Keeping Time

When I was a little girl, I viewed my mother’s fashion accessories as sacred objects. Silky, perfumed scarves. Buttery-soft kid gloves stretched over long fingers and polished nails. Slender three-inch heels with handbags to match and an array of belts that emphasized her slim waist and curvy hips.

The belt I loved most had a winged clock face as a buckle, and the leather was emblazoned with the words Tempus fugit.

 “What does it mean?” I asked.

“Time flies,” my mother explained.

Time flies—I puzzled over this. From my child’s point of view, the mysterious phrase was funny, like the whimsical flying clock. Running my fingers over the contours of the sculpted buckle, I thought of the joke: “Why did the man throw the clock out the window?” Answer: “He wanted to see time fly.” There was the contradiction: the unwieldy clock zooming weightlessly through space, followed by the inevitable crash.

“Which belt should I wear?” my mother would ask as I watched her get dressed. “That one!” I’d say, pointing to Tempus fugit and the winged clock, thrilled when she tightened it around her waist. I liked the idea of time flying. I was old enough to know that an hour could seem very long, like when I stayed up waiting for my father to arrive from California on one of his annual visits; and that a week could go by in a flash, like the flash of joy I felt when he snatched me up in his arms, only to disappear again after a week’s time. A few years had passed since I’d learned to tell time. But I had yet to learn what time was telling me.

 

Mom died last year. She was 94. For years, she’d been leaving by degrees. I grieved her in bits as she incrementally lost her hearing, vision, memory, mobility, bladder and digestive control, emotional restraint and mental faculties. An independent, proud, social woman, she’d gone to work straight from high school to help send her younger brother to college. After stints as a sweater model and a receptionist job in a toy showroom, she worked her way from secretary to the first female vice president of a home furnishings company. She kept her cool when her male colleagues asked her to run their errands, while being paid proportionally less than the male executives, many of whom made advances towards her. She handled it all with dignity.

My mother took pride in her long-legged, tawny good looks. She was always stylishly dressed, coiffed, manicured and made up. Her sophisticated aesthetic extended to our apartment, which she was continuously redecorating, rendering it untouchable: sofas covered in plastic, fiberglass drapes that left invisible splinters in fingers. She collected art deco prints, antique glass and ceramics and was a connoisseur of fabrics. She enjoyed throwing dinner parties for her married or single friends—straight, gay, and trans—and this was in the 1960s and 70s. She was a loyal friend who loved to be admired.

After work and on weekends, the perfect picture crumbled. Saddled with two kids, working fulltime, frustrated by her Sisyphean schedule, she’d shout arias of complaint above the vacuum’s roar. Anything could set her off: crumbs on the floor, or the mess of soapy water left after my brother and I washed the dishes. My older brother took the brunt of her fury, which was sometimes delivered with a wooden yardstick; I, five years younger and a girl, was spared physical violence but cowered through prolonged verbal assaults that turned the air leaden. I couldn’t bear to see her unhappy.

My father had left my mother with full-time custody and wasn’t always on time with child support, leaving my mother to shoulder the financial burden. He was just the first. Twice divorced, widowed once, my mother would survive three husbands, none of whom were good with money. Her savings, accrued from decades of full-time work, were siphoned away on their behalf, in bad investments, overdue taxes, and failed businesses. After the death of her third husband—the stepfather who became a real father to me—she became close with the widower next door. He finally proposed, but she had no desire to marry again. Still, they kept each other company and nursed each other through a series of health problems.

The night before my mother’s 90th birthday, I phoned from the airport to say my flight to Florida was delayed, and her boyfriend took the phone. “What time will you be here?” he asked, sounding agitated. When I arrived, the police were carrying out his body. He had died of a heart attack as they sat together in his living room, just as my plane was landing. I wonder if he’d sensed that time was running out.

Her house had flooded several weeks earlier, and now she was living alone in her deceased boyfriend’s house. It soon became apparent just how well he had been caring for her. It had become difficult for her to cook, to use the phone, to pay her bills, to drive. Once a day she started up her car and crossed the highway to IHOP for the all-day breakfast special, and although it was only a three-minute drive, she frequently got into minor accidents. She was dehydrated and malnourished. We were afraid she’d have a serious accident, a heart attack, a stroke.

When Mom started having difficulty speaking, it was time for an intervention. My stepsister Ronnie and I flew to Florida from our respective home cities, and in two days, packed up her belongings and moved her out of the reverse-mortgaged house she’d lived in for twenty-five years, leaving behind many of her treasured possessions. We moved her into a beautiful apartment in an assisted living facility not far from Ronnie in Ann Arbor.

After just a few months in her apartment, Mom fell and broke her hip. When she refused to stay in rehab, round-the-clock home-care gobbled up what was left of her savings. Her monthly social security check and my stepfather’s VA pension were not enough to sustain her. My proud, independent mother was destitute.

She had run out of money before running out of time—which now wasn’t flying, flowing or steadily crawling, but moving more like a maddeningly slow, irregular drip. Intervals between sleep, meals, snacks and naps were spent sitting in “her” chair in the living room of the group home we’d moved her to, in front of a blaring TV she could no longer see nor hear (she refused to get a hearing aid). She’d make up her own stories about what was on, woven with her dreams, fantasies, and imaginings—like the middle-of-the-night orgies and secret trysts she’d tell us about the next day. She traveled through time, conversed with people from the past, and “kibbitzed” aloud with a phantom child who suddenly appeared by her chair. She alternately thanked and attacked the aides who tended to her physical needs. My formerly socially-conscious, polite mother now bit, hit, insulted, swore, and scratched when angry, frustrated or afraid. She had lost her savings and independence and now time, that fleet-footed thief, was stealing her sanity. Tempus fugitive.

When I visited her, time’s drips and drops would become a kind of psychological water torture. After a few minutes, we’d stop talking. Mom’s eyelids would droop, her breathing slow. I’d look at my watch, stare at the TV, check my email, then look at my watch again, but the minute hand had barely moved. I willed myself through collapsed time, like a passenger on an overseas flight. Nowhere else to go, might as well surrender and try to enjoy it.

Struggling to stay awake, I’d gaze at Mom’s relaxed, makeup-less face, hold her hand—the bundle of bones she calls “chicken fingers”—and gently stroke the freckled, almost transparent skin.

She opens her eyes. “What time is it?” she says. “When did you get here?” “When are you leaving?” she asks, even though I’ve only just arrived. “What time is Ronnie coming?” “What time is it?” she asks again and again. She needs to know: Where are we in time? Are things happening as they should, when they’re supposed to? “It’s almost time for lunch,” I say, and repeat for the nth time the hour and the minute. “Ronnie will be here at three.” She relaxes, closes her eyes, drifts back to sleep. Lunchtime. Snacktime. Bedtime. Anchors in time.

By then, my mother no longer wore a watch. Since she couldn’t see, what would be the point? She’d given up wearing jewelry of any kind, except for the engagement ring and wedding band from her last marriage to my stepfather. She didn’t like to discuss her other marriages, which happened so long ago. “Why revisit the past?” she’d say.

 

Tempus fugit traces back to Virgil’s Georgics, where it appears as fugit inreparabile tempus: “it escapes, irretrievable time.” I ponder the translation of “irretrievable” from the Latin inreparabile, so close to “irreparable.” Because it’s not just that time is quantifiably lost or dwindling; it’s also broken, its flow disrupted, its direction deflected and course fragmented, just as for my mother past present future mix and meld in unlikely combinations. It’s true too for middle-aged me; the more my mother dwindles in front of me, the more I fill with a jumble of memories of her younger incarnation: the tall, attractive redhead purposefully striding down city streets, sometimes with me in tow as we went shopping or to school or to meet a friend or to visit my grandparents, with whom my mother was not always patient; they were from a slower era, so different from her busy pace and schedule—literally, old timers.

As a teenager, contemptuous of my mother, I would walk quickly down the street ahead of her. Wait for me, she’d implore, but I was too busy running towards my future to slow down. In my twenties and beyond, my impatience only grew. Now old enough for Medicare and Social Security, I’m sometimes thankful I don’t have kids of my own who might be unwilling to slow down for me.

In time, the divide between us deepened, and most attempts to bridge it ended in accusations, blame, guilt, shouting, tears. If we couldn’t talk, we could at least give each other gifts. My mother gave me things she knew I’d like: dangly earrings, flowing tops and dresses, a soft russet suede jacket from Lord & Taylor exactly like the one she bought for herself. A little late for matching mother-daughter outfits, but I appreciated the gesture. On Mother’s Day, holidays, and birthdays, like clockwork, we never failed.

For my 16th birthday, my mother gave me a string of antique brass bugle beads. That birthday, and the two that followed, I was living on a psych ward. Not knowing what to do with her rebellious daughter (it was the 1960s, I was truant from school and dabbling with drugs) and fearful for my safety (I’d swallowed half a bottle of aspirins and burned my arms with cigarettes) she’d followed the advice of psychiatrists and delivered me to the hospital after placing me in state custody (the hospital required it). While other kids danced in the mud at Woodstock, graduated high school and went off to college, I festered on a locked ward, drugged and hopeless. Minutes stretched before me as if composed of some gluey semi-solid substance. Hours congealed into weeks, weeks into years. Released at 18, I struggled to get unstuck, and hungrily inhaled the scent of the future.

For decades, I couldn’t forgive my mother for sending me to the hospital, and I never let her forget it. No matter how I tried to get past the grief and anger, there was no getting past our past. That one misguided decision, intended to protect me from myself, tainted our every interaction. But that day in the hospital, as she looped the beads around my neck, I knew she cared. I wore the beads every day over my hospital pajamas, until the cord broke. Scattered beads, lost years, irretrievable, irreparable time.

 

Time is money, people say. You spend both, but saving can prove futile. When I was growing up, my mother tucked money into shoeboxes to “save for a rainy day.” As a divorced, working mother, she must have known there would be many rainy days ahead. Scrimping became a lifelong habit of stashing. Her everyday jewelry was kept in unlocked jewelry boxes on top of her dresser, the better pieces in a locked wooden chest. She also hid jewelry in labeled boxes in her dresser drawers. At some point, she began stashing jewelry rolled up in socks or hidden between layers of clothing in her bureau. When we moved her from Florida to Michigan, my stepsister and I had to feel every pair of socks. In every drawer, amidst the scarves and gloves, belts and bras, we found rings, bracelets, necklaces, earrings, coins and dollar bills. We sorted through it, wrapped what she wanted to keep, and stuffed it into shoeboxes. Five years later, when we moved Mom from her residence into hospice, we still hadn’t unpacked them.

After visiting my mother in hospice for the last time, I brought home two shoeboxes filled with her jewelry. I stashed them in my closet, too sad to look through them. Months passed before I pulled them from the closet and slowly removed from layers of bubble wrap and plastic bags, one by one, my mother’s treasures. I envisioned them on my mother’s hand and body in different stages of her life: The gold cast ring like a Roman shield. An antique cameo ring. Beads and bangles and pendants and chains accumulated over the years. A pair of pearl earrings she bought for me that I never wore and gave back to her. All the jewelry I’d given her over the years for birthdays, Mother’s Day, and holidays: Venetian glass earrings, a pink ivory bracelet, a gold and silver necklace—every gift I gave her over the years have all come back to me. There should be another adage: Time returns all gifts. Redit tempus dona.

As much as I admire my mother’s taste, I’ve always been careful to differentiate my own aesthetic from hers, and vice versa. She liked gold, I liked silver. This sometimes made choosing gifts for her—dutifully delivered on birthdays, holidays, Mother’s Day—an agonizing process. Likewise, there were very few things of hers I wanted. One was a rectangular gold bangle with rounded corners (squaround, they call it). When I admired it on my mother’s wrist, she offered to give it to me. Instead, I asked her to save it for me. Which is why, on a later visit, I was shocked when she told me she’d sold it, along with other gold jewelry, to raise cash when social security and the reverse mortgage on her house were no longer enough to live on.

“I’m sorry. I must have forgotten you wanted it,” she said.

“It was the only thing I asked you to save for me. How could you forget?” I accused, near tears. I felt betrayed and devalued; my mother felt hurt and falsely accused.

My mother’s boyfriend shouted at us to stop fighting. “One day, one of you will regret this,” he said, glaring at me.

When we packed up Mom’s belongings for the move to Michigan, Ronnie discovered the bracelet, stashed in a sock. “Wear it in good health,” Mom said wearily, and I felt ashamed. I sometimes wore it when I visited; each time, I thanked her for it. Since her death, I rarely wear it, but I know it’s there, entombed in a drawer, reminding me of her boyfriend’s words. On the rare occasion that I fasten it around my wrist, the warm, burnished metal recalls my mother’s presence.

Amidst the plastic-wrapped jewelry I discover my mother’s watches—a collection spanning decades. Some were gifts from husbands, but most she bought for herself. They’re beautifully designed objects, a kind of functional jewelry reflecting the aesthetic and technology of its time, with intricate inner movements that are tiny technological miracles: spring-powered, hand-wound; electronic quartz; automatic, motion-powered, battery-powered analog. One by one they’ve become extinct, replaced by digital devices.

My mother’s old-fashioned spring-wound watches transport me with a pang to my childhood: the familiar motion of rolling the little knob between thumb and index finger, the faint ticking when held to an ear. Mom had several of these. Among them, I find a treasure—a tiny, delicate Waltham Ladies round-faced with a gold and diamond bezel and a black cord band that barely wraps three-quarters around my wrist (my mother was delicate-boned, but I take after my big-boned dad). My father’s birthday gift to my mother, it’s inscribed on the back in art deco-style capital letters:

FLO

ALL MY LOVE

SEYMOUR

AUG 5, ’41

That birthday, my mother was 19, my father 23—the year they secretly eloped when my father was on leave from the army. To me, it’s the most precious timepiece of all. I will never wear it, and it’s not meant to be worn by me. Its hands are stopped at 3:22, whether a.m. or p.m. or what year, I will never know.

I bring the watches, a few at a time, to my local jeweler, Ernesto’s—a family-run shop with the hushed, confidential atmosphere of a doctor’s office or spiritual sanctuary. Customers wait in turn for personal attention from clerks who understand not just the monetary or aesthetic value of finely crafted precious metals and gems, but their emotional value as well. Almost all the customers are women, collectors and custodians of precious objects. Worn close to the skin, they have narratives of their own; whether handed down through generations, gifts from or to loved ones, or hard-earned gifts to oneself, they’re as meaningful to their owners as my mother’s watches are to me.

Each ticket notes the watch’s brand, distinguishing features, a description of work to be done, and any existing damage: “Check movement.” “Needs cleaning.” “Gold is fading away.” “Scratches on case.” Time’s signature, as intimate and unmistakable as my mother’s left-handed cursive scrawled on a lifetime of birthday cards and shopping lists.

The watches are returned to me one by one, each with a different diagnosis: “It just needed cleaning. It’s running now.” Or: “We tried, but the mechanism is too damaged.” I cringe, knowing that just as it was for my mother, in time I too will be beyond repair.

The watches have become an obsession. I learn the correct names for each of their parts: bezel, crown, case. I learn that wristwatches—wearable, portable clocks—were developed towards the end of the 19th century for use by the military, in order to synchronize their maneuvers. It’s fitting, I think, after our lifelong battle, that I should inherit my mother’s watches—a way to finally get in sync.

I feel I owe it to my mother to repair them. As if by caring for them, I am retroactively repairing our relationship. But it’s costly, and I can’t fix all of them. There’s a “Which of my children?” aspect to the process. I decide to start with two: First, the Ebel with the diamond chip-studded white gold bezel, because it’s unusual and valuable, and whether or not I will wear it, I feel it’s my duty to get it going. After that, I’ll probably do the Universal “Genève” with the gold bezel and ochre leather band because, of all her watches, it most recalls the workaday aspect of my mother. I remember it encircling my mother’s wrist, many years ago, when her hands were still elegant and unblemished. Before I fasten it on my own wrist, I press the underside of the band to my nose and inhale a faint scent of my mother’s skin—sun-warmed, perfumed, sweaty, honest. The essential smell of her, about to commingle with my own.

Many of the decades-old leather bands are in surprisingly good condition, except for time-worn creases where they fastened. The Citizen Quartz’s green leather band has started to crack along the crease. A hand-me-down gift from my mother (she knew green is my favorite color), it’s become my everyday watch. Ernesto sells an almost identical band, but it’s over my budget, so he sends me to the shoemaker next door. For $40 they will line it with a new layer of leather that will be glued and stitched, covering the part that’s had contact with my mother’s skin. One last whiff, and I hand it over. When I get it back, it looks almost new, but thicker and stiffer and smelling of glue. It brings me pleasure to have given it a second life, for however long it lasts.

A watch may be a noun, but it’s also a verb: to observe, to keep vigil. Sitting by my mother’s bedside in hospice, I kept watch over the mother who’d been there all my life and was soon to depart this one, though no one could say when. For the time being, her heart, that most essential timepiece, kept on ticking. I followed every flutter of her nostrils, tried to memorize each freckle, held her hand as she slept. Every once in a while, she’d emerge from the depths, open her eyes, squeeze my hand. “Min, Min,” she sighed, “How did we get here?”

Our history had disappeared, and only time remained.

I remember Ernesto’s reminder, “Wind the watches every day. That way they’ll keep running.” Isn’t the same true of memory? Call to mind your loved ones daily, and their memories won’t fade. This is why I especially like the hand-wound watches; with each rewinding, they remind me to take a moment to recall the smell of my mother’s skin, my father’s laugh, my stepfather’s smile. And to think about time, that winged trickster, incrementally winding down, growing more fleeting, more potent, more precious with each passing year, month, week, day, hour, minute, second.

 


Mindy Lewis is the author of Life Inside: A Memoir, co-author of A Curious Life: From Rebel Orphan to Innovative Scientist with Thomas H. Haines, editor of DIRT: The Quirks, Habits and Passions of Keeping House, and winner of New Letters 2015 Essay Award. Her essays, articles, and book reviews have been published in Newsweek, New York Times Book Review, Lilith, Body & Soul, Poets & Writers, Arts & Letters Journal, New Letters, Many Mountains Moving, Psychoanalytic Perspectives, in anthologies and online. She teaches memoir and nonfiction at The Writer’s Voice in New York City, and has also taught at Brooklyn College, Hudson Valley Writers’ Center, Poets & Writers community program, and as a visiting writer at SUNY and George Mason University. Visit her website: www.mindylewis.com

 

3 Comments

  1. Roz Akerman
    Reply

    Mindy I really enjoyed reading your story,actually I couldn’t put it down .Your life journey was very interesting .Our parents story and life was very different then ours.Life is not easy but we must push forward and believe in ourselves.

  2. AnnaLee Wilson
    Reply

    Mindy, this essay is wonderful, heartfelt, and instructive too, in more ways than one!

  3. Karen Whitman
    Reply

    Mindy, this essay is really beautiful. Your ability to see and articulate the connections between different aspects of our lives brings us in touch with the deeply spiritual side of the everyday. This is a masterpiece!

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