There are things in many of our homes that we may not be able to explain.
Like the clock. Where did it come from? Was it bought at a flea market, maybe in Englishtown or Lambertville? Was it a gift for some unremembered event from some long forgotten donor?
One thing I know is that it was not a souvenir from a trip. I have an uncanny talent for recalling every tchatchka I ever bought in some exotic or otherwise foreign location. Hence the recollections that I share with you now may be totally fictitious. But I think they are not!
The clock doesn’t tick or tock. A long time ago, before it sat on our mantle, when it was buried in the accumulata (a word that should be a word) of Pop and Peshka’s Bed-Stuy basement, cellar if you prefer, someone, probably Pop, realized that it was cracked beyond repair. So, before he could bring himself to toss it out, he glued it. It has a face that would not sell in an antique shop. It’s actually a face that would stop a clock. It is thick with the glue he used, which clearly was not designed to be inconspicuous. But the glue has passed its warranty by many, many decades, so Pop did get value for his money.
Once upon a time it was beautiful. Hand painted, important, even magnificent, it would have been at home in a royal palace or an elegant Fifth Avenue living room. It might have bonged at midnight as Cinderella lost her glass slipper when she ran from the ball. How in the world did it find its way to a modest Brooklyn house shared by an elderly couple and a chubby mutt named Phoebe?
No living person can tell us the provenance of the clock. That includes my husband and me, its owners. Only we care a whit about it, and that’s because it sits in our house. Lately, as I am the recently named pandemic house-cleaner, I study it more than before as I wipe away the dust and shine the ornate and delicate hands, hands that serve no purpose at all except to shout, “Look at how beautiful I am.” The crystal, the dial, the face, all scratched beyond redemption. But, in my own tarnished beauty, I ask them “where have you been? What have you seen? What do you know?” Tending to its needs has made it more precious to me. That’s often what happens with possessions.
There are hints and suppositions about its history. My mother once said she thought that it was found in the big house in Parksville. The Bauman House, our family’s Catskill Mountains hotel, consisted of three buildings. There was the little house, a traditional New York State farmhouse, reconfigured to become a 10-bedroom rooming house with a porch that was a sponge of my best memories as a kid. As we sat there with the other kids and some grownups, it was the hangout par excellence, especially on a rainy evening, when the drops would tenderly meet the lushest summer leaves, the very inspiration for the words safe and cozy. The grownups, women mainly during the week, would play cards or mah jongg, while we kids would talk and laugh and even fall in love with each other when puberty hit.
The clock couldn’t have been hiding in the little house. We explored it so thoroughly. Nothing remained hidden from us. The crannies and the nooks were known to us. They did not shelter the clock. And this was my mother’s thinking as well.
The middle house was born as a barn. Peshka’s cows lived downstairs and generated huge quantities of milk, which she churned into butter for the hotel guests to worship. Where else did you find homemade butter, fresh milk, and their many byproducts? Not at their homes in the Bronx or Brooklyn. They came back season after season, every summer, until Peshka could do it no more. Not a one of them, almost a century ago, worried about too much cholesterol. They only worried about not enough butter. Peshka assured them that they need not worry.The upstairs of the middle house was transformed into a casino, a word known in the Catskills, and perhaps nowhere else, as an entertainment venue. There was no gambling. James Bond would have remained unimpressed. But the casino was a necessary item in the Borscht Belt, a place where the band of high school musicians would play dance music several nights a week. Other nights were dedicated to Bingo or movies.. Saturday nights always featured shows. Some of the most famous comedians in early TV got their starts in the Catskill casinos. No place there for a clock to be hiding.\
So it had to be the big house, which was built in the 1800s as a summer mansion. It was three floors high, with broad hallways and a thrilling gazebo that led from the second floor and hosted probably thousands of games of hide and seek. Its first floor rooms were wide and spacious, with a ballroom large enough to eventually become the hotel dining room. There were corners and hidden spots all over. I remember the barren feeling walking into that dining room when the hotel had ultimately and reluctantly become a rooming house where each family cooked alone, what was called a kuch aleyn. I swear that huge empty space, filled with deserted tables and chairs (two of which sit wobbling in our house today), was filled with the ghosts of long-gone guests, who always left it full and content, living from meal to meal.
The second floor had many bedrooms, none equipped with a private bath. Each had a little sink, beds crafted of some kind of ornate metal, and one or two small wooden dressers, each with a mirror affixed to it. Spartan would be an appropriate adjective. And often cold. A portable electric heater was available on request but use too many of them simultaneously and the fuses would blow, so chilly nights were wed to heavy comforters.
Summers in Parksville were not like summers in the city. That was the good news. And the bad.
The third floor always scared me. It was up a steep staircase (think Amsterdam), with steps that creaked. There was a very long hallway with no ornament save for a small lonely light bulb. It had three bedrooms, and my suspicion was that the original owner saved that floor for the servants. No toilet facilities on that floor, and to call it a firetrap was eminently fair. As a matter of fact the Sullivan County Fire Department did exactly that, requiring the installation of a fire escape.
One other wing of the building was home to the coal room where my grandfather, Pop, would descend early — at about 4 every morning — to stoke the fire that would provide the houses with hot water. Peshka already would have been busy in the kitchen getting breakfast assembled, while Pop slaved over the fire. Running a hotel was hard work. Very!
The big house would have been the likely home of the clock. Perhaps in the entryway, nestled on a fine parqueted oak table? Or in the adjacent little office, with its gated window where guests would pay for their visits and say their farewells? The clock would have added a bit of beauty to the transactional nature of the office. It would not have been on the spooky third floor or the blackened coal room, or in the private spaces that were the bedrooms. It would have been lost in the main dining room. The office is my best guess. It would sing out on the hour and would have been both functional and whimsical.
But somewhere in time, someone dropped it. It was grievously injured. I did enough damage as a child, but this I did not do. Mom would remember her entire life that it was I who spilled an entire bottle of ink on her new silky shiny silver bedspread. She was not vindictive at all, but of course this event did not bring happiness. I can’t forget how proud she was of the bedspread, how enamored of it she was. I spilled the ink only a day or two after she had first put it on the bed, and she was devastated. All these many years later, I still feel the intense guilt. I ruined, irreparably, her treasure. So, trust me, I am innocent of dropping the clock. But not of spilling the ink.
I could never explain why I chose to sit on the new bedspread with a full bottle of ink. Some things defy logic. But I definitely am not guilty of dropping the clock. For sure that perpetrator is resting in peace, while, as if to spite him, the clock remains more or less intact.
The truth is that we will never know what really happened, only that that clock was precious and lovely and none of us could bear to throw it in the trash. For a family that lived mainly with few ornaments, the clock was a rare objet d’arte. Even with its naked scars, the thick map of glue, it was still beautiful. And it still IS.
Dear clock, you and I have lots in common. We’re old and scarred and filled with memories. And one day your story will resonate with a new owner, a family member who will assume your story is fact, not fable. As it probably is.