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April 17, 2017 by The Citron Review

by Gail Tyson


“…with a timepiece, each part has its purpose and function and no watch can work properly without each of its components.” –Gentleman’s Gazette LLC

Mainspring: stores power and slowly unwinds through a series of gears to drive a mechanical watch.

Since my mother died, my stepfather often visits antique shops like the one we’re in now. At eighty-four Carl moves fast, outrunning the fears that tarnish old age. We stop at a folk-art whirligig, a wheel of weather-beaten sailors, which reminds him of his days at sea. Such collectibles are as plentiful as the elderly in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

Crown wheel: resembles a serrated crown; meshes its teeth with the ratchet wheel’s to advance the movement.

At first he browsed vintage pocket watches, which he collects, escaping the weight of absence after thirteen years with my mother. Befriending the dealers, he offered to fix the items that careless shoppers break: music boxes, clocks, turntables. He propels his keen mechanical aptitude with remarkable patience, wielding miniature screws in the gears and springs for hours.

Ratchet wheel: keeps the timepiece winding forward/clockwise.

A clenched fist of a man who cut off his siblings long ago, Carl doted on my mother. His attention made her preen, a bride again at seventy-three after a two-month courtship. Wanting her to himself, he begrudged my attachment. Stoking her frustration, she insisted they “never had a cross word,” instead pouring her reproaches on me. Their spite and blame—handed down like family heirlooms—snagged on my impatience. Their grievances orbited my days for a year, then five more. Living with resentment, grief, sorrow taught me the resolve that grows from fundamental loss. The day his panicky voice wheezed across two thousand miles from the emergency room, I sensed the one right thing to say: “Tell me what happened.”

Jewels: gemstones that last longer than metal and serve to reduce friction at points of heaviest wear.

For several years, my mother’s frailty had kept them housebound. During her last nine months, Carl turned into Saint Catheter. Daily tending to an invalid exhausted him, wearing away his carapace of criticism and blame. A tender need for others hatched through that hard shell, as if it could no longer contain the new life crystallizing within him. Gratitude bonded us: his, because he was not alone with heartache; mine, for his constancy. Visit by visit, talk by talk Carl and I twined closer, while my mother receded farther into silence. At the end I didn’t fear loss any more, even when it lurched at me the day I walked toward her casket.

Click spring: maintains tension in the clockwise direction while relieving tension in the mainspring.

“Did your mother tell you about the time she took potholders into her mammogram?” my aunt asks. “She thought she could pad that compressor, keep it from bruising her breastbone.” Her stories resurrect the mother and sister we once knew—naively funny, placid in her self-absorption, a woman who, my aunt observes, “lived in a dream world.” Our laughter frees my mother’s younger selves, the ones coiled in the stranger she had become.

Balance wheel: oscillates back and forth at a constant rate; the timekeeping element in the watch.

Lifelong anger swept away, Carl has turned himself into a person who enjoys being generous. In an antique stall he picks up a paperweight, tells me how he gives one every week to the owner’s granddaughter, whose parents have abandoned her. Do these kindnesses help mend the broken ties in his past, much as he makes the dealers’ broken items whole, as we steady each other by spending time together?

Escape wheel: controls the release of energy—a technology that evolved over nine centuries.

At home, Carl lays out dozens of pocket watches as old as he or older. My fingers brush the filigreed cases; I admire the Roman numerals. He opens the backs, revealing the hidden gear trains. It is as if we contemplate the inner workings of our own history, how far we each have come, how far together. Escaping the grip of hostility and hurt, we’ve stepped out of those mantles that once protected us, that we’ve outgrown, into a larger, deeper intimacy I could never have imagined.

The afternoon ticks by with stories about each timepiece. When Carl can’t remember a word or name, he barks, “Give me a minute.” I want to give him all the time I can.


Gail Tyson publishes poetry, nonfiction, and fiction. In 2017, her work appears in Appalachian Heritage, Art Ascent, Big Muddy, Cloudbank, Presence, San Pedro River Review, Still Point Arts Quarterly, and the anthology Unbroken Circle: Stories of Diversity in the South. An alumna of Rivendell Writers Colony, she has honed her writing at Collegeville Institute and the Dylan Thomas Summer School in Wales. Gail lives in Roswell, Georgia, and in a log cabin in east Tennessee.


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