Monday, July 30, 2012

Time and constancy

I spent a lot of time in my grandmother's house when I was a little kid, in the late 1930s and early 1940s. A big house, on 9th Street (now Martin Luther King Boulevard) in Chattanooga, Tennessee, filled with Grandma, Aunt Nellie, my mother's seven younger sisters, and her brother, the youngest of all, only two years older than me. I could draw a detailed architectural plan of that house from memory.

On the mantle in the living room was a big ornamental clock that you wound with a key in one of two holes in its face, one for the clockwork, one for the chime, the glass opening like a door. The clock chimed the quarter hour. All day, all night, every fifteen minutes, that sweet mellifluous sound punctuated our lives.

I was reminded of my grandmother's clock while reading Orhan Pamuk's The Museum of Innocence (I'll return to Kemal's happiness later). The narrator (Kemal) says of the big chiming clock in the house of F├╝sun's family: "[It was] not there to remind us of the time, or warn us that things were changing; it was there to persuade us that nothing whatsoever had changed."

There is some truth to that, I think. I doubt that anyone in my grandmother's house paid much attention to the clock on the mantle as a timekeeper. All the sisters would have had dainty watches, and Uncle Buddy couldn't have cared less about the time. Still, the clock chimed, like the breath or pulse of the house itself. The world outside was going to hell, a world at war, and the house breathed, in and out, steady, rhythmically, chime, chime, chime. We were alive, the house was safe, the world endured.

Ornamental chiming mantel clocks were common in those days. Ding. Ding-ding. Ding-ding-ding. Then the hour. A kind of pacemaker, keeping a family of hearts to a common beat. Those clocks would soon be replaced by television, and the shattering cacophony of the world outside would send us all our separate ways.