The watch is a Bulova owned by my maternal grandfather, Bert Bern, né something that translated roughly from Hungarian to Bernard Benanschtalk, an immigrant who made his living selling Florsheim shoes and who, in his 92 years, had little taste for luxury. Frugal, he owned the same white car for all of my childhood, parked in the tiny lot behind the tiny Chicago apartment where he and my grandmother Elsie lived. I should be able to tell you the car’s make but I can’t, though I can tell you that before he quit smoking cigars and switched to endless packs of Wrigley’s spearmint gum, you could suffocate in the back seat. And I can tell you that he loved little more than a heaving all-you-can-eat buffet because he’d gone hungry in childhood. (Go to a smorgasbord with him and he’d hector you relentlessly to have another dessert or three—“It’s all the same price!”) That he was sometimes mistaken for Mayor Richard Daley, Sr., to whom he bore a passing resemblance, pleased him.
When, after 49 years of marriage, my grandmother Elsie died, he tracked down his childhood sweetheart, also named Elsie and by then widowed, and lived with her in California for the rest of his long life. It was as if his way of marking time was to rewind. He and Elsie #2—or #1, depending how you view it—bickered endlessly (“I’m not going to dial the phone for you when you go blind!” “Who’s talking?!”), which was, I would like to think, a form of exercise. I watched him, at age 90, get into a screaming fight with his 92-year-old sister, whom we were visiting in her assisted living facility, over who really brought their parents here from Kisvarda; they vowed never to speak again. (“Not another word to you!”) After my grandfather marched us out, we stood on the curb in the 90 degree heat until our ride, Elsie’s son, came to pick us up half an hour later. We had barely made it back to my grandfather and Elsie’s tiny apartment before the phone rang; it was his sister. (“I watched you on the curb the whole time!”) In the weeks before he died, my grandfather switched from heavily accented English (“Vot?”) to his childhood Hungarian.
I couldn’t tell you who gave him the Bulova watch but I will bet my own last hour that it was a gift. His heart failed finally—congestive disease. His only son had died two months before, and so the watch passed in pristine condition to his only grandson, Donald. Three years later, Donald went out for a run and died at 38.
The watch passed, via my mother, to my husband, then ceased to tell time. Two repairs failed. For years my husband didn’t wear any watch because, he said, he had one. It just didn’t work. This year I bought him a Timex Expedition watch that tells not only the time and date but also the direction in which you are headed and when the local tides are coming in. For a few hundred dollars we could probably fix the double dead man watch for good. But I think my husband wants to outlive it.