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The Cuckoo Clock

May 12, 2011

Grandpère had been injured twice at Verdun, in the last months of WWI. As soon as he was fit again, he was posted with his regiment in Alsace where he then came to the end of his military career. He was looking forward to going back to his native island of Oléron with Grandmère and their young daughter, my mother.

Before leaving Alsace, he decided to purchase a cuckoo clock as a souvenir to remind the little family of their relatively brief stay in a region so different to their island. It represented a small fortune and it was a great testament of the woodcraft typical of that part of France which changed hands with Germany so many times

The family returned to the island and took their lodgings in their first house. A home coming party was held and the official hanging of the cuckoo clock took place. The throng of aunts, uncles and cousins, new neighbours and acquaintances were most impressed. No one had ever seen such a clock before and my grandparents’ status was instantly raised a few notches. People even used to come and visit just to see the clock.

As the cuckoo only came out every half hour, the visitors often outstayed their welcome, much to Grandpère’s annoyance as it interfered with his strict routines. Nevertheless, he was very proud of his possession and made a great show of setting it once a week, usually on a Sunday, when the women were at church and he could have a few men friends round for a quick swig of local wine ( a dreadfully aggressive white which burnt your stomach if you weren’t used to it).

The clock was a beauty! Carved entirely in cherry wood, it had a red glow to it, much enhanced by Grandmère’s skillful beeswax polishing. Even the clock face was worked in wood with inlaid roman numbers. Under the clock was a pendulum and two heavy weights made out of metal in the shape of long fir cones, hanging on a chain. No electrics, no batteries, the chains were slowly pulled downward by the weights to activate the mechanism. One weight controlled the clock and the other one delt with the cuckoo.

Now, the cuckoo! A surprisingly pathetic little effort at representing the bird. Made of light wood (could even have been balsa wood) and carved very roughly, painted white with black wings and a red chunky beak. Even German or Alsatian cuckoos don’t look remotely like that! The fascination was with the movement. You would watch the minute hand slowly and tediously reach the 12 and, just as you were ready to give up, the little door would fling open and make you jump out of your skin. The cuckoo would proceed to utter its “song” to match the hour showing on the clock, nodding vigorously to make his mark. When the job was done, the bird would jump backwards and the little door would slam shut for another half hour when the process would be repeated, this time cuckooing only once.

As the years went by, Cuckoo soldiered on relentlessly, through the 1920s, 30s, 40s and so on. Grandmère used to talk to it and wag her finger at it when she was angry with Grandpère.  It rang the changes for my mother through her growing up and soon enough, my brothers and I got to know every squeak and groan of the wretched thing. There was a new house move for my grandparents in 1952 and disaster struck! Cuckoo got lost in the removal, no one spent much time trying  to recover it. In fact, one by one, out of Grandpère’s earshot, we all agreed that we didn’t care much for it anyway.

When we went back to the new house for our next holiday, Grandpère proudly introduced us to a stonking great new grandfather clock standing defiantly in the entrance hall. You could hear the shrill of its chime all the way down the road. The neighbours managed to convince Grandpère to turn the chime off in the hours of darkness.  As soon as he got up in the morning, the chiming resumed, set in motion every quarter of an hour. In retrospect, maybe the cuckoo was more tolerable, if indeed we had to have an audible clock!

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