The Things We Treasure

Why I Spent Two Decades Looking for a Little Blue Alarm Clock

I thought it would bring back memories. I didn’t know it would help me reclaim a sense of home.

Photo by Maggie Slover

An object is often worth more than its material form. It can bring with it cultural echoes, family history, and personal memory. In The Things We Treasure, writers tell us about their most priceless possessions—and the irreplaceable stories behind them.


It was one of those orange-skied evenings, two years ago now, that Berlin does exceptionally well. I was heading into the city to run errands before a month-long trip to India to see my family. I hadn’t slept very well the previous night, so I sat motionless as my husband drove our car, lost in my thoughts—until my phone buzzed on my lap, jolting me out of my reverie. I’d received an email.

Re: Query about Russian Alarm Clock

Hi Vaishali
In the USSR, two versions of the mini alarm clocks Raketa and Zorya were produced.

Alarm Clock The Rocket was released in many varieties.
A photo of several types of alarm clock rocket see below.
If there are still some questions, I will gladly answer.
Best regards, Vladimir


I can’t remember exactly when I first became aware of that little blue clock, but I must have been very young. At the time, it resided inside a glass cabinet in the living room of the house we grew up in, placed on the sort of shelf that contained knick-knacks and curios and cut-glass highball tumblers that I wasn’t meant to be playing with.

That didn't stop me. Every once in a while, when no one was around, I would push the dining room chair all the way back to the wall, and scramble onto the seat. I’d manage to reach up, curl my chubby little fingers around the clock, and take it out. It was small, round, and blue with a white dial. It just about fit in my tiny palm, making a comforting sound as its delicate seconds hand completed its sixty ticks and tocks. If I heard someone coming towards the room, I’d quickly put it back on its shelf and scramble down. Of all the clocks we had in the house, that was my mother’s favourite. It had been a present from her brother.


I’m looking down at an array of East German memorabilia. Everything from silver coins, emblazoned with the words “Deutsche Demokratische Republik" to bank notes and an assortment of medallions. This is at one of many stalls that line a street near Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate. Nearly all the makeshift stalls have memorabilia from when the Wall stood. I spot a couple of brass clocks, but they don’t come close to what I’m looking for.

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“We have a beautiful old clock in our mantle. It comes from my husband's family in West Virginia. Mike (now over 70) remembers his paternal grandmother saying that she, as a child, listened to it tick-tocking the night away in her maternal grandmother's home in Wert County. We sometimes wind it just to sit and listen to it and draw our minds back homeward.”
— Judith B.
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I’ve learned to keep my expectations low. I’ve wandered through flea markets in Geneva and Lausanne, in Paris and Bologna, and nearly every other European city that I’ve visited, but never spotted anything quite like the little blue clock. The only reason that I haven’t given up hope is because a large part of Berlin was under Soviet control for a very long time. Surely, Russian-manufactured timepieces must’ve made their way in. And if they did, at least a few would have survived.


My sister and I weren’t destructive. More often than not, if you left us alone with a stack of books, we’d be fine for hours. Which also meant that as I grew just a little older, things from the grown-up shelves started making their way down to corner tables and side tables well within my reach. And on days when my mother hadn’t already wound it, I was allowed to. Winding that alarm clock gave me a great sense of accomplishment. Like I’d graduated to big-girl land. I was only eight though, and it’s around here that my memories of the clock stop.

Because one day it was there, and the next day it wasn’t.

All attempts to trace it came to naught. We eventually concluded that someone with sticky fingers, passing through the house, had popped it into their pocket and walked off. My mother was sad. My father was sad because my mother was sad. And my sister and I were sad because we’d been around the whole day and hadn’t noticed when the clock had vanished.

On days when my mother hadn’t already wound it, I was allowed to. Winding that alarm clock gave me a great sense of accomplishment. Like I’d graduated to big-girl land. I was only eight though, and it’s around here that my memories of the clock stop. Because one day it was there, and the next day it wasn’t.

I was in a home electronics store in Berlin, picking up odds and ends. I didn’t have alarm clocks on my mind. But when I chanced upon a tiny orange clock that reminded me of the clock we once had, I popped it into my shopping basket. That evening, I couldn’t sleep. I crept downstairs in the middle of the night, turned my laptop on, and resumed a practice that I had carried out several times over the years: open a Google search page, type in “Russian alarm clock," hit enter.

I don’t know what was different that night. I don’t know if it was luck or dogged determination or the fact that I really didn’t want to go back home to Bangalore with a little orange clock instead of a little blue one. I moved from page after page of Slava and Vityaz alarm clocks, wondering if I should cave and buy one of those. But I knew they would always be a substitute; imposter clocks that with every tick would remind us of that which they weren't.

That evening, I couldn’t sleep. I crept downstairs in the middle of the night, turned my laptop on, and resumed a practice I had carried out several times over the years: open a Google search page, type in “Russian alarm clock," hit enter.

With my eyes almost closing, I added the word “mini” to the search bar: “Mini Russian Alarm Clock”. Suddenly the results were more promising. I found something that looked similar, and it had the word “Paketa” (Raketa in English) on the dial. It was a Raketa alarm clock! I added the word Raketa to the search bar and hit enter. I found a detailed post on a forum on how to open up a Raketa Mini Alarm clock. And a YouTube video on how to wind one up. And then, there it was. Blue casing, white dial, little knobby silver spheres for legs. When I realized the image linked to an Etsy store, my heart began beating so hard it threatened to break out of my ribcage.

Within minutes I’d written out an email to SovietHistoryShop. I hoped I’d get an answer.


I’d spent two full weeks lazing around at home in Bangalore. Each day at noon, I’d wait for the delivery of mail. Finally it arrived, a somewhat battered-looking envelop. I wasted no time in ripping into it, allowing bits of cardboard and paper and bubble wrap to go flying about. There it was—the little blue alarm clock from years ago, back in my hand, dwarfed by the passage of time.

That evening over tea, my sister and I handed the clock to my parents. My father appeared confused, and asked if we’d found it tucked away after all these years. My mother’s reaction was far more amusing: she pointed a finger at it and asked repeatedly, uncomprehending, “What is that?!” And the two of us who remember being there the day the clock went missing, were happy we were there the day it came back.

Back where it belongs Photo by Vaishali Dinakaran

It’s been two years since that day. And a year since Vladimir found me an identical clock for my desk in Berlin. The desk at which I’m typing out this story. At this point, I don’t know when I can go home to see my family again. I think we’re all anxiously awaiting a time when some semblance of normalcy will return. When flying home, and seeing friends and family, will no longer be impossible.

I do have one solace though. Every morning when I wake up, go downstairs, and sit at my desk, I wind my Raketa Rocket mini alarm clock. And 4300 miles away, and a few hours ahead of me, someone at home in Bangalore does the exact same thing with an identical Raketa Rocket mini alarm clock. And we begin our day with the same satisfying tick tock of a very delicate seconds hand. It’s a sound that tells me that I’m home.

What's your most treasured object? Tell us in the comments below!

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7 Comments

Rhonda35 June 22, 2020
As someone who treasures the everyday items of generations of family life, I love this story!
 
Beja June 7, 2020
Vaishali, thank you for sharing your precious memory! It felt like a catalyst: it triggered childhood memories instantly - ones that i haven’t been savoring for a while. Thank you for helping me to remember them.
Your writing is beautiful - your last paragraph hit me right in the heart <3
Atlantic Ocean separates me from my family and friends and not knowing when can fly home, hurts a lot.
 
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Vaishali D. June 7, 2020
I’m so glad that this piece resonated with you, and helped you sift through your own childhood memories. :) I hope you get the chance to cross the Atlantic soon, so you can reunite with your family! Until then, stay well.
 
Eleanor M. May 29, 2020
This is such a lovely essay. I have some inherited objects (and miss still others) that have become kinds of totems as they remind me of my mother. Your story reminds me of a time when my mother gave me six mid century tall drinks glasses, saying that I always asked her to save them for me when I grew up. I have no memory of that at all, but love the story.
 
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Vaishali D. May 30, 2020
Thank you, I'm so glad you liked it. I love the way mothers save little things from home for us, just because we liked them when we were little. I'm sure that you cherish those tall drinks glasses now, even though you don't remember asking her to save them for you. How nice!
 
Judith B. May 29, 2020
We have a beautiful old clock in our mantle. It comes from my husband's family in West Virginia. Mike (now over 70) remembers his paternal grandmother saying that she, as a child, listened to it tick-tocking the night away in her maternal grandmother's home in Wert County. We sometimes wind it just to sit and listen to it and draw our minds back homeward.
 
Author Comment
Vaishali D. May 30, 2020
Wow! Now that's a family heirloom right there - imagine generations of the same family listening to the sounds of the same clock. Goosebumps.