Things That Seem Like Family: the Romeo Clock

The Romeo  Clock

The Romeo Clock

This 18th-century Second Empire clock has been with me my entire life. My earliest memories include listening to its delicate chime. When it’s working (and it’s been broken for twenty years now. I really should have it adjusted again) it rings every fifteen minutes. The sound is a very pleasing high-pitched ping, utterly unlike any other sound I’ve ever heard.  As a little girl, waking in the middle of the night, I could hear the clock chime in the dining room of our New York apartment, and it always reassured me that everything was all right.

The romantic fellow with the large hat and feather who is reclining on the hill that supports the face of the clock is Romeo, or at least, that is what my mother always told me. She said that there were originally two clocks—Romeo and Juliet—meant to sit  on the two ends of the mantel above your fireplace.  I think that Romeo must have sat on the left and Juliet on the right. Somewhere in the world there may still be a Juliet clock pining for her lover. I hope that she has survived the centuries,  but my family never owned the Juliet clock.

The feather on Romeo’s hat wiggles. This is probably a defect, but I loved moving it around as a child. Even as a little girl, the clock seemed alive to me. I imagined it coming to life at night once I went to bed, and even got up a few times to visit it, hoping that Romeo had descended from his hill and would be ready to tell me of his travels.

Since that didn’t happen, the clocks’ first 80 years will always be a mystery. Made in France around 1850,  Romeo was purchased by my grandfather, Maurice Rauchwerger, in the 1930s. He and my grandmother lived in Vienna, and he collected antiques as a hedge against the terrible inflation that afflicted Austria and Germany after World War I.

A  blond, blue-eyed Jewish man who pretended to be a Christian during his constant business trips to Romania, Yugoslavia, and Hungary, Maurice watched the encroachment of the Nazi regime into his life with both disbelief and disdain.  As a citizen of Vienna, he did not believe anything would happen to him or the family, despite the increasingly harsh restrictions placed on Jews as the 1930s wore on.

Luckily for my mother’s survival, her sister, Stella, married Englishman Tobias Springer in 1937 and moved to London. Reading the British press, she could see that life was getting very perilous for Jews in Vienna. Stella and Toby arranged visas for my mother and her parents to leave for England, and the Rauchwergers escaped in 1938, immediately following Hitler’s annexation of Austria,.

The Romeo clock and a small number of other valuables left with them. The Rauchwergers took only a tiny fraction of what they owned. It must have been terrible to leave so many cherished valuables behind. But certainly better than dying to save them.

My mother brought Romeo with her when she married my father and moved to the United States. The clock sat on a shelf in the dining room for all of my childhood, and it later retained a place of honor in the living room of my parents’ various homes. When my mother died, twenty years ago, Romeo came back to live with me, along with a number of other wonderful objects, most of them wedding presents given to my grandmother in 1900.
The Romeo clock links me to grandparents that I never met (my grandmother died before I was born and my grandfather only saw me once as an infant) but even more importantly, it is a symbol of freedom and escape. That’s why I had to put the clock in The Lives of Things, where it offers the same comfort and support to my heroine, Rebecca Katz, as it does to me.

5 thoughts on “Things That Seem Like Family: the Romeo Clock

  1. Related to how things speak:
    With the demise of handwritten letters, I wonder if the voices of the writers will be preserved as they are in handwritten letters, diaries, and so forth. The slants and curves of the script or print, idiosyncrasies of spacing or letter formation, misspellings, and emphatic gestures of pen marks hold the tone, pitch, and accent of the writer. Or, should I say, they do for me. When I read a letter from my grandmother or aunts, I hear their voices clearly. Not only the text on the page do I hear aloud, but other lines from them are spoken clearly for me as I see their handwriting, their selection of paper, the folding, or even the envelope.

    How can email, even if saved for decades in print, take on the personality of the sender to preserve that voice, with its standardized type fonts and self-correction?

    However, perhaps as a Luddite, I overlook that for the e-generations, the short-hand of texting or email allows for a similar voice. Perhaps symbols, words, style will hold the voice of the writer for modern readers. I hope these printed “things” will speak.

  2. Oh my dear Stephy , I am so proud of you and anxious to get my copy of your book ( ordered today from Amazon ) . I have lovely memories of our friendship in Mexico City and would love to see you again one day . I know your husband and daughter are thrilled for you . much love, Sandy ( Stone ) McGrath

    • Thank you so much, Sandy. It means the world to me. I hope we can meet up. And why not? There are no real distances anymore. There are just financial distances and time distance. Maybe we can all go to the 50th reunion. I hope it takes place in Mexico. I know I’m planning on it.

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