7: On my grandfather's watch

30 Objects in 30 Essays

From the objects that I have made, objects other people have made, objects that I live with, and what they have to say. The products of hands and brains. The obvious differences between things and words. The tangible and intangible rewards of effort. Use and beauty as the two primary qualities of objects, words, hands and brains. For through objects we make the stories of our lives: a life made, a life bought, a life well-used, a life beautiful and useful.




When I was fourteen, my father showed me his father's gold pocket watch. I was allowed to look, but not touch. The dial shimmered with silver. He opened the back, and I saw inside a glittering of mysterious interconnected wheels, gears and parts. It had my grandfather's initials engraved on it, both on the back on on the gold pencil fob, initials that were also mine. It then went back into a locked drawer. "One day, son," my father said, "this will be yours."

Though I saw it just once, it became the token of my father's blessing. One day I would inherit the watch. One day I would be worthy of touching it. The golden watch would go to the golden boy. And I would know he loved me and approved of me.

I cannot overstate the significance of the watch. In a family obsessed with objects and their value, the gold watch was the singular item of worth in the house. My mother would talk about how valuable it was, and my father would stay silent. She would suggest taking it out and letting us all see it, and he would remain silent. But it was too valuable. Like a holy relic. I had seen it once. That was enough. One day, though, he would bestow it on me.


This summer, my father died suddenly, and horribly, eleven days after breaking his hip at age 88. He was tied to his hospital bed because he was combative with staff. The cause of death was pneumonia from aspirated food and drink.

In a four-page will that got his name wrong, he gave everything of his to my step-mother, also making her executor. I was, apparently, not to get the gold watch, or any object from my childhood, except, possibly, as a gift from my step-mother.

My sister's disorientation and sense of betrayal that her own father would disinherit her was extreme. They had gotten along fine. He had always talked of the things she would have, and that I would too, after he died. For me, the disinheritance was not unexpected.

I grew up in fear of my father. Most of our time together was spent working for him, using his tools, fixing his many machines, repairing the house. My time was his time, without compromise. Once, when I had a date over to the house, suddenly it was time to repair the roof. The choice for my date was to join me on the roof, stay alone in the house, or go away.

Damage to any of his things would be met with rage. If they were special things, that rage demanded my annihilation. I learned to make him laugh and thereby avoid his wrath. I found in this dynamic a semblance of connection, reading kindness and goodwill into his laughing smiles. I learned quickly, though, that no real demands could be put on our connection. His attitude was that I needed to go fix myself somewhere else to be a presentable son to him, to be his golden boy, which was my sole duty. His methods were belittlement, bullying and shunning. Eventually, slowly, painfully, I realized that I was serving the wrong master in life, and no longer wanted to be his golden boy, but to be my own person, with a different set of values. I demanded he stop belittling me. He replied with angry, paranoid accusations of my worthlessness. There would be no discussion if I didn't please him. We became distant. He continued with his "one day son..." to the very end, but it was a belittling joke.


My father left massive collections of motorcycles, guns, tools, books, and artwork. To my eye, they were a huge array of horcruxes, little repositories of childhood shame, punishment, feelings of worthlessness, his greed and possessiveness. In many ways the disinheritance was a blessing. I would not have the job of sorting through his life and values.

I told my step mother all that I wanted was a copy of his unedited, unpublished novel. He had refused to share it with me in his lifetime. Perhaps I could understand him better through reading it, now that he couldn't say no. She agreed.

My sister, though, asked my step-mother about the watch. She told my sister that the watch could not simply be given, it was too valuable, and had to be appraised. It seemed likely she would liquidate the watch for its cash value, and just didn't want to say it outright. It was gold, after all. What use would she have for an old pocket watch, one with initials engraved on it that did not match any of her children?

I had completely forgotten about the watch, and the memory made me laugh. The confirmation of being his golden boy was no longer possible. There would be no final approval as his son, and heir. The memory of having been shown the watch became ridiculous, the pomposity of the moment, the narcissism, the twisted priorities. The watch reemerged as a token of my father's deep personal problems.


My step-mother, in an act of reconciliation, informed me I could have anything of his that she could not sell. I thought about it, and accepted that offer, as some of his books and hand tools would be useful. She rewarded me with an insult for greedily taking too many things for someone who only wanted his novel.


Twenty years before, in one of our bigger fights, I accused my father of loving his things more than any person, especially his children. He denied it, of course, but then explained that unconditional love did not exist, that children had to earn their parent's love, and part of earning that love was respect for the parent's things. That argument marked one of our last serious discussions. His obsession with his valuable things would surface as a paranoia about their theft, mainly that I would steal them, was plotting to steal them, or had stolen them when he had misplaced them. Finding them later, he would reiterate that he still knew I was up to no good, that he was "onto me, and that I wasn't going to get away with it," but never reveal what I was supposed to be up to. His obsession with valuable things grew into the ownership of things he didn't own. Many of my possessions, that I had bought and paid for, magically became his if I left them at home for too long. When I'd ask why he had put several of my rifles into his collection, he would deny they were mine. I didn't challenge him, and let them be gifts. For my step-mother to now sell them for cash was a kind of perfect burial for them, a kind of whitewashing of their history into new hands that knew nothing of the roles they played dividing a father and a son.

Collecting, possessing, treasuring, was the my-precious-miasma of my youth, every object a kind of trap. I saw clearly how the worship of ownership and power takes us down to the bottom of a dark wet cave of self-importance and self-indulgence. I am no Marie Kondo, but objects in my life must have a purpose -- usefulness, beauty, or a good memory, not for mere enrichment, or the temptation and manipulation of the people in my life. I do keep some things out of laziness, hope that one day they'll be useful, and others with bad associations, mainly gifts from my father, for reasons that perhaps therapy would reveal.


In a perverse moment, I thought to ask my step-mother if she would sell the watch to me. Like Esau, I would acquire my father's blessing by other means! But then I wondered what would I pay for it? Not much. I realized that even $10 was too much. I had no clear recollection of what it looked like, no particular use for it. I really didn't want the thing. But apparently I still wanted the blessing.


A week ago, my sister called to say that our step-mother had decided to give her some family items, as she was feeling less anxious -- sets of china, a 19th century portrait of a cow that had hung in our family homestead, and the gold watch. She said she had discovered that it was some off-brand, and not the fancy brand that my father had told her it was. It was apparently not worth enough to sell, and thereby OK to give.

Holding the watch for the first time ever was a strange, weightless experience. I half expected some thunderclap, or zombie-hand clapped on my shoulder. But nothing happened. It was just a nice old watch.

It looked much smaller and simpler than I had remembered. The fob had my grandfather's initials, two other sets of initials with a line between them, and a date in 1930. I asked my cousin, the family historian, if he recognized the initials or the date, and he didn't. The brand, Phelps and Perry, came from a small shop near Wall Street, where my grandfather worked, long since closed. The fob, if not the watch itself, could have been a gift to him for being best-man at a wedding. More than this, I will likely never know.


The way past is through.

I could let this watch smolder away in my psyche, and remain a token of my father's scorn and step-mother's insults. Or I could redefine it. Objects, unlike words, can lose and gain their associations easily. Their past is easily forgotten, and thereby easily redefined. I sometimes wonder about the vintage wedding rings in jewelry shops, and their forgotten stories. As they're in shops, they were not successfully passed along to another generation.The buyer has the opportunity to give those rings a new, and happier story.

I carry a burden of pain that this watch represents. A father's murky and uncertain disinheritance, and watching the sale of my childhood objects, is nothing light or simple. In spite of this, I remain my father's son, raised in his house by his rules, and much of my mental architecture was built by him. I still feel the pull of his character, and catch myself acting like him; but I found many other fathers with guidance that resonated. My son doesn't have to carry any of my burden. My task as his father is to understand better what I give him, in love and in anger, and to do better than I received.

The plan is to have my son's initials engraved on the inside now, on the other side of mine. While I still have the watch, he will be with me. When I give it to him, I will be with him. When I give it to him it will be accompanied by my blessing, because my son is a wonderful human being, and I am most proud to be his dad. To carry the watch now will be a reminder to be a better dad, in spite of any and all of my human failings, for he is my son and heir, and a multi-generational watch can be a fun tradition, no matter how off-brand it is. There is room in the watch for the initials of generations yet-to-be. And I look forward to the day, soon, that he holds it, actually touches it, even opens it, and puts it in his pocket.

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