This month, Fabulous Florida Writers is pleased to welcome guest blogger, Catherine Underhill Fitzpatrick. Catherine is the author of two novels, and her articles, stories, and essays have appeared in numerous newspapers, literary reviews, magazines, and anthologies. Her new family memoir, Voyage: A Memoir of Love, War, and Ever After, is a family saga that spans five generations. Catherine was our featured writer on July 2, 2016.
What to do when you're cleaning out closets in your childhood home and discover a hidden cache of love letters and fading photographs of relatives you never knew existed? If you're a former newspaper feature writer and the author of two novels, you write a memoir. For some time, I'd been thinking of researching my family story. When I lifted the lid of an old wood trunk and found more than 100 World War II letters and a velvet-covered photo album, I knew I'd hit the jackpot.
After my dad died, Mom went downhill. In the end, two of my brothers kept vigil with me at St. John’s Mercy Medical Center. It was early December. I sang Christmas carols at her bedside, book-ending the lullabies, she sang to me decades earlier. Beneath the sheet, she tapped her foot to “Silent Night.” When I got to the part about heavenly hosts, she drew her last breath. Eventually, it fell to me and my siblings to do what so many adult children are called upon to do: sort through a lifetime of treasures and trivia accumulated by parents who thought no one would ever see some of them, or who hoped that someday, someone would.
My new book, Voyage: A Memoir of Love, War, and Ever After (eLectio Publishing, 2017), unfolds with a trampoline timeline that melds wartime letters my father wrote to my mother with vignettes in which I describe their mid-century family life in St. Louis, and with essays in which I reflect on my forbears with post-millennial insight.
During World War II, my dad, Bob Underhill, was an affable junior officer serving aboard a Navy minesweeper, a fellow from working-class New York. Merrilee Ann Meier was a stunning St. Louis County socialite entering the halcyon period pretty girls from established families swam into after they finished a degree in anything and before they marry a newly minted lieutenant. In the letters, Bob pours out his affections to Merrilee on wafer-thin military stationary, but glosses over the delicate maneuver required to snip the trip-wire of an underwater bomb, and live. Interspersed with stories-within-the-story, we follow Bob and Merrilee through a 58-year marriage in which they confronted holiday fiascoes and funeral foul-ups, windless regattas and catastrophic tornadoes.
I eliminated some of my father’s letters, those that didn’t reveal character, describe a riveting scene, or advance the plot. At the publisher’s request, I whittled the number of vintage family photos to a dozen or so. A number of happy memories could not be included, for there were so many that a reader would conclude my parents were Ward and June Cleaver. In other cases, I alluded to difficult experiences, but chose to not deal with them expansively. I think the reader had enough to get the drift. For example, the hardest part of the book to write was discovering why my paternal grandparents were never seen, never heard from, never visited, never mentioned. And coming to grips with that.
A good story worth the telling should take matters to their proper end, as well. This one does so early and often, in essays I wrote about how Bob and Merrilee went on to forge a life together, to weather adversity, achieve a measure of prosperity, and rear children during changing, challenging times Theirs is a story that spans years of war, decades of peace, and the breadth of human emotion, and it all began more than seventy years ago, with a letter signed “Just, Bob.”
For more information, visit the author's website at https://cufitzpatrick.com/