My mother’s brother, my uncle Clive, is a writer.
As a kid I knew him as Unc, the gregarious, adventure-loving uncle who’d come sweeping in from the south, from his life as an American. He was accompanied by his wife, Linda, who speaks with a charming and delicate Southern accent and our cousins, Caitlin and Sean, each the same age, more or less, as my older brother and sister, who would put me to bed in our Aunt Mary’s pink room with terrifying tales of haunted houses and my long-dead grandpa’s wooden leg thumping up the stairs.
Despite our national differences, it felt like we all belonged together, occupying the many rooms in the big red brick house in Shallow Lake, a small village at the base of the long, rocky finger of the Bruce Peninsula that my uncle watched vanish in the rearview mirror back in the 1950s when he left for the U.S., never to return to Canada to live.
Now he lives in Oregon. He’s had a long career as a university professor and has published essays, poetry and fiction. He’s won awards. In 1985, he strapped on his hiking boots and walked from the Missouri River to Salt Lake City along the Mormon Trail, engaging people in conversation on the way, thinking and talking about this thing called the American Dream, what it meant for him and what it meant for those who tried to find it on that dusty, difficult journey long ago. The result was Following the Wrong God Home, the twelfth volume in the Literature of the American West series, published by the University of Oklahoma Press.
My uncle is now in the midst of working on a memoir and biography of Manitoulin Island. The largest freshwater island in the world, the Manitoulin is a large hump of rock and trees that curves out of Georgian Bay. There, my great-grandfather once manned a lighthouse and my grandmother and grandfather spent their first married winter crafting a quilt. Long a drifter across the United States, Unc calls the island his spiritual home.
He had a stroke a couple of years ago. One that’s taken a lot of the life out of him and changed him from an adventure-loving creative contemplator to a near-invalid. It’s hard to watch. Still, he’s got that mind – the quick- thinking brain that’s so much like my brother’s, now stifled so you have to watch for when the glimmers come through.
Today, my mom and sister and I are heading to Oregon to spend some time with him. On my part, I’m hoping he’ll do what he’s never done before, what’s hard for any writer – let me in on the half-done work and the rough drafts. I’m hoping I can help him edge towards completion and come closer, both to that island and the whole solid body of the rest of his life’s work. In his office there’s a ripe crop of unpublished poetry, fiction, interviews he’s recorded with writers like Joyce Carol Oates and Robert Bly and many more. I hope he opens the gate and lets me in, to help him with the harvest.