Thanks to Mon Oncle

First: In the Shameless Commerce division, please put January 28 on your calendar for Local Writers at the Local Buzz café and wine bar in Cape Elizabeth, 4:00 to 5:00 PM. I will be reading from Solo Act and new work, along with Jeri Theriault, the talented South Portland poet. This monthly reading series is now in its sixth year.  Founded in 2011 by poet Marcia F. Brown and essayist Penelope Schwartz, the series has featured over 130 area authors of fiction, nonfiction and poetry. It is now co-hosted by Brown and Portland poet Linda Aldrich. Hope to see you there!

In this reflective time of year and counting my blessings for being back in Maine, I got to thinking about how I wound up here the first time around. Unlike a native Mainer, my origin story in the state is a little more convoluted and rests squarely on the story of my uncle, Richard Clogston.

My namesake uncle was a bean farmer first, then a dairyman, in Starks, a not very large village to the left of Norridgewock and north of New Sharon. My mother’s brother, fourteen years older, he fought in World War II, earning a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. I knew him better as mon oncle, living the charmed life up on the farm that I thought might suit me better than the suburbs of Boston.

My earliest summer memories are of riding the top of a truckload of beans to the cannery with my brother, bouncing green beans off the windshields of the cars behind us: no shirts, no shoes, no problems. We’d trail him into the barn to watch the milking, thrilled to learn new swear words when a cow’s tail switched him in the eye.

He always had two dogs, usually collies, with Scottish-sounding names: Mac and Bruce were the pair I remember most clearly. And he never, as far as I knew, had a girlfriend or a wife. I never heard more about that than my mother’s vague story about the girl who didn’t wait for him to come home from the war.

My brother and I loved being on the farm since we didn’t have to do any of the work: the dusty-hay and manure smells of the barn, the fact that mon oncle didn’t have to make his bed or do the dishes that piled up in the sink until he needed them. We even tolerated the nose-wrinkling, eye-watering two-holer out back. Ah, the romance.

When he came to visit us in Boston, I could tell all the closeness made him nervous—the traffic, the crowd of family, the fact that he had to go out on the porch to smoke his Winstons. And I know I picked up a sense of self-sufficiency from him, the idea that most of what you needed was work, the companionship of animals, a door to the outdoors. I was into my teens before I added a need for romantic companionship to my list of essentials. But I did, as we said then, know where he was coming from.

My brother came to his senses, went on to live and work in cities all over the country. I hopped all over the place too but always with an eye to being near places where I could lie down in a field and look at the sky, tramp around the woods, feel pine duff and dirt under my feet more often than asphalt. And I blame all that on mon oncle and the farm, where I learned to need the quiet and what I found outdoors.

Would he have been such a model for me if he hadn’t been in Maine? I doubt it. My family and friends elsewhere in New England worked for the gas company, were engineers, carpenters, construction workers, heavy equipment operators, and mechanics, kinds of work I was pretty sure I had no talent for. In the sixties and seventies, at least, I could see myself working on the land, growing things, living in the woods, though I certainly know now I was indulging a romantic notion of that work.

I never lost my taste for woods and pastures, though in my teens, my family started vacationing in the  lakes of southern New Hampshire. There was more society there and less sense of living in nature, the woods thinned and scrawny from decades of pressure, at least where they hadn’t been clear-cut to build houses. But I would often hike up into the woods behind the lake and try to get someplace where I couldn’t see or hear the signs of human life.

Now, of course, I live in the city but it is a comfort to know that places like Starks are only a couple hours away. Maine is full of towns where you’ll rarely see tourists but they are in many important ways the essence of the state.

Starks, New Sharon, and towns like them informed what I hope are my best values: love of work, love of land, responsibility to my neighbors and my community. I hope they inform my writing as well. I might never have thought much about any of that without mon oncle and that would have been my loss as much as anyone else’s.

About Richard Cass

Dick is the author of the Elder Darrow Jazz Mystery series, the story of an alcoholic who walks into a dive bar in Boston . . . and buys it. Solo Act was a Finalist for the Maine Literary Award in Crime Fiction in 2017 and In Solo Time won the award in 2018. The third book in the series, Burton's Solo, came out in 2018 and Last Call at the Esposito in 2019. Sweetie Bogan's Sorrow was published in 2020, to thunderous pandemic acclaim. The sixth book in the series, Mickey's Mayhem, will come out in 2021. Dick lives and writes in Cape Elizabeth.
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6 Responses to Thanks to Mon Oncle

  1. Gram says:

    What a great childhood to have an Uncle like that!

  2. This is a lovely essay, Dick. I am always amazed how an aunt, uncle or even close family friend can inspire a child at least as much as a parent or sibling. You explain that here so well.

    Glad to know you will be reading at the Local Buzz on the 28th – it is on my calendar!

  3. Nice look back, Dick! I hope to attend your reading at the Buzz.

  4. Barb Ross says:

    What a lovely story.

    My mother was a firm believer that every child needs an adult in his or her life who is not a parent. In my mother’s case it was her fun-loving aunt, who leavened some of her mother’s sternness.

    My father’s father’s beloved uncle paid for him to go to Columbia University after he returned from World War I, and certainly changed our family history.

    Whoever it is, these aunts, uncles, grandparents, neighbors, family friends are so important to all of us.

  5. Enjoyed this! Makes me want to get back up to central Maine where I belong! See you on the 28th!

  6. bethc2015 says:

    I have similar fond remembrances of my Aunt who owned a dairy farm in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. There is nothing like having open fields to roam as a child and come back, tired and hungry, to home baked treats and a cup of cocoa.

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