Family Mysteries in Canton, Ohio - James Michael Starr

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 short story that’s written around this photo.

The snapshot itself is one I came across in the midst of my writer’s journey, a journey of discovery, an exploration of my mother’s life, the choices she made, and how they’ve impacted me as an artist and a man. It turns out that there’s more here 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 shadowy path–but only after I allowed myself, as a writer, to imagine what might have been going on here, and not just what I could see on the surface.

It’s a snapshot from a rare family gathering, taken in the summer of 1962 in Canton, Ohio, one that captures what I now recognize is 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, more than just that one, to possibly find out who else knew. As well as 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 accommodate this raucous brood for more than a few hours at a time–there were sixteen of us that day.

No, our family gatherings were of the type blue-collar workers could manage, few and far between because of millworkers’ hours, and restricted to millworkers’ holidays. They were usually in East Liverpool, where most of us lived, and sometimes two hours north in Cleveland, where Grandma lived.

Either way, they were carefully planned, like highly coordinated military operations. They involved the transportation of platoons of little kids and were 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 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 saying.

Close To the Truth

By the way, I’m dead center here, wearing the blinding white outfit my mother bought for the occasion, eleven at the time, and clueless as to what might be going on, only aware of my conversation with my cousin (and trying not to think about what I’m wearing).

To my left is my mother. And to her left is her second husband, Bus, the man my mother eventually told me was involved with the mob. The one who definitely did not know. Who could not know.

Here’s why.

Within weeks of this gathering, my mother will escape the controlling clutches of the man at her elbow. She’ll run away with my father, my sister, and me, to leave everything and everyone behind and move halfway across the country to Dallas. If there’s anyone in this photo who knows the reason for this awkward get-together, it’s her.

Which makes it ironic to see Bus sitting at her side, since he’ll be the last to find out (probably about the time we cross the state line into Indiana).

The Stories I Tell Myself

So that’s why we were in Canton, even if no one else knew.* So my mother could say goodbye to the people she loved, even if it wasn’t safe for her to say it out loud.

But now the important thing for me 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 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. 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, perhaps keeping the reason secret even from her.


You’ve just read part 8 of this personal account. To read the ninth installment, click here. 


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3 Replies to “Family Mysteries in Canton, Ohio”

    1. Thank you, Linda. One reason I write fiction is to try to capture the experiences I think are common to all of us. As outlandish and surreal as my family history has been, I believe almost everyone has equally crazy stories of their own to tell. One of my goals is to give them the courage to do so.

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