Initially, I thought my memoir’s second chapter would be easier to write than the first. (To read chapter 1, click here.)
I dove into it. I scribbled with abandon. I thought, God, this is good. I scribbled some more. Finally, exhausted by my own brilliance, I put my work aside. I crawled into bed.
When I reread, the following morning, what I’d written, I decided I had magically managed to draft crap—to spin pure shit out of what could have been a decent story. Call me the shit whisperer, if you will. My story’s stench was appalling. At least my telling of it was.
Initially, I imagined the second chapter would begin with my father “proposing” to my mother on their first date, detour into background information on each parent, and conclude with their wedding.
However, a few readers’ justified criticism of chapter one had direct implications for the potential failure of chapter two.
My struggle, I suspected, involved my telling of each parent’s personal history. A few of you rightly criticized the second half of chapter one for devolving into explanation rather than showing via narrative. Frankly, it’s embarrassing to be caught making the same mistake I’d so often warned my students against. But you were right.
(And, by the way, it’s easier to explain writing to students than to actually write.)
Your critique forced me to ask if it was ever appropriate to detour into telling, and in the case of chapter two, to ask if it was appropriate to share abbreviated family histories by telling rather than showing, if that telling contextualizes the showing that comes before and after?
I turned to Jeanette Wall’s The Glass Castle to see how she had managed these matters. In the fifth chapter of Part 2—“The Desert”—Walls explains how her parents met and shares that her father also told her mother he would marry her when they first met—insisted rather than asked. This is precisely what my father did. I say Daddy “proposed” to my mother on their first date, when it was, in fact, more a matter of declaration than request.
The bottom line is this—
Walls doesn’t share her father’s past, as she says he refused to talk about it. I didn’t get the answer I was looking for.
So I wonder what you think of what Anne Lamott would call my ”shitty [almost] first draft.” (See Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird)
My father proposed to my mother on their first date. A former model, who epitomized tall, dark, and handsome, he didn’t so much ask, as declare his intention. That night, over what Daddy called “Scotchie wotchie on the rocks,” my father set aside his after-dinner Pal Mal, leaned back in his chair, and insisted, “I’m gonna marry you, Judy Kunkle.” He knew my mother was already engaged. Mommy merely rolled her eyes at Daddy’s audacity. “Yeah, right, Tyce.”
Yet Daddy had a history of getting what he wanted.
Born in Pittsburgh in January of 1935, my father was the second child of Kathryn May and Horace George McCullough. My paternal grandfather, a sports columnist for the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, and my grandmother, whom we called “Kimmy,” had a daughter, my Aunt Evie, who was six years Daddy’s senior.
Kimmy came from a family of means, the granddaughter of Pittsburgh meatpacking mogul, William Zoller, who bought property on Evergreen Road just after the turn of the 20th century, where he built massive homes for each of his daughters and another even more lavish one for himself—a stretch of street that became known in the family (and neighborhood, for that matter) as “Kraut Row.”
Daddy had a privileged childhood—a chauffeur, a prep school education, everything in material terms a kid could want. My mother claims this bred in Daddy a sense of entitlement that attracted him to organized crime—the belief that he deserved easy access to fast cash. According to her, this privilege prevented him from appreciating the relationship between work and wealth. In fact, my mom insists to this day that Daddy didn’t have much of a work ethic or an understanding that dollars are not deserved but earned.
My grandparents, however, divorced before Daddy started school. After that Kimmy suffered a series of nervous breakdowns, was hospitalized for depression, received shock treatments, and ultimately married Doctor Novak, her gynecologist—a man we only ever heard referred to as “Doc.”
This relationship eventually lead to Daddy being shipped off to boarding school and, as far as I can tell, never seeing his biological father again.
After high school back in Pittsburgh, Daddy joined the marines and served four years in Korea, before returning home and tending bar, again in the Steel City. It was working in an upscale Shadyside cocktail lounge that Daddy met my mother, a young woman of more modest means.
Judy Kunkle was born in Indiana, Pennsylvania, 60 miles east of Pittsburgh, in November 1938, nearly four years after Daddy. The fourth of Martha Gilbert and Ralph Kunkle’s five daughters, “Judy” joined a comfortable but decidedly middle class family. My maternal grandmother married my grandfather Ralph when she was newly graduated from high school and my grandfather was recently home from serving overseas in World War 1. In addition to being builders, the Kunkles owned Homer City’s only lumber company, as well as a summer home 7 miles from their house in town.
The family left for their second home deep in the woods on Yellow Creek when Memorial Day rolled around each year and didn’t return to Homer City till after Labor Day. It was there my mother, barefoot and free, spent the first eleven summers of her life. It was there she housed her horse Wilda—there she became her father’s favorite building assistant—and there she was when her daddy died in a car accident during the summer of 1950. The Kunkles left “camp,” as they called it, the day after my grandfather’s death, never to return again. And with her father gone, my mother’s life was forever changed.
With her husband’s death my grandmother took over Kunkle Lumber Company, leaving my pre-teen mother home to care for her sister Becky who was six years younger. So, my mother grew up, from the age of eleven, without a father.
While attending high school in Homer City, however, things started to look up for my mom, as she began dating Millard, ultimately becoming engaged to him as a senior and accepting a ring from him before he left to join the military and she went off to college.
At Indiana University of Pennsylvania, my mom not only pursued a degree in elementary education, but also became a state rifle team champion and cheerleader, who pledged Tri Delt. However, with highschool sweetheart Millard gone overseas, it wasn’t more than a year before, as a cheerleader, she began dating and ultimately became engaged to the school’s star basketball player. Poor Millard (fiance number 1) was quickly cast aside for George—big man on campus.
Having graduated from Indiana University of Pennsylvania in June of 1960 with a degree in elementary education, my mother applied to several Pittsburgh schools, choosing ultimately to teach Kindergarten in Fox Chapel—an upscale Pittsburgh suburb where the houses have wide lawns and domestic help is more common than the cold.
But having finished college a semester before fiance George, whose own progress toward graduation was slowed down by basketball, it was again out-of-sight-out-of-mind when she began dating Daddy that fall, maintaining her engagement to George, romanced by Daddy on the side.
My mother, fair, freckled, and fun, says she doesn’t remember the name of the tavern where she met my father, but that Daddy was tending bar at the establishment. She was out with girlfriends, a Friday night on the town.
After that initial introduction, Daddy began calling my mother’s Shadyside apartment and talking to whichever of her roommates answered the phone. Soon however, he began asking for “Judy” and talking to her exclusively.
When she returned to Homer City over the Christmas holiday of 1960, she said Daddy called every day, what back then would have been expensive, long-distance calls, persuading her by the end of those two weeks, to break off her relationship with George and begin dating Daddy exclusively. Daddy proposed properly to my mom on Valentine’s Day, and they were married several months later.
On a sunny Saturday in June 1961, my parents married at the Homer CIty Methodist Church on the corner of Main and Church Streets, and though my mother, innocent in seed beads and Chantilly lace, didn’t know it at the time, the man who would later become (and remains to this day) the underboss of the Pittsburgh crime family was in the wedding party.
I know it’s still rough, but what do you think about my approach to chapter 2? Do you know of any memoir that lays out this kind of chapter successfully? I’d love to read someone who does this well.
–Coming up next week–MANY images that document this part of the story.