JIM DODSON: It's Nice Being on Sunday Time
One Sunday morning a few years back, I fell hard for a used wristwatch.
This was in early April, and my wife and I were visiting London, nosing about the crowded merchant stalls in Portobello Road before church services. After that, we planned to drive out to bluebell country and stay with friends who own a marvelous hotel in the New Forest.
While Wendy stopped to admire an antique cream pitcher that just needed a good home and a little elbow grease, I poked ahead through the crowds on my own and happened upon a fellow laying out vintage wristwatches on crushed velvet. One immediately caught my eye: a simple Rolex bearing the insignia of the U.S. Eighth Army Air Force.
"Lovely old gel, that one," the merchant murmured in his Cockney Sunday best, noticing my interest in the unusual timepiece. "She dates from 1943. This one belonged to a Yank. It's been thoroughly restored. Runs superbly." He smiled, lifted the slim watch from the case and offered it to me, showing his blunt Alfred Doolittle teeth. "With this, mate, you'll always be on Sunday time."
I'd never heard this charming phrase before. But I knew exactly what he meant. Being on Sunday time.
"My dad was in the Eighth Air Corps here in England," I heard myself say.
"Do try it on, sir," he insisted.
So I did. Mind you, I had no intention of buying anything that morning, certainly not an expensive antique watch. I was just there merely to tag after my bride and enjoy being on Sunday time. But something about this elegant officer's watch dating from my father's own wartime service in Britain spoke to me.
On a lark, I asked Alfred how much he wanted for the watch. He smiled and replied 200 quid. I probably could have haggled but chose not to.
"Let me think about it," I said, gently handing it back.
The Portobello crowds were beginning to grow, and our window to make services at St. Martin in the Field was rapidly narrowing.
"Fair enough," he said, and offered me his card, pointing out I could always phone him later.
An absolutely enchanting Sunday unfolded.
After a service in which I knew three of the four Anglican hymns by heart, we drove out to the New Forest and stopped for a late lunch at a pub not far from the sleepy village where a Victorian parson's daughter named Alice Liddell supposedly bewitched Oxford math whiz Charles Dodgson one drowsy summer afternoon and inspired a tale about a girl who follows a rabbit down a hole to a tea party.
The bluebells were prevalent in the sunshine of the New Forest, and so were the shaggy Highland cows, wandering through the village at their leisure, as they have been permitted to do by royal decree nearly since the days of William the Conqueror.
We pulled up, mid-afternoon, to Chewton Glen, England's loveliest country hotel, and spent our own drowsy afternoon reading London's Sunday papers on the lawn before taking a long walk along a narrow path that led through the forest to a breathtaking view of the English Channel.
We dined with our friends Martin and Brigge on the terrace of the hotel in a blue twilight, then had a nightcap under the early stars.
"I believe this may well have been the perfect day," my sleepy wife decided as we climbed the stairs to bed. She had just enough strength left, she said, to take a bubble bath and drink a flute of the French champagne our hosts had sent up for a second nightcap.
"On Sunday time," I agreed, still thinking about the old officer's watch in the Portobello Road.
The next morning, a gray Monday, I phoned the merchant and asked if he could hold the watch for me. I said I would even make a special trip back to his stall to purchase it.
"Most peculiar thing about that watch," Alfred responded by clearing his throat. "Not five minutes after you left, seems like, another gent from America stopped by and took the old gel clean away, sorry to say."
From time to time, I still think about that used military watch.
Curiously, this often happens as I'm walking to church here in Southern Pines -- undoubtedly because, like the mad hatter, I'm invariably running a few minutes late for God's tea party and part of me still wishes I'd had the wisdom or simple gumption to buy that sentimental timepiece on the spot.
On a more fundamental level, though, my feelings for a watch I held only briefly stem from the unspoken but deeply felt conviction that there is nothing finer than being on Sunday Time -- old Alfred's own lovely turn of phrase for the healing lassitude of the Christian Sabbath.
Perhaps, in the end, this is all I was meant to take away from Portobello Road that morning.
Sunday, it should be obvious by now, is my favorite day of the week and the only time I can be reasonably persuaded, with the faith of a tiny mustard seed, that I'm reasonably sane and the world we inhabit may somehow yet survive our own best efforts to win or lose whatever kind of rat race we're engaged in the other six days of the week.
It's the day most of us consciously slow down, sleep in, breathe deep, make pancakes, forget to pay bills, walk the dogs, tune up a symphony, work out the crossword puzzle, spade the garden, or simply read the back of an absorbing cereal box. It's the day some of us get up early simply because we can -- to hear the first birds break into song or put on our best Sunday church duds.
When I was a kid, being on Sunday time meant Joe Franks across the street would polish his beloved Cadillac and listen to Big Band hits on his eight-track player.
It meant driving after church to visit my father's ancient maiden great-aunts, Josie and Ida, near Chapel Hill, a pair of hardy pioneer women who lived in the time warp of a tidy mud-chinked cabin that their father had built for them shortly after the end of the Civil War.
They heated their house and cooked on a cast-iron woodstove, split their own wood at 90, and raised and dispatched their own chickens with one clean swipe of the hand ax.
"The Girls of Heaven," as my mom affectionately called them, had electricity, used sparingly, but no indoor facilities. Each lady had her own private outdoor privy, designated by a timeless symbol carved on each outhouse door. Josie's johnny was a star. Ida's was a moon.
My mom took them such personal extravagances as boxed Whitman chocolates and "store-bought" toothpaste, copies of The Saturday Evening Post and Jergens lotion.
Ida displayed a keen schoolgirl giddiness over white athletic knee-socks, and Josie was heavily into her Illustrated Bible and peppermint snuff. She once gave me a pinch as I pitchforked some hay for her in the horse shed where they kept their beloved mule, Horace, bending over to chortle as she and Horace watched me run and throw it up behind her fancy star-doored privy house.
On another kind of lark, I went looking for their old place on Buckhorn Road one slow Sunday afternoon recently. I found it, too -- covered in cheap asbestos shingles, its once proud porches sagging. The splendid star and moon outhouses were long gone, as was the shed where Horace lived, replaced by a pair of junker cars being swallowed whole by the kudzu.
But even they won't occupy the space much longer. A hundred yards down the road stood an ornate sign announcing a new housing complex -- "Executive luxury homes from the low 400s" -- soon to break ground on my great-grandfather's former land.
That's the nice thing about being on Sunday time, though. Nothing is ever really gone. I can remember those sweet slow afternoons with the "Girls of Heaven" like they happened yesterday.
The Small Things
For what it's worth, this column began almost two years ago on a Sabbath morning that feels like yesterday, too -- though it was never much of a newspaper column in the conventional sense.
From the beginning, it's really been more of a Sunday essay, one man's musings on the small things of life, whatever passes by the end of one's nose or the garden gate that either amuses or surprises or maybe does a little of both.
So, from this moment forth, you and I, let's call this what it is -- a Sunday Essay.
That way, when kudzu begins to swallow me whole, or the owners of this paper decide to run me off with a pitchfork in a way that would make Great-Aunt Josie double over with laughter, you can step right in and write about the joys of being on your own Sunday time.
Speaking of which, like the hatter down the rabbit hole, I'm already late for church. Sure do wish I'd bought that nice old watch when I had the chance.
Jim Dodson, The Pilot's writer-in-residence, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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