Grandma’s Clock

Grandma's clock

The other day I decided I needed to start a project I had had in mind for a while: cataloguing the various “heirlooms” from my family. I suppose writing about de-cluttering the other day has been an additional kick up the backside. Today I made a small start, and the most important item among those photographed was, of course, Grandma’s clock.

What better way to kill two birds with one stone than to write it up and turn it into a riveting online read. I know you are all absolutely desperate to know more about it.

When I was little I loved to sit and watch Grandma comb her hair. When I studied German as a teenager I completely understood the Lorelei, who sat and combed her hair, luring sailors to their doom on the Rhine. I could identify with the men who became entranced; it was like that, watching Grandma. Her hair never went grey apart from a little stripe at the front. The rest was auburn, and fell to her waist when she let it down from its cage of pins.

My grandmother lived with us, so she was very important to me. She read me stories and showed me how to make jam, and always loved my pictures, no matter how awful they were. Mostly I sat with her downstairs in the old battered leather armchair with the horsehair stuffing poking out of the seams, and we read books and drew pictures. Sometimes she got a little muddled and called me “Win”, thinking I was her dead daughter. In my thoughtless way I’d say “No Grandma, I’m not Winnie, she died!”. Way to go, EBL.

Less often I would go up to the bedroom and sit with her. Those occasions felt more special. Her bedroom was definitely hers alone, whereas downstairs everyone was in and out. She had all sorts of her treasures in there, and I liked to play with the jars on her dressing table, laying out the hairpins in patterns and sorting them into sizes. I was that kind of child. Her dressing table also boasted photos in sepia of more dead people, her brothers killed in the trenches of France, and her clock.

“I don’t wind up the chime,” she said a little sadly, “because it’s too noisy for other people.” She meant my parents. “It’s a lovely chime though.”

So of course I wanted to hear it, and so she wound it up just one turn and we listened to it ring. It was pretty and I wanted it to ring all the time, but she shook her head. It wasn’t like my grandmother to be quiet if she wanted something, so I suspect that the chimes also brought back memories she preferred to stifle. I was being allowed a rare glimpse, and I took the crumbs.

She told me about different clock chimes and sang them to me, and we went through “Oranges and Lemons”. She told me about old London churches too, being as she was a Londoner. Then she sang “Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner” as well. I sang it too.

“You’re not a Londoner though,” she said. “You weren’t born in London.”

It was like that bit in Last of the Mohicans, where Chingachgook says he is the last of his people and Hawkeye’s heart breaks. Well, my heart didn’t quite break, but it hurt, even though she was quite right. I was born in the Royal County of Berkshire.

When Grandma died my parents couldn’t find the key for the clock. It must have been caught up with the things that were thrown away. I insisted on keeping the clock though. It was 35 years before I found someone willing to clean it up and get it going, and now it sits on our mantelpiece and chimes irritatingly over the top of the television, usually at that bit right at the end when there’s a cliffhanger for next week’s show.

The man who fixed it for us stripped it right down and built it up again. Grandma had told me that her clock was a wedding present. I wish I had asked from whom, because it turns out that the clock is older than I thought. Grandma was married in 1910 but the clock apparently dates back to 1860. I assume it was a hand-me-down but I can’t quite work out who would have had it originally. It’s not particularly valuable; these clocks were quite common I understand, and I have seen several similar ones, although nothing exactly like it. Her own parents were married in 1877, so it was unlikely to be theirs except as another hand-me-down. My grandfather was illegitimate. The previous generations married in the 1850s so a little too early. It’s the typical genealogical conundrum, with endless possibilities and no chance of an answer. Don’t try family tree unless you are comfortable with uncertainty!

Anyway, that’s the tale of Grandma’s clock. It’s a big old alabaster Victorian monstrosity and I love it. When it chimes, she is with me still, combing her beautiful, long, auburn hair.

What objects hold memories for you?



How long we live, how long we take to die

One of my hobbies is researching my family tree. I’ve been at it since I first saw some old sepia photos of forebears when I was a teenager and my Dad was looking for something in a cluttered bureau. For once he was willing to talk about his family history and I scribbled names on the back with a pencil in my flowery teen-girl handwriting.

My family came alive to me. The great-uncles who died in the Somme suddenly became faces of real (albeit antique) people, gazing solemnly into a camera. My own grandmother, wrinkled, toothless, crippled by arthritis, was a beautiful young woman in a lacy Victorian blouse. Her fiancée looked like a film star. My very serious uncle was a tiny baby kicking his feet as he lay on a rug. My Dad’s sister who died when she was seven, and whom my grandmother occasionally mistook me for, stood clutching a teenaged Great Aunt Lettie’s knee and looked like just like me.

Lettie with Alf and Winnie Tricker

In this way my family still lives on. I never really knew them. They are my inherited ghosts. But from then Armistice Day did have meaning.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning,

We will remember them

So life goes on, and we all carry our ghosts with us, some more than others, some gladly, some sadly. Yet still they matter.

My dad died very suddenly on 26 September 1992. This week was the 21st anniversary of his death and my mother missed it more utterly than ever before. Even last year she was vaguely aware of it, and I was able to remind her so we had a few moments together remembering that kind and gentle man before her melted brain turned back to the weather as a topic of conversation. Dementia robs the person and their family of memories, including memories of those no longer with us.  In this way it exterminates the sufferer and their family line. There is a Maori concept of whakapapa which relates to the identity of a person as part of a cultural heritage, and I feel that remembering our predecessors is important to us in a similar way.

I remember my Dad. I have stories about him, some buried in this very blog, which I tell my children. He died the weekend I went home to visit and tell him about his latest grandchild, due to be born the following Spring, He was so happy with the news, but still he died a few hours later, after he got home from work and before my mother and I got back from a concert. It was unexpected.

Twenty one years is a long time. The grandchild is now at university. His wife is fading slowly and excruciatingly.  His only daughter is still misses him on a daily basis. It feels like he is in the next room, or about to phone. We were very close, and in a sense still are. He has been dying for twenty one years, in a sense, and will not completely pass away until I, and possibly the children, can no longer remember him.

What will become of more modern generations? How long will my blog be archived after I am no longer around updating it? I’ll be a wispy little ghost in the machineries of the Web. Every now and then my shade will whisper to you…


Families and other stories of the imagination

I only met two of my grandparents: my father’s mother and my mother’s father. My Grandma lived with us, so I saw her every day. My Granddad lived in Croydon, caring for his step-son and daughter-in-law. His step-son had learning difficulties (we used a different term in the 1960s which wouldn’t be acceptable today). He dribbled but was really nice and taught me to play chess.  His wife, who was disabled from polio, was mentally very able indeed, and she made sure he was safe and secure. However, she was quite bad-tempered and not fond of children, so she didn’t really teach me anything except that being disabled is no excuse for being bad-tempered.

However, I heard lots about my other grandparents, so they were quite real to me. It felt like I had just missed them; that they had popped out for a minute but maybe I’d see them next time.

My dad had mementos of his father which he occasionally showed me. There was his medal, for a start. I used to think it was for being a hero in the war, but it turned out to be a tug of war team medal. He was quite sporty, it seems, because I have photographs of him on the football team and cricket team. However, he lost an eye in the war, so was definitely a hero.

My mother’s mother died terribly young, of cancer, in my mother’s arms, just before my mother’s 15th birthday. It was awful. Her photos show her was young and beautiful, although she was 50 when she died so I suspect they are a little misleading, like Mary Queen of Scots who was old, wheezy and rheumatic on the scaffold rather than the young, beautiful heroine people like to think. Not that it matters. Death is death, and usually early.

I started researching my family tree because I wanted to know more about my family, the ones who had just popped out as well as the ones I knew in person. It turns out that family history can reveal polite fiction or cherished beliefs as the shams they are. I have found out a couple of truths by looking into the records over the years.

One of them I didn’t share with my father because it would have been a bit of an upset for him. My grandfather had lost an eye, and my dad always thought it was during the war (I am talking about the 1914-1918 war). One day I managed to unearth his military records and discovered he already had a growth on his eye when enlisting, and that he was discharged because he needed an operation and lost his sight. Given that my grandmother lost a number of brothers to the trenches I don’t think anyone in the family was upset by this. It must have seemed a fair price. But what do you tell a small boy about his daddy during the war, when he wants to know?

The other thing I discovered about my grandfather was that not only was he interested in bell-ringing (I knew that from day one, as my dad used to listen to church bells and tell me about his father), but he had a couple of plaques for ringing a peal of Stedman Triples, and a peal of Grandsire Triples, with his friends. All I can add is that over 5000 changes were involved for each. It sounds a lot.

The bell-ringing fascinates me. I happen to have some friends who are keen on it, and they are all computer geeks. They claim it’s common for that to be the case, something to do with the patterns and sequences being like code. I don’t know if it’s true, but I do know when one of them showed me the pattern for a Stedman Triple it made total sense immediately, and apparently not everyone has that reaction. On the other hand coding bores me to death; I’m a hardware girl. Give me a router or server, and I’m happy.

Still, I like to think of my grandfather, the lesser known, shadowy one, as a computer expert born a couple of generations too early. That is where myth starts to intrude on truth again.

Once people are dead they have defence against our prying. I suspect a black hole of documentation will follow our generation as computerised records are deleted and the faded, dog-eared old accounts of births, deaths and marriages fade away. We may yet be more shadowy and harder to know than our own grandparents; and if family stories are anything to go by, our blogs are as unreliable as our stories for children.

My grandfather was illegitimate; I am not sure anyone knew. I don’t care about such trivial detail, but somewhere my grandma is spinning her ashes into a storm over my casual reference to it in public. If she has her way I’ll be in trouble tonight. Likely I’ll be sent to bed without supper.

My grandfather’s father, apparently unaware that he had a child, died regretting that he never had a family. He married late and they didn’t have children of their own. It is of course possible he wasn’t actually the father, but as his name is a little unusual it was probably true, or, if not, one of his brothers was a conniving bastard (also possible). It is equally possible he did know but had to maintain another polite fiction for the sake of the missus.

Some things paperwork cannot tell you.

It is even less likely that the Internet is a reliable resource.

But least reliable of all are fond memories which may have been created to paper over cracks and shore up esteem.

My family weren’t psychopathic liars; they just had to cope with the values and morals of the day. They did nothing unusual in protecting their good standing, and in giving the next generation self-respect and pride. How far do little white lies stretch until they become recorded truth? They portray us as we want to be remembered. Even what I have told you here is circumscribed by my perceptions and interpretations.

In making peace with ourselves, do we inadvertently do so with smoke and mirrors?