Why do we tell the stories we tell? In an essay on the ethics of creative non-fiction, Lynn Z. Bloom answers for most storytellers. “I write for the usual reasons writers write about anything important: to get at the truth; to make sense of things that don’t make sense; to set the record straight; to tell a good story.”
Still, I wonder: Why we tell the stories of our families – parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents and more distant ancestors – even when our knowledge about their past is incomplete? What motivates the memoirists (or aspiring memoirists) among us to delve into events about which our knowledge may be second-hand at best, viewed through the selective lens of received family history? And why, speaking for myself but knowing I am not alone, do we gravitate towards the secret, hidden places that our forebears have conscientiously obscured for reasons of discretion, shame or grief?
As Bloom states, “children who know the family secrets also understand the family taboos.” So perhaps exploring those secrets is an act of both truth-telling and rebellion.
Like many Americans, I have only a vague knowledge of my family’s history dating back beyond two generations. I know that both sides of the family emigrated from Ireland to the United States in the nineteenth century: the Hammels, on my mother’s side, from County Tyrone in the north; and the Ledwiths, on my father’s side, from County Longford in what is now the Republic of Ireland. I also know that three of my four grandparents were born and raised in this country.
The one grandparent of mine who came from across the ocean was John Hammel, my mother’s father. Born in the northern Irish town of Clonoe around 1870, he emigrated to New York with his family as a young child. They settled in Rosebank, a neighborhood on the northeast shore of Staten Island, in a house that was almost literally a stone’s throw from the upper bay and not far from the mile-wide Narrows separating the Island from Brooklyn. The Hammels became parishioners at Saint Mary’s, the local Roman-Catholic church where just about every Hammel baptism, wedding and funeral would take place for well over a century.
In 1892, John Hammel landed a job on the Staten Island Ferry. He worked on the ferry for the next forty years, first as a deckhand, later as a pilot and then, for a quarter-century, as a captain. In the meantime, he married my grandmother, Martha Murtha Hammel, who had been brought up in Brooklyn. They raised a family of three sons and four daughters – the youngest of whom was my mother, Margaret, born in 1910 – in a large but unassuming house on Fingerboard Road. The house was located (and still stands today) in Fort Wadsworth, the neighborhood wedged between Rosebank and the former army base overlooking the Narrows.
Captain Hammel retired from the ferry in 1932. By his own estimation, he had traveled a million miles over the years, transporting five million passengers back and forth from St. George, Staten Island, to South Ferry in lower Manhattan. He would live nearly three decades longer, mostly in robust health and as a widower in his final years. According to both the public record and family lore, he spent most of his retirement tending a large garden of vegetables and roses on Fingerboard Road and fishing at the Cedar Grove Beach Club, a bungalow colony on the Island’s south shore.
Although I was just three years old when my grandfather died, I have vivid memories of interacting with him, including his penchant for calling me “Timbo,” which made me laugh. Most of these impressions are set against the backdrop of the Hammel family’s one-story, wood-frame summer cottage, which sat on wood pilings at Cedar Grove. John Hammel had the bungalow built in the 1920s, and it remained in the family until the 1960s. In one photograph at the beach, probably taken around 1950, he is weathered but still handsome, tanned and solid. He has a rod and reel in one hand and with the other he holds the day’s catch, a fifteen- or twenty-pound striped bass. My grandfather in good form could have been mistaken for the fisherman in The Old Man and the Sea, or even Papa Hemingway himself.
Whether he cultivated this image, I do not know, though he must have been aware of it. Working as a ferryboat captain did not make you rich, just solidly middle class. But it did make you a public figure, at least locally. If Captain Hammel ferried five million passengers across the bay – “Without accident,” according to a January 1932 story in The New York Times marking his retirement – then he must have been widely trusted and recognized in his community. Hence the Times story, another report on his retirement in the New York Herald Tribune and a much later piece in The New Yorker, in which A Reporter at Large interviews several working and retired Staten Island Ferry captains. It is 1958, Captain Hammel is pushing ninety, and the writer of the piece meets him at the Cedar Grove bungalow for a chat. My grandfather tells old sailor’s stories in a vernacular that sounds a little too stereotypically nautical. It is obvious that he has thoroughly charmed his interviewer. I can understand that. He has always been an enormously romantic figure in my mind and in the collective memory of the Hammel clan.
Another romantic figure – classically romantic in a tragic sense – was my uncle Harold Hammel, the second oldest of the Hammel sons, eleven years older than my mother. Long after Harold’s death at the age of twenty-eight, she told me that he had been unsparing in his love and affection for her throughout her childhood and was her favorite sibling. He is also the subject of yet another noteworthy family photo from Cedar Grove. It is the only image of Harold as an adult that I have ever seen.
In the picture, taken in bright sunshine sometime in the early to middle 1920s, Harold is standing on the back stairs of the bungalow. Smiling and dapper, he is dressed in a cutaway tuxedo and spats, and he carries a top hat. Once, when my mother and I were looking at the photo together, she told me Harold had stopped by the beach that day on the way to his best friend’s wedding, where he would be the best man. Presumably, he wanted to show off his outfit to the family. The hint of footloose, youthful mischief in Harold’s stance and the bright summer sun on his beaming face make subsequent events appear that much darker.
Those events were the topic of a news report that appeared in the Times on April 13, 1928. It is brief enough to cite here in full:
DIES BEFORE SEEING BABY
Staten Island Man’s Body Found as Wife Brings Child Home
Mrs. Harold J. Hammel returned from the Staten Island Hospital with her new-born baby to her home at 79 Fingerboard Rd., Fort Wadsworth, S. I., yesterday at the same moment that word came that the body of her husband had been found in the lower bay.
Hammel, an accountant, disappeared from his home March 20, following a nervous breakdown. American Legion members on Staten Island, the harbor police and an airplane from Miller Field searched the woods and waters in vain for trace of him. Hammel was in the United States Navy during the World War and was a former Commander of James L. Tappen Post, American Legion.
Capt. John Hammel of the Municipal Ferry Service told reporters last night that he believed that his son must have been seized with a fainting spell while walking along the shores of the bay.
As sad as the events described above are, the most heartbreaking part of the report, for me, is the concluding comment from my grandfather. The body of his troubled son, missing for five weeks, had just been found, and one of his first grandchildren had just come into the world. Who knows what emotions were churning in his gut, what impossible pressure he was under, when the reporters caught up with him? Perhaps he was simply overwhelmed. In any case, even though the Times reported that a “nervous breakdown” had preceded Harold’s disappearance, John Hammel’s comment about his son’s “fainting spell” suggests either that my grandfather was personally in denial or that he felt compelled to refute the public suggestion of a suicide in the family – or, quite possibly, both.
This reaction should come as no surprise in context: As an upstanding Irish-Catholic citizen of that era, Captain Hammel naturally, even instinctively, would want to protect his family, and his late son’s legacy, from scandal. After all, a close relative’s suicide carried a significant social stigma in the 1920s, as it still does in many cases. Suicide was also then – and remains today – contrary to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which states: “We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us” and so our lives are “not ours to dispose of.” Until the 1960s, the Church routinely denied burial rites to those who had taken their own lives on the grounds that they were sinners against God.
As far as I know, Harold received a funeral mass at Saint Mary’s and is buried in the Hammel family plot in the parish cemetery. But my grandfather’s response immediately after Harold’s death set a tone of shame and secrecy that would surround the subject indefinitely. Although my mother spoke fondly about Harold on a few occasions, she never said how he died, just that he was too young. There were whispers about it among some of my older cousins, but they were short on details, while my mother and my Hammel aunts and uncles remained tight-lipped. It was only on December 13, 1981, when my father died suddenly of a heart attack at age sixty-seven, that my mother’s pent-up grief broke through and she mourned – out loud – both the husband who had been pronounced dead a few hours earlier and the adored big brother who had abandoned her in 1928. I do not remember us ever speaking about it again.
In the one conversation we had about losing Harold, my mother did not say why she thought he had taken his life. Still, the fact that he was under the care of a psychiatrist – which she did tell me – indicates that he must have been suffering in the extreme. Particularly in past generations, Irish and Irish-American cultural attitudes have tended to heavily stigmatize mental health disorders. In the 1920s, the Hammels likely would have considered seeking psychiatric care for a family member only as a life-and-death necessity. Evidently this was the case for Harold, although his treatment was unsuccessful. The details of his diagnosis are lost, if they were ever understood.
In 2010, the City of New York informed the residents of the Cedar Grove Beach Club – forty one families, down from more than eighty at the colony’s peak decades earlier – that they would have to vacate the beach at the end of that summer. The club’s long-term lease had expired, and the city had begged off renewing it. Instead, the Bloomberg administration planned to convert the city-owned property under the bungalows into a public park. Despite the residents’ protests and a David vs. Goliath narrative that attracted significant local media coverage, the city did not relent. After a lifespan of ninety-nine years, the beach club closed its final, bittersweet season. The bungalows emptied out in the weeks after Labor Day.
No one could have predicted that almost exactly two years later, the empty but still-standing bungalows would be swept away by a vicious storm surge during Hurricane Sandy. Even if the residents had won a reprieve, it would have been short-lived.
The Hammels were long gone by then, having decamped around 1963, a few years after my grandfather’s death. In the 1970s, as reported by the Staten Island Advance, a gas-line explosion had leveled our former bungalow and its neighbors on either side; fortunately, it happened in the dead of winter, and the cottages were vacant. Physically, there was not a trace of the Hammels left at Cedar Grove.
Still, my earliest memories were from the beach and I felt connected to the place, so I decided to write about it. Beyond the jolt of the impending evictions, I saw the story as a reflection of some long-running Staten Island conflicts: insularity vs. diversity; private (generally, white) privilege vs. public access; and blue-collar conservatism vs. elite liberalism. Cedar Grove was an anachronism, part of the Island’s more insular, seemingly simpler and certainly whiter past. In theory, I supported a more inclusive vision for Cedar Grove, and yet, my family had been an integral part of that anachronism for a long time.
In the end, I wrote two stories about the rise and fall of the Cedar Grove Beach Club. One appeared on TheMorningNews.org, a website that featured long-form creative non-fiction, in October 2010, at the close of the club’s last season. The other story was published online by City Limits magazine on Memorial Day weekend in 2011.
The City Limits piece was a relatively straightforward account of the public-private controversy over land use at Cedar Grove, including quotes from several longtime residents and some references to my family’s history there. The essay on TheMorningNews.org was more personal, delving much further into family history, including a brief section about Harold. His tragic story, I believed, would bolster the essay’s premises: that the sense of middle-class security prevailing at the beach club was always illusory; that even one of the Hammels, offspring of a pillar of the community like a ferry captain, could be caught short by whatever demons had driven him to walk into the sea, possibly at that very beach; and that Harold’s story exposed a darker, more complicated past than the residents’ idyllic portrayal of Cedar Grove. The editors tagged the essay with the headline, “And While It Lasted, It Was Wonderful.”
I began the passage about Harold by noting that even the “lost paradise” lamented by many beach club residents “could offer only so much safety.” Referring to the photo of Harold on the back stairs at Cedar Grove, which accompanied the essay, I added the few details I had learned from my mother:
Just two years after that picture was taken, Harold suffered a breakdown of uncertain origin. He had to be closely watched for his own protection, but he slipped out one day, walked into the ocean and drowned. My mother—Harold’s kid sister—was devastated. My grandmother never fully recovered from the shock. Captain Hammel soon retired from the ferry and spent every remaining summer of his long life tending his rose garden and fishing at the beach. The quiet cottage by the bay must have been therapeutic for him, as well, though as an old salt he’d have been loath to say so.
When the essay appeared on TheMorningNews.org, my mother was approaching her hundredth birthday; she would live to the age of one hundred and three, physically frail but in full control of her mental faculties. My mother had no real interest in, or understanding of, the internet, and I seldom showed her anything I had written for publication online. This case was no exception; I did not print out the story for her to read. Nor had I told her in advance that I was planning to write anything about her late brother, or that I was using the photo of Harold at Cedar Grove. I do not recall wrestling with the question of whether to do so. It seemed obvious: There was virtually no way my mother would be aware of the essay if I did not show it to her, and I told myself that it would not be worth the risk of upsetting her at that point in her life.
This line of thinking was, no doubt, a rationalization, perhaps well-intentioned but certainly self-serving. In hindsight, the more ethical choice would have been to inform my mother that I planned to tell the story publicly. I do not think that I needed to ask her permission, or that I betrayed a confidence, because in 1981, when she finally told me about Harold’s suicide, she did not swear me to secrecy. Nevertheless, knowing that her emotional distress over the incident was probably still raw despite the passage of so much time, I wanted to avert an uncomfortable conversation. It is telling that the following year, to the best of my recollection, I did give her a printout of the more neutral Cedar Grove piece I had written for City Limits.
As much as I rationalized away the question of sharing the essay on TheMorningNews.org with my mother, it occurs to me now that I never considered whether I had any ethical obligation to other Hammel relatives, living or dead – notably my grandparents, Harold’s mother and father. Judging by John Hammel’s comment in the Times and the long silence that he and the family maintained on the subject, he clearly did not want his son’s suicide to become a matter of public discussion. Given the long shadow he casts across multiple generations of the Hammel family, it is curious to me, now, that I did not pause to consider the moral ramifications of betraying his implicit wishes.
As for my grandmother, Martha Hammel, I suspect that the silence about Harold’s death may have been imposed, in part, to protect her. According to fragments of conversation that I overheard through the years, my grandmother, who died about a decade before my birth, may have suffered from depression for much of her life. My mother, aunts and uncles consistently described her as an anxious and often unhappy woman. I do not know whether this condition was related to the loss of her son. Of course, such an event would be devastating for anyone regardless of her pre-existing mental state. But this is strictly speculation because I know so little about Martha Hammel. To a striking degree, she is marginalized in the family narrative, pushed aside by the larger-than-life figure of her husband.
In any case, both Martha and John Hammel had been deceased for several decades when “And While It Lasted, It Was Wonderful” appeared. Thus, any ethical obligations I owed them could be considered merely academic. After all, they were beyond whatever emotional trauma might have resulted from its publication, had they been alive. Harold’s wife, too, surely would have been dead by 2010, having been born in 1904. However, it is entirely possible that his daughter – my cousin, the baby born in April 1928, just before the searchers found her father’s body – was still alive.
I never met that cousin, whose name I do not even know, at any family events. She and her mother lived in the Midwest and seemed to have drifted out of touch with the Hammels, except through letters exchanged with my mother from time to time. Perhaps our tenuous connection accounts for my failure to consider the impact that revealing Harold’s story might have had on my cousin. It was possible, for example, that her mother had never told her the truth about Harold – that she had kept the Hammels’ secret from her (and his) own child. In that case, the disclosure would have been a shock for my, by then, elderly relative. Although the chances that she would see the essay online were vanishingly small, here again, I gave no thought to the matter and took no precautions.
In light of the factors outlined above, why did I feel free to use Harold’s sad story, as well as that poignant photo of him on the bungalow steps, to advance my essay about the demise of the Cedar Grove Beach Club? Per Lynn Z. Bloom, was it a matter of wanting to “get at the truth” and “tell a good story”? Without seeking to justify my decisions, I would say that it was both of those things. From an ethical standpoint, I believe the former is more defensible than the latter.
In his introduction to Mapping the Ethics of Life Writing, editor Paul John Eakin surveys various contributors’ views on truth-telling in autobiography, biography and history. As Eakin notes, “Life writers are criticized not only for not telling the truth – personal and historical – but also for telling too much truth.” Nevertheless, he adds, “life – and life writing – in the information age has meant the transmission of more and more personal information, often quite intimate, with less and less restraint.” Eakin also observes that life writing can give “[m]embers of oppressed and silenced groups” opportunities to express themselves freely, and he cites the potential power of telling “counterstories” as an act of resistance against institutional repression. Finally, Eakin quotes writer Claudia Mills’s contention that life writing in the domestic sphere inevitably entails a “public betrayal of trust” on some level. That betrayal is justified, or at least ameliorated, Mills suggests, if writers “show appropriate care and respect for the stories told.”
I think some of Eakin’s points are relevant to my truth-telling about Harold Hammel’s death. By breaking the family’s extended public silence, I was (perhaps unconsciously) challenging the Hammels’ unwarranted shame over a close relative’s mental illness and the stigma that was attached to that illness by society in general and the Catholic Church in particular. Secrets and lies are corrosive forces within any family. Telling counterstories that expose secrets and contradict falsehoods can help to break an intergenerational cycle of emotional repression, which poses real psychological dangers to family members – and which, in my experience, is a common phenomenon in the Irish-American community. Viewed from this perspective, the references to Harold in my essay about Cedar Grove struck a blow for honesty, empathy and transparency in the social and familial discourse on suicide.
At the same time, though, the essay was not primarily about mental illness. Instead, it focused on the end of the beach colony’s ninety-nine-year run and the notion that its history was more complex than the “Brigadoon”-like narrative set forth by its old-line residents. Harold’s story provided some evidence of a less-than-perfect past at the beach. It brought pathos, texture and a certain gravitas to the piece. The cinematic quality of the tragedy, reinforced by the iconic photo of the dashing young man in his cutaway tux, made its inclusion in the essay difficult to resist from a sheer storytelling standpoint. It was, indeed, “a good story.” It was also true, and I believe it was told respectfully. In that sense, at least, I met some of the basic ethical obligations of life writing.
Bloom supports such an ethical assessment, up to a point. “No matter what their subjects think, creative nonfiction writers defending the integrity of their work should not, I contend, expose their material either to censorship or to consensus. This position, adherence to a single truth, represents the Kantian moral imperative.” In a caveat, however, Bloom notes that “where living people are concerned there can be virtue in protecting the innocent, the vulnerable, the voiceless, private people who would be destroyed if their inmost secrets were betrayed.”
Ultimately, if I have betrayed the trust or privacy of relatives living or dead, I must come to terms with my actions and weigh them against the value of telling a long-suppressed truth. I cannot deny that my mother and my grandparents, among other late family members, would be distraught if they were alive and found out that I had appropriated Harold’s story and the Hammels’ pain in the service of my creative work. This thought is especially daunting when I recall John Hammel’s reflexive denial to the newspaper reporters that his son had purposely killed himself. In my mind’s eye, I see the clear blue eyes of the patriarch turning cold, his expression stern, his posture stiff, his dignity unalterably compromised when he learns what I have done. My grandfather does not raise his voice in anger, but a scream would be preferable to his quaking silence. I have deeply disappointed him. In that fraught moment, I know that he will never call me Timbo again.