The Birch Tree Clock: An Update

After I posted the blog about a clock that my father made from a birch tree in our backyard in Owego, NY., I got some responses.

Several people said that it would be a tribute to my father to restore the clock. Refurbish it. Make it come alive again. So, I did it. A friend, straightened out the hands. I found a AA battery. In a few minutes it was silently ticking away the time.

I put the clock on the top shelf of my Adirondack/Mountaineering bookcase.

It’s there for a good reason. On the shelf below are my pitons, carabiners and climbing slings. I was once a fair rock climber. Now these items only remind me of who I once was. I can’t climb 5.4 rated climbs in the “Gunks” anymore. I put the clock in a corner. You will notice that there are no numerals to mark the hours. I thought of going to Michael’s craft store in Plattsburgh (I won’t go to a Hobby Lobby because of their discrimination policy) and buying small foil numerals for the clock.

I decided that I wanted the clock to be free of numbers. I have a fairly good sense of how a clock is set up. I don’t need reference points to mark the passage of time.

I can sit on the sofa and look at my rock-climbing paraphernalia and remember my life when I was in my thirties. I was fit and I was strong and I was fearless. Now, I look up at the clock with moving hands but no numerals. Do I care if it’s 5:15 or 6:15?

Not really. Time is relative. My memories are flood waters in my mind. I think about the past more than most people and probably more than I should.

But, when I look up at the clock that ticks silently and without the hours marked…I don’t feel that time is ticking away in my life.

It’s just a piece of wood, full of memories, full of my father’s love for his sons and now, a new-found love for my dad, who took time to put the timepiece together.

When I look at it, I don’t wonder what time it is.

It is what it is.

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Sleep And The Birch Tree Clock

[Our Limelight Hydrangea.]

I look at the clock. It’s 4:35 am. I can’t sleep.

I begin another chapter in the book I’m reading. I go into the kitchen and eat a cracker. I sip some Tonic Water (it helps my leg cramps). I go back to bed. I can’t sleep. I take a little pill. Sleep isn’t coming to me tonight.

Sleep evades me almost every night. It’s been that way since I was a child. “What do you think your missing?” my mother would say. I had no answer.

I look out of our bedroom window and see our Limelight Hydrangea plant. In the pre-dawn light, it looks unearthly bright…like I left the car lights on. Or that small moons have dipped into our front yard. Or is it possible that I had indeed fallen asleep, slept through the rest of the summer…through fall and now I’m waking up to a new and substantial snowfall?

It’s dawn now and I still can’t sleep. Then I remember something. Two days ago, Mariam got me to open the door to the attic. Not so easy in this house. She wanted to do some gleaning of our stuff. We are trying to “de-thing” ourselves. She said she found a box of NYC books. I told her I didn’t want to go through those books right now. Who knows, we may move back to the City in the not-so-distant future. I might want those books then.

When she got back down from the pull-down ladder, she said there was plenty of my “stuff” up there in boxes.

I asked her what she saw. She said there was the tree clock. I asked her to repeat. She said: “You know, the clock that your father made from the tree”.

I’m still awake and now thinking about the clock that my father made…for me.

I grew up in Owego, New York. We were blessed with a large back-yard. There were enormous evergreen trees just beyond the lawn where my swing set was located. In between those two tall coniferous trees was a small Birch. Its trunk was only a few inches in diameter. One day, my father rounded up his four sons. He had us sit in front of the Birch tree. I’m on the right and look impish. Is that a sling-shot in my back pocket?

[The first of four Birch Tree photos. Early 1950’s]

Over the years, my brothers and I recreated our positions in front of the growing Birch. We were all growing up. The final posed photograph was taken on a lovely spring day in 1992. We were holding a wake for my mother who had passed away on Easter Sunday morning.

[The 1992 photo is the last one.]

Soon after that, the Birch caught a tree infection. It died. My father was left with no choice. It had to be chain-sawed down. I was in Owego that weekend. I asked him for a small section of the tree. He cut it down. He cut it up into sections. I wonder how he felt when he touched the chainsaw to the tree. It must have broken his heart. It breaks mine just contemplating it. He loved his sons so very much. Did he cry? He never would have shown it. But I would have been in tears hoping that my watery eyes could still keep the saw on track. I left for my own home without the tree section.

Six months later, my father presented me with the piece of the tree.  He had cut open one side and inserted a clock mechanism. On the other side, he attached the hands of a clock. He glued the hour numbers and attached a hook.

Since then I’ve moved many times. The clock always came with me, but over time, the numerals fell off.

That afternoon, after my sleepless night, I retrieved the clock from the attic.

I wondered what thoughts my father had when he cut the tree into pieces. So many decades have passed since he had his four boys take up a pose in front of the tree. I hold the clock in my hands. It’s all I have left of those four photo sessions. I run my fingers over the varnished clock face. I count the rings and calculate the ring that grew the year of the first photo.

Two of my brothers are gone now, as is my father.

I hold the Birch Clock in my hands.

These memories make me sad. I pray that I will sleep a dreamless sleep tonight.

 

My One And Only Superstition

Calendar

I taught science for over thirty years.  I have learned to separate fact from belief, real from unreal and rational thinking from irrational concepts.

There is a world of superstition out there.  It is a danger to society to rely on unproven ideas.  This is why many people burned many women (and men) as witches for many centuries.  I once dated someone who would lick her finger and make a smudgy X on my windshield every time a black cat would cross the road in front of us.  She said it was for good luck.  It was lucky for me that I had a tissue to clean the many X’s from my window, following an afternoon drive.

Really?

Many people won’t walk under a ladder, or will throw salt over their shoulder if they broke a mirror.  Too many people think that something really weird is going to happen on any Friday the 13th.  Great movie, but let’s get real!  It’s just a date on a calendar.

However, some superstitions are interesting and not totally without merit.  I’d whistle every time I passed a cemetery but the problem is, I can’t whistle like I used to do when I was a kid.  So I don’t and nothing has happened to me in the meantime.  It’s not totally surprising since it is common to fear graveyards.  In fact, I rather like them.  I find them interesting places to discover local history and contemplate life.

I believe I made my point.  Superstitions are a little nutty.

Except…

I am ready to admit to my readers that I suffer from the burden of superstition on a daily basis.  It’s just one misplaced belief.  Only one, but it can ruin my whole day.

I put myself in your hands by telling you this.  If any of my former students finds out about this, I could lose my standing in their memory.

You see, I cannot bring myself to mark off a day on the calendar until it’s precisely midnight.

It sounds goofy to you, but I just can’t bring my Sharpie to the wall calendar and proudly make an X until the clock strikes 12:01 am.  But that puts me into an altogether new dilemma.  Which clock should I trust?

I am well aware that Einstein told us that time is relative.  Time, some mystics may say, is an illusion.  What time it is, is a human construct.  If I lived in a deep cave somewhere in France, time would really have no meaning to me.  There would be no diurnal cycle to tell me when the sun rises and sets.  But, I don’t live in a cave in France.  I live at Rainbow Lake, NY…and that makes me need to know what time it is.

WallClock

Do I trust my wall clock in the kitchen?  Of course not.  I have to change it twice a year and I can never be sure exactly where to set the minute hand.  The clock on the oven is a possibility, but we have occasional power failures and we have to reset the timer.  So, that leaves the cable box.

CableClock

Now, I do not know where Time Warner (or Verizon) gets their time feed, but is it exact?  I have no way of knowing.

OvenClock

I had another idea.  Check my iPad time or maybe my iPhone time or even my laptop time, but isn’t that all feed by Verizon?  I didn’t know where to turn.  Then a really odd thought came to me.  Maybe, just maybe, all this time was being fed to me from Amazon?  And, all this time, I didn’t know.  They sell everything, don’t they?

So, I just have to learn to depend on one clock and take it on faith that it is correct…to the second…before I can approach my wall calendar to make my X.

Sometimes, I wear a wrist watch and a belt watch that hangs from a loop on my jeans.  My son, Brian, thinks that is a crazy thing to do.  I think he is thinking of an ancient Zen saying: A man who wears two watches never knows what time it is.  I see it differently.  A man who wears two watches has choices.

But, one choice I don’t have is when the Sharpie traces an X on the calendar.  I have to wait until the time is right.  But now I have a clear graphic that reminds me of how fast time is flying.

That’s another story…for a different time and another day.

GraveClock