Their Couple Goals Are Cuckoo

Mistakenly, I’d pictured the people shopping for a cuckoo clock to be older but a couple in their early forties showed up at my Mom’s door. They had arrived to to buy a non-working clock my Mom was selling. I was surprised by their young age and I knew I had to know their story. 

They were as astonished as I had been when when I asked them if they’d ever been interviewed about their personal history and their cuckoo clock collection. No, they’d never been asked about their hobby before. We scheduled a meeting for a few weeks later at their home. There I’d find out how the couple ticks. 

A Hobby With Couple Goal Benefits

Shaun, Audrey and their life size cuckoo clock greet me at their door.

The clock is poised in the doorway, 5 feet tall from tip to tail.  This clock style is known as ‘After The Hunt’. It dominates the entryway and demands attention.

The group of us marvel at the carved regal details. This clock could easily overlook a great hall in a castle or command a place of importance in a lodge. 

Suspended on the clockcase are an ensnared hare and a limp neck pheasant. Hand-carved detailing includes feathers, oak leaves, acorns, and the powder horn. A stag’s head tilts from the peak of the clock, a heavy rack of antler. We admired it mightily. It was easy to see why this majestic clock is a prized possession. 

At 50 awkward pounds, “After The Hunt” was cradled into the house by three people with it’s rack of antlers removed. The clock is only 40 years old and unbelievably the original cuckoo was made of plastic. The former owner replaced the plastic with a 120-year-old cuckoo.

It took two people to hang it securely. It is the only clock in the house that would require professional ONSITE clock repair.

During my visit, Audrey clambers up a step stool, measuring her own height against the ornate five-foot clock hung in the entryway.

Multiple adventures and 30 Clocks In One Year

They both share a mutual admiration for hand-hewn works and antiques, and that appreciation of detail, along with the art, mechanics and craftsmanship of cuckoo clocks, matches their innate interest. 

A medical assistant, Audrey has to get the details right. Her skills, personality and conversation draws folks in. Those traits are a perfect fit for her work in geriatrics. 

A home builder by trade, the hunt and restoration of the clocks helps Shaun unwind. 

Shaun and Audrey took up the shared hobby of collecting and repairing cuckoo clocks little more than a year ago. Often they spend weekends or evenings after work scouting cuckoos together. During these drives they talk about the interesting people they meet:

“One couple that we met was one of our lengthiest visits. They didn’t want us to leave. They kept talking about all kinds of neat stuff. German Christmas trinkets. She was from Germany. She had a bunch of stuff from Germany.

She was excited to meet a couple who were as interested as we were. She said ‘for your age to be as interested and as knowledgeable as you are is kind of unbelievable.

You know, it was hard for her to fathom that people our age actually wanted these things.”

Pride in Restoration

Both Shaun and Audrey fill me in on features and mechanics as we tour the collection of clocks hung to advantage throughout the house and in the workshop. 

Theirs is a self-taught hobby using YouTube video advice about materials, mechanisms, repair, and restoration.

Knowing I had little knowledge of the sound chamber and bellows of a cuckoo, Shaun demonstrates how they work. He shared a tidbit told to him by an old-time clock repairman. They noted that paper for bellows repair was a dear commodity back in the day. Because currency is almost indestructible with it’s rag content, it was sometimes substituted to repair the bellows of a cuckoo clock. 

While they go on their hunt for older cuckoo clocks, the keep their eyes open for a clock from a by-gone era for a clock repair that would have bellows fabric replaced with currency.

Admiring The Inner Workings And Craftsmanship Of The Clocks

Telling time involves the intricacy of the clockworks. The gongs, pendulums, gears, mechanism, sound chambers, bellows, timing of the music, weights, automata, fittings and humidity all play a role keeping a clock sound and in working order. 

Shaun and Audrey have fine tuned the adjustments needed to keep cuckoos TIMELY, and share their knowledge enthusiastically.

Many clocks themselves have a lifespan of 30 to 40 years. Checking the mechanisms, cleaning, oiling and keeping them intact increases the lifespan of a cuckoo clock. None of the clocks at the Vacca home run all the time.

The work Audrey does dusting, cleaning, oiling, waxing and refinishing the click compliments the bench time Shaun spends on the workings. Parts can be culled from clocks that can’t be repaired.

The couple have restored clocks that have been tucked into a corner and neglected, coated in dust, with years of mistreatment. Soot, nicotine, humidity and damage to parts can all wreak havoc, keeping these old-time clocks from functioning well.

The Intrinsic Value Of Time-Honored Possessions

Black Forest clocks exclusively fill their collection, displaying a variety of styles and vintages. One of the categories of Black Forest Clocks includes the chalet-style that became popular in the 1940s and 1950s. 

Throughout their home, the clocks cast a magical spell with their ticking whimsy.  Amid the whirring, automata on the novelty clocks that kiss, dance, toast, saw and cluck. Each clock has the inevitable cuckoo whistling its tune every hour and half-hour interval. There are clocks that are wound daily and clocks that run for eight days before needing to be rewound.

Style preferences? Shaun admires the hunt clocks while Audrey enjoys the magic of the novelty clocks.

A Family Bond

Family members have joined in the adventure after Shaun and Audrey send over the latest videos and pictures.

  • While working in a thrift store, a cousin finds a unique cuckoo clock that is added to the collection. 
  • And an eleven-year-old second cousin waits for each new video, enthralled with the clockworks, dreaming of tinkering, too.

The Cuckoo’s Net

The clocks have cast a net over their lives in many ways. 

  • A multi-day synchronization marathon of family members running clock to clock and room to room to time the chorus. (Afterward, an uncle wonders, “how do you deal with the sound of the clocks going all the time.”
  • Delivery men taking selfies with the entryway clock.
  • Tutoring a clock shop owner how to keep her cuckoos clocks in top shape. 
  • Coffee klatches with sellers whose reminisces are worth sipping an extra cup or two.
  • Dressing as the Bavarian couple characters from their clocks.
  • After a German native regaled them about tourism and Black Forest history, there are thoughts of future travel there, despite Shaun’s landlubber tendencies.
  • The joy in teaching others how to clean and maintain their own cuckoo clocks.
  • The pure pleasure of looking at the details of and the wonder of the workings, still stopping Shaun and Audrey in their tracks to admire the simplicity and beauty of the clocks.
  • Busting a move when chicken dance ditty plays.
Modelled after cuckoo clock characters, Shaun and Audrey attend a costume party: Shaun dressed as a Bavarian man and Audrey as St Pauli-style girl.

Spur of the Moment Adventures

A long day may be capped by a trip to look at a clock and shake off the cares of the day. Sometimes, an impromptu visit to look at a clock in a distant city means a chance to explore a new part of the state. Once, a 2-½ hour trip to St. Augustine turned into a day of visiting the city as tourists. This hobby offers lots of opportunities to enjoy one another’s company, even after 20 years and counting. These four-hour drives are full of camaraderie.

A Unique Hobby

Some friends laugh at their hobby, but it is one that enriches their lives in many ways. They’ve bonded over a shared experience, made new friends of strangers, and met others who are interested and knowledgeable about their hobby. It’s their personal history!

Now What?

The next step in their collection is replacing some of their current clock collection with antique clocks. Many of the clocks they own are recent, within the past 30 or 40 years.

There is still the thrill of exploring all the different types and styles of clock, and discovering a clock that is unique to their collection. 

You can set your watch on this guarantee. One day soon, one of them will find a clock on their lunch hour, setting a day long text thread in motion. Even if they’re bone tired at the end of their workday, they’ll enthusiastically jump in the car together, flocking to another cuckoo adventure.

Chalet Style Black Forest Cuckoo clock with kissing couple automata

Wilbur Family History Trek 2021

Do you know anyone who’d travel 3,500 miles to attend events aware they wouldn’t know anyone there? Welcome to my world.

In late 2019 a distant cousin shared tragedy. My great-grandmother, Ida Bell Hayden Wilbur Durfee was widowed with four children. Eventually she would marry my great-grandfather Thomas Durfee.

Thomas M. Durfee in the garden with Ida Hayden Wilbur Durfee

Cousin Eric said the Wilbur family reunion that’d originated in 1953 was still going! I remembered my Dad mentioning he’d attended the “family” reunion and my Mom had too, when she and Dad were married. My interest in attending had been piqued.

I had never gone to either of my Dad’s family’s reunions before. Was mid-pandemic the time?

Family History Adventure

There were decisions to make if I was serious about attending. Cases of Covid were surging in many of the states I’d be pass through.

After so much loss in 2020, I decided to risk it. I would be part of the 67th Wilbur Family Reunion.

I cleared my calendar, making arrangements for the trek. From Florida, up I-75 and across Michigan I’d be zigzagging north, then heading back south to conclude my 3,500-mile trek. I’d complete the circuit in 21 days, spending most of the month driving. During the first two weeks I’d be visiting friends, enjoy old home week and visit cherished haunts around Michigan.

Charlevoix Pier Lighthouse

Touring The Past

Two weeks into my road trip came my 11th stop in Evart, Michigan to visit relatives who would welcome me with open arms.

On day one I slid into cousin Bob’s passenger seat and set off for a drive to the local cemetery. Bob’s lived in the area for more than 20 years, driving by the cemetery thousands of times. He’d never stopped before. I hoped to find relatives headstones there. He was a good sport, clearing leaves, tromping through rows of headstones with me, calling out names and dates as we searched for evidence of relatives nearby.

It remains to be seen if any of the Wilbur’s we found are related. That’s for the family genealogist to discover.

Haunting the Chippewa Township Cemetery With Cousin Bob

Bob’s brother lives down the road. The three of us spent the next afternoon looking through family photo albums splayed on the counter. Those pictures dredged up memories and streaky tears. Over the old photographs we talked about the past, our parents, a brother lost to COPD, our halcyon days (including how we lived to tell the tale.)

One star of our reminiscing was Aunt Edie, a costume jewelry-laden aunt whose clutch of husbands, a habit of fine dressing, and delightfully small dogs were the stuff of family legend.  

I’d only sorted out how she was related to the family a couple of years ago. So I wasn’t surprised when neither of my cousins knew how she was related to our family. (my paternal grandmother’s sister).

I was glad I had taken a few days to linger with my cousins. I was thankful for the memories we’d shared. Especially once Bob admitted he’d rather not attend family reunions because he won’t know anyone there.  

How Are We Related?

The next morning off I drove to Flushing, Michigan ready to meet shirttail cousins and attend my paternal grandmother’s family reunion. 

To break the ice when I walked into the pavillion I introduced myself, jokingly saying “I am here for the pictures.” Guess it worked! I was promptly handed a tote of old photo albums to look through.

Scott Dimick hands over a tote full of Wilbur family history

I’m the family sore thumb at the reunion.  My own family surname was a far-off memory for most who are at the reunion. Except for Scott, the reunion glue. He’s keeper of the albums, journals, and reunion history for the past 12 years. He recognizes my family name. He’s seen it in the journals and in some photo notations.

The photo albums were handed down to him from his aunt’s effects after she’d passed on. His bounty also includes “The World Book Of Wilburs”, papers, curling images of family crests, and Mead binders filled with reunion journals.

The World Book Of Wilburs and reunion journals

The Last Picture Book

My contemporaries’ parents, grandparents and great-grandparents are in the oldest albums, lives reduced to a few photos. Except for lovingly labelled photos, the majority of the oldest album is full of kin unknown to most of us. Their stories are fading from memory, their personalities are remnants captured in these photo albums.

A family legend, found!

Looking through the final album, photo by photo, a picture jumps off the page at me.

Here is a picture of Aunt Edie, the eccentric thrice-married aunt my cousins and I had talked about a day earlier: In the 1964 photo Aunt Edie is dressed in a summer suit, gloved and resplendent in costume jewelry. She is standing beside her brother-in-law, my paternal grandfather, Jesse Lee Durfee. Jesse has a hat perched on his head and a slight grin. (I had never seen him smile, just a dour grunt that I shrank from as a young child). This grin was one he’d kept hidden in every memory I had of him.

1964 Edith Thomm and Jesse Lee Durfee
1964 Edith Wilbur Thomm and Jesse Lee Durfee

Photo Albums, 1958-1964 

Inspired,I look closer at the pages in the oldest album and find more of my own family in several other pictures. 

There are photos of my Dad standing beside my Aunt Phyll. I see my oldest brother’s silhouette. I see a cousin peeking out from behind my dad’s knees. 

There are several more pictures taken over the years of my Dad. In most of the pictures he is hovering near or perched on assorted picnic tables. 

It’s a delight to pore over this old photo album. A few pictures have names or dates.

Scott says I can remove photos from the albums and take pictures of them. I used my phone to snap pics of my immediate kin. I am a pushover for older photos so I include pictures of unknown relatives from the late 1950’s batch. I know I’ll be able to see more detail in them when I open them on my computer screen.

The World Book of Wilbur's and family reunion journals
The World Book of Wilbur’s and family reunion journals

Reunion Journals

After the last photo album, I paged through the journals starting in 1953, year one. The first few journals are aging, pages yellowing and growing fragile. The journals record attendance, who won the sack race and the horseshoe competition, how many watermelons and the cost of hosting the event. Meeting notes include officer appointments to the next year’s committees and tabulations of expenses.

An unexpected surprise

I found my Mom’s name in the 1959 journal. Acting secretary!

There are nine or ten pages filled with her handwriting about the gathering and family: how many guests from each clan attended, menus, winners and losers, oldest, youngest, who was sick and couldn’t come. Likely she only held the role for a few years before she and my Dad divorced.

I turn the old pages gingerly and snap photos of the handwritten pages from 1959-1961 to show to my Mom later.

She doesn’t remember being the secretary during those year. At 90 years old, memories from 60 plus years ago are understandably fuzzy. Still, she’s one of the few people I know who recollects fragments of family history from that era. 

Someday I’ll transcribe the handwritten journal entries and post to the Reunion’s Facebook Page after I return to Florida. I have a few tips up my sleeve for transcribing handwriting. Ask me about that process if you want to learn how to do that yourself.

Reunions And Family Legacy

Before I leave the reunion Scott and I talk about scanning the albums and journals for safe keeping. His interest in preserving this history has been piqued by me, a distant cousin. Come to think of it, isn’t that the same way I wound up at this particular reunion?

Future Journals

2006 Scion XB barn and wind turbine with My Beautiful Life Story logo bottom left
3,500 Miles of personal history adventure August 2021

My name might deserve a notation in the journals for travelling 3,500 miles to recover family tidbits. Or I can head the category: recognized kin beginning in 1958.

Some day a distant family member might pore over the reunion albums and journals. Maybe they’ll recognize an eccentric road-tripping older cousin who’d zigzagged 3,500 miles in 2021 to attend the 67th Wilbur Family Reunion searching for family history treasures .

(2020 was the first time it was cancelled in the entire history of the reunion). 

Reclaiming photos 7 decades later

In 1938 Marge’s adopted mother Anna was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Despite planning for the eventuality: setting aside family heirlooms, photos, and hope chest items to pass onto her adopted daughter, her wishes were not granted.

Anna, second from right, with family members

When Anna passed away, family members distributed the estate among themselves. Marge was sent to live in a foster home until she was ten years old when she became a ward of the state. As a ward of the state, the remainder of the estate, including family photos, was disbursed among remaining family members. Marge would not see those photos again for many years.

A True Orphan

The years passed. Marge lived for six years at the orphanage then became independent when she was 16. She was released to the community, got a job, rented a apartment above the local funeral home, finished high school and eventually married.

She remained mostly estranged from those family members who had distributed ‘her things’ amongst themselves and was embittered by her orphanage experience.

Over the years, she had children of her own, parcelling out tiny bits and pieces of her life story to them. There was never much to share from a childhood that had been wracked with loss.

The Decades Flew By

Her own daughter never forgot the story of the abandoned little girl, or the photos that Anna, her adopted mother had set aside. Eventually, as her own mother’s 80th birthday approached, her daughter began reaching out to shirttail cousins about the missing heirloom photos.

Missing Photos Located

The stars began to align a few months before Marge’s 80th birthday. Marge’s son was arranging a birthday celebration just a few miles away from a distant cousin. It turned out that a cousin, Popsi was the keeper of the family photo collection. She agreed to a meeting a few days before the 80th birthday celebration. Now the challenge was getting copies of the photos.

A scanner was shipped across the country to be picked up a few days before the 80th birthday party. Daughter packed her computer and prepared to ‘meet’ the heirloom photos, scan them and create a slideshow for the birthday party.

Best Laid Plans Go Awry

USPS had other plans. Somehow, the scanner, which was mailed in plenty of time to complete the project never arrived to its destination in time to scan the photos. So her daughter packed her digital camera and extra batteries for the photo meeting and enlisted her youngest daughter to join in on the photo session. A way of bonding and learning about their past, together.

Digitally Archiving Photos

Over coffee and conversation, the old images were photographed and converted to digital. The originals stayed with the current owner, but the digital photos were captured for posterity. During the meeting, details about the images that were known were shared. The keeper of the photos was aging herself, which meant many of the details from the photos weren’t recalled.

Meeting Anna, At Last

Yet, there were the photos. Many in pristine condition, some fading, older photos from the turn of the 20th century ‘silvering’. And here was Anna, former nurse and adopted mother, long-lost grandmother, springing from those long-lost images. Wrapped in an antique frame, Anna’s high school portrait, her graduating class from nursing school, photographed with friends, family, children. She lived and breathed in those images, as did her own parents and siblings. It was a magical reunion, bonding great granddaughter, daughter, and mother together over stories and photos.

The Best Gifts Are The Ones The Make Them Cry

In spite of all the hurdles, many images were digitized using a cell phone and a camera (the scanner arrived a week after the 80th birthday celebration, long after landing back home) and a slideshow of those old photos was created for the occasion. As the program came on, the family huddled around the computer to watch the ‘show’. Mom’s surprise was also recorded. “Oh, MOTHER!” Her tearful reaction to seeing her Mothers face was priceless. Her tears were a testament to preserving family photos and reliving personal history through images.

A Decade Has Passed

This is a story about my own mother, Marge, orphaned from her own mother and her past. The story itself is now a decade old. I’ve told this story to many others, and found comfort in those reclaimed photos of ‘family’ many times.

My Mom unknowingly passed the flame of curiosity, causing it to burn a bit brighter. This story had a happy ending, because of the desire to right a wrong. Recovering the photos has bound our family together in small ways. Hopefully, by reclaiming my Mom’s visual heritage, I’ve led the way to healing a bit of her past trauma.

The Gift That Keeps Giving

Since I had digital copies of the photos and had also scanned my Mom’s personal photo albums, I had enough photos to ‘commemorate’ this particular birthday year. By printing copies of some of the photos, I created a treasure box with some of those same images transferred onto it to gift my mom for her 80th Christmas.

Year End Goodbye 2020 PHNW

Once a month one of Personal Historians NW members elects to write a blog post.

I authored the February ‘21 blog post as an auld lang syne to 2020. It was a year filled with many reasons to be grateful.

After hearing about our many accomplishments throughout the year it, the blog’s tone was fitting. “Personal historians express gratitude for challenges and changes in 2020”

Here’s hoping 2020 gave you pause to consider the rich fabric of your family and relationships.

Do You Have A Favorite Picture

My six-year-old lunch companion’s kids-meal toy wound up being not a molded-plastic plaything but a meaningful “prize inside.” She opened her fast-food bag to find  …. a deck of cards called “Let’s Remember” — table topics or conversational prompts, as we’d call them today. 

My lunch date wasn’t thrilled with the prize, but we looked at the cards and chose the question,  “Do you have a favorite picture, and if so, who or what is in it?” For me, it was the prompt of a lifetime.

Once you’ve gotten to know me, it’s likely you’ll hear me wax poetic about the tens of thousands of photos, slides and negatives I’ve digitized for image- and story-keepers across the country. I’ve saved family photo collections from ruination and loss in disasters like wildfires, smoke damage, tornadoes, landslides, flooding, and family breakups.  

I often poke folks beginning their own projects with the question, “Do you have a favorite picture, and if so, who or what is in it?” 

Being a memory-keeper myself, a few photo memories sing out from the batches I have digitally archived. 

Decked in Halloween regalia, playful, feathered and fancied, four-, five- and six-year-olds gather for a schoolyard photo around 1926. 

Three swim-trunked brothers, ages five, four and three, digging buckets of sand as their dad commands their dune in full button-down suit, wingtips, hat and windblown tie. Seaside, Oregon, c. 1936. 

Bespeckled dad and daughter share a hobby grin at a film counter. 

A recent candid snap of an adoptee peering through a loupe at 16mm film, reminiscing as she chooses clips from her adopted family videos to gift her birth-mom. 

Theatre photos from 1910 as a group of young doctors performed an autopsy. 

A surly knot of young whippersnappers squinting from the family porch in the late 1930s. 

A serpentarium in Sao Paulo, Brazil, taken shortly after Teddy Roosevelt visited. 

A nude beach romp in the 1970s. 

My own daughters as they slept, cavorted, grew and flew. 

These and other photo memories sing out to be remembered.  But one stands out, telling a tale from a distance. 

A Drugstore Photo of My Dad 

I had never seen this photo until a couple of years ago. It looks to have been taken in the early 1940s. It is a wallet-sized photo of my dad that could have been carried in someone’s wallet. It is creased and well worn. I immediately put it on my scanner and saved it to the cloud. It was a treasure I did not want to lose. 

My Favorite Photo: my dad, a portrait taken when he was about 12 or 13 years old. He has a baseball cap balanced on his mop of “Durfee hair.” He looks straight into the camera, and these are the eyes I am familiar with. He has a gaze that is ancient, and he doesn’t smile (Stoic is a notable feature of most pictures of my family members.) 

Behind him is a painted backdrop of mountains you might choose when you are having your photo taken at a drugstore, if you were a young boy, dreaming of travelling to the mountains. You would save your money for the day when you could dress in your bomber jacket and baseball cap and have your picture taken in town. This is one of the few pictures I own that truly makes me  sentimental.

How had I never seen the photo of this shy, gentle-faced boy who dreamt of mountains? 

The person who had been keeping the picture gave it to me many years after my dad had passed away — years after I could have asked about it. When was it taken? Why the mountains? Where was it taken? Who carried this photo in their wallet? 

Dad rarely talked about himself and the dreams he hadn’t accomplished. He was a man of few words. I knew he loved the mountains, but not until much later. 

A Birthday Wish Interview 

In 2001, I’d invited him over for coffee and to videotape a birthday greeting for my daughter, who was moving to Washington state to fulfill her own dreams. He was shy and uncomfortable in front of the camera.  I managed to capture a recording of his wish for her birthday: That she would enjoy Washington, and that she would catch a salmon, as he had always wanted to. The message was straight and to the point, in his down-to-earth way. 

 Tonight, I watched that 20-year-old video and remembered that day vividly: the coffee, the way the sun came in the window. I grew nostalgic and missed my dad more than I have in several years. I went outside and gazed up at the stars, and a lone bird whooped in the distance, low and lonely. 

I’m remembering. 

Here is one of my favorite photos, along with the birthday wish interview

So now it’s your turn. Tell me about your favorite photo. 

I’ll Coax The Story Out Of You.