1898. Hans Werner bent over his work table puzzling at the clock in front of him. In Baden-Baden, Germany, every tourist wanted cuckoo clocks from the Black Forest. This clock had come into Werner’s possession by way of a peddler. According to the peddler, the clock would not start and was, therefore, trash. Werner never met a timepiece he couldn’t fix. He took the simple wooden pendulum clock home to his workshop.
Working on the clock for weeks, Hans still hadn’t been able to make it chime. He picked up his awl and began to work on the clock mechanism when he cut his finger. A drop of blood fell on the clock face, and the pendulum moved. Werner sat upright amazed; he pushed his glasses up on his nose. Opening the clock face door, he moved the hands to twelve, and the music of the chime began immediately. This was the sweetest sound he had ever heard, and he sat transfixed counting the “bongs” of the clock.
As the clock struck the 12th note, Werner felt a pain in his chest. It was like an elephant sitting on him. He clutched at his shirt, his eyes bulged, and he fell off the stool, dead.
She shuffled, bent, and gray toward the bathroom. The nurse had just come to wake her to take a pill, so, Barbara decided to get up and begin her day. Her bathroom was only twenty steps away in her tiny, dark room, but it might as well have been a mile. The soreness and stiffness were always worse in the morning. Barbara’s doctors told her to keep walking, but there were days when that seemed impossible. However, she prevailed and managed to keep moving despite her 94 years. The last couple of years she had, more than once, wondered why she kept going. Barbara’s friends had all passed away, and her immediate family was gone except for the young ones, and they didn’t care if she existed.
Today promised to be a good day. Barbara’s niece, Karen, was coming. Barbara had moved into Assisted Living over four years ago, a present from her family for her 90th birthday! Although it wasn’t a bad place, it was lonely. No one came to visit, and the phone calls, which came regularly when she first moved in, were now sporadic and sparse. Karen had called last week to tell Barbara she would be stopping by. Barbara longed for visitors and was delighted whenever anyone stopped in.
As Barbara came out of her bathroom, she heard the wall clock chime seven o’clock. She smiled. Her failing hearing made it difficult to hear the chimes unless she was sitting in her recliner, looking directly at the clock. But this morning she heard it loud and clear. The clock had belonged to Mr. Hugh Gifford, her husband Tom’s, grandfather. After serving in World War I, Hugh wanted to buy his new wife a cuckoo clock from Germany, but all he could afford was this crude, wooden pendulum clock. It had no cuckoo, but its chime was the sweetest sound in the world. Tom always talked about the clock hanging in the hallway of his grandparents’ house. When his grandfather died, family members noticed that the clock had stopped.
Barbara had worried when she moved into her one-room apartment that the clock wouldn’t find a place, but Karen made sure to hang the clock where Barbara could see and hear it when she sat in her chair. Karen was an interior decorator and had placed all of Barbara’s favorite furniture in the room. The result was a room that was a source of pride for the assisted living complex. When new people were looking to move in, Barbara’s place became an example of gracious living. At first, Barbara had been proud of the attention, now it was just a bother. Barbara didn’t like the extra attention given to her by strangers.
Karen had been very specific when she called last week. “Go ahead and follow your normal schedule Aunt Barbara. Since I’m driving, I don’t know the exact time I will arrive. Traffic can sometimes be a problem.” Barbara resigned herself to the fact she would have to endure the questions from her table-mates at breakfast and again at lunch if Karen didn’t arrive. She headed out the door and down the hall toward the dining room.
“Good morning, Barbara,” a raspy voice behind her called.
Barbara turned to see Kiki. Kiki was a large woman who lived 2 doors down the hall. She pushed a walker to get around the building and delighted in covering its metal frame with artificial flowers and other seasonal decorations. Today snowflakes were hanging from the rails.
“Good morning, Kiki,” Barbara replied.
“I hear you have a visitor coming today. Aren’t you all dolled up!”
“Yes. My niece is to come sometime today.” Barbara wished she didn’t have to slow down so Kiki could keep up with her. Kiki’s breath was very labored, and it made Barbara uncomfortable.
“I wish I was having a visitor. You’re lucky your family still comes to see you.”
Barbara just nodded. She knew that most of the folks in her building never had visitors. Barbara felt a little guilty that she was feeling reticent about sharing the experience with her fellow residents. “It is nice, isn’t it?”
After breakfast, Barbara felt very tired this morning, more than usual. So, she decided to forego her usual loop around the building with its inevitable socializing. Barbara walked straight back to her room. When she sat down in her comfy green chair, she was relieved to put her feet up.
The clock chimed, and Barbara leaned her head back and closed her eyes. Hearing the clock always brought a flood of family memories of times long past. After Hugh’s funeral, Tom’s father, Paul, brought the clock home. The clock then hung in his study and Paul was careful to keep it wound.
One summer, when Tom was a teenager, Paul and the family went on a fishing trip to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. While there, Paul suffered a massive stroke. He survived but was unable to walk by himself or speak very well. Tom had been shown how to wind the clock, but he was always too preoccupied to pay much attention. The day Paul died, everyone noticed that the clock had stopped. Rumors swirled around that the clock’s stopping and Paul’s death were somehow linked. Tom had carried guilt about forgetting to wind the clock regularly. He confided to Barbara later that he believed there might be some truth to the rumor.
Tom had been a big man, 6 feet 4 inches. Barbara stood 4 feet 10 inches in her stocking feet, but now, she doubted that she reached the ten inches, probably more like six. Tom passed away from brain cancer fifteen years earlier, and for the six months leading up to his death, Barbara had spent her days in the nursing home where she had moved Tom when she could no longer care for him. She remembered the night she left the nursing home to arrive home and find that the clock was running slow. Making a mental note to wind the clock the next morning she had gone on to bed. During the night she received a call that Tom had passed away and when she checked, the clock had stopped.
A few years after Tom was gone, Barbara was diagnosed with Macular Degeneration. When Barbara realized that her eyesight was getting worse, she knew it was time to move into an Assisted Living facility. She didn’t mind dying. Right now, living was pretty tough with no one in the family to care about her and the stories she had to tell.
Barbara opened her eyes and realized she had fallen asleep. The clock chimed eleven o’clock and Barbara struggled to get out of her chair. Brushing her hair with her hands, Barbara walked out into the hallway and down to the main desk. Darla, the receptionist, was sitting there and looked up.
“Hi, Barbara. What can I do for you?”
“Well, it seems I sat down in my chair and fell asleep after breakfast. I wondered if I had missed a call or anything.”
Darla looked at a paper pad in front of her. “No, I don’t see anything. Are you expecting someone?”
Barbara laughed. “You must be the only one who doesn’t know. My niece, Karen, is on her way here. She didn’t know the exact time she might arrive.”
“That explains why you look so nice today.” Darla smiled at Barbara. Barbara knew that she was one of Darla’s favorite residents. “Of course, you always look nice, Miss Barbara, but you look especially good today.”
“Thank you.” Barbara turned to return to her room. She stopped at her mailbox on the way and found nothing this morning. It didn’t matter, with her deteriorating eyesight, she couldn’t read most mail anyway. Barbara had always been so attentive in sending birthday, Christmas, and get-well cards that it bothered her that she couldn’t do it anymore. Her handwriting was so bad that no one could read it and she couldn’t see the addresses in her book to write them down. It made her especially angry that she couldn’t write a decent thank you note. In her day, writing notes showed manners and courtesy.
Barbara sat down in her chair once again. She could feel the sunshine coming through her window and it should have warmed her. For some reason today, Barbara felt cold and tired. She laughed at herself, “Well, you are 94 after all!”
It was too early to go down the hall for lunch, and she didn’t feel like walking the halls, so she leaned her head back and closed her eyes. She took the quilt off the back of her chair and wrapped it around herself. She couldn’t explain why she was so cold this morning, but the colorful quilt her mother had made when Barbara was a child warmed her heart. She could still hear the old Singer sewing machine rat-a-tatting in the dining room on the farm, and the scent of her mother sitting next to her looping a pattern on the quilt. These moments on the farm were Barbara’s favorite memories. Barbara’s brothers did chores outside or in the barn but Barbara spent her hours learning to sew or cook.
Barbara thought about all her mother’s quilts she had saved and boxed. What would happen to them when she was gone, and would they ever cover and protect another child? It was sad to think they would be thrown out or sent to Good Will. She pulled her quilt tighter around her shoulders. Maybe she would talk to Karen about the quilts.
The clock chimed and Barbara sighed – time for lunch. She found getting up hard. Her body ached more than usual. But she knew if she didn’t show up at the dining room, the nurses would come and find out why, so she pushed herself onto her feet.
Lunch brought more questions and it seemed that everyone in the dining room knew of the impending visit. Barbara tried to be as gracious as she could, but inside she felt her stomach tighten, and her only thought was getting back to her quiet room. Barbara could remember her mother telling people about her shy daughter.
After lunch, the colorful quilt in her chair called to her and she happily sat down and wrapped the soft comfort around her shoulders. As she settled into the chair, the clock chimed, but the melody sounded different. She knew the pendulum was swinging more slowly than usual. Barbara tried to remember when the clock was last wound and decided to tell Karen to check when she arrived. It was hard getting anyone here to wind the clock.
Sitting here waiting brought back memories of times that Barbara sat in hospitals watching the people she loved lose their fight for life. Many years ago, her father, after a third stroke, lay in a coma for three days before he passed away. Two years later Barbara’s mother was diagnosed with uterine cancer in May, and Barbara was with her when she lost her battle in July. Tom’s brain tumor took Barbara to the hospital again. It was hard to watch Tom drift in and out of lucidity, and ultimately, he lost the fight as well. Barbara wiped a tear from her cheek from the memory. She wondered if anyone would sit by her side when her time came. Barbara shivered at that thought and sank deeper into her chair.
Barbara felt her mind begin to quiet as she looked at the clock. She could see the pendulum’s movement slowing and closed her eyes.
A nurse stepped into the room with her medical cart. She looked at Barbara in her chair, so small and fragile, and wrapped in the beautiful, colorful quilt. She called softly, “Barbara?” The nurse walked over to the chair and knew there was no need to shake Barbara. She turned to see a young woman appear in the doorway.
“Hi! I’m Karen, Barbara’s niece.”
The nurse shook her head and put her hands on Karen’s shoulders. “I’m so sorry.” As the nurse looked up, she noticed that the clock had stopped.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR:
This story was inspired by my Aunt Barbara, who lives in Assisted Living and is spry and witty for her 95 years. One of her prize possessions is a clock that her late husband, Tom, made when they were newly married.
Candi Lavender lives in Winston-Salem, NC with her husband of 48 years. She studied creative writing at Salem College and has had short stories published in Lulu Magazine, Gemini Magazine, and Academy of the Heart and Mind Journal (Jan, 2022). She teaches yoga, and loves to sew, read, write, and horseback ride.