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Creek Running North

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August 24, 2005


My father thought I was fun to be with, until I turned eight. He said that to an ex-girlfriend of mine one day in an attempt at levity. She smiled thinly, but was secretly horrified. I thought it was funny. Or at least as funny as Dad ever gets. It's true that my relationship with my family changed when I was eight. Starting that year, I spent nine-tenths of my waking hours either at school or commuting. A lot of people were cast adrift from their families in September 1968, and I was one of them. I was just a little younger than my cohort. My family became housemates. I rarely saw them.

There was deeper truth to Dad's joke. He's far more comfortable with little kids than with bigger ones. I've inherited that preference to some degree. The same went for Dad's father, or so I've heard. He died a few days after my seventh birthday, so I never had to face being told I was too old to clamber onto his Barcaloungered lap. My grandfather died of multiple myeloma, a particularly insidious form of cancer that is far more treatable now than it was in 1967. A few more years, and thalidomide might have let Grandpa live long enough to make our relationship more complex.

On January 20, 1967, my father came into my room very early in the morning to give me the news. "Oh, no," I said. That was the depth of my grief. This kind of thing was new to me. I knew what death was, having poked my share of road-killed cats with sticks, but at seven was too young for the full weight of the loss of my grandfather to hit me. I went off to my first grade class that morning, peculiarly unaffected. At 32, my father was, quite likely, also too young for the full weight of his loss to completely register. I don't know if he drove down to Cornell that morning to go to work on his mainframes, but I'm betting he did. The morning his mother died, in 1999, he took the call and then went on his usual Saturday shopping trip to the big box store. Coming out of the parking lot, an SUV slammed into his van at highway speed. He was uninjured, aside from airbag burns. His van needed some body and frame work. "Why the hell did you go out driving the morning you mother died?" I yelled at him on the telephone that day. "I was fine," he said. "The SUV ran a red light."

My father can go for months, years without talking to his kids. This isn't out of lack of feeling, but more a misplaced desire not to intrude. It's a family tradition. Get a roomful of Clarkes together, especially if they haven't seen one another for a few months, and the silence can be deafening. My father told me once of coming home from college for the first time, getting into Geneva at some ungodly early morning hour, and riding the ten miles home in silence with his father. "There was no need for us to talk about anything," he told me once. "Why waste time talking?" This is not precisely a majority opinion in our little section of the family. But we don't talk about it much.

My grandfather was one letter away from being a famous writer: his name was Arthur D. Clarke. Were he born in 1969 instead of 1909, he might have succumbed to talk therapy. He was what is now referred to as "Adult Child of Alcoholic." My great-grandfather was, by all accounts (one, to be precise, told me by my father) a drunkard and a borderline failure. He ran a store in the small town of Gorham, NY for some time, relying on my grandfather to keep his business afloat. Once my father asked his grandfather if he could have a drink of that water. My great grandfather chuckled to his friends sitting around on stumps behind the barn, and handed him the mason jar. "Sure, said Great Grandpa. You can have a drink of this water." Dad tilted the jar to his lips, and the gin made his mouth feel aflame. He doubled over, retching, as the old farts laughed themselves silly.

My grandfather never touched a drop of liquor, so far as I know. My dad strayed a bit from abstemiousness. After his divorce, he bought three or four bottles of hard liquor and one of Napoleon brandy, and stuck them in his kitchen broom closet. He drank maybe an eighth of the vodka, and the rest stayed essentially untouched for a year or so. Finally, thoughtfully, fulfilling my filial duty to be helpful to my father, I finished them off for him. Some things skip more than one generation.

For whatever reason, parental alcoholism or early twentieth century rural mores or depression or individual disposition, my grandfather was a silent man. My grandmother once told us that he went for several months, at one point, without saying a word to her. No argument, no anger, just silence. I remember him opening up to his grandchildren. That memory may be wishful thinking on my part. He was my closest confidante in those days, but what does a five-year old have to confide? I spent a lot of time in his lap, but I mainly remember laughing with him as the roadrunner outsmarted the stupid coyote once again. I no longer remember a single conversation with him, though I have clear memories of conversations with other family members that took place years before he died. We may never have talked about anything.

My father, though taciturn enough to drive his children nuts, is nonetheless more voluble than his father by an order of magnitude. He never intrudes by calling me, but if I call him, he'll chat until I hang up. Before I became uninteresting on my eighth birthday, he and I worked together on any number of projects. The month my grandfather died, Dad spent a probably very large number of tedious hours winding copper wire around a small cylinder, making the tuning coil for the crystal radio kit he'd bought me that Christmas. He was taking a correspondence course in electronics that year. I followed him in the workbooks, two or three volumes behind. I learned how to read the color codes on resistors, then lost interest somewhere between the capacitor chapter and the diode chapter. My father soldered together a kit stereo – still called, in those days, a "hi-fi" – and he used it until the mid-1980s.

I laid upstairs in my room one winter evening a month or so after Grandpa Clarke died, listening through a tiny earphone to the completed crystal radio. My father asked me whether the radio worked. I told him I had just listened to a biography of Robert Goddard on the Voice of America. He frowned. "That's not supposed to be a shortwave radio!" He took it back and "fixed" it, brought the resulting AM radio back up to my room with his old amplifier. I much preferred the shortwave. I read instead; Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge and comics and high school science texts. Two or three years later, my father gave me another shortwave.

The last time I went back to visit my father was in 1999. We drove to the Finger Lakes to visit a few relatives. At my request, he drove me around to a few different houses he'd lived in as a kid. My grandfather was, for most of his adult life, a tenant farmer, and quitting a job often meant moving out of the house his landlord owned. We drove past one place, a nice small clapboard on the edge of a tiny hamlet. Dad told me that they'd lived there for a time, and one day my grandmother looked up and saw her husband walking back from the fields he worked outside town. There was something she recognized in his posture, I guess, in the vigor of his stride or perhaps it was the way the dark clouds swirled ominously behind him. She turned to her kids. "Start packing," she said.

My dad went away to college. He came home for the summer. He went out looking for summer jobs. One potential employer looked at him with a cocked eye. "You're Artie Clarke's boy, aren't you?" Dad was a little taken aback. "Did he tell you I was gonna come talk to you?" "Hell," said the man. "I could tell a mile away, from the way you walk!"

That was half a mile from the house where I'd clambered into Artie Clarke's lap. My aunt and uncle still live there. Another house, a red brick house in Seneca Castle, was visible from a road I've traveled down probably five thousand times. All my life until age 20 we'd been driving past some of these places, and never once had Dad driven the eighth-mile out of the way to point them out. The motel in Geneva that I could draw from memory, which I'd been watching since I was old enough to hold my head up? The small house in front of it was a great uncle's. They'd wanted to buy him out, and he said no, so they built around him. Family roots a mile deep in the Flint Creek watershed, second-cousins all over and marks on the landscape, and I was told none of it until I asked just before turning 40.

I could have asked as a child. I may well have. I am still learning that my father's silence does not always signify anger, a lesson I would have denied heatedly at age ten. I gave up asking him questions long before then. A few years later, I gave up talking to him at all, except in a voice raised at some imagined slight. When I was thirteen he and I broke up a section of cracked concrete sidewalk with sledgehammers, used the rubble as filler and poured a new walk. A utility truck drove up onto it two months later and cracked it again. A day later, I went out there with the sledgehammer and started breaking it up again. Dad was out there like a rocket.
"What are you doing?"
"I just thought..."
"You weren't thinking! This is not what I wanted you to do! Use your damn brain for once! What's wrong with you?"

He poured the second iteration on his own.

About twenty years later he apologized. He'd had a bad day and took it out on me, knew I was only trying to be helpful, and was annoyed above all that he'd done a slipshod job on pouring the slab in the first place. He'd meant to apologize for some time. I'd forgotten the incident almost entirely, remembering only the productive first phase of the project.

In the Gorham cemetery in 1999, we visited the graves of my grandparents, the flowers still intact from my grandmother's funeral. Near them, the tombstones of my great grandparents. One close among them in alabaster, a little lamb atop it: for my poor sweet cousin Carol, who died before the advent of seat belts and car seats.

Surrounding them, the tombs of strangers, people I'd never met nor heard of. Many of them shared my last name. I didn't count.

Driving back to my father's house that evening, I saw a red-tailed hawk silhouetted against a deep red sky. The sun had slid toward the western horizon, landed on southern Canada. We crossed a bridge over the Genesee River.

Two decades in California had estranged me from the Western New York landscape. Five days back had not dispelled the oddity. For the first time, I felt strongly that New York was no longer home.

"Dad, am I imagining that there are a lot more hawks here now than when I lived here?"

We drove in silence along Route 20 for a mile, then two. Route 5 peeled off toward Caledonia. Silver maples reflected red sky from their leaves' shiny undersides. The road looped and soared over glacial hills. Tires thumped against the frost-heaved cracks in the pavement. We drove this road a lot when I was small, visiting relatives after we'd moved to Buffalo, and this time of day meant heading home and school tomorrow. My father dimmed his brights for an oncoming car, then another.

We were almost to Pavilion when he spoke.

"I don't know," he said.

Posted by Chris Clarke at August 24, 2005 06:37 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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Thank you Mr. Clarke.

Posted by: MBains at August 25, 2005 03:22 AM
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I wish I had come to that kind of acceptance of my father and our relationship before he died. I couldn't ever figure out the way to start the conversation much less continue it productively. He wasn't one for emotional give and takes although he talked a lot.

Posted by: eRobin at August 25, 2005 04:59 AM
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Thanks for another wonderful piece. I'm still looking for that autobiography at Borders.

Posted by: carpundit at August 25, 2005 05:31 AM
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The hawks kind of define it, don't they?

You HAVE to collect these into one volume. Thanks for giving me such fine reading first thing this morning; I didn't even pick up the coffee cup all the way through...

Posted by: beth at August 25, 2005 05:45 AM
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Another awesome offering, Chris. Thank you. The only thing I wonder about is where you say, "At 32, my father was, quite likely, also too young for the full weight of his loss to completely register." Maybe it's a family thing, and you suspect it to be true because this is how people in your family are. But I wouldn't assume that, even if true, it would have had anything to do with his age, unless he was emotionally young for his age, or unless he had not yet appreciated the full weight of the gift in his life that having his father had been. And he may not have. And with all of them so silent, he still might not. He might still be figuring that all out.

All I know is that my mother died when I was still in my twenties, and believe me, it registered. Fully. But then, I already knew what having her had meant to me, so losing her had a distinct shape. Still, though, like you guess your dad did, I went to work the next day as though nothing had happened. It made it hurt less. I knew I couldn't fix it. A conscious effort to keep things "normal" cushioned my heart against the relentless stabbing of my insoluble grief. Not completely collapsing also gave me a sense of privacy, while work diverted the energy of my sorrow into something banal but constructive. Or so I felt. Maybe your dad chose a similar process for similar reasons. Maybe this is a reflexive, protective instinct for some kinds of people.

Of course, you'll never know what he went through unless you ask him, and even then... Sometimes silent people don't use words because the process of finding them, ultimately culminating in the discovery of how weak and small even the "right" words can be, hurts too much.

Posted by: Sara at August 25, 2005 08:28 AM
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I still harbor some anger at some of these same types of happenings. I was subliminally angry about it for years, continuously telling myself that the people involved were like cats -- you're not going to change them; you just have to accept that they're "that way" and deal with it.

But then one day this other thought popped into my head: If you're in France, and you want to buy something, what kind of money do they expect you to have? French money.

If the person on the receiving end of all this silence can’t feel loved without his (her) supposed loved ones talking to him, or calling him, or otherwise seeking contact, doesn’t that count?

For me, it does. The coin of the realm in MY head is contact.

If years go by and someone never takes the initiative to talk to me, or call me, or find out what I’m thinking, or notice my values – if it’s always me turning the crank to keep the relationship going – it really does mean there’s no love there.

Posted by: Hank Fox at August 25, 2005 09:12 AM
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This was beautiful and compelling. Especially that last capstone of a sentence.

Posted by: Rana at August 25, 2005 10:23 AM
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My family is as gregarious and gossipy as Woody Allen's family in Annie Hall. Oi oi oi. I have grown to truly appreciate and need silence.
Quietness is so interesting. If someone is taciturn, we always have to guess at what is going on. I have come to understand that what I surmise is often wrong. My own projections and nothing more. Some quiet comes from suppressed feelings. Some from feeling nothing at all. I like the quiet that comes from contemplation.
We learn so much from our parents. It sounds like your father learned to be almost as quiet as his dad was. How about you, Chris? You are a such wonderful communicative writer. Do you like to talk? You are drawn to the desert, a place I imagine to be amenable to people who like the quiet.

Posted by: Rexroths Daughter at August 25, 2005 10:35 AM
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Well, my dad's side of the family is pretty taciturn, but mom's side will talk endlessly about the most trivial things. We kids got the best of both worlds: We can talk for hours, but never about any of the important stuff.

Nonetheless, I am often quiet for many hours at a time, often with Becky around. She's more talkative than I am, but has gotten used to the occasional ten-mile drive in silence.

I do make sure to tell her two or three times a day that I love her.

And yes: I'm rarely happier than when the only voice around is that of the wind and the canyon wrens.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at August 25, 2005 12:30 PM
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And Sara, I actually do know for a fact that my Dad was very much hurt by the loss of his father, whom he still idolizes. I'm just wrapping my head around the fact that he was so much younger at the time than I am now, is all.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at August 25, 2005 12:35 PM
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While my memory of these events is slightly different than your's, it's a great piece. I am touched. Thank you. Give my love to Becky.

Posted by: Dad at August 25, 2005 03:14 PM
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While my memory of these events is slightly different than yours

I can't imagine how that's possible!

Thanks Dad. I love you too.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at August 25, 2005 03:26 PM
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Chris, what a beautifully-written memory. Now I can call those awkward family silences 'clarking'. As in, "...he was clarking after that debate..." or, "...what else could I do? I had to clark him once and for all...."

Posted by: Trix at August 25, 2005 07:24 PM
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Ha, Trix!

Just make sure you get the terminal "e" in there!

Posted by: Chris Clarke at August 25, 2005 07:29 PM
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The Clarkes must be related to the Flakes. My mother-in-law says when she first married into the taciturn Tennessee family she kept thinking they were waiting for someone to bring in the body.

Posted by: KathyF at August 26, 2005 07:52 AM
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Chris Clarke, I bin meaning for some time to tell you how totally fawken awesome you are. Yay!

Posted by: Twisty at August 28, 2005 12:00 PM
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