How We Measure Time

A Work of Nonfiction
by Austin Eichelberger

Just before bedtime one night in July of 1996, the summer my grandfather died, my grandma stood by the cuckoo clock that hung in her small cabin on Smith Mountain Lake. A month earlier – on the 15th, when Gramjack had woken up blue – my little brother and I had stumbled to the car for a confused, six A.M. ride to the hospital. Holding the bulky car phone to my ear as Grandma drove, I had spoken to the ambulance paramedics: “We just passed the fire station, can you meet us somewhere? We’re by a grocery store now – Grandma, where are we?”

That night a month later, the pink enamel of Grandma’s clipped nails shuddered against the hanging chains of the cuckoo clock as she reached out for the black weights, pulled her arms back, reached out again and paused. “Boys?”

“Yeah, Grandma?” I sat on the couch behind her, watching her instead of reading, and Dan, the brother two years younger than my eleven, bounded out of the first-story bedroom he and I shared on weekends, the same bedroom my mom slept in growing up, the place from which we had retrieved the unopened Father’s Day cards to slide into Gramjack’s coffin.

“Boys, I need to ask you something.”

Dan dropped onto the couch beside me as Grandma turned around and sat on the easy chair across from us. Her small, fine hands fell to her lap but never stopped moving – just as they would settle, one atop the other, they would lift up and re-settle the same way, again and again.

Dan pulled his knee onto the couch. “What is it?”

“I need you to set the cuckoo clock. One of you. For eight o’clock.”

I glanced behind Grandma at the clock I had seen a thousand times: the meticulously carved oak shaped into a house, the delicate plank where a tiny wooden bird flitted out on the hour, the dangling chains and the iron weights hanging from them. “But we don’t know how.”

Her hazel eyes darted to the floor, then back up to our faces. “I can tell you. I’ll tell you how.”

Dan sat forward and looked at our Grandma – at the woman who cussed under her breath at church before smiling and shaking hands with people who talked to her like she was stupid; the woman who went to the American desert in August to help build churches for communities who couldn’t afford to themselves; the woman who softly said, “close your eyes,” as she cut a chunk of wood out of my foot with a steak knife when I was nine. She looked up at us, the corners of her mouth trembling, as Dan asked, “Why can’t you do it?”

Grandma’s eyes shined glossy as she blinked and swallowed hard. She turned and looked at the clock, her head tilted up like one of the figures in Greene Memorial United Methodist Church’s stained glass windows. “Gramjack always used to do it. He used to set it just before bed, last thing. And I know how, but…every time I try to, it reminds me that his hands aren’t here to do it.” Grandma sniffled and blinked as I thought of when my grandfather was pulled from the car by paramedics, his oxygen tank stubbornly wedged in the car floor, the pocketknife the nurse used to sever the oxygen cord. A weak smile pushed onto her face. “It’s fine. I have my alarm clock.” She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, her lips barely parted. “It’s just been strange to go through days without it chiming.” I glanced back at the clock, at the brittle wooden borders of the roof. “It’s fine,” she said. “Let’s get to bed now.”

Dan and I each kissed her goodnight and walked to our bedroom as Grandma switched off the lights downstairs.

“Goodnight,” she said, and turned on the light in the bathroom, in case Dan or I lumbered out of bed.

“Goodnight,” I called, as I watched her through the open bedroom door. “See you in the morning.” She paused at the staircase, her face half-shadowed, and her wet eyes flickered back to the cuckoo clock. Then she put a hand on the wobbly wooden banister and walked slowly up the dark stairs to her bedroom.

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