Family Mysteries In Canton, Ohio
WRITING FICTION–STORIES, MYTHS, whatever you’d call what I’m doing in my life right now–is a surprisingly effective way of getting at the truth. Take for instance a chapter that’s based in part on this photo.
It’s a snapshot I came across in the midst of this writer’s journey, a journey of discovery, an exploration of my mother’s life, the choices she made, and how all of it has impacted me as an artist and a man. It turns out that there’s more there than meets the eye.
Reading Between the Lies
Now, by shedding light on some of that, this mundane little family photo has become a sun-washed stepping stone on an otherwise very dark path–but only after I allowed myself, as a writer, to imagine what might have been going on here, rather than only what I thought was going on.
It’s a snapshot from a rare family gathering, taken in the summer of 1962 in Canton, Ohio, one that captures what I’ve come to recognize as a singular moment in the history of my family. A moment in which a great secret was being held pregnant and would soon be brought forth. Only weeks after this photo was taken, events would unfold to change us, dramatically and forever. One of these people knew that secret, that’s for sure. Maybe two people. Three tops.
I wish I could look inside each head you see here. I wish I could look inside and learn, other than the one, who else knew, and who didn’t.
The Millworker’s Holiday
I said it was a rare family gathering, and that’s significant as well. It wasn’t that we rarely gathered, we just rarely, scratch that–we never gathered in Canton. Uncle Paul and Aunt Margie’s little starter house, where this photo was taken, was too small. It wouldn’t, for more than a few hours at a time anyhow, accommodate this raucous brood (sixteen of us is my best calculation).
No, our family gatherings were working class affairs, few and far between, and dictated by millworkers’ holidays. They were usually in East Liverpool, where most of us lived, but sometimes they’d be two hours away in Cleveland, where grandma lived.
(That’s Rose at the far left, the scrappy little daughter of German immigrants, the one with the sharp tongue, our Alice Kramden).
Either way, they were carefully planned, like highly coordinated military operations involving the transportation of platoons of little kids and accompanied by lots of crying. Never were they spur-of-the-moment, one-hour jaunts to spend the day in Canton. So this scene was not what it appeared to be.
What Was My First Clue?
The moment that realization struck me was the moment the metaphorical sunlight struck my metaphorical path. Why were we in Canton, anyhow?
And another thing: to you this scene may simply look like a normal family chilling out. But that wouldn’t be my family. This photo is my family paralyzed by tension. This is my family cast in an Ingmar Bergman film, all melancholy and distant stares. They know something’s not right. They’re thinking, Somebody knows something they’re not telling.
Close To the Truth
By the way, I’m dead center here, wearing my blinding white summer outfit and my blinding white overbite, eleven at the time, and clueless as to what might be going on, only aware of my conversation with a cousin. To my left is my mother.
And to her left is her second husband, Bus. (Our Henry Hill.) The one who definitely did not know. Who could not know.
If only weeks from now my mother will escape the controlling clutches of Bus (which she will) to run away with my father, my sister, and me, to leave everything and everyone behind in Ohio and move halfway across the country to Dallas (which she did), then in this picture, she’s the one who knows.
And if Bus is here with her now, sitting awkwardly on the fringe of the family circle, doing time but otherwise still convinced he’s the best thing that ever happened to her, then he’ll be the last to find out. Which I’m guessing in fact he was. (I don’t know for sure, as we were probably somewhere in Indiana by that point.)
The Stories I Tell Myself
So that’s why we were in Canton. So my mother could say goodbye to the people she loved. Even if she never came right out and said it to them. Even if not a soul had a clue that’s why she’d brought us all there.* Even if the secret, whispered goodbyes were only for her.
Until I began writing about it, I had actually forgotten this day in Canton, but for the way family photographs can fabricate a memory on their own. So perhaps it’s more accurate now to say that I know of that day, and have a sense of it, but only from the pictures that were taken. Not from a memory of the day itself. It’s now at the top of my stack of family mysteries.
But the important thing is what happened when I began writing about it. And that’s what I meant when I said that fiction has a funny way of getting at the truth.
Myths certainly do, as the work of Joseph Campbell demonstrates. The events of my childhood and the tragedy of my mother’s life imprinted themselves on my mind as a kind of personal mythology, with her as the goddess figure. And, just as with the goddesses of ancient mythology, I’ve found that she held both the power to change my world and a weakness that would almost destroy it.
* Knowing how close she was to her next sister Kate (barely visible just over my left shoulder), I would be surprised if my mother kept secret from her the plan she and my dad had hatched to run away from Ohio forever. I suspect that as children, the two had been through even more hell together than I’m aware of, and letters my mother left reveal a kind of sister-in-arms bond between them that lasted into their adult years. I can imagine their tearful conversations, as well as the scheme they may have devised to get everybody to meet halfway at their younger sister Margie’s house, maybe never even telling her why.