In a time of watches, I never knew the half of it. My father swore by a chrome Longines. He wore starched white shirts in summer and kept appointments to the minute. “Hand-made in Switzerland,” read the watch. “I’ve had this since before the war,” he told me, tapping its crystal with manicured fingernails (mine were bitten to quick).
When the glass cracked in Madrid he took it to a toothless man who gave the watch the attention of a living thing. He petted it, stroked it, and gently detached band from body as if undressing a child.
When my father died a decade later I picked up the Longines from beside a cup of useless pills on the hospital night table.
I had always wanted a Longines. Instead, my father bought me an Omega Sea Master. “First watch on the moon,” the ad boasted. I was happy until it broke, irrevocably. What if it had broken for keeps while on the Moon? I never again trusted ads. By then I was a journalist and time mattered. Morning dispatches had to be telexed at 4 p.m., afternoon reports by midnight. But I was outside time, drifting through Rome uninterested in bearings.
My mother remedied the situation on my 30th birthday, 25 years ago.
“Here,” she said, “a gift to help glue you to the Earth.”
But at the time I saw only the girl at my birthday party. She was called Rebecca and perched herself dangerously on the balcony’s edge. “I think someone has eyes for you,” whispered a friend. Rebecca overwhelmed my gift, which sat alone on the kitchen table overnight.
Where I found it ticking the next day. “Put it on,” said my mother. She knew better than to ask about Rebecca. I knew better than to tell. Mother and son, perfect worlds apart.
It was a Seiko, a simple, square watch with Roman numerals. “I like its elegance,” my mother told me. “It suits you.” I refused the assertion of elegance because the words came from her. But I wore it anyway.
And it liked me.
We fell in love.
Some bonds have the tone of marriage, but last longer.
If my Seiko had a name or a model number I never knew it. It was the watch no one noticed, my tiny timetable glued to a pulse. “New watch,” said my agency bureau chief. “My mother,” I replied. “My birthday.” That was all the hoopla my watch ever received.
I hear about impermanence and obsolescence every day. Mobile phones are discarded because they’ve lost their current-ness, their colors too old, their prowess overtaken by the latest and best. The same with cars and clothes and appliances (my refrigerator dates from 1973; it works). The throw-way industry was once labeled “planned obsolescence,” mating conformity with spending to grease the loins of the marketplace. Getting old was the anti-style.
If it ever occurred to me to swap my watch for a more modish model I can’t remember when. And if I ever felt that way, excuse me. I beg my watch’s pardon. I was younger then. I was foolish. I had girls and projects on my mind.
By the time my mother died, five years after the 30th birthday gift, my Seiko was my father’s Longines. It traveled everywhere. It saw me at my best and worst: my fibs, my outright lies, the many turns phrase I now regret. I’d look down at my watch to avert the gaze of others. It never objected or judged me.
In my 40s a greenish hue appeared at the corners: this was mold and age, I was told, the perspiration of decades dug in forever. “Get a new watch,” implored a girlfriend. “That one’s so old.” Public persona mattered. I never complied.
Sometimes the battery failed. I found replenishing stores in London, in Prague, in Washington, in Paris. I even found a watchmaker in a small town in Germany who tapped the crystal and said only two words: “Still good.”
I consider how many times have I’ve checked my watch. A million? Ten million? The most looked upon face in my universe. Man and watch, a taciturn pact.
So, happy birthday, watch. You have a tiny crack, I know. You have scratches I regret inflicting. But your face is mostly unchanged. No balms. No creams. No treatment. No replacement. You saw my mother, you timed out my love affairs. Some might say we were stuck with one another by chance, but not me.
I say instead that we were meant to be. I say, “Thank you.” And I pledge that which to me is unique: Till death do us part.