Our Family Secrets - James Michael Starr

Our Family Secrets


SECRETS. THEY MAY BE A PART of every family’s history. But make it a family with some Italian in it and you’ll need high-level security clearance to get to the bottom of things. Especially if you’re just “one of the kids.”

So in my attempt to understand the powerful forces and pervasive influences that have helped make me the person I am, I’m still putting together pieces of a puzzle. And the tight lips securing all the family secrets don’t help the process at all.

Truth Be Told

Of course, family secrets have their place. We’ve all been embarrassed over something personal that was shared without our permission. I think my cousin Randy may still be wincing from the time Grandma entered a magazine contest with a snapshot of him at around five, sitting on the toilet perusing the Sunday comics. It was pretty cute, but still.

I think there comes a point in time, though, when the value of understanding our social and genetic tendencies finally outranks any waning and relatively minor embarrassment to family members. Let me explain.

The medical document above records the death of Infant Scelp, the stillborn son of my maternal grandparents and the older brother Joanie Scelp never had. According to this death certificate, a contributing factor in his demise was “trauma due to fall mother had.” What makes it worse can be seen in Item 17, where you read the medical cause of death: congenital syphilis.

Who’s To Blame

My maternal grandfather (a key character in all the drama I’m writing about on this blog) cannot be excused for some of the things he did, but I also cannot indict him without first acknowledging that he was a product of another time. As was my own father: a man I loved and respected, and who, as I have already written, was known to have struck my mother on more than one occasion.

When I was small, every sort of misogynistic behavior, from objectification to outright violence, was still common enough that hitting a woman was behind a sitcom catchphrase you may have heard. The Honeymooners, broadcast on CBS in the mid-’50s, starred comedian Jackie Gleason as hangdog bus driver Ralph Kramden, America’s favorite working-class stiff. Provoked by his wife’s sharp tongue, Kramden would come to waggle his fist inches from her chin as he growled, “One of these days, Alice…POW!!! Right in the kisser!” It got big laughs at the time.

My little German grandmother had a sharp tongue of her own. So it’s not hard to imagine how events at 18 Midland Avenue could have unravelled that day and resulted in the accidental death of her firstborn. The following year my mother came along, followed by her two sisters and her brother. And while there’s no way I can know exactly what happened to end the life of Infant Scelp, judging by the deathly silence that still hangs over the years that followed, and witnessing firsthand my family’s irreparably broken relationships–deep fractures I could never plumb while my mother was still alive–I don’t think it could have been at all good.

Coming To An Understanding

What can be good, though, is the measure of understanding that the uncovering of secrets may finally bring me. For years following my mother’s leaving us when I was eleven, I was embittered by the sense that something intangible but vital had been stolen from me. I didn’t know whom to blame for the way Mothers Day made me angry, and  I wonder now if part of my reclusiveness as an adult stems from a reluctance to invest myself in the lives of other people when it can all be so fragile. So this can be good, the knowing why instead of the wondering.

Another thing that can be good, a thing that in fact I know is good, is the perspective I now have on two lives, my mother’s and my own, each of which I’m convinced was seeded with a potential to create art–and how her choosing the easier road, as much as she may felt she had no other choice, finally led her to die lonely and alone.

Finally, what is best of all, for me, is that this story, ripping at my insides for decades, has compelled me to write. That in itself is more than I could have asked for, and the only good thing remaining is for you to read it.


You’ve just read part 7 of this personal account. To read the eighth installment, click here. 



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