Grandfather’s Pocket Watch
By Lea Sheryn
Wearily sitting on the stone bench beside the kitchen door, grandfather’s old pocket watch weighed heavily in my hand. Moments earlier our small cottage had been bulging with neighbors, friends and family members who appear when wedding bells ring or funeral bells toll and soon disappear into the mists of time until such events occur once more. Alas, today was not a marrying day but a burying day instead. It was my dear father who we laid in the ground, God Rest His Soul.
In the days of Old Queen Vic, in the 1870s, grandfather was a coal miner. The Rhondda Valley in Wales was his home; his workplace was in the deep dark shafts far beneath the ground. How well I remember the stalwart fellow in his olden days; how well he liked to describe his golden days. Sitting in the warm corner in the rocking chair nearest the fire, he seemed to me to be aged beyond years. His face wrinkled like a prune; his hair gray; his mouth toothless�“he was far from the young man he must have been in the days when coal was King.
I was but a young lad of seven the first time he laid the pocket watch in my open palm. It was a thing of beauty�“this prize possession of an old man who had very little in all the days of his life. With a bird in flight etched into the gold cover and his name, Selwin Morgan Davies, inscribed on the back, the old relic was grandfather’s pride and joy. Slowly I allowed my fingers to roam across the glossy surface of the timeless timepiece before my thumb depressed the latch to reveal the clock-face with the photo of my Gran on the opposing side. The clock was a bright shining white with Roman numerals dancing around the edges and wee tiny hands pointing to the exact time; Gran, dressed in severe black with an equally severe expression, was grim as only Victorian ladies could be grim.
“This will be yours one day, young laddie,” the old man stated as he firmly closed my palm upon the grand old pocket watch. “You’re father takes possession of it first and, when he is finished with it, it will be yours. A family heirloom, young lad, that’s for sure.” In my tender years, I was in awe to believe someday, far and away in the future, the grand old pocket watch would be mine.
Leaning snugly against the leg of his flannel trousers, I watched my grandfather tend and wind his watch. Although it kept perfect time and tick-tocked, as it should, every night the patriarch cared for his timepiece. Every night he rubbed the outer casing with soft cloth until it shown golden and bright in the candlelight. Every night he tucked it away, in safety, beneath his pillow. It was, indeed, a treasured possession in our home.
When the time came when grandfather could no longer enter the dark shafts of the mine, it was my father’s turn to take his place. Our family was a family of coal miners just the same as all other families were coal miners. The men worked their shift, day or night. The end of shift found the men tramping home covered in coal from the top of their heads to the toes of their socks. Although they all wore rugged hobnail boots, there was nary a clean sock in the entire town. Mothers and grandmothers kept tubs of hot water in the back kitchens for the men to scrub in before the evening meals. This was life in a coal town in the Rhondda Valley in Wales when coal was King.
I was just entering my tenth year when grandfather put his foot down. “Young Danny,” he said, “is not fit for the mines. Young Danny is fit to become a doctor or a lawyer.”
My ears were all attention at this firm announcement for I was the Young Danny my grandfather was speaking about. And I, Daniel Idris Davies, was a small thin boy who was more inclined to study than to swing a pick in the deep dark shafts of a mine. Mother and father were as equally agog as I, I do admit. None of us had ever considered the possibility that I would become anything other than a coal miner. But grandfather had spoken and grandfather’s word was law. When I became of age, I was to go to Oxford�“if they would have me�“or to Cambridge if Oxford wouldn’t.
To this day, I cannot tell you how they did it but upon my eighteenth year, I was sent off to Cambridge for a term of study and, afterwards, to medical school. It was a hardship to the family, that’s for sure. Mother took in laundry and a bit of sewing here and there; father took extra shifts in the mine. With grandfather’s small pension, they managed to get by and keep me at my books.
Happy and contented to have a grandson with a doctor before his name, the old patriarch passed away in his sleep. It was two years to the day after I returned to the Rhondda Valley with my education. Although I could offer assistance with the income from my medical practice, father was too stubborn to quit the mine. He was a proud wage earner and a proud owner of grandfather’s pocket watch. Every night before bed, he tended the timepiece in the ritual manner and slid it beneath his pillow, the same as always. And time continued to march forward in our small mining town in the Rhondda Valley in Wales.
It had been the family’s wish that I should leave the valleys to set out my shingle in fashionable London Town. My heart and soul were in Wales and the Rhondda was my home. The land of my birth called me back every time I had to cross the border into England so in Wales I remained. I have doctored the sick and the needy. I have entered the mines after the shafts collapsed to dig out the wounded or set fractured bones. It is my calling; it is my life.
The years fly swiftly. The place is still the same but the old men of the mines are gone, replaced by the young. Father has now joined his old mates for today is his burying day. He lies beneath the ground in the churchyard beneath the stone that bares his name. The golden pocket watch with the flying bird etched on the cover lies in my palm. The old family relic is now my prized possession. A click of the lid reveals a bright shining white face with Roman numerals dancing around the edges and wee tiny hands pointing to the exact time. Gran, dressed in severe black with an equally severe expression, as grim as only Victorian ladies could be grim is still on the opposing side.
Time is a strange thing. Grandfather’s time is gone and so is father’s. It is now my time but it will soon be gone also. As I sit on the stone bench beside the kitchen door, I wonder if my two daughters would be interested in the old pocket watch. Their lives growing up in the doctor’s house were much different than my life in a miner’s cottage.
Neither Menna or Bethen knew their great-grandsire nor did they know how he cherished the old timepiece. They are pretty, fair of skin with golden ringlets in their hair. The mines are places they will never see other than at a distance. The niceties of life are their interest. Still, when the time comes, the watch belongs to one or the other. It is their choice to cherish it…or not. Until their time comes, Grandfather’s pocket watch is mine to wind and polish…and to remember the days of the Rhondda when coal was King.