Christmas means gifts. Of course, it means much more, like cookies and time off and church, but in our house, opening gifts Christmas morning was the highlight, at least to my fourteen-year-old self. Except at fourteen, I had no money to purchase gifts. Instead, Christmas meant creativity.

That November, Dad sat my older brother, Dave, and me down for our annual, “what to make mom for Christmas” discussion. No joke, we did this every year, as far back as I could remember. The evidence decorated the house, and Mom, year-round.

“This year she definitely wants to fly in a glider,” Dave said. He always claimed she wanted something related to an airplane. Before Dad could argue, Dave added, “It’s the Golden Rule. Do unto others…”

“Then she wants a puppy.” I always pushed for our Lab-mix, Pep, to have a buddy. “One with long floppy ears and—"

“Yeah, Kate, I don’t think that’s what Jesus, or any philosopher for that matter, had in mind,” Dad said. “Nice try, though, both of you.”

Dave and I nodded in our sibling way, heads tilted, wry smiles. We tried every holiday. One of these days we’d break him. But not that day.

Dad tried again. “What does Mom want for Christmas?”

“Not clothes,” Dave said. “Guys don’t sew.”

I laughed. The hilariously uneven hem of the dress we made for Mom last year remained a source of pride for her, shame for Dave, and humor for the community at large. Perhaps encouraged a little by me pointing out Dave’s haphazard contribution as a fashion trend-setter at every opportunity.

“You could sew a puppy-blanket,” I said.

“Nope. You could sew a neck pillow for the plane ride.”

“Kids! This is about Mom.” Dad’s hands went into his hair, a sure sign of frustration. He would be bald soon. “She admired a cuckoo clock at Auntie Lori’s.” Mom’s sister lived in England. While our parents went to visit last summer, Great Uncle Max stayed with Dave and me. He lived on the property, in his own little house across one of the fields.

We had a blast with him in charge. He’s like the coolest substitute teacher ever, who didn’t bother to read the lesson plans and didn’t know the meaning of the word ‘boundaries.’ Maybe it means something different in his native German. No curfew, no lights out, no limits on dessert.

Back to Christmas planning. A cuckoo clock sounded fine to us. Next step, research. Always research—figure out the options, including costs, and come up with a proposal. Our next meeting would be Saturday morning when Mom went to her book club.


At school, I asked my friends if anyone had a cuckoo clock—nope, had seen a cuckoo clock—nope, knew where I might find a cuckoo clock—nope. Someone suggested watching the Sound of Music and Dave agreed to drive me to BlockBuster to rent it for the night.

For the record, there is no cuckoo clock in the Sound of Music, only a song about a cuckoo clock. In fact, there are a lot of songs, about raindrops and roses and whiskers and kittens; about turning seventeen, which seemed a long way off; about female deer and pronouns for self; and on and on. Turned out, Mom loved the movie and could sing nearly every word.

Afterward, she kissed the top of my head before getting up from the couch. “Why did you choose this movie?”

I debated my answer. I could say it was assigned, but she might see the lie on my face. I was a terrible liar; a tragedy for a teenager. “Someone at school said it was good.”

She seemed to accept that. “What did you think?”

“I liked it.” And I did. Later I would realize I loved it, and later still I would realize why—because it made Mom happy. At the time, though, it got me no closer to a cuckoo clock plan.

On Thursday, Dave picked me up after school and drove to the clock store in the mall. They had hundreds of wall clocks on display but none with a cuckoo inside, or outside for that matter. They did have a catalog, though, and we stared with wonder at cuckoo clocks from Germany’s Black Forest Clock Association. Besides being beautiful and amazing, they all had two things in common: a price tag well beyond our means, and intricate details well beyond our skill set. We would have felt discouraged, except we knew this to be the beginning of every great Christmas gift for Mom.

Saturday morning, Dave, Dad and I went to the flea market for our weekly visit. We went most weekends. And most weekends, Dad found treasures; because who doesn’t need a fourth set of wrenches in “perfect condition, and for this price?!” Sure, Dad, whatever.

Dave and I strolled away while Dad haggled over a hammer that might have been discarded by George Washington’s carpenter. We passed tables of “antiques” that just looked like old junk rescued from a dumpster. I found the craft tables interesting if still beyond my meager means.

Dave stopped at a booth with, what else, an old wood propeller painted as a wall hanging.

I started to pass him and froze. “Dave, look.”

No response.

Without looking back, I stretched my arm out and patted his shoulder. “Dave, look.”

“Excuse me.”

Oops, the shoulder belonged to someone else. “Sorry.”

I took a step back, poked Dave in the ribs, then ducked to avoid his flying elbow response. “Look.” I pointed.


We walked side-by-side, probably in slow motion, toward the final table in the row, staring at the piece hanging on the back wall, a cuckoo clock. It was beautiful-ish. Not like the Black Forest clocks. And not like anything Mom would choose. It was painted a crazy mix of colors, like someone barfed rainbow sherbet all over it. But it had the hands, and the little door at the top for something to jump out on the hour, and the pendulum and other dangly things underneath. It was perfect-ish.

“That’s the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen,” Dave whispered as we neared the table. “Like someone barfed…”

I nudged him. The booth’s owner watched us approach with a too-wide grin. He knew suckers. What he didn’t know was we were suckers without money.

“Interested in the clock, are ya?” he said, still grinning.

“Yes, sir.” Then I remembered Dad’s haggling instructions. ‘Don’t appear eager.’ “Maybe. A little.” Whew, that was close.

He chuckled. “Would you like to see it?”

“Ye…” I stopped myself. This guy was good. Instead, I raised my shoulders in a shrug. “Whatever.”

He pulled the clock from the wall and lay it on the table. Dave examined it. “How’d you make it?”

“I didn’t,” he said. “I repurposed a classic as art.”

Dad appeared then. “Wow,” he said as he took in the clock.

I coughed to cover a giggle. It was Dad’s that’s-hideous “wow.” Still, the artist beamed.

“Do you have any you have yet to restore?” Dad asked.

“Restore? This isn’t a restored clock. It’s a piece of art. An expression of…” The rest of his words were drowned out by Dave’s coughing. I’m pretty sure I heard some swear words in his cough.

Dad smacked him on the back, partly to help with the cough, mostly to tell him to cut it out. “I could not hope to match your artistry,” Dad said. “I am just hoping to find a project I can do with the kids for their Mom’s Christmas present. She needs a clock and we can’t afford something like this.” He went on before the artist could start haggling. “It will mean so much to her if it’s something the kids paint themselves.”

The artist now eyed Dave and me. I put on what I hoped was my please-sir-it’s-for-my-mama face. If such a face exists.

The man reached into a box beside him and pulled out the ragged shell of a cuckoo clock. This one was from whatever’s the opposite of Germany’s Black Forest. It had a plain wood front of chipped gray paint. The clock mechanism had only one hand, and the small hole above had no doors.

“I bet the cuckoo took off in search of better housing,” Dave said.

“We can make a new one,” I said.

“The whole thing needs work,” Dave said.

“Don’t all our presents for Mom?”

He grunted.

“This wouldn’t involve a sewing machine or a stove,” I said. The clock’s bottom had an oblong hole. “Isn’t there supposed to be some kind of pendulum down here?”


I scanned other items on the table. “Is it here somewhere?”

“Nope. Clock comes as-is.”

“It’s not a clock if it doesn’t tell time,” I said.

“It’s mostly right twice a day.” He winked at me.

The sundial at school was just a stick in the ground, and it did better than that.

With the owner’s permission, Dad opened up the clock. There were all sorts of gears and metal pieces inside. “What do you want for it?”

“Hundred bucks,” the stall owner said.

I swallowed. Dad put it down and turned to leave.

“Fifty,” the stall owner said.

“It’s not worth twenty,” Dad said.

“Okay, twenty.”

“He said it’s not worth twenty,” Dave said. But at the same moment, Dad said, “Deal.”

Back at the car, Dad turned the key in the ignition. “That might be the best deal I ever made.”

Dave and I looked at each other over the seat.

“You’ll see,” he said.

For the next few weeks, we worked on the clock most evenings and for several hours on weekends. We stripped the paint and stained the wood, rebuilt the mechanism, bought a few replacement parts, like the pendulum and weights. Dave and I worked together on the cuckoo, using scrap wood and fabric.

The last Saturday before Christmas, while Mom was out shopping, we were ready for the first test run. Dad wound the mechanism, and we watched and listened. It took a little work to get the pendulum timing right, but eventually it was close, and the metal bar shot out on the hour. The only thing left was the cuckoo, but Dave and I wanted it to be a surprise. We took the clock back to his room and installed our creation.

Christmas morning, I woke eager and excited and a little worried. Mom had liked everything we’d ever given her, but this one had been a bit more ambitious, and couldn’t compare with Auntie Lori’s clock. At last it was time, three minutes ‘til eight. I covered Mom’s eyes while Dave brought out the clock and placed it on the mantle. I uncovered her eyes with one minute to spare. She stood and took a good long look. “It’s beautiful. Oh my gosh, you made this?”

“Hang on.” Dave looked at his watch.

“Keep watching,” I said as my own watch clicked past eight.

Mom and Dad stared unblinking at the clock and its swinging pendulum. I wondered vaguely if hypnotism was real. As the sound began, the tiny doors swung open, and out flew a tiny airplane piloted by a miniature dog, only distinguishable by his floppy ears.