When somebody dies the personal meanings that he or she has invested in things are lost. “Sunt lacrimae rerum”, wrote Virgil – “There are tears at the heart of things”, in Seamus Heaney’s translation. Those tears belong to the person for whom the things evoke particular memories. Orson Welles got this aspect of our psyches brilliantly right when he made Rosebud – the name on a worthless and otherwise forgotten children’s toy – the emotional touchstone in the life of Charles Foster Kane.

I have my own Rosebud; probably you do, too. This is the story of mine.

When I was a boy, I was very conscious that my father had made it. We lived in a beautiful home and attended schools that put us into a far, far more privileged world than either of our parents had known in their childhoods – all because of our father’s brains and ferocious work ethic and our mother’s astounding feat of lovingly raising the seven of us, essentially unaided.

Having grown up without many advantages, my father was always focused on making sure that we had every opportunity – both educationally and socially. He was also a very strict moralist. Dad was enormously – and rightly – proud of his achievements which, like most real accomplishments, came at great personal cost.

One day in around 1970, he received a magnificent gift from an elderly friend – a very wealthy lady from one of Boston’s most famous families. The present was a huge, early eighteenth century Dutch clock; we were told that it was worth $250,000 – so much that in order to evade gift and eventual estate taxes, it was given fractionally to the seven children. I’m pretty sure it was insured separately, along with my mother’s (much less valuable) jewelry.

For the rest of my childhood, I revered that clock. It was beautiful, and I knew how much it meant to my father – not only that he had it, but that it had been given to him by such a wonderful friend and that he had a home in which it looked right – not that anyone outside the family could be told of its enormous value. After I became an adult, my fond memories of the great clock’s chimes – and appreciation of its intricate, ancient workmanship even spurred me to start collecting antique mechanical clocks of my own – of much lesser value, of course.

When, eventually, my father passed away and my mother decided to move to an assisted living facility, she couldn’t take the clock with her – it wouldn’t fit into a room with a normal-height ceiling. My siblings and I had to decide what to do with it.

Just then, I was in a sufficiently secure financial position to be able to buy out my siblings’ interests in the clock, assuming that it hadn’t appreciated to a truly astronomical value. So I told them I wanted it; I would get a couple of appraisals and pay them their shares. I desperately hoped in making this offer that the clock hadn’t appreciated much – after all, I had responsibilities of my own.

It turned out to be worthless – a fake. The case was the real thing, but the works were a hash of mismatched and modern parts. The two wonderful old clock men who I had gotten to know through other purchases were both amused by it, though they graciously tried to hide that.


I have a fusty taste in decor. Our walls are covered with eighteenth and nineteenth century art, our furniture would have fit in the well-appointed home of a century ago, and well-loved books – the paper and hardback kind – are in evidence throughout. The enormous faux eighteenth century Dutch clock has a place of honor in our living room.

It’s beautiful, it keeps perfect time, I still love those chimes and – most important – through it are woven memories that I will cherish as long as I live. I wouldn’t sell it for a small fortune.

And nobody would pay much of anything for it – which is fine by me.

M.H. Johnston     

One comment to Priceless

  • Viivan  says:

    What a wonderful story. Thank you for sharing it. I, too, have a clock that tells me so much more than the hour.

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