John Clark pondering whether to get a ouija board or go to a psychic. I’m thinking about all the unanswered questions that have accumulated over the years, the ones I was too young, too in a hurry, too self-centered, or too sure there would be a time in the future, to ask. If you take a few moments, I’ll bet you can put together the beginnings of a pretty important/interesting batch yourself. Looking back over my life, I have to agree with Mark Twain. Youth IS wasted on the young. If that wasn’t true, every kid who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s would have bought plastic sleeves and carefully inserted those comic books and sports cards in them instead of inserting the cards between bicycle spokes and riding hell-bent through mud puddles. Likewise, we wouldn’t have spilled chocolate milk or strawberry soda all over issue #1 of Weird Tales. Ah, well.
Seriously though, I really wish I’d had my act together to ask some questions or pay better attention when my now departed relatives took the time to talk to me. Granted there were some, like my grandfather Clark, who died before I was old enough to even contemplate asking questions, but most everyone else hung around long enough so I might have gathered a mother lode of interesting and enlightening information and family history. Even so, it didn’t really hit me until after Mom died and I’d catch myself trying to remember something about growing up or some fragment of a memory that I knew I couldn’t be able to unlock without asking her and by then, that was impossible.
I’m sharing some of the questions I will probably never have answers to and doing so for a couple reasons. First, I hope you can ponder them to get a sense of what I’m missing and then put together your own list. I suspect that some of you will figure out pretty quickly that you have an ‘impossible’ list equal to mine. That goes with the reality that many of us who read and/or blog here are up there in age and let’s be honest, the relative making machine isn’t working so well any more. However, by sharing this maybe some of you will realize that a resource for one (or more) of those ‘I was gonna get around to asking it’ questions is still accessible. I’d be very interested in hearing from anyone who gets lucky.
Growing up, my favorite relative was my great uncle, Leland Look, particularly when I was in my late teens and early twenties. He and Aunt Ruby lived in a big house on the corner of Rt. 27 and High Street in New Vineyard. He was postmaster there for a long time and was my grandmother Della Look Clark’s baby (and only) brother. I used to do a lot of brook and river fishing for trout in those days and whenever I wanted a fishing partner, Leland was ready to hop in my truck and off we’d go. We used to fish the west branch of the Carrabasset, more commonly known as Salem Stream, often starting just down the hill from where Mount Abram High is located. There was a stretch of close to two miles where the stream wandered through wilderness with no camps or houses. Sometimes we saw beaver or deer and once when I fished it by myself after he died, I was returning via an old woods road and nearly kicked a young bear in the rear while he was ripping open an ant hill.
Anyhow Leland and Ruby were as good as it gets for making you feel welcome and appreciated, feelings that I seldom experienced at home in those days. It didn’t matter what time of day or night I arrived, I was met with a smile, food, hot coffee and on occasion a warm bath and a clean bed. In addition to being a postmaster and avid fisherman, Leland loved to raise dinner plate dahlias. In fact I’m surprised more accidents didn’t happen in late summer due to tourists getting distracted by the wall of giant flowers that followed the porch around two sides of the house. He was also an excellent hunter and trapper. If memory serves me, he had the antlers from one of his big bucks mounted in the woodshed and it was twenty points of more.
I was too messed up to get out of my own head back then, so despite the warmth and affection Leland and Ruby showered on me, I didn’t tend to stat around and chat nearly as often as I should have. As a result, I never got to ask Leland what it was like for him growing up with four sisters and what he could tell me about the Look family. Granted, my mother did a heck of a lot of work putting together a family tree chart (well before the days of online searching), but those are never as satisfying as hearing someone talk about a great great uncle as they personally remembered him. My biggest lament is that with all the brook and river fishing we did together, I never bothered to ask him the one thing that made him stand out from the other fishermen in the area. Leland seldom, if ever got skunked on Porter Lake where he and Ruby had a camp. He’d head out in his canoe with his electric trolling motor and an hour later, he’d be back with a decent togue, sometimes more than one. I’d love to know where and how he did it.
Most of my unanswered questions reside on that side of the family, mainly because Mom’s kin lived in upstate New York, so we weren’t nearly as well connected. However, if I could hop in the wayback machine and go to Old Forge, I’d ask my grandfather Earl Carman what it was like growing up with an identical twin brother. I’d also ask him about some of the more famous sports he let through Bisbee Gate, the access point to a huge private reserve. He and my grandmother Martha lived in the gatehouse and controlled access for a very long time and I’m sure they had more than their share of diplomats, royalty and celebrities pass through at one time or another.
Another mystery I’d like to solve, at least partially, would have involved asking my paternal grandmother Della what she remembered about my grandfather finding the big gold nugget I used to get to hold when I was a kid. Supposedly he found it while fly fishing the north branch of the Dead River, but I bet she knew at least a little bit about his favorite spots on that stretch of water. I’d love to hit them with my new metal detector.
If I could, I’d have set aside my animosity toward my father and asked him to share some of his experiences during World War II. He was a forward artillery spotter with the 45th Division and I know he saw some hellish stuff because he had a photo album I found when I was about ten and it contained some really shocking pictures from one of the death camps he helped liberate.
Even my mother who I spent many hours talking to, especially after we both got sober, died with answers I really wish I had. I have a letter in my desk from some Australian cousins. Unfortunately, it’s from the late 1960s and despite the miraculous things one can find online, I’ve hit a dead end in terms of tracking them down. Another mystery is a great great aunt or grandmother who was quite probably manic as well as wealthy. After her husband and my namesake (probably John Rogers Clark III) died, she loaded her fancy car onto a steamship and took off for Europe with a new beau. She and her fortune were never heard from again, although I remember Mom saying something about her ashes arriving in a fancy urn a few years later. If I’d been more persistent, maybe I’d have enough information in one or both instances so I could make a little progress.
Of course, the flip side of these laments is what they have taught me in terms of sharing stuff with my children, and I hope with granddaughter Piper when she’s a little older. Both girls came with me to a lot of AA meetings in the early part of my recovery, especially when Beth had to work on a Monday holiday. That was because I set up the Monday Noon Eye-opener meeting at AMHI, so I had to bring the kids along. You can never be completely surprised by what children absorb about things like recovery. There was a stretch of several years where every time we drove along Route 17 as it passed Chickawaukee Lake in Rockland, they’d look at me and say, “That’s the one you drove your car into, dad?” I’d nod and smile because it was good for them to know a bit of what it was like for me before they were born and how different things are now.
I’d be very interested in hearing some of the things you still wonder about because you never got the chance to ask. I also leave you with the thought that every unanswered question is an opportunity to create a dandy short story.
Loved this post, John. It’s filled with so many truths. Nicely done.
I was lucky to live many of my childhood years with my mother’s parents .. either at their home, or, later, when my parents shared their home with the older couple. My grandmother told many stories … but, still, I wish I’d asked more. Or, more specifics. And, after her death, my grandfather spoke up and contradicted some of her stories … interesting, to say the least. But my father’s parents were killed when their Model T Ford stalled on a railroad track (true — the story made the NYT). What happened to my father, I know a little about. What happened to his sister, I know a VERY little about, and have often imagined. And those grandparents — grandfather who married late, a very young woman — I know nothing about other than their deaths. My father didn’t know either … he never even knew what the middle initial on his birth certificate stood for. So many questions! Thanks for posting this, John.
I think that picture of Della and Leland has our little sister sitting beside our grandmother.
Don’t believe a day passes when I don’t have a question for one of our relatives. Too bad there isn’t a psychic hotline, right?
My grandfather had a great-uncle who had fought in the Civil War. I still remember my grandfather lamenting that he hadn’t asked his uncle more questions.