This story was originally published on my personal blog The Hogtown Rake.
My first watch, a Timex “Sprite.” The case is angular and small, about 33mm. The dial has no numbers, save for the date window at 3 o’clock. And as a kid I loved that dial: a background of deep blue wood grain. It made me feel grown up. Important. Elegant.
My grandparents gave me the watch for my tenth birthday. I knew nothing of fine horology, nothing of Rolex or Omega, and so this Timex felt luxurious. And magical. Since it didn’t use a battery, I had to wind it every day to charge a mechanism I couldn’t see. Or understand if I had seen it.
If I didn’t wear the watch for a while, I had to reset the time and date. God forbid it was the 15th of the month and the watch hadn’t been worn since the 18th of the previous month. This required endless winding of the jagged crown. Watching the hour hand slowly revolve twice around the entire dial just to move one day. I still remember the feeling of rubbing the skin of my thumb and index finger raw with all that winding. When the watch needed it, I both dreaded and looked forward to winding it. Anticipating both the pain and the satisfying clicking sound the watch made when running. I’d heard the slogan, “It takes a lickin’ but keeps on tickin'” and I would hold my little Timex up to my ear to listen to the tiny clicks of its mysterious mechanism.
My grandparents gave me the watch, I now believe, as reparation for a wrong. The summer before my birthday they left Portugal for the first time in their lives for a long stay with us in Toronto. Long because in those days air travel was so expensive you had to make it worth your while. So our entire summer vacation became an extended visit with my grandparents, people I hardly knew. Eventually, our small bungalow was overwhelmed by their presence—my grandfather’s constant political arguments with my dad, my grandmother’s micromanagement of the kitchen—creating so much stress I needed an escape.
I spent a few days at a cousin’s and I returned home on a hot, humid July day. The cicadas buzzed incessantly in the trees and the sunlight reflected so brightly off the sidewalk I had to squint. My grandparents were proud to show me what they had done while I was away. They had planted a whole row of fava beans up against the wall of our garage. Each seedling growing close to a string that stretched ten feet in the air, attached to the overhang of the garage. And supporting each string was a thick wooden pole. I noticed, from a distance, that each pole was different, oddly coloured and contoured. As I got closer I recognised, with horror, what the poles were. Or had been. My entire beloved collection of hockey sticks.
My grandparents, left to their own devices, had searched the garage for bean poles. They came across a group of what they could only assume was strangely decorated wood, some of which was angled at the end. No one played hockey in Portugal. So my grandfather sawed off the blades and shoved them into the ground. My summer of street hockey was over. As I stood in front of the shinny graveyard my grandparents had constructed, each stick a tombstone, I cried.
I cried intense, hard-to-breath-through tears. At first my grandparents couldn’t understand what was going on, mostly because they didn’t speak English and I was too distraught to explain in Portuguese. Once my dad translated, they were devastated. They apologised and eventually I got over it and the summer went on with visits to zoos and parks, and new hockey sticks. But unbeknownst to me they carried the weight of their misdeed back to Portugal.
And so that September a package arrived. My grandparents had never given me a birthday present before. Never even called. I probably expected a toy and so when I opened the box and saw the Timex, I was amazed. This wasn’t a kid’s watch, it was a grown man’s watch. A European grown man’s watch. Even at that young age, I was developing an awareness of “masculinity.” In North America at the time (late 70s/early 80s) masculinity was more and more associated with ruggedness and a lack of ostentation. But I had visited Portugal when I was seven and had seen a different kind of grown man. One who still wore stylish suits, plenty of jewellery and occasionally even carried a satchel. The watch—which I recently learned was made in Great Britain—made me feel elegant and manly in a way at odds with the world around me.
I still have the Timex my grandparents gave me. And with a fair amount of painful winding, it’s still tickin’. I recently gave it to my ten-year-old son, in an attempt to pass on this meager family heirloom. But he doesn’t wear it.
“I don’t like watches,” he says.