When our family achieved a state of prosperity that allowed for luxury items, my father decided to buy an object evocative of old-world charm and craftsmanship — a symbol of refinement. The actual purchase of this item was so significant and solemn an occasion that children were prohibited.
One day it just arrived — our brand new handcarved cuckoo clock. There was no doubt it was a fine thing — in the general shape of an alpine cottage with splendid wooden leaves adorning its perimeter. At the top of this masterpiece, above the face of the clock, was a veranda and set of doors supporting a man and a woman in traditional native European costume. Hanging straight down from this ornate creation were two heavy cast metal pine cones suspended by chains. To emphasize each detail an artist had painted it in colours that stirred the heart and mind to imagine a forest bright with the season of spring. It was a work of art as vivid and joyous as the painted frieze of the Parthenon once was.
Once it had been placed in the dead centre of the living room wall we were invited to sit at a respectful distance to wonder at it. My father set the time by hands on the clock face and then wound the device by pulling on the pine cones. It sprung into life ticking and tocking like no other clock we had known. The most amazing feature, though, was yet to reveal itself. Upon the hour a gong sounded, the small double doors opened and a yellow bird popped out announcing “cuckoo.” It repeated this chime every hour.
After the show was over my father retired to his Naugahyde La-Z-Boy chair situated directly across from the clock. In the following days he smiled in amazement each time the hour was announced by the clever little bird who had also figured out how to chime every half-hour and quarter hour. It seemed after a week that the chiming never ended and the ticking never stopped. Time marched relentlessly onward — even when everything else was quiet. The air was punctuated with gongs and resounding echoes. In between these noises, in the few sullen silences, one could sense a resentment building. Ominously, each tick rang hollow. Each cuckoo was shrill. It was an Edgar Allen Poe story in the making.
And then without ceremony the clock was gone. There is no recollection of when it came down or how it suffered its final hour. We children all imagined that we had learned never to be lulled by the cuckoo’s call.
However, the hardest learned lessons are not always the loudest. Decades later when a wellwisher brought a present back from a trip to Europe I was presented with a small, charming, plastic battery-operated cuckoo clock and was delighted. What harm could it do? It was so reduced in size and complexity that it lacked a proper cuckoo bird. The only moveable part on it was a petite lady in an painted skirt and apron who swung rhythmically from two plastic threads. It gave off such a small benign tick that in the business of the day, the dinnertime rush and above the din of sports games and other noises it couldn’t be heard.
Then one afternoon the house fell silent and sitting alone whilst having a cup of tea I heard it — ticking and tocking — each note resounding off the plaster walls. The relentless presence of this noise amplified well beyond the chest cavity of the tiny timepiece. Suddenly I remembered my father’s predicament.
Obsessed by the pounding I refused to have it decommissioned, preferring to sit and wait — to endure. Why no one else noticed it I couldn’t say, but one day the battery died. That was years ago.
After a good spring cleaning this past March the little clock was released from a veil of cobwebs and its long silent battery replaced. Gone in an instant were all the fond memories of these clocks.
It is unlikely today’s young will experience time as we once measured it — with the tintinnabulation of repeated mechanical hammerings. The clever changeable digital devices of today offer such a selection of distracting noises that one is neither forced to endure or notice the passage of time as marked by a singular noise. We can now defy the relentless advance of time by moving deftly between past and present with an array of songs and sound mixes. Perhaps that more accurately reflects the bendable nature of time but it doesn’t provide the intense, certain, solitary, and sometimes unnerving experience of being aroused by the call of the cuckoo.
This article originally appeared in the UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO BULLETIN • WEDNESDAY, MAY 25, 2011