Building a Grandfather Clock Without Killing My Grandparents

The arrest of Ahmed Mohamed, the fourteen-year-old who brought a homemade clock to school, made me think of the time I built a clock at my grandparent’s place. I wasn’t arrested, but that’s only because I didn’t follow through on my thoughts of grand-patricide.

The clock was a wedding gift for my friends Susan and Steve. Years earlier Susan had asked me if I would build her one if she ever got married. The reason why she thought I could build one is another story. Anyway, I said, “Yes,” but at the time I really wasn’t capable of making a rational decision. We were in Zaire (now the Congo) and I had a 104° temperature.

When Susan called to tell me she was getting married she asked if I’d be willing to forgo wearing my Converse sneakers for one day and be her maid of honor. I said, “Yes.” After hanging up I wondered if she expected me to keep my promise of building her a clock. Wouldn’t not wearing sneakers to the wedding be enough of a gift?

I went to the small appliance section of a department store. There were blenders with twenty-three cycles that would slice, dice, and mutilate your vegetables, bread-makers that did everything but eat the bread for you, microwave ovens that Susan believed could kill you just as neatly as the bomb, and much much more. None seemed right, though, for a couple that cooked on a wood stove in the boondocks of Oregon.

I broke down and ordered a kit from Emperor Clocks. When it arrived at my grandparent’s place and I told them I was planning on building a grandfather clock by myself, you’d have thought I had told them I was going to build a nuclear submarine by myself.

Although they loved me, they always viewed me as the dim-witted granddaughter who fell on her head when she was two and couldn’t possibly put together anything more complicated than a five-piece jigsaw puzzle without assistance.

I stayed in a small outbuilding across the yard from my grandparent’s house, and as I started working on the clock, Nonny (my grandmother) and my great-aunt Irene brought in lawn chairs, helped themselves to beers from the fridge, and settled in as though they were watching a spectator sport.

When I plugged in a power drill Nonny spit up some beer. “A power drill! Why not use a hand drill? Your grandpa has a beautiful one that I’m sure he’d pass on to you.”

“I have hundreds of screws to put in,” I said, “and I’d like to have this finished before I’m your age.”

Nonny grumbled, “And you call yourself an environmentalist.”

“You’re putting that screw in at an angle,” Nonny said.

“This screw goes in at an angle or else it will go through a gear in the mechanism,” I replied.

My aunty Irene came to my rescue. “Oh, Genevieve, she’s not like us. She knows which end of a screwdriver to use to pound in a nail.”

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“That glue you’re using,” Nonny asked. “It’s not the sort you can get high with, is it?”

“If only it were,” I sighed.

Grandpa tried to not make too big of a pest of himself, but it was obvious he wanted to be hands-on involved. “Got everything you need?” he asked when I was looking for a screw. He went out to the garage and came back with a can. “Got plenty of screws,” he cheerfully said pouring dozens onto the table from the can. Since he was practically blind, having him sort screws kept him busy for some time.


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On day three of the construction project Nonny came into the building and said, “What a mess” and proceeded to straighten things up: putting cans in the cupboard, cans I was using as weights to hold pieces in place while glue dried, and pushing chairs under a table, chairs I was using to prop up other drying pieces.

On day five I screwed in the last screw. Grandpa handed me a beer and said, “Here. You sit, and I’ll stain it for you.” I thought, “He can’t do too much damage with a brush, can he?”

And he didn’t. Not that that stopped Nonny from giving him as much advice as she had given me.

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Fortunately, most of the clock’s flaws—a scratch where I’d been startled while hammering, a misaligned joint where the piece had been moved in the middle of gluing, a hole where I got carried away while demonstrating my drilling abilities—were hidden with wood dough. My woodworking motto: there is no problem that cannot be solved with enough wood dough.

As the four of us maneuvered the clock into my car to drive to Susan’s—a piece of choreography worthy of a Laurel and Hardy film—Nonny said, “That turned out pretty good. When are you going to build one for us?”

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