Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Weather Swan

 Every child finds himself gravitating to items found at the homes of relatives. My grandfather would regularly walk across Cottage Avenue in Miamisburg to the home of my aunt's, Belle Hinkle. There I found a tuft of grass on her west lawn, nestled beside a few concrete steps and protected by the shade of a maple tree, to be one of those items. As soon as we arrived at Aunt Belle's house, I'd have to stoop down and feel the soft grass tickle my cheek.

 Inside the house she had other items that I cherished: my Uncle George's tobacco stand  (the poor man dead a few years before), still smelling of pungent tobacco; I would open that tiny door and take in sweet lungfuls of the sweet scent. It's a wonder I did not become a smoker.

 On the other side of her dining room was an old tube radio. It had large dials which swung in lazy circles, controlled by ivory knobs and had various cities around the world affixed on its face. It took whole minutes to come to life.

 But most important of all was a hand-blown glass weather swan. I would always walk to the stand where it sat, look at the water level in its neck and listen to my aunt's prognostication of what we might soon expect from the sky. My uncle kept weather records and I suppose the swan was as much his, a sort of crude barometer.

 When Aunt Belle died in 1962 (she was born about 1870, only missing the Civil War by half a decade), the weather swan was given to me. Here at Pinehaven it sits atop another aunt's desk.

My grandfather, Elwood M. Schmidt, smiles down from a 1942 calendar.
Aunt Belle's weather swan silently reports atmospheric pressure changes ... still.

 A couple of days ago Mom was going about her dusting when she mentioned to me that the swan needed a good cleaning and the water replaced. That's a project in itself: the water inside the delicate swan must be shaken out, drop by drop. Then vinegar must be introduced to remove any calcification where the water has evaporated and a lime deposit left inside the glass. Finally fresh water (this time distilled) must be somehow gotten into the swan, through an opening so small a hypodermic needle would be useful.
 It took a couple of days to complete the project. I found that cold distilled water could be sucked into the swan by warming its body in hot water, holding my finger over the mouth opening and then submerging it in cold distilled water. Eventually, though, it took a more forceful method to introduce enough water to be useful: an ear syringe with a little muscle power.
 While a little food coloring would make seeing the water level in the neck easier, I did not add any, thinking it would dye the leftover calcium. Besides, Aunt Belle always just used plain tap water.

 I remember checking the weather swan every time I visited. Every now and then, when the barometric pressure was extremely low, water would drip from the swan's mouth. Low pressure, of course, causes water to rise in the neck. During pleasant weather (high pressure), the water level recedes down the neck and back into the body.

 There's something to be said for so simple a weather instrument. There's nothing to break (but the glass swan itself). I see these for sale yet today, often in the $30 range, but I cherish this one. I suppose it dates to Victorian times. And while I doubt it has much monetary value - surely there were too many made - I value its connection with my aunt, gone now more than half a century; the link to my uncle, forever unseen; and the chain that binds me to my grandfather, who's genes still ebb and flow in my own chromosomes, steadier than the weather.

 And while none of those cherished people have survived, the swan still sits on the same glass base I saw as a child, water softly, silently sliding along that tiny glass neck, responding to mere air pressure, making the invisible seen.

1 comment:

  1. Don't be too sure about its "low" value. Breakable items often don't last centuries!