While sitting in church a few months ago, attending the funeral service for a former colleague, I beheld a curious sight.
During the eulogy, delivered by the minister in his solemn, stentorian tone, a man sitting one pew ahead of me began to polish his glasses. Slowly, assiduously, he wiped the front and back of each lens. In between wipes, he held them up to the stained-glass window off to one side, as if expecting a divine ray of light to beam down upon him through the glass.
Such a commonplace exercise; and yet, I thought, so seemingly out of place in that crowded church. I couldn’t help but wonder if he was paying attention to the words being spoken. Or was he as distracted by his little task as I was?
When he had finished the job to his own satisfaction, he replaced his glasses, smoothed the hair over his ears, and settled back to listen to the rest of the funereal tribute. I breathed a silent sigh of relief.
But the episode took me back a long, long way—back to when I was a small boy, attending church with my grandparents. We used to go regularly—to a huge, cathedral-like edifice with o’er-vaulting arches, windows that turned the sun’s beams to every colour in the spectrum as they streamed through the glass, massive stone walls, and aged oaken altar. Every time I entered, experiencing as if for the first time the great hush that filled the soaring space, I felt small and awed by its majesty.
Everyone spoke to my grandfather, a rector’s warden for many years, and to my grandmother, a pillar of the ladies’ auxiliary. They spoke to me, too, usually while ruffling the auburn curls I wore back then. I smiled forbearingly through it all.
I used to enjoy being there, though, because I loved the tremendous, swelling music of the massive pipe organ, and the grand singing of the choir. To this day, the sound of the old hymns sends a shiver through me—A Mighty Fortress Is Our God; Abide With Me; O God, Our Help In Ages Past; Blessed Assurance; and so many more.
But I always dreaded the point during the service when the minister would climb high into the pulpit to deliver his sermon. Not that his messages were inappropriate; I was probably too young to understand them, anyway.
No, I dreaded it because my grandfather would always take that time—when there was no sound in all that hushed hall, save the minister’s voice—to wind his watch. To my cocked ears, sitting right alongside him, that winding was louder than the most thundering organ oratorio.
Once a week, without fail, he would wind his watch. And I, in my childish way, was mortified that he should choose to do it there. And amazed that I seemed to be the only one who noticed.
Today, as a grandfather myself, I see it a little differently—as an analogy of sorts. I’ve come to believe that, just as he wound the watch to keep good time through the following week, so, too, was he rewinding his spirit, sitting there in church, to see him safely through the week to come.
I have that watch now, still on one end of the gold chain he wore across the front of his waistcoat, with a weighted fob at the other end. It sits in a drawer in my bedroom, and I take it out from time to time. Even after all these years, it keeps good time—when I wind it.
Seeing that man in church the other day, wiping his glasses so diligently, I remembered my grandfather. I could almost hear the sound that used to embarrass me so—and I’m embarrassed now that I was embarrassed then.
I still miss him. I wish he could be sitting there beside me once again, smelling comfortingly of bay-rum after-shave and pipe tobacco.
And winding his watch.