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December 24, 2005

Uncle

Tonight we drive to San Jose for dinner with Becky's mother's family. Liam will be there, and Sophie, and I'll get to be Uncle Chris for a few hours instead of merely Chris.

This will feel good. I have been Uncle Chris for 21 years and change. When Allison was five minutes old the nurses handed her to me. My sister Coral was pre-occupied as they sutured her episiotomy. I introduced myself to someone, for the first time, as "Uncle Chris." It felt like destiny fulfilled, a hereditary title I had anticipated my whole life.

Here is the stuff of which an Unclehood, properly executed, consists.

Patience. The niece's or nephew's quirks are likely a source of deep annoyance to the parents, but you will be heading home at the end of the day, and the child will only tap your reserves a little. For the parents, each tantrum is one in an endless string. For you, it is merely punctuation of a long afternoon on the grass.

Indulgence. A parent's rules must be respected. But respect comes from knowledge, and knowledge of a rule is best gained when you spend a little time looking at it from the wrong side. Coral made it easy for me: cookies were against the rules for Allison, and I think seventeen years later my sister may almost have forgiven me that Oreo. And then there's the "beer at seventeen" thing, about which I had best shut up as Liam's mother may well read this.

Fun. This one, oddly, is the hardest. Popular wisdom has it that two-year-olds are terrible due to their propensity for saying "no." Fun uncles know the awful truth: the word you should fear from a two-year-old's mouth is actually "again!" Just give up. Your back will stop hurting eventually.

Exemplary behavior. Some of your nephews - and, in this enlightened age, some of your nieces as well - may grow up to be uncles. They will need a role model. Tell them "no" yourself when you need to, but be fun. Be patient. Indulge them. Love them relentlessly. They will think of you when it comes their time to uncle.

I have fallen down in that task on occasion. I have owed my sweet Grace an email for some weeks, and James is still waiting for my answer to his question about dinosaurs and planets. James, and Carolyn as well, have made it all the way to starting school without meeting Uncle Chris for the first time.

I cannot blame my negligience on a lack of role models. I had the best one possible.

My father has three brothers, each one a fine uncle. When I see them, which happens infrequently, it is nice to catch up. I am smart enough now not to mistake for disinterest the taciturn nature they share with my dad. Also: playing favorites among family members is an odious and risky pursuit. With good men in abundance among my parents' siblings and their spouses, who would be so crass as to confess having a favorite uncle?

Me, that's who. But that's neither criticism nor slight of anyone in my family. It's simply that Carlyle Benedict is the best uncle anyone ever had. When I held Allison that morning in 1984 I had him in mind, and I wondered if I would measure up.

Uncle Benny Carlyle - "Benny" - married my father's sister Joyce some years before I was born. I have known him forever. At family gatherings in the 1960s and 70s, where Clarke men tended to gather in deep silence around the television, content to say nothing for hours, Uncle Benny was a spark of infectious liveliness. The party started when he got there. He was not particularly a card. No joke-teller, he. It was more the way he approached life. He could walk into a room full of Clarkes and get us telling jokes.

I am trying now to remember a time when I saw him not smiling for more than a few minutes. I am failing.

The guy was a kid magnet. If there was a child under the age of five in the room with him, that kid would inevitably wind up clambering on his shoulders, placing a hand on his beautiful bald head. I loved him furiously as a small child, and then my sister Carrie did even more ardently, and yet I yielded my rightful place in his lap without resentment. I suspect my brother Craig - Craig Carlyle Clarke - loved him most of all.

There were times when we kids essentially lived at Aunt Joyce and Uncle Benny's house in Penn Yan, or at least those of us who were born at the time. Lazy weeks in the summer with Aunt Joyce carting us to Keuka Lake, troubled times when my father was called up for National Guard duty or my mother was in the hospital having her thyroid removed. Their kids, Laurie and Tim, were older than us and we looked up to them. Uncle Benny would come home from work - in the service department of a local Dodge dealership, at least at the time - with a smile on his face that rarely ebbed, even when Laurie would play the same The Doors 45 sixteen times in a row, even when Tim was practicing his drums. That house was a second home to us.

Uncle Benny was a homebody. He spent his entire adult life within a twenty-minute drive of the farm where he grew up. We spent summer weeks camping in his father's fields, tromping through the sheep barn in our good shoes. Driving two hours to Buffalo was an excursion to him, travel in the original sense of the word, a cognate of "travail." Tim went on tour one year and his band split up somewhere in the Midwest, and he called his father to come fetch him and his drums, and the whole family knew that while someone like me might drive a thousand miles for a good plate of ravioli, Benny's driving that far was an awesome sacrifice by which he proved his love for his son, again. Tim came to his senses and settled on his grandfather's farm.

I took Becky to Penn Yan to meet them in 1996, and joked to Uncle Benny about his coming to visit us in California. "Yeah, right," he smirked. When he saw me that day - the first time in some years - he grinned wide, held out his hand to shake. "That's not gonna do it for me," I said. I hugged him, kissing him on his ear just above the diamond stud. He looked a little surprised. "I live in California now," I explained.

The phone rang this morning. It was my father. Tim called my Aunt Sylvia in Gorham, who called my dad. Uncle Benny had been in the hospital again, a common occurence what with the cancer he's been fighting, and the doctors had planned to release him this morning.

Instead, my favorite uncle died last night.

I will see my little nephew tonight, pick him up and clasp him to me, hold him on my shoulders, smile at him indulgently through his inevitable snit. This is what good uncles do, though not usually with eyes this rimmed with red.

Posted by Chris Clarke at December 24, 2005 08:12 AM TrackBack URL for this entry:
http://www.faultline.org/cgi-bin/mt-tb.cgi/1493

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Comments

I am so sorry, Chris.

That being said, it sounds as though you learned about Unclehood at the feet of a master. This was a beautiful tribute.

Posted by: the_bone at December 24, 2005 11:14 AM
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I'm sorry, Chris. Thank you for sharing your uncle, and the tips for being an uncle, with us.

Posted by: kabbage at December 24, 2005 12:02 PM
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I'm so sorry.

Posted by: Space Kitty at December 24, 2005 12:34 PM
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Benny was not my uncle, but he was so much more to me. He drove out to the country countless times to check up on me, and you babies, when your father was called to active duty in the National Guard. I couldn't drive, and had health problems and felt rather abandoned out in the "wilds" in the Penn Yan area. He brought things to us, put up a Christmas tree (if I remember right), and played with you. He was always there for us and all of you kids absolutely loved him.

Posted by: Rita Xavier at December 24, 2005 12:36 PM
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*Sniff*

Posted by: Carrie at December 24, 2005 01:01 PM
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Oh, man. I'm so sorry, Chris.

Posted by: alice at December 24, 2005 02:47 PM
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chris, you sound like a heck of an uncle. now we know why. i am so sorry for your loss, and glad benny was in your lives.

Posted by: kathy a at December 24, 2005 04:04 PM
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Thanks for sharing him with us, Chris. As insufficient as the words are, I'm sorry for you loss.

Posted by: Auguste at December 24, 2005 04:30 PM
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aw, chris, i am so sorry for your loss. but every day you are an uncle, you will pay tribute to him in a way that no one else can.

Posted by: GrrlScientist at December 24, 2005 04:47 PM
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I'm sorry, Chris. A great tribute. & a great reminder to us to uncle it while we can.

Posted by: dale at December 24, 2005 05:02 PM
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I'm so sorry, Chris. This piece and your own uncleling are a wonderful tribute to him.

Posted by: Stephanie at December 24, 2005 05:20 PM
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I'm so sorry. You pay respects to him beautifully.

Posted by: Annie at December 24, 2005 07:03 PM
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Yes a it's a beautiful tribute. I'm very sorry for your loss.

Posted by: eRobin at December 25, 2005 12:21 AM
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Thanks for that post, Chris. You had Uncle Benny, they will have Uncle Chris because you remember Uncle Benny. Life is good.

Posted by: Hal at December 25, 2005 01:41 AM
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My condolences on the loss of your uncle. It sounds, though, that he lives on in you, which is a kind of immortality, I guess.

Having recently become a father for the first time, I hope my son Ethan has an uncle such as you and your Uncle Benny. I know what you mean by being influenced by an uncle; I hope to be the kind of father my Uncle Gerald and Uncle Bob have been to their kids.

Posted by: Robert at December 25, 2005 04:22 AM
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As affectionate and clear-eyed a portait as any fellow could wish. Well put. You have my sympathy.

Posted by: Tom Montag at December 25, 2005 08:15 AM
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I had to send this to my youngest son, who is, in his own teens, an uncle six times over. You have expressed a path beyond the pale upon which he, and all of us, should strive to walk. Bless you, and all your relations, this winter season.

Posted by: spyder at December 25, 2005 08:48 AM
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My sympathies to you, Chris. You honor your uncle with eloquence and love. I am truly sorry for your loss.

Posted by: Rexroth's Daughter at December 25, 2005 08:58 AM
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Deepest sympathy, Chris.

Posted by: Buffalo Gal at December 25, 2005 09:32 AM
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Merry Christmas!

-Walter
Sugar Mountain Farm
in Vermont

Posted by: Walter Jeffries at December 25, 2005 01:07 PM
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Simply beautiful, Chris. My deepest sympathies. I'm so glad you had Uncle Benny and your nieces and nephews will have Uncle Chris. "Again!" indeed.

xoxo

Posted by: ae at December 25, 2005 01:43 PM
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bummer of a birthmark, hal.

...prayers of gratitude offered for the good parents of the world, and also uncles and aunts. and zekes, of course.

may your blessings continue.

Posted by: dfa at December 25, 2005 03:12 PM
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That was very beautiful. My sympathies.

Posted by: janinsanfran at December 25, 2005 03:54 PM
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Last time I saw Uncle Benny was at Grandma Clarke's funeral. Afterward while we were eating I told him that I was using the Carlyle now... Just as he hid it, I hid it all through my childhood. Classmates would guess and the closest they ever came was Carl. I wouldn't let anyone know.

At some point I realized what a great name it is and what a privilege it is to be named after Carlyle Clark Benedict. Started using my full name almost ostentatiously.

I hadn't seen him in quite a while and I told him I was using the name hoping it might make him happy. I don't know if he even heard me, being obviously preoccupied that day.

Sometimes with this train wreck of a life of mine the only worthwhile thing I think I might accomplish is to be my nieces' and nephew's Uncle Benny.

You'll have to compete with me for that Chris.

Posted by: craig at December 25, 2005 08:47 PM
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Sorry, Chris. Thank you for sharing him with us.

Posted by: Sara at December 26, 2005 10:57 AM
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You'll always have an extra reason now to remember him at Christmas time. Sounds like his memory will sweeten the season just that little bit more for all of you, every year.

Posted by: tigtog at December 26, 2005 01:52 PM
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happy holidays.

Posted by: jon at December 26, 2005 06:40 PM
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I don't know you, Chris, but I did know your Uncle Benny! When around your uncle I felt a sense of calmness, that no matter who you were you have a wonderful purpose in life! You were so lucky to have such a wonderful man as your uncle. I know he was a great grandfather to Zack as well! He will be greatly missed by many! My sympathies to you and his family.

Posted by: Teresa at December 26, 2005 06:48 PM
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I'm sorry for your loss, Chris. Thanks for sharing this lovely tribute to your Uncle Benny.

I believe that good Aunthood has many of the same qualities that you describe as properly executed Unclehood, though I've never tried to put those qualities into words. I've spent the past several days being Aunt Kimberly for my two wonderful nephews, 2 and 4. There are few roles that I have ever enjoyed more... though I do fear that my back will never again(!) be the same.

Posted by: Kimberly at December 26, 2005 09:27 PM
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Men with those quiet familial virtues are, as the old saying used to recognize, the salt of the earth, aren't they?

Posted by: bitchphd at December 27, 2005 12:49 AM
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What a beautiful tribute to a very special man who fit so many roles in his walk on this earth...I knew Benny as friend, but thought of him more like a father or grandfather...as a matter of fact, he reminded me of my grandfather...a very cool guy..he will be missed by many, but remembered as well..Thank you for helping me put it in perspective. My heartfelt sympathies to your entire family.

Posted by: Susan at December 27, 2005 05:56 AM
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I can't add to what everyone else already said about your tribute. I never had much of a relationship with my uncles but I know my two kids are lucky that my wife's bachelor brothers love them to pieces.

Posted by: Charles at December 27, 2005 08:17 AM
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Chris, You don't know me but I knew your Uncle "Benny" very well. I was married July 17, 2001 and due to my Grandfather being deceased your uncle walked my mother to her seat at my wedding. WHAT A MAN!!! I became close to him and his wife from then on. He will be greatly missed!! Take care.

Posted by: Karen at December 27, 2005 02:43 PM
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That was an unexpected ending for the post, Chris. I'm sufficiently blindsided. It was a fine eulogy.

You're obviously on-track to carry his legacy forth. So, do so.

Sincere condolences.

2005 just WILL NOT end soon enough, if you ask me.

Posted by: thingfish23 at December 27, 2005 04:51 PM
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All lucky beings have cool Uncle Benny's. Mine was named Phil. He wasn't married to my great aunt, but we always called him uncle.

I'm so sorry for your loss.

Posted by: Roxanne at December 27, 2005 08:37 PM
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I cut off ties with my parents in October, so no family gathering for Christmas, for the first time in my life. I'll probably never see any of my aunts and uncles again, nor my two nieces, who I've enjoyed being an aunt to.

I'm so sorry for your loss. (More tears at work for someone I never even met.)

Posted by: Mychelline at December 28, 2005 09:36 AM
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Mychelline, that sounds like a hell of a family bust-up. I don't wish to pry into details, but is there no way you can still keep in contact with other relatives even though you've given up on your parents? It's hard to lose your entire family in one go, although sometimes it can be the right thing. But maybe you only have to lose some of them. New Year's Eve can be a good excuse for a phonecall.

Posted by: tigtog at December 28, 2005 03:12 PM
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I'm so sorry, Chris.

Childhood without good uncles would be a much less joyful thing. It's hard to let them go, even when we're grownups.

Posted by: Ancrene Wiseass at December 29, 2005 08:25 AM
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Hi Chris. You're a great writer. The pastor read part of what you wrote at the funeral. It's too bad that something like this has to happen to bring you back to folks that you should have stayed in touch with. I will try to visit your blog more often. Below are the thoughts that I shared at the memorial service.

Some of my earliest memories of my dad are the sound of his laughter coming up through the floor register at night as I went to sleep. Back in those days, television wasn’t the plague on society that it is today. It was just a good way for folks to relax and be entertained after a hard days work, and he took full advantage. The laughter that I heard was the kind that could have only come from a truly happy man and that happiness infected everyone who came within range. Hard work, devotion to his family and church, and the joy of simple pleasures were what he was made of.
He was a homebody. It’s a Benedict trait. I see it in myself, and in my son. Why spend all that time, money and aggravation trying to see some far away place when a few good photos and a good imagination can get you there a whole lot easier, that’s kinda the way the philosophy goes. The traveling that we did when I was young was always by car, rarely more than a days drive from home and always a lot of fun, you could count on Dad for that. You couldn’t tell us that we were deprived by not being world travelers. He would usually drive the whole way, and like a true Benedict, you could tell when we were on our way home because the car would be traveling a little bit faster than on the way out. In fact, getting back home always seemed to be the best part of the trip!
He was a mechanic most of my young life and some of my fondest memories were when he would have to go back to work after dinner, which was often, and I was allowed to go along. These were exiting times to be around a car dealer. The muscle car era! I would get an orange crush and a candy bar, watch him work, or wander around checking out the cars in the showroom. He seemed to know everything about how to make a car work right and once I was old enough, he always made sure that I had a car under me.
His prized possession, and only indulgence it seemed, was his truck. In my 48 years he only had 4 of them, you do the math, that’s pretty impressive. They were carefully maintained and he worked them hard. That truck stood in the driveway at the ready to go into battle, like a trusty steed. Many a night there would be a phone call from someone who was broke down, or stuck in a snow storm and he would react without hesitation. The man and his truck to the rescue! I think that he was never more alive than when he was out there on a mission, giving aid to someone in need.

Now I don’t want to go on and on without letting you know that there was a down side to having a man like this for a father. When I was in high school, I was in a lot of music groups and Mom and Dad were often involved as chaperones. This created a problem. He was more popular with the girls than I was!! It was just amazing! We would show up and it was like I was standing in the wrong isle at an Elvis concert. There would be this big shriek of “Uncle Benny”, (that’s what they all called him) and then this wind rushing past me as the girls all ran over to him! But I got over it… No really, I did. I was relieved when I got a little older and realized that, whatever he had, I was lucky enough to have a little bit rub off.
After college, I went on the road with a band to find fame and fortune. (which by the way he never said anything to discourage me from, even though I’m sure he thought I was nuts), This is when the BIG rescue trip happened. The band broke up, as bands do, and left me stranded in Indiana. Dad and his battle weary truck that had come to the aid of countless others came to the rescue once again, even though it hadn’t been running well at the time. I can remember on the way home having to stop every few hours, Dad would dig into his stash of spare parts in the back, Climb up into the engine compartment, and replace a bent push rod or two in the engine, and this was winter! This happened several times during the trip, and oh by the way, once we were on our way home… we didn’t slow down much!
In the fifteen odd years since then I have had the privilege of being here during Dads’ retirement and being able to help him get back to one of his first loves, working the farm where he grew up. He spent many a day out cutting firewood, he loved messing around with the equipment, and we were able to get in several good hay harvests. We even kept some animals from time to time. He loved that farm very much, and we were all blessed that he was able spend his final years on that land.
We’ve all suffered a loss, and for those of us that were closest to him, it won’t be an easy transition. So much of what we are is from him, and influenced by him. But even with all of that, I consider myself lucky. In this world that suffers more and more from missing and dysfunctional fathers, and positive male role models, there is this guy flowing through every part of me that was everything he was supposed to be. He is the compass that will guide me on my journey.

Posted by: Tim Benedict at January 2, 2006 11:02 AM
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(o)

Posted by: Rana at January 3, 2006 01:26 PM
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Hello Chris. I am Laurie's daughter. I don't think we've ever met but I just wanted to say that your post was awesome. You described papa like I never would be able to. He was the best grandfather a kid could ever have hands down! I regret that I couldn't see him more than once a year because we live so far apart. I've got so many memories of the times that I did get to spend with him and I will cherish them for the rest of my life!

Posted by: Brianne Gueringer at January 31, 2006 03:33 PM
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