by Evelyn Bence

“. . . an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade.”

1 Peter 1:4

When it came to giving significant gifts, my father thought in terms of lifelong value. I think of the black-leather, delicately thin Bible I got for grammar-school graduation. “It’s well sewn, with high-quality paper,” he explained. “If need be, you can get it rebound. It will last the rest of your life.”

Don’t think that this good-gift category included fine jewelry. No. Bejewelery was forbidden in our suburban western New York parsonage home, its tenor defined by a picture of Jesus hanging on the wall of nearly every room.

Dad promulgated a strict interpretation of a verse in 1 Peter that disallowed the “wearing of gold.” But a few jewelry items with a practical purpose were exempt from this prohibition: cuff links and tie tacks (weren’t we many siblings proud, one Father’s Day in the 1960s, to gift-order Dad a tie tack that encased a dead honeybee, a memorial to his apiarian avocation); brooches, which in the best-case scenario served as neckline clasps; watches, which told you when to get where you knew you were supposed to be.

This no-jewelry-line meant that Dad didn’t give Mom an engagement ring but, rather, a small-faced, white-gold, best-brand Bulova watch. She always wore the band “backwards” on her right wrist, claiming the case was safer close-in, palm-side. It also meant that neither Mom nor Dad wore a wedding ring.

Mother held no personal conviction about jewelry. But when she signed on with Dad, promising to love, honor, and obey, she took off her worldly necklaces, bracelets, and rings. Did she really surrender all if she never burned or buried them or donated them to charity? There was a limit; she put them in a box tucked in the back of her bureau.

None of us was allowed to mark the end of our high school, or college, years by purchasing a class ring. We were expected to rely, instead, on the practical, transitional gifts chosen by Dad and Mom. The standard high school or college commencement gift varied slightly, depending on gender-based life expectations and sibling order. As for gender, we five girls packed for college—a few hours’ drive away, in the New York southern tier—in new luggage that would wear well, down the road on a honeymoon trip. They bought me a Samsonite that could survive a train wreck; unfortunately its weight approximated that of an empty box car. My brothers sported new black-leather King James Bibles, look-alikes to Dad’s own: a Thompson Chain-Reference, suitable for a lifetime of sermon writing. As for discrimination by birth order, at college graduation, when it was time to be dropped from Dad’s income tax form, everyone older than I got starter life insurance. Come my turn, Dad had changed his policy: Someone who doesn’t have debts or dependents doesn’t need life insurance. You can buy it for yourself, later.

But one gift we all got: gold watches. Albeit for different reasons, we daughters and sons alike needed to be armed with reliable time-keeping equipment. After Dad’s death, cleaning out his office files we found a clipped March 1944 article, possibly from Reader’s Digest: “It’s Selfish to Be Late” by Frances Barker, who noted that compared to men “women are constitutionally more unreliable as to time.” She warned of consequences as dire as divorce: “the woman has irritated her husband by keeping him waiting until all he wants is escape.” Paragraphs later Mrs. Barker admitted that being tardy could also be problematic for a man: “The man in business who is always late with his work. . . . you may be sure that he is making himself plenty of enemies who will out him when they get a chance.” If one believed Mrs. Barker, being late could lead to ruination—abandonment and betrayal.

So to secure our futures, Dad bought us graduation watches at a storefront, family-owned jeweler. White gold or yellow? Accompanied by Dad, not Mom, we picked the color and style for ourselves, within an acceptable price range, nothing ostentatious. I chose a wind-up, yellow, oval Bulova, in a white, spring-shut storage box. To bring the band down to the size of my narrow wrist, Mr. Chris removed several links. You wear it well. Take care, and it will last the rest of your life.

As if it were a valued ring, I wore it day and night for fifteen years, to editorial offices in New York City and metro Washington, D.C., having the works occasionally cleaned by a strip-mall jeweler who charged more for repairs than for a new Timex. I wound it daily, kept its hands timely longer than did any of my siblings who replaced their spring-wound watches with battery-run.

But my Bulova came to a bad end decades ago. Early one winter evening, getting dinner, I nudged back my left cuff and felt a bare wrist. I quickly unbuttoned and rolled the sleeve; I clutched at skin and bone, but no watch or band, no gold case or glass-covered face. I retraced my steps since coming home, searching the carpet and corners, the stoop, sidewalk, and curb, but, unlike the Gospel woman looking for her coin, I did not rejoice at the lost and found.

When I didn’t discover the watch in my car, I groaned with awareness, suddenly sure of its site. In rush-hour traffic, I had rolled down the window and thrown fifty cents into a toll booth. Having done this hundreds of times, I knew the sound of two quarters hitting the backdrop and bouncing down the funnel into the vault. But this afternoon I had heard an extra noise. I’d paused; seeing nothing amiss, I’d closed the window against the cold, stepped on the gas, and pulled into traffic.

Why, oh why, hadn’t I tended the care of the watchband as much as the watch? Hopefully I phoned the state police and . . . finally found someone in charge of the toll booth and its collection plates. No Bulova in the bins, he said.

On the pavement? Check, oh please, check.

No, Lady. Give it up.

The watch was gone. 

Back at Chris’s Jewelers in western New York, I bought a secondhand replacement windup, but it wasn’t a Bulova, and its hair spring went haywire every six months or so, which meant I became better acquainted with my strip-mall jeweler. Besides the temperamental watch, I occasionally brought in for repair a necklace or silver bracelet that Mother slipped me from her keepsake box. “If you’ll wear it, take it.”

By the time Dad retired, he relented a bit and allowed us grown children to give Mom a silver-plate mother ring, colorfully crowded with birthstones, one for each of her nine babies.

And by the time of Mother’s stroke, she and Dad had given up on watch repair; with deteriorating eyesight, she wore a big-faced cheap Timex. The day she moved to the nursing home, I heard her make only one complaint, after her admittance bath: “They took my watch,” or so she thought. In her year there, she fussed if her morning aide didn’t put it on her wrist, though she had lost the ability to read a clock face. 

The afternoon she died, Mother’s watch rode with her to the funeral home; she wore it at the viewing. Before friends arrived, my sister wanted everything in its right place. As I blocked others’ view, she nudged the case around: clock face palm-side, out of sight.

But neither the watch nor the colorful ring accompanied Mom to the grave. After her funeral—sermon preached by my reverend brother—I took her Timex, a backup for the several weeks every year when my watch went to the jeweler’s; a childless sister claimed the mother ring.

A year later, when Dad left to find his wife and Lord, we siblings gathered in his living room and listened to the executrix sister read Dad’s will, delineating the remaining gifts. Dollars as sure as the U.S. government—to be divided equally among us, except for a surprise clause that harks back to his gender-based life expectations: an extra sum to Evelyn “if she is not married at the time of my death, in lieu of spouse’s inheritance,” which I chose to interpret as a “spouse’s life insurance.”

Just in case we hadn’t got the message, that Dad and Mom trusted in God more than mammon, the last testament included a paragraph that started “Dear Children:”; it quoted King James phrases from 1 Peter, about gifts better than gold jewelry, and characteristically ended with a command.

The material inheritance which I have left you is small and insignificant. However, I trust that I have left you the memory of a faithful father, who honored Christ in his ministry and in his daily life. I would direct you “to an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you,” which your heavenly Father hath provided for you, “according to his abundant mercy,” and “hath begotten us again into a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” [1 Peter 1:4, 3]. Don’t miss it.[1]

At the funeral parlor, we clipped Dad’s plaid tie to his white shirt with the honeybee clasp, which later went home in my brother’s pocket. But, to send Dad on that final trip away from home, we agreed on the one item we wanted him to have at hand. Before his funeral—sermon preached by my second reverend brother—we tucked at Dad’s elbow his rebound-nearly-new Bible, the black leather Thompson Chain.

Early the next summer, the Monday mailman delivered an envelope from my sister that contained the significant estate check. Dad would not have been pleased with my reaction. I didn’t run to the bank to accrue a day’s interest. I left the pathetically small rectangular paper on my cluttered dining room table for a week, trying to figure some appropriate, material way to mark the money, scrimped and saved since before I was born, for what it was: the ultimate graduation gift, as I commence my new life among the elders.

It took a full week, but the next Monday I went to the bank and deposited the check.

On Tuesday I drove to my jeweler and bought a delicate, yellow-gold, windup Bulova that had lain there in a glass case since the 1960s. I wore it home, clock-face out, on the bony side of my wrist.

My dad, I think, would have approved. If I’m not careless, for the rest of my life the watch will help me get where I’m supposed to be on time.

For another reason I think Mom would have smiled. She’d have noticed the setting: at six and twelve, pretty pointless diamond chips.

[1] Dad would be surprised that there’s a new fancy name for this kind of message, an “ethical will.”

Evelyn Bence is author most recently of Room at My Table: Preparing Heart and Home for Christian Hospitality (Upper Room Books), 52 anecdotal meditations that gently, humorously invite readers to welcome mealtime guests. She is an ongoing contributor to Daily Guideposts, and her personal essays have appeared in publications including Washingtonian, Washington Post, Christianity Today, Books & Culture, and US Catholic.

Cover photo by Plush Design Studio on Unsplash