When my father died, not unexpectedly but suddenly, he was rushing between classes at Northwestern University where he taught marketing communications. He had started teaching there when he turned around 55 and it was probably the best thing that ever happened to him. It gave him a place to go away from my mother and gave him a place where young people would hang on his words. By all accounts, and I can believe this, my father was a passionate and riveting teacher, passionate and riveted by his subject--advertising.
My father died in May of 2001 and I say it wasn't unexpected because he had suffered a heart-attack at the age of just 39 and then had its sequel just seven years later in 1974. Later on he had trouble with his kidneys and wound up in dialysis for most of the last years of his life.
My mother held a memorial service for my father on September 22, 2001, just 11 days after 9/11 and I couldn't make it. Planes were flying only sporadically and the idea of a 24-hour train ride to Chicago didn't appeal to me. I had said goodbye to my father earlier at a graveyard outside of Philadelphia where we "put him to rest," and sat shiva. The memorial service seemed like something I could miss during that frightening time when it seemed like the world was coming to an end. I felt it was more important to be with my daughters.
As a consequence of not being at my father's memorial, I got no paternal hand-me-downs. No set of cufflinks that were his favorite. No gold fountain pen or well-worn watch. Nothing, other than the disdain, everlasting, of my mother who never forgave me for not showing up.
Six years almost to the day after my father's death, my sister died in a motorcycle crash. She was just 47 and had no significant other. It was up to me to take the train out to the fringes of Park Slope and clear out her rented apartment. Most of what was in her apartment was trash but there were a few artifacts of my father's, including the watch his advertising agency gave him at his 20th anniversary with the firm.
Shortly after his 20th Anniversary, he was fired by the same agency. That’s when he started working as a professor at Northwestern.
The watch was a gold one, from Cartier’s and of course it was stopped. The battery hadn’t been replaced since my father had died. There had been at one time an emerald bezel on the crown but that had long since disappeared. My father had broken his left wrist at one time and had a large bony protrusion where a watch would ordinarily be worn. Instead he wore his watch on his right wrist—the hand he wrote with and for that reason, he claimed, he was rough on them.
The watch was engraved on the back. It had his name, the name of his company and “Twenty Years” in an elegant block type.
I’ve never worn an expensive watch, certainly not one from Cartier. Growing up in the 60s, when status was attained by not kowtowing to status symbols, such appurtenances were never important to me. I suppose it drives my wife and kids crazy that I care nothing at all for expensive clothes or shoes or jewelry. I don’t begrudge my family such things, but they are unimportant to me; I’m happier wearing old blue jeans, sneakers (without irony) and a t-shirt and, frankly don’t even understand why someone wants or needs such expensive things. We all have voids in our lives, a sense of loss or deprivation that we seek to fill. But a watch, in my view, won’t do the trick.
Nevertheless, the watch was a memory of my father. I felt compelled to wear it. Maybe it was a moment of sentimental weakness to have, in the wake of my sister’s death, an item of my family, of my past on my wrist.
My father and I had never been close. We knew, each of us, that we should have been, that fathers and sons ought to be close. But try as we might, if pressed, each of us would have admitted we were disappointed by the other one.
I wasn’t the son my father wanted. Wasn’t a hit with girls, wasn’t the star athlete, wasn’t adept in social situations. The truth is, I hated doing almost everything my father really wanted me to do. Likewise, my father came up short for me. He seemed mute when I needed help with something and was often missing when he was wanted most.
The first time I wore his watch it took me a full day to realize that it ran irregularly. I would show up for a meeting twenty minutes late, or show up for another one twenty minutes early. It seemed the watch was the very model of my father. Reliably unreliable.
From that point nearly six years ago when the watch let me down until recently I locked the watch away in a small fireproof safe I had screwed deep into the floor of a walk-in closet in my apartment. I gave it no thought, really, until my everyday watch smashed when I knocked it to a tile floor. Then I needed a watch and figured my father’s would do—I would just replace the battery--until my watch was repaired.
Now, here’s where the story gets even stickier with symbolism. I took the broken watch to what might be the world’s largest watch store. Three weeks later they called me to say the watch could be picked up. The necessary parts were no longer available and they couldn’t repair it. From 57th and Madison I ran up to 69th and Madison where there’s a small Cartier shop.
Cartier is just about everything I hate in the world. Conspicuous consumption at its most conspicuous. Not to mention salespeople dripping with both French accents and disdain for customers who are not sartorially splendid.
“This watch is not aw-zen-teeck,” I was told.
“Whaddaya mean, not authentic. It was given to my father after twenty years at his company.”
“Well, I tell you,” the clerk said superciliously “it is what you call a knock oof. It is not aw-zen-teeck.”
I put the not authentic watch back in my pocket. It had been my father’s. It was mine now.