“I like the stories you write about your mother, but they’re not going to make you famous,” my Uncle Ken boomed across the table at me. My husband and I were seated next to Aunt Ruth and Uncle Ken at my niece’s wedding. “Just make something up! People love a good murder.”
Over the years, Aunt Ruth collected all my published writing in a folder. Just a couple of personal essays and poems—confessional and striving towards literary. I wrote about her sister, my mother, with love. She told me that she appreciated that, but I’m sure she hated reading about my lesbianism and the weed smoking that went on well after my college years.
“Come on, Eileen,” Uncle Ken goaded. “I’m going to be 80 next year. I want to be alive when you hit the bestseller list.” I rolled my eyes and headed to the dance floor.
Over the next few months, my uncle’s words stayed with me. I’d been writing about my family and Chicago since college. In my twenties, I wrote all the time. When I married and had children, I wrote when I could. Finally, in my late forties, I began taking writing classes at Project Write Now. I worked hard to get pieces published (it is harder to get a poem in Rattle than it is to get into Harvard) but when I did, I felt empty. Nothing in my life changed. Nobody had even heard of any of the magazines.
So I was ripe for Uncle Ken’s words. I wasn’t getting anywhere writing about my boring past. Over the next five(ish) years, I wrote the first half of two fictional manuscripts. I wrote about Bridget Cleary, a woman who was murdered by her husband in 1890s Ireland. For the next two years I immersed myself in Bridget’s story but I never quite understood it, so I couldn’t see it to the end. Then, I started another novel, set in Ireland again, about a modern romance between a lonely fisherman and a selkie girl. Kind of like Splash meets The Shape of Water. Both manuscripts are now sitting in the proverbial drawer.
Then, my husband received some difficult medical news and we were challenged with a new set of circumstances. I started thinking about my mother, about all those little stories that I thought were so important. Through journaling, I realized those stories were about resilience and they filled me with hope.
Years have passed since my Uncle Ken’s 80th birthday, and he still hasn’t read my bestseller. Maybe he never will. Today, I’m enrolled in the Memoir Incubator, writing the story I want to tell.
Eileen Toomey’s works have appeared in The Rumpus, Oyster River Pages, The Tishman Review, Fish Food Magazine, The Eastern Iowa Review, and the Museum of Americana. She lives in Red Bank, NJ with her husband, Michael. Eileen is currently enrolled in book inc’s Memoir Incubator, writing about her mother and how to appreciate the little things in order to endure life’s biggest hurdles.