A matter of timing.

Kitchen Timer © by Cea.

The kitchen timer Mom gave me is working once more. It had met a clumsy yet oddly appropriate end about two years ago, when I knocked it off the counter and into the bucket of bleach water I was using to mop the floor.

I cried out in dismay, and later cried actual tears. Yes, it was just a timer. But it meant something to me. It was a gift from my mother, during a time when I couldn’t talk about what was going on in my life – but she knew what she saw, and she must have guessed that what she couldn’t see was much worse.

Later I found from another relative that Mom had fretted about how hard I scrimped and saved while my then-husband got whatever he wanted. But I come from a long line of people who don’t talk about their feelings – or even feel them, for that matter, except as a vague disquiet.

We felt enough to know that we didn’t want to feel much deeper, because then we’d have to acknowledge that things were seriously amiss.


Only trying to help

Always the multitasker, I’d call her while I was spending part of a Saturday or Sunday folding laundry or cooking things to eat during the week. Or she’d call me, and when I answered she’d zero in on the noise of me stirring up a cake or the sound of ground beef sizzling in the pan.

“Hey, girl,” she’d say. “What are you cookin’ good?”

As I stirred and sautéed we would talk about everything except what was real. Looking back, I can see that she longed to get me out of there. Her diffident questions – “Any chance you and Abby can come see us at Christmas?” or “When are you going to take some time for yourself?” – were lifelines I chose to ignore. I couldn’t admit to anyone that my life was not working.

During one phone call I almost burned a pan of cookies because I forgot to check on them. Mom said she’d send me a timer like the one she just bought, with two separate settings so you could time two different dishes. I immediately said, “That’s OK, you don’t have to.”

That was my initial reaction to anything: I don’t need it. I’m fine, thanks. Additionally, I worried about the expense: Mom had been involuntarily retired for years and at that time had no money of her own. Until her Social Security kicked in, birthdays and holidays were major stressors.

But Mom insisted, and suddenly I understood: She was trying to make my life better. Since thousands of miles separated us, the best she could do was offer this token of her care and concern. So I accepted with thanks, and when the timer arrived I realized she was right: It really was a great help, and continued to be for years.


Took a licking, once again ticking

The timer was one of the things I made sure to grab when I fled my marriage. My mother had died, and the device represented one of the ways she tried to help me when help wasn’t something I’d admit to needing.

Its tumble into the bucket hit me hard. Yes, it was just a little battery-operated doodad, easily replaceable. But the gift was symbolic and its loss was, too. It felt like losing my mom all over again. Melodramatic, maybe, but I had learned to allow myself to feel those feelings, even when they hurt. It’s easier to embrace sorrow than to fight to keep it at bay.

And I laughed through my tears when I realized that the timer’s death was symbolic, too. My mom was an absolute clean freak, due to her at-times squalid upbringing. Her favorite fragrance was Clorox. How fitting, then, that her gift drowned in a bucket of bleach water.

I couldn’t bear to throw it out, so I left it magnetized to the side of the fridge. Last week it occurred to me that people’s cell phone sometimes work after being submerged. Maybe the timer had dried out, too.

I popped in a AAA battery and cheered when the digital display started blinking. Setting it for 10 seconds, I waited and watched and cheered again when the device began to beep.


How a timer saves me money

It’s not that I cook a lot of complicated meals. But timers are useful in so many ways. Some of these might work for you, too:

1. Laundry reminder. Without the timer, I’d probably forget to move the sheets and towels to the dryer, and then back upstairs from the laundry room.

2. Bus buddy. When I want to catch the 12:29 p.m. bus, I set the timer to ring at 12:19. That gives me time to shut down the computer, grab my bag and head to the corner. If you commute, set the timer so you don’t miss the carpool or public transit; showing up late to work is never a good idea, and in these times of tenuous employment you would do walk through the door five minutes early.

3. Beverage chiller. I prefer my iced tea and my Diet Coke really cold, but I don’t like an ice-diluted drink. So I pop the can or the glass into the freezer for 10 or 12 minutes.

4. Utility watchdog. How long should a shower last? Set the timer for that amount, and obey it. This cuts the cost of water/sewer and electricity/gas.

5. Ergonomic boost. I set the timer for an hour and start writing. When it rings I get up to shut it off – and do some stretches. Fewer painkillers are consumed by people who don’t spend 10 hours hunched over a keyboard. Bonus: The less sore and exhausted you are the more likely you’ll cook dinner instead of ordering it.

6. Food-prep partner. When you come home with groceries, set the timer for half an hour (or what you think you can spare) and speed your way through as much preparation as possible. Simple tasks like boiling eggs, mixing up a double batch of meatloaf (cook half, freeze the rest), baking or grilling chicken breasts or pork tenderloin, cooking ground beef and freezing for later use in chili or sloppy joes, washing salad greens and grating cheese will give you the elements needed for easy lunches and dinners during the week.

7. Manic maid. Assemble your cleaning supplies, set the timer for 20 to 30 minutes, and clean as though someone were paying you to do it. If you can do this two to three times per week you might be able to fire your housecleaner (if you have one).

8. Workout taskmaster. Third day in a row without any exercise? Even if you’re tired, set the timer for 20 minutes’ worth of stretching, exercise biking, Wii Fit or whatever you’ve got. You will feel better afterward, both physically and mentally

9. Extremely efficient couponing. Set the timer for 10 minutes, gather your coupon sections and clip furiously. File everything you manage to cut out.

10. Scheduled relaxation. Reduce stress levels and improve overall health by doing meditation exercises or gentle yoga stretches a few nights a week. However, you probably shouldn’t use a kitchen timer for this. I tune my clock radio to classical KING-FM and set the alarm to have it go off in 20 minutes. A session designed to lower blood pressure should not culminate with a strident BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP.

Readers: Do you use a kitchen timer or your cell-phone alarm to keep you on task?

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  1. I take daily medicines. I set the timer for my night time dose. If I take it on time, I do not have to worry about back spasms or other problems keeping me awake.

  2. Stephen Grant

    I use a timer for the parking meter when I have to go to Manhattan. If I forget, the fine is very expensive.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Stephen Grant: Smart! I bet others will be saved costly fines thanks to your suggestion.

  3. Yay for the happy ending!

  4. lostAnnfound

    I didn’t realize all the other ways a timer could be so useful. I’m going to implement #5 & #7; both of these would be very handy for me, although #6 & #10 sound very good also!

  5. Elizabeth

    Love these tips! I’ll have to try the timer next time I do laundry. (Coin laundry is so much fun. Sigh)

    I use my timer to tell me when to put food away. If the dish is still too hot to go in the fridge by the time I’m done eating and cleaning up, I’ll give it another 1/2 hour. The timer reminds me to put it away so I’m not throwing out food.

    • Donna Freedman

      If not for the timer, I swear I would forget that I’d taken the laundry downstairs. My brain is a menopausal sieve.

  6. Heather

    I use the timer to monitor my kids computer time. When the ding goes off, they know their time is up! I homeschool, and I use it to monitor recess time.

    • Donna Freedman

      It works for time-out timing, too. “Can I get up yet?” “Did you hear the timer go off?” “No.” “Well, then, NO.”

  7. cherie

    Awesome post 🙂
    Great story about your Mom, so glad to hear you’re more able to access your emotions than you were then.
    Love the list.
    I’ve become recently timer dependent – too busy – so I use my phone to set a zillion timers, standard for waking up, picking up my eldest from work.
    Reminding me of various appts, how long the food should cook, when the guests are arriving!
    It’s so nice not to have to hold it in my head!

    • Donna Freedman

      @Cherie: It isn’t just having it in your head, it’s the boost to get you on your way. For example, I know that I should get up and stretch, and that eventually I will — but the insistent BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP will make sure that it happens.

  8. Great tips and great post!

  9. Sarah L

    LOL The timer is the reason I’ve taken over the grass watering for my husband. He will leave the water on, and on, and on (and we have three different areas that have to be watered, one at a time) and sometimes, he’d leave it on for hours, or even overnight, because he forgot… even though he swore he’d remember, or would set a timer..I set the timer, 30 min each side, and what do you know? The grass looks better, I’m not having to nag him, and our water bill isn’t 6 times higher in the summer.

    • Donna Freedman

      Too much water can definitely harm plants…as well as your water and sewer bills. Let’s hear it for timers!

  10. Deborah

    I use my kitchen timer for most of the same things you do, and while my timer doesn’t have the same emotional backstory as yours, my recipe box does. When my ex-husband and I got married, my parents were in dire financial straits and couldn’t afford to even buy us a wedding present. But Mom was an excellent cook and Dad was handy with woodworking, so their wedding gift was a small handmade wooden box with about 50 of our family’s favorite recipes hand-written on 3X5 cards. That little box traveled around the world with us (my husband and I were career military) and it was one of the things I took when I left the marraige almost 20 years later. A couple of years ago I scanned those now dog-eared cards, turning them into an electronic file for safekeeping, but the box is still on my kitchen counter and many of my meals are still being prepared from those cards.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Deborah: That’s a lovely story. Some day the box will be handed down (to a niece or nephew if you don’t have kids) and the story should be, too.

  11. Michelle

    Awesome post. So glad it worked again!

    • Donna Freedman

      @Michelle: Me, too — and I’m so glad I didn’t throw it away. Sentimentality came in handy this time.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  12. Just read an article on the difference between kairos and chronos time. This was nice to read after that. You timer was “right on time.”

  13. I don’t want to sound lazy, but I use the timer on my phone for naps. Some days when I’m telecommuting, I need a quick lie down to get through the rest of the afternoon. Starting my work at 6:30 AM those days often means I’m beat by 2 PM. A 10 to 20 minute nap — even if it’s just to close my eyes and be still — really helps me make it to 6 or 7 PM, and then I can usually call it a day. I should probably do #5 more, too. I spend way too much time glued to a screen.

    • Donna Freedman

      I use mine for naps sometimes, too. They do keep me going.
      Getting away from the screen is tough for many people, I think. We keep thinking, “I’ll just check one more e-mail” or “I’ll do just one more task.”

  14. MsFix_IT


    I really loved you story and I have been using my timer on my phone to keep up with meetings. I really like the one for exercising and will use that tip. Thanks for the good news. I am a new fan.
    GOD bless!

  15. I have used the timer all my married life (50 yrs). At first mainly for laundry, cooking & watering. When the grandchildren came iit was set for time on certain in demand toys and time-outs. When computers were new, the timer kept peace in the home when there was more then one child over. Twenty mintes was the max. and then they saved their game and let the next child on. Oh the quarrels and tears that little timer saved. Now I have three! One upstairs, one downstairs, and one to hang around my neck for outside. They have made my life so peaceful.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Linda: I hear you — there’s no arguing with the timer. If it’s set for 30 minutes, then its chiming means your turn is up and the next kid gets a shot at the game.
      Congratulations on 50 years of marriage — and on having a peaceful life.

  16. That was a wonderful story and made my day!

  17. ImJuniperNow

    I possess your timer’s cousin, my Nana’s little hand chopper. You know the one I mean, with the little glass container and funny-looking “X” blades with the thingy on top that you pump down on.

    Chopping nuts with it seems to be a running commentary on my life.

  18. I’m all teary-eyed since I suck and didn’t know any of this about you yet. You are such a strong woman. I’m so glad your mom’s gift works again.

  19. Who knew a timer could have so many uses? Very crafty.

  20. Catseye

    One of my fave stories, Donna. So glad that special timer is working again. I really rely on mine.

  21. “My mom was an absolute clean freak, due to her at-times squalid upbringing. Her favorite fragrance was Clorox. How fitting, then, that her gift drowned in a bucket of bleach water.”

    That is worthy of an Erma Bombeck Memorial Writin’ Award. Like Erma, only better.

  22. I never could tell my mother what was happening to me in my marriage. She would have died if I told her he held a gun, cocked and loaded to my head. I complained that our new house was cold. She gave me a very warm blanket for Christmas that year. I was puzzled until she reminded me how cold I said I was in bed because he would not allow me to buy a blanket. I will never get rid of that blanket. Now, I buy warm gifts for my child and gchildren in NYC. I did send food for her and her children. Mothers don’t want their children to be cold or hungry.

  23. Lovely Story. I use the timer to remind me to call my mother. She lives in a rest home so I try to call when she is just finishing her morning tea as I know she will be in the room then. I started doing it because I would forget to call until it was too late. So in the morning I will set it even if it is going to 3 hours until time to call. I also use it to time the lawn sprinkler…so I do not overuse the water.


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