Gifts to last a lifetime
Newly minted university graduates often receive a graduation present from their families and supporters. These gifts may have as much significance to the giver as to the recipient, and the price tag is seldom important.
Madeleine Cumming recently presented me with a black Mont Blanc pen that had belonged to her late husband, Dr. Hal Cumming, MD’51, a Kingston family doctor who was a role model/mentor for me when I was in medical school. I now use the pen in my practice and lend it to my patients when they sign their consents for surgery. It adds gravitas to the process. The pen gift prompts me to relate the story of my graduation watch.
Several of my classmates received Queen’s graduation mementoes. My parents – one of whom is Agnes Pitt, Arts’72 – presented me with an Omega wristwatch. It was an elegant, self-winding, gold-coloured Constellation model with the day of the month in addition to the time on the face and my name and graduation year engraved on the back.
I was delighted, although a little surprised. My Omega watch did not have a Queen’s crest on it, and the brand name was unknown to me. My dad had never been interested in watches or jewellery. He was a high school dropout who’d been a pilot in the Royal Air Force during WWII, subsequently settling in Kingston to a successful career in the Correctional Service. Golf was his passion.
A few days after I’d received my graduation gift, my dad showed the new watch he’d bought – an Omega Seamaster model. Again, I was surprised. I guessed he thought he deserved a reward for the moral and financial support he’d provided during my six years at university.
When I left home for London, Ontario, to do a rotating internship, I wore my new watch everywhere. Unfortunately, one day I left it unattended in an open locker in a gymnasium for a brief moment, and someone stole it. I was mortified. The next week I went to a jewellery store to order a new Omega Constellation watch with the identical engraving etched on the back. When I picked it up three weeks later, I was shocked by the price. It cost more than $400 and almost drained my bank account. At that time an intern’s annual salary was only $7,000.
I was stunned that my dad would have put so much money into wristwatches. The only difference between my replacement and the original watch was the addition of the weekday name next to day of the month display, presumably a newer model of the Constellation.
The next time I was home in Kingston, my dad noticed the addition of the weekday display on my watch, and I had to confess my carelessness in losing the original. He did not say much.
When he died, I inherited my dad’s Omega Seamaster. Although it was still in perfect working order, it was discoloured and battered. I wondered why he hadn’t taken better care of such an expensive watch. My own Omega Constellation was like new except for some minor scratches.
Not long ago I chanced upon a book about the Omega Watch Company. I learned that Omega has a long and interesting history. In response to the demand for accurate, reliable military watches in WWII, Omega delivered 110,000 Seamaster watches with their large numerals and water-resistant cases to the Royal Air Force. These watches went to high-ranking officers, and not to a Flight Lieutenant like my dad. I can imagine him admiring the Swiss watches in the wartime officers’ mess and trying not to be envious of his superior officers’ good fortune.
My dad’s family had struggled financially because of my grandfather’s disabilities incurred in the British army trenches in WWI, and my dad would only have seen expensive Swiss watches in magazine advertisements on the wrists of celebrities and rich people. No wonder he chose an Omega watch as a prestigious gift for his son’s graduation from medical school and also found a reason to obtain his own Omega Seamaster.
The book provided fascinating accounts of the various models of Omega watches over the years and the competitions between Swiss watch companies for accuracy of their products. In contrast to our current supply of inexpensive, precise quartz watches, considerable investment and craftsmanship were put into some of the Swiss watches to attain official recognition and certification as chronometers from the Swiss rating agencies. Only exceptional Swiss watches were able to attain the Official Chronometer Certification.
A week or so after I finished reading the watch book, a snowstorm caused the cancellation of several patients in my clinic, giving me time to reflect and ponder. A dim memory arose of the jewellery store clerk in London emphasizing the papers that accompanied my replacement Omega watch, and it occurred to me that my own watch might be officially certified. I looked at my watch under a bright light and made out the fine print on the face. Beneath the Omega name was: Automatic Chronometer Officially Certified. I smiled to myself for the rest of the day because I knew what I’d see when I looked at my dad’s watch. Sure enough, it did not have the official certification designation. He’d never have invested that much money in a wristwatch.
The watch and the pen I mentioned earlier are material things that represent relationships that are difficult to describe in words and even harder to articulate for those who are involved in the giving and receiving . Such gifts far exceed their monetary value when they become allegories for the deep bonds forged over many years between father and son, mentor and mentee, teacher and student. They reflect critical human emotions that last a lifetime.