Count Down to the New Year: Elizabeth’s Reflections on Her Old Family Clock
With the New Year upon us, I thought it appropriate to revisit Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson’s essay on the tall case clock that had been in her family most, if not all, of her life. The clock was meaningful to Elizabeth in that it marked time as to what was important to her at particular points in her life. We published this in the July-September 2007 Graeme Park Gazette (newsletter) and it is one of my favorite pieces of her writing. The piece also appeared in Theodore Bean’s History of Montgomery County, published in the late 19th century. As you count down to the New Year and reflect back on the old, think of Elizabeth, 214 years ago, also reflecting back on her life to the tick-tocking of her old family clock.
A Woman’s Meditations on Her Old Family Clock
By Mrs. Elizabeth Ferguson
“It is midnight! the inhabitants where I now reside are all locked in sleep, I am all alone with pen, ink and paper before me, and all things around conspire to aid my musing melancholy. The clock in the parlor where I am has just struck twelve. That identical clock has been in the family of my parents and myself above seventy years, and has been a true announcer of fleeting time. I am myself this present year (1797) on the verge of sixty. What various sensations have the sounds of that clock’s stroke raised in the bosoms of my parents, brothers, sisters and my own in a course of years! Three-fourths of a century since it first moved in our house!
“Let me in this silent pause try to retrace some of the effects the sound of this clock has produced on my spirits almost commensurate with any clear recollections of the past. How has my little heartbeat when it announced eight, the hour destined to go to bed! How often with my childish playmates, when keen for the protracting romp, has the dreaded knell stopped us short in full career, or, if permitted by an act of grace to encroach on a quarter of an hour beyond the limits, no entreaties could prevail to obtain a respite to hear the interdicted stroke of nine! When a year or two had advanced me in the juvenile stage, still eight was the well-known hour.
“I see in idea this moment the little round walnut table placed close by a clean hearth and clear hickory fire, my mother and sisters in rotation reading some moral story or dramatic piece, while my good father sat on the other side with his own small mahogany stand reading the paper of the day or some treatise on his own profession. Ah! how I feared the stroke of eight lest it might break the thread of the unfinished journal of the artless Pamela. Perhaps the clock struck in the middle of that excellent comedy, the ‘Journey of London’ where humor and sentiment are so happily blended. ‘Oh, mamma, do let me stay and hear whether Lady Townly repents and makes a good wife.’ ‘No, my child, you shall hear to-morrow; mamma says Betsy must go to bed.’ Shut was the book and shut was the scene unless carried over in youthful dreams. Oh, if any cold-hearted critic should glance over this page and sneer at these digressions, let them hear and know that these are the recollections that make me for a moment forget my age till I reflect I am left alone to make these observations.
“Alas! at those sounds my sensations of pain or pleasure did not terminate with childhood. No, very far from it. How often have I longed to hear announced the hour for the family party, after my sisters had left my father’s home for houses of their own! Nor was my heart bound up alone to connections; nearly equal was the pleasure when expecting to meet some kind, social friend, thy hand pointed when she must be near. How frequently has thy stroke summoned me to preside at the female station, the tea-table, where the conversation has changed in rotation, ‘from grave to gay from gay to grave severe!’ Ah! full well I remember when four strokes preluded the Indian regale; then we young people, beginning a little tonish, pleaded for the patrician hour of five; we were indulged, but five soon became a plebeian hour. Then my clock and its mistress changed our city for a rural abode, where seven and eight took the lead, until six remains to direct the coffee at the worthy gentlewoman’s where I now live.
“Ah! since my clock and I have passed our days in retirement, how frequently, on the evening of a market-day, when expecting a letter from the metropolis filled with wit, sentiment or affection, or all united in one, have I with impatience numbered your strokes, or still more ardently longed for the epistle that had crossed the Atlantic, whose value was appreciated as danger and distance had endeared it to the longing receiver! The evening walk was directed by thee, the wholesome breakfast also, and, to be more serious, how frequently have you warned me to repair to the temple of divine worship! And, now retracing the various effects thy sounds have produced in my too susceptible heart through a long life, would it not be a species of prudery to omit declaring what I well recollect that thy sounds to my ears acquired the softest tones when announcing the hours I was to meet my dear Henry before I met him at the altar which in this day twenty-five years – the fourth part of a century, a large portion of human existence. Yet, thy sounds seemed to change to pensive ones when they preluded to Britain his departure.
“Ah! when I reflect that I am the sole surviving child of ten brothers and sisters, how does the idea fill my mind! to think what a series of tedious, weary nights must these parents and children have waked and watched through the long gallery of pain to death! Hoping and waiting with exhausted spirits these strokes that announced the pleasing harbinger of day. How many times the dear departed, venerable authors of my being have heard that clock which now strikes two give the sound that was to be no more repeated, while breath drew trembling in bodies dearer to you than your own; your children a part of yourselves! Since first your motion began, what volcanoes have flamed, what battles fought, what families, pestilences and revolutions gone forth! You move, though your maker is no more; then be it known, he lived in London, in 1722, and named W. Tomlinson.”
Elizabeth’s clock, which is pictured above, is in private collection and has passed down through generations of the family of the current owner, who were “originally” from Horsham, Pennsylvania.