Tag Archives: Family

The Clockmaker’s House

People grow up and grow old, and if they have children, those offspring will likely see the day when their grandparents and parents die and are laid to rest. And then those offspring have kids of their own, and the cycle continues. That’s the natural order of things, and if that natural order is somehow disrupted – say, if a parent buries a child – then something has gone terribly wrong. But under normal circumstances, we’ll live long enough to see our elders grow old and reach the twilight of their lives. First our grandparents, and then eventually our parents. In the back of our heads we know it’s coming, and that it’s how the world is supposed to work. Like clockwork.

At least that’s what I keep telling myself, but somehow that never makes it any easier when it becomes apparent that somebody who has always been a part of your life won’t be part of it forever.

My first grandparent to die was my paternal grandmother, when I was in middle school. She had been in poor health for many years due to diabetes and heart disease, and it didn’t come as much of a surprise when her ailments finally became more than her body could handle. My next grandparent to pass on was my material grandfather a couple years later, due to leukemia. A couple years after that, it was my paternal grandfather. He died of a rare form of cancer in his muscles, probably related to his working in a steel foundry in rural England as a child. God knows what he was exposed to in that place.

Both my grandfathers lived into their 80’s, and I figure once you live that long, you’re pretty much on borrowed time. If ailment X doesn’t get you, then ailment Y is lurking right around the corner. This isn’t to trivialize their passing or make light of the mourning felt by those they left behind, but they both lived long, full lives, had relatively short illnesses, died peacefully surrounded by people who loved them, and left the world a better place than they had found it. We should all hope for so much.

That leaves my maternal grandmother as the last surviving member of that generation in my family. Technically, she’s my step-grandmother, as my true material grandmother died of complications from breast cancer at an early age, years before I was born. My mother’s father remarried, and my mother’s stepmother would become, for all practical purposes, my grandmother.

Like the Energizer Bunny, she simply refuses to stop living. Now 86 years old, she’s still sharp as a tack, and as sweet and good-natured as ever. Always quick with a laugh or a compliment, she vaguely reminds me of “Granny” from the Looney Tunes cartoons: endearing and motherly on the outside, and tough as nails on the inside. She’ll always be there to offer you a bowl of ice cream, but don’t you dare try to reach into the birdcage and grab Tweety. I’ve never once seen her raise her voice, but even as kids, we knew that misbehaving in her house simply wasn’t an option.

And what a house it was. My earliest memories are of a simple split-level ranch house in Milford, but for the past 20-some years she’s been living in a little yellow house in the Cincinnati neighborhood of Madisonville, just a block from the Mariemont municipal boundary. More significant than the house itself, though, were the things it contained. My late material grandfather built and restored old clocks as a hobby, and the place is loaded with them. Floor-standing grandfather clocks, wall clocks, clocks that sit on shelves, you name it. They were all in impeccable condition. In the basement was his workshop, loaded with woodworking tools and all the clock-related spare parts you could imagine. And given that this was the German side of my family, everything was impeccably organized and labeled. A little drawer full of clock gears here, and another little drawer full of clock hands there. Craft was a strong tradition on that side of the family; my grandfather Monte Hillerich was the grandson of Bud Hillerich of Hillerich & Bradsby fame, the family-owned company that continues to make Louisville Slugger baseball bats a few miles downriver from Cincinnati.

On Saturday afternoons, he’d go around the house and wind up the clocks for the week. He deliberately kept them unsynchronized by a few minutes so that the entire house wouldn’t erupt into a cacophony of chimes every hour, on the hour. But beginning at around five minutes before the hour, a clock on the wall would chime. A few seconds later, a grandfather clock in the other room. Then another clock out in the hallway. This would continue for roughly ten minutes. Each clock had a sound that was as unique as its visual appearance. The chimes on the grandfather clock in the living room had a deeper, subtle pitch, while the little brass clock that sat under a glass dome on a nearby shelf had a more metallic, high-pitched chime.

In addition to the clocks were the antique furniture, family heirlooms, chinaware, photographs, artwork, and various other knickknacks. The house was like a museum for my maternal side of the family. Like the clocks, everything was kept impeccably clean and orderly.

The house — first out in Milford and then in Madisonville — always seemed like a refuge when I was growing up. Most family gatherings were at the house of my paternal grandparents in Fort Thomas, mainly because it was much closer to us, and such gatherings were usually pretty chaotic affairs with aunts and uncles talking, and small kids running around.

Visiting Grandma Hillerich’s house, though, was always a special occasion. The drive was a bit longer and involved crossing a large bridge, and the house was much more calm and orderly than anything on the Kentucky side of the river. I have fond memories of quietly playing with Tinker Toys in front of the fireplace in the family room while the adults carried on adult conversations nearby. All the clocks on the walls and my grandfather’s meticulous workshop in the basement were a constant source of fascination. Before we got into the car to head back home, my grandmother would always prepare a “goody bag” for me and my siblings, a small sandwich bag filled with a few candies and treats for each of us.

In 1988, while we were living in coastal South Carolina and Hurricane Hugo was threatening to wipe the state off the map, we evacuated to Cincinnati and stayed with my maternal grandparents for a few days. I remember watching the live reports on CNN from the house’s family room as Hugo battered the hell out of Charleston. My grandfather was already sick with leukemia at that time, and it would be the last time I saw him.

My grandmother, now a widow for the second time, had the house to herself and did her best to take care of it. Family members and neighbors helped her out, and she remained active in her little church just up the street on Plainville Road. I continued my nomadic lifestyle of moving around to various locations throughout the country, but tried to visit my grandmother whenever I found myself back in Cincinnati. She was as spry as ever, and the house itself hardly changed. It still felt like a place of refuge, the one remaining element of my childhood in Cincinnati that had been a constant throughout my life, no matter where I was living or what sort of trouble I was getting myself into. Grandma would always be there to welcome me into the home, remark about how tall I’ve gotten, ask me why I’m still single, and catch up with all that’s happening in my life. The clocks would chime, and like always, she wouldn’t let me escape the house without giving me some sort of treat to take home with me. On some level I hoped that, for as long as I lived, I could always come back here and find Grandma Hillerich among all the clocks, ready to give me a hug and a goody bag.

But that’s not how it works. A couple months ago she took a nasty fall at church and broke her arm. She wasn’t seriously injured, but the incident prompted the decision to move her into an assisted living facility out in the suburbs, closer to some relatives. The house, which had been a place of refuge throughout my life, is now being slowly emptied of its contents, and will soon be put on the market. I understand all the clocks, save for the large grandfather clock in the living room, have now been sold off.

I paid one final visit to the house a few weeks ago with my mother. The clocks had been appraised, and were lying on tables with little price tags attached to them. The house’s other contents were being divvied up among the relatives, and the place had the look of a garage sale. The walls that had once held clocks and family photos were now mostly empty. The house, which I had always known as being full of laughter, now felt like a silent, empty shell. That last remaining spatial connection to my childhood is now gone.

I always knew there would come a day when that house would no longer be there for me, and I knew it would be painful. But I didn’t know it would hurt quite so much.

The Sea Voyages of my Grandfather, 1939-1947

5 Albert Road, Burnham-on-Crouch, Essex

On August 6, 1911, Herbert R. Cole was born in a small English fishing village called Burnham-on-Crouch, located about an hour-and-a-half east of London by train. He was a child during World War I, and worked in a local steel foundry while growing up between the wars. (I remember him bragging that he could pick up a piano frame with his teeth.) When World War II broke out, he joined the British Merchant Marine and ended up sailing to almost every corner of the world during the war.

This chronicle was originally compiled and written by my father, and sightly edited by me with some additional research.

29 November 1939 – 23 December 1939
S.S. Orontes
Liverpool, England to Sydney, Australia
Round trip via the Suez Canal and Ceylon

15 January 1940 – 16 April 1940
S.S. Orontes
Liverpool, England to Sydney, Australia
Round trip via the Suez Canal and Ceylon

18 May 1940 – ??
S.S. Orontes
Liverpool, England to Sydney, Australia
Round trip via the Suez Canal, West Africa, Cape Town, and Bombay

During these voyages, Granddad visted African villages in Kenya and South Africa. He often mentioned going into the dirt and thatch huts. He was also greatly impressed by the tremendous poverty in Bombay and the many beggars in the streets. Many were crippled and desperately thin. He talked of one particular beggar that dragged himself along the ground, wearing the skin off parts of his legs down to the bone. The young kids would gather around any Westerner and yell “mungie”, which was Hindi for food.

On one of his trips to Bombay, they unloaded chests of tea marked for Winston S. Churchill.

While in Port Said during one of these voyages, he was able to arrange a visit in Cairo with his brother Keith. Keith was stationed near Cairo with the Royal Air Force.

He was able to visit his cousins in Australia during one of these visits as well. He talked of the cold train ride over the Blue Mountains to their home, and their warm welcome to him.

15 October 1940 (Depart)
S.S. Samaria
Liverpool, England to New York City

Granddad traveled to New York as a passenger on the S.S. Samaria and then took a train from New York to Galveston, Texas to pick up the S.S. Labette. While in New York, he met Mary Hendrickson while eating apple pie at a Woolworth’s store. She was fresh out of high school and was living with her aunt and working at the American Bible Society. Throughout the war, they kept in touch and Granddad visited her when in New York.

While in Galveston, he had his photograph taken with a Texas longhorn bull.

18 April 1941 (Return)
S.S. Labette
Galveston, Texas to Liverpool, England

The S.S. Labette was in very poor condition and very slow. On this trip, it stopped in Halifax, Nova Scotia to pick up a convoy. Thirty-six hours out of Halifax on the voyage to Liverpool, it got stuck in a blizzard in the mine fields. It took six days to return to Halifax through the mine fields and blizzard, and when it finally got across the Atlantic, it took fourteen days for the crossing. The harbor master at Liverpool initially would not allow the Labette to enter the port, as it had been given up as lost. Granddad had his photograph taken on the deck of this ship. He is wearing a full beard and a duffel coat, and there is about six inches of ice all over the ship.

10 May 1941 – 9 September 1941
S.S. Brittany
Liverpool, England to Buenos Aires, Argentina

While in Buenos Aires, Granddad saw the wreck of the German pocket battleship, Admiral Graf Spee. She had been scuttled rather than surrender to the Royal Navy after a running gun battle had severely damaged it and they had entered Buenos Aires. As it was a neutral port, by law she had to leave the port in three days. Instead, they scuttled her.

Granddad had a love of banannas, and while in Beunos Aires he bought a whole stalk and ate them all. He developed a fungus on his tongue which turned the tongue black. It gradually peeled off.

The return trip was via Halifax, Nova Scotia.

S.S. Reina del Pacifico

Granddad stayed with the S.S. Reina del Pacifico from October 1941 to February 1943. The voyages were:

23 October 1941 – 23 November 1941
Liverpool, England to Halifax, Nova Scotia
Round trip

26 November 1941 – 16 March 1941
Liverpool, England to Bombay, India
Round trip via Cape Town, South Africa

3 April 1942 – 1 September 1942
Liverpool, England to Bombay, India
Round trip via Cape Town, South Africa

September 1942 – 10 February 1943
Liverpool, England to Arzew, Algeria
Liverpool, England to Oran, Algeria
Liverpool, England to Algiers, Algeria

The three round trips to Algeria were in the support of the North African invasion. During the trip to Arzew, he got a photograph of his brother Spencer’s ship being bracketed by bomb bursts on either side of the ship.

11 March 1943 – 3 April 1944
S.S. Queen Elizabeth

During this period, Granddad made eleven round trips between Gourock, Scotland and New York City, and one round trip between Gourock and Halifax. The Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Mary made the trans-Atlantic crossings without convoy or escort, depending instead on their great speed as the fastest trans-Atlantic liners of their time. This was due to an accident early in the war. The Queen Mary was being escorted off the coast of Ireland by the H.M.S. Curacoa, a light cruiser. They were doing the standard zig-zag alterations in course because of the German U-boat threat. The first night out of port, there was a mix-up in communications and the Curacoa was cut in half as she crossed the bow of the Queen Mary. 338 sailors were lost. It was decided that it was too risky to escort these two ships, and from that point until the end of the war, they left port at full steam and slowed only upon arrival at their destination.

During one of these high-speed runs while Granddad was on board, the Queen Elizabeth was struck by a rogue wave. It broke out the glass on the bridge and buckled fifty feet of the main deck of the bow.

12 September 1944 – 4 November 1944
S.S. Franconia

During this period, Granddad made three round trips between Liverpool and New York. During one of his port calls in New York while serving on either the Queen Elizabeth or the Franconia, Granddad was mugged and kicked in the jaw. This resulted in osteomyelitis of the right mandible, and the abscess was so large as to press against the trachia. It was drained by a ship’s surgeon and he was referred to Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital in New York for further surgery. The British government denied permission for the surgery to be done in New York, and Granddad returned to England. While in England he went to the Seaman’s Hospital, but it had been bombed and he was referred to Miller Hospital. After being in the hospital several days, he finally had the surgery.

S.S. Franconia

On this trip, the Franconia transported Winston S. Churchill to Sevastapol, USSR for the Yalta Conference. While in Sevastapol, the English seamen were treated to a banquet. At the banquet, the seamen were seated with a male Soviet soldier on one side, and a female Soviet soldier on the other. There was much devastation in Sevastapol due to the fierce fighting that had taken place, and many of the buildings had been destroyed.

While on the return trip, they stopped in Taranto, Italy to offload Churchill and his official party. Earlier in the war, the Royal Navy had conducted an air raid on Taranto and sunk some Italian battleships. Taranto was a shallow harbor very similar to Pearl Harbor, and that attack was a model for the later attack by the Japanese on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor.

R.M.S. Aquitania

Granddad made two round trips between Liverpool and New York during the last year of the war. At this time, Granddad had decided that after the war was over, he would bring Mary to England where they would get married. After the war, however, the economy of England was ruined and it was decided that he would come to the United States instead, and return to England later.

R.M.S. Aquitania

The final sea voyage of Herbert R. Cole. He sailed from Liverpool and landed in Halifax instead of New York due to bad weather. He thus entered the United States via Canada. This caused a bit of trouble with the immigration personnel, but it was soon straightened out.

Shortly after his arrival in New York, carrying everything he owned in two large leather suitcases, he was married to Mary Hendrickson at Marble Collegiate Church (the same church where Norman Vincent Peale was pastor). Their honeymoon was the train ride from New York to Cincinnati.

On December 3rd of that year, their first child and my father was born. Granddad got a job as a strikebreaker at Cincinnati Bell, despite being unable to legally work in the US at the time. At that point they lived in Bellevue, Kentucky, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. They would later move a short distance to Fort Thomas, which would become my hometown in 1975. By the time Granddad retired, he was responsible for all the underground phone lines in the city of Cincinnati. My fondest childhood memories usually involve family gatherings at my grandparents’ old house and playing around with my cousins in the back yard.

Eventually everybody in the family started going their separate ways, and my grandparents moved into a new condominium down the road in Southgate. My grandmother — the young woman Granddad met at Woolworth’s over apple pie — died of complications from diabetes in 1988. Granddad died of a rare form of cancer in July of 1993, survived by two sons, two daughters, and nine grandchildren. Doctors speculated that his cancer may have been related to his work in the steel foundry back in Burnham-on-Crouch.

I never got to tell you in person, granddad, but thanks.

Post-Thanksgiving Friday

Thanksgiving is one of those holidays that I’m never quite sure what to do with. Of course the four-day weekend and the food are nice, but I always end up feeling like a failure if I don’t do some sort of Norman Rockwell feast with friends and/or family.

I typically do my holiday traveling over Christmas, seldom leaving me with any money and/or vacation time to go anywhere for Thanksgiving. My closest family is several hundred miles away, and although I have a few friends here in NYC, they’re either out of town themselves, or they’re not close enough friends that I can simply invite myself to whatever they have going on.

So, I ended up going to Niko’s, a Mediterranean restaurant I really like at 76th and Broadway on the Upper West Side. I’ve been to this restaurant several times before and have never been disappointed. I got their Thanksgiving special, which included: salad, bread, roasted leg of lamb, potatoes, stuffing, dressing, veggies, cranberries, pumpkin pie, half a carafe of wine, and coffee. It was a nice meal, but it would have been nice to not be eating alone. Better luck next year, I guess.

Speaking of holiday travels, I’ll be visiting my parents in Raleigh, North Carolina for Christmas. I normally dread going down there (once you’ve seen one Wal-Mart store, you’ve pretty much seen them all), but it’s been a few years since I’ve been there, and it should be a nice change of pace from New York City for a few days.

Hopefully I’ll be able to survive the 9-hour train ride on Amtrak each way. Normally I love trains, but my last few experiences with Amtrak have been less than pleasant; more often than not it feels like a Greyhound bus on rails.

Other than that, I’ve been busy getting this new blog and website put together. I’m pretty happy with the way the blog looks and works, but I’m still trying to figure out what to do with the Photo Galleries. Right now I’ve got them set up as a separate blog with a WordPress plug-in, but I’m mulling the idea of incorporating them into this blog so that people don’t have to register twice to leave comments. And I haven’t even begun thinking about how to do the Portfolio section yet… Stay tuned.