock needs to be wound only once a year. Its pendulum, a stem with three balls attached, equidistant from each other, can be seen through the glass from all directions. The pendulum turns first in one direction, pauses, and then turns back in the opposite direction. Six inches high, it sits on the bric-a-brac shelf and never makes a sound. Perhaps its chime and its charm are simply visual. I have never seen an anniversary clock that kept any semblance of the correct time, and ours is no exception. Decorative and pretty to look probably sums up its value.

Bonnie purchased our most recent chiming clock in 1979, as a gift for me.  It stands about sixteen inches tall and has a square look about it. It has glass windows on both sides and an inside mirror attached to the back wall to show off the mechanical workings of the clock. With three sets of chimes from which to choose, it delivers each quarter hour with a progressively longer fanfare and the melody finally comes to fruition when it chimes the full hour. The tick of the clock is soft and pleasant; the sound of the chimes rich and melodious and it keeps perfect time.

Our Sacramento home on Normandy Lane is large enough to give each clock its own space. And when I wake up in the middle of the night, as my father before me, I hear the clocks, each with its unique chime, strike the hours, and even though it might take as long as fifteen minutes before each clock has announced its hour, for some reason, the lack of synchronism does not offend my mechanical sense of law and order.


Compiled/Published by LeRoy Chatfield
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