How love can stop time

Thursday, September 26, 2002

Have you ever stopped to think what material things you could live without?

What few things you would pack in the duffel bag of life if you someday had to go away and start all over?

I'm thinking about that again today, looking at a small box of memories in my closet.

It's the stuff I can't live without. The stuff I'd take with me. Well, not everything I'd want to take. People and animals don't pack so well into even a figurative duffel bag. They sometimes have to go their own way.

So, if you're left with the material goods of life, what couldn't you live without? Funny how few of your things seem to matter so much when you think about it that way.

Out of all the goods you've worked so hard for so long to get, how many of them really mean something deep and personal and irreplaceable?

Four years and thousands of dollars worth of college in order to get those good-paying jobs. Endless overtime and weekends worked, conferences away from home, nights up penciling in budgets and business plans, and for what? To buy a little more stuff.

So imagine you're leaving it all behind. What things can't you do without?

A car? It's just metal. A pair of $200 tennis shoes with some famous jock's name on them, or a $70 pair of designer jeans? I hope not.

The stuff that's worth a lot of money, then, perhaps. Diamond jewelry, digital TV, valuable antiques. I don't have any of that stuff, but I imagine that without a personal sentiment to go with it, it really isn't worth so much after all.

So what then? Photographs of loved ones? A poem that someone gave to you? A memory of a sweeter place or time tucked away in the pages of a book. Ah, better.

Funny, as hard as I try, I can't think of a single thing I've bought with all the hard-earned money that I really, really need.

I'd want the first drawings that my children scrawled for me. A woodcarving knife a dear old friend made for me. A couple of books that seem to have the power to transport me to wherever I need to go. The arrowhead my mother found as a little girl. The beginnings of a silly little story about a wonderful island that I once wrote with a friend and never did finish. A medal left over from a war that is all that's left of a brave man who I admire.

None of it worth anything, but priceless to me.

And I would take a watch that's never run a day since I owned it.

It might seem the most impractical choice of an impractical lot.

Even if it worked, I don't need a clock. I get up when my eyes open, and go to sleep when they get heavy, and have never been much of a slave to schedules in between.

This watch isn't about telling time, it's about telling stories.

It rests in a scratched-up case of heavy tin, a teardrop-shaped affair that fills your hand with a hefty, solid feel.

Its face is yellowed by time, with a couple of nicks and dings. You have to insert a little key to wind it, but there's no point, since the hands are forever frozen in place, just at 5 o'clock.

Family legend is that my great-great-great grandfather carried the pocket watch that his lady love had given him into war. He, and it, came through many Civil War battles without a scratch.

The story goes that when he came marching home, she was waiting, and embraced him so hard that the faithful watch in the breast pocket of his coat stopped dead at that moment from the force of it.

So the watch doesn't work for me, but the story sure does. It will go where I go in this life, and when I'm done, it'll go to my son to travel on.

I have no idea how a broken pocket watch survived so many generations in my family. Nothing else has endured - all the things that must have been of much more value in their time have long since been forgotten, while a worthless clock continues to move smoothly through time, never keeping time, but always telling its timeless tale.

I once visited one of the Civil War battlefields where the man fought, and thought I felt something there, too. But that's another story.

Years ago, I took the watch to an old clock-maker to check the facts on the family legend. The date checked. He asked me if I had any idea what it was worth, and I told him the story. Yeah, that's what it's worth.

He said it was possible to fabricate parts to make it run again, but that's the last thing I would want.

I like it the way it is, stilled forever, at 5 o'clock in the evening on a peaceful spring day in 1865.

I'll probably never know what time it is, but I'll always be reminded what love is, and why it is stronger than time.

Not much that I own matters to me, but wherever I am, I can look at that pocket watch and think of the day that my great-great-great grandmother stopped time. And smile.