I've been writing in airports. Yesterday I was sitting in Charlotte for six hours. It's a many-legged place, a giant squashed tick with concourses sticking out here and there, a preponderance of Starbucks and a massage place that requires appointments. Like you know when USAir is going to decide to give you a six hour breather in your flight from Knoxville to Albany. There are not enough chairs. I was sitting on the floor, typing on my knee near gate 15 on the E concourse when I heard several large extended families reciting their stories for the benefit of their children???
"And after President Lincoln, your great great great granddaddy got freed with all the slaves and that's when he walked from Atlanta to Akron."
On the other side of me, a mother was telling her daughter:
"And it was in the Depression where your great grandpa lost all the money that his grandfather had made on the railroad."
All families have stories, many of them having to do with past glories and lost fortunes. The O'Neills of Columbus are no different. We had two stories — the hard scrabble story of their dairy-framing, baseball-playing Nebraska forebears and the sermon of the high-falutin' Gwinns who came to Columbus shortly after arriving on the Mayflower. Their differences explained a lot of why each of my parents told their stories. In order to inspire in us the sort of screw-you that he believed necessary for a fully individuated "Amur-i-kan," my father told us stories about his grandfather that led us all to believe that the great John O'Neill walked from Chicago to Nebraska, singlehandedly got rid of the Indians and the buffalos, invented the game of baseball, and, in his own newspaper writing, taught his cousin (by marriage) Mark Twain the writer' craft. My mother, on the other hand, recited the facts of the wealthy and upstanding Gwinns to inspire in her children that we aspire toward the same, preferably by becoming doctors or lawyers.
I always assumed that my father's colorful accounts (if you haven't seen the movie Big Fish, it stars my father) were blarney and that my mother's careful stories about the Gwinns were the truth. One of the ironies of my research is that I found the opposite to be the case. My father's accounts occasionally diverged from historical fact — my great grandfather, for instance did not walk from Chicago, he rode a horse — but these details did not change the basic fact: The horseback ride took 21 days, which was, my father once claimed, an example of my family's cosmic relationship to the number 21. His mother's brother also carried from Czechoslovakia the 21st Stradivarius made outside Italy. My brother's number on both the Cincinnati Reds and the New York Yankees was 21.
My mother's stories, on the other hand, were pared of all bravado. When were young, we heard only about the Gwinns' superior clothing, education, land holdings, home decorating, and fame. In fact, the family had reached a bad bend in its DNA by the time my mother's mother was born: one brother was found dead of acute alcohol poisoning outside the Smokey Hobbs whore house when he was 16, another killed himself with the exhaust from a model-T in a drunken stupor, and my grandmother herself was either insane or an alcoholic: I spent Sunday afternoons visiting her in the state mental institution when I was very young. My mother did not lie about any of this. She is a stickler for truth. She simply made sure we understood that these shenangans were the exception, not the rule, in the upstanding family. In fact, she was raised by her mother's uncle and when she recounts her early days in their big house, she talks about climbing the stairs — one, two,three, four, five, and then the landing with the Louis Comfort Tiffany stained glass, six, seven, eight???all the way up to 21.
"Twenty-one?" I'd asked excitedly when she recounted this story for the zillionth time as I began formally collecting family lore for my memoir.
"What'd I tell ya?" said my father.
"Don't be ridiculous," my mother replied.
In addition to the sorts of stories they recited on family vacations — ours were not by plane like the outings of the families that surrounded me in Charlotte yesterday, but in clunker station-wagons, for by then the fortune was gone, my mother was disinherited for marrying a "nobody" — there was the story my parents told about themselves.
They met at a fire. After a paratrooping accident had ended his career as a minor league pitcher, my father was working for his brother at the Gwinn Milling Company in Columbus, Ohio. He was trying to imagine a life without baseball. One night the mill caught on fire. My father saw my mother at the fire. He was not aware that her family owned the mill. My mother is six feet tall and that is all my father noticed the first time they met. He saw Plan B: Tall sons, enough for an infield.
"You could never have seen me at that fire," my mother objected. "We met later at your brother's house."
"Oh, I saw you at the fire, all right. And later, when you walked into the door of my brother's house, I was running down the stairs and I knew right then I was jumping into the rest of my life, I'll tell you that right now."
"How many stairs?" I asked.
One thing my parents did agree on was that there is no such thing as too many children. I was born first, much to my mother's relief, and, my father, ever the optimist, probably saw me as a warm-up act. I was never made to feel this overtly, but at some level, I always understood that my job was to record and improve on our lives. Night after night at the dinner table, I explained us to ourselves with stand-up routines based on the day's events. My parents didn't argue when I performed, my brothers paid attention, it was good. It was, of course, not always true. At least not exactly.
The stories I told — the ones that became the bedrock of how we see ourselves even to this day — were designed to divert and explain and entertain, they were designed to vanquish doubt and to refute criticism. My stories turned The O'Neills of Columbus into our own Ovid, our own Beowulf, our own personal Evangeline. In my stories, we were always heroes. My dinner theater helped feed our belief in future fame: it was absolute. As I write in Mostly True, my brothers and I were not sure which of us would be The One, but we had not doubt that The One was among us. Due to sheer numbers, they myth we were most conscious of building day after day, ball by hit-and-caught ball in the back yard, was the baseball part. My father's Major League ambition.
That myth that had long been the lynchpin for the family stories I told, the thing that defined us, made us special, gave us meaning. Even as I left Columbus and began
writing for a living, the myth that pleased my father remained at the center of any story I told or wrote. It's a good story. A pleasingly American, happy-ever-after, heart-warming story. It is the storyline of Me and My Dad, the book that my brother Paul published several years ago. It is one of the storylines in my memoir as well; in fact, when the magazine excerpted the book, Readers Digest focused on that storyline.
But the Big Dream of Baseball alone would not have given a family the burn and conflict and nuttiness and energy that my family has. It was the colliding worlds of our father and our mother and the passion that my brothers and I all had to please them both that made ours an interesting story.
After months of research, I finally turned to my own journals. I kept a diary from the time I was seven years old. This scribbling, I was sure, would take me back to the other stories we lived, to the myth of my mother, to the only-girl-in-a-passal-of-boys story. I read and read — red-faced, this going-back to primary sources is not all its cracked up to be, especially when your younger self is the primary source. I got more and more confused as I read: so many of the pages diverged from my memories. It was worrying. And then, finally, I realized that for my first fifteen years of journal-keeping I'd recorded not my life, but the life-I-wished-I had. The life I would, most certainly, be reciting to my own children in an airport. The life that coulda, shoulda, mighta been.
Books mentioned in this post
Molly O'Neill is the author of Mostly True: A Memoir of Family, Food, and Baseball