Kids Make the Best Bookies, Chapter 3


If you’re new to my blog, you might like to know that I’m writing a memoir about growing up in an organized crime family.  Below is an effort to draft a chapter about my parents’ wedding day. 

Even my mother remember’s few details about that afternoon in 1961, so I’ve been forced to reconstruct what might have been, given what I know about the characters involved and other family stories I’ve heard.  I’ve also realized, as I’ve drafted this, that I have very little, if any, experience writing narrative–that it’s harder than I’d ever imagined. 

(If you’ve not read any of my memoir before this, click here to reach chapter 1 and here to read chapter 2.  What follows will likely be chapter 3.)

Chapter 3—–On Marrying a Mafia Man

“Judy, you need to eat,” my grandmother yelled up the steep steps of the Homer City home my mom had grown up in.  It was the morning of my mother’s wedding, a sunny Saturday in June of 1961, a small coal mining town 60 miles east of Pittsburgh.

“Judy!”  Nana wiped wet hands on a floral apron.

No answer.

My grandmother returned to her kitchen of knotty pine cabinets, the one my grandfather had remodeled well over a decade earlier, not long before his sudden death in a car crash on the road from Brush Valley to Homer City, when my mother was eleven.

“Becky,” Nana turned to her youngest of five daughters, seated at the round table topped with a plastic cloth, “Run up there and get her to come down.  She should have some breakfast, at least a cup of coffee and piece of pie.”  Nana was known for her baking, famous for angel food cakes—not to mention attitude and spunk.

One Memorial Day on the annual pilgrimage to their summer home, when my grandfather teased that her caramel pies hadn’t properly set, when he said Nana should be careful not to spill the liquid custard sloshing in her lap, my grandmother tossed the pies purposefully out the open car window, “How’s that for spillage?”

Now, however, Nana tossed nothing.  She’d been working for weeks—wanting my mother’s wedding—the first of her girls to wed without a father to walk her down the aisle—to be, not only special, but also an event Ralph would have been proud of.  My mother had been his favorite after all—the one who climbed on roof with him—helped him finish their second house at “camp,” as they called it—their summer place 7 miles from Homer City on the banks of Yellow Creek.

“She says she doesn’t want anything,” Becky reappeared, reassuringly kissing her mother on the cheek, before returning to her bowl of Cheerios.  Already at fifteen, she towered over my grandmother.  Nana was only 4’ 11”.

My mother never did eat breakfast that morning, or lunch for that matter.  She had read it was best to marry on an empty stomach.

Nana’s screen door slammed incessantly throughout the morning, as a near steady stream of marriage eligible young women tunneled through the house on errands, to and from the Methodist Church around the corner—dresses to be transported, corsages carried, jars of iced tea and lemonade lugged along the alley.

“Mama, do you have more jars I can pour this punch into?” my mom’s older sister Pat asked.

“In the basement, bottom of the stairs.”

“John, run down and grab them for me,” Aunt Pat instructed her husband, who was busy fanning himself with the June issue of the Upper Room.

And when Uncle John reemerged from the cool cellar, arms loaded, his chin no longer bleeding from that morning’s shaving debacle, he asked, “Mum, watcha doin’ with all them jars?  There’s gotta be at least 70 of ‘em down there.”

“Keepin’ ‘em so all the hoarders don’t get them,” and without skipping a beat—“This punch ain’t gonna be worth a hill of beans, if you don’t get it in the ice box over at the church.  Where’s Peg, anyway?”

No one commented on Nana’s quick come back until later that afternoon just before the service started.  As the organ played and the bridal party was gathered in the church vestibule, my mother began drilling her bride’s maids about the details.

In an exaggerated whisper to her maid of honor, “Becky, are you sure you have the ring?”

“You just asked me that ten minutes ago—and ten minutes before that.  And my answer’s still the same.  I HAVE the ring.”

To deflate the tension, calm my mother, and maybe make her laugh, Uncle Dan, my mother’s oldest brother-in-law, set to walk her down the aisle, leaned in toward my mother, “So, guess what John told me.”

“I have NO idea.”

“He said Mum has at least 70 unused mason jars and a good 80 empty milk bottles in the basement.”

“So?” My mom was used to Nana’s eccentric excesses.

“Well, when he asked Mum what she was doing with so many, she said she was ‘keeping them so all the hoarders don’t get them.’”

At this my mother merely rolled her eyes and wrung damp hands.  But, her bride’s maids, lined up and sweating in shocking pink, struggled to restrain themselves—even as the sanctuary doors opened and the bridal march exploded into the sweltering space, the girls gulped giggles behind white gloves.  They swallowed nervous laughter, as on this day, my parents, opposite as serious and silly, joined one another at an altar, where a member of the Pittsburgh crime family was among the men who stood with Daddy.

That June afternoon, as the congregation fanned themselves with bulletins against the suffocating swelter, humidity intensified the heat.

And at the altar, my mother’s stomach grumbled.

(To see more of my parents’ wedding photos, click here.)

What narrative techniques do I need to work on–dialog, character development, showing rather than telling what happened?  Which character from this chapter interests you the most?

68 thoughts on “Kids Make the Best Bookies, Chapter 3

  1. First, a clarification: You say your mother was the first of your grandmother’s daughters to marry. Then you say your mother was walked down the aisle by her oldest brother-in-law. Do you mean he was your grandmother’s oldest brother-in-law? I find your grandmother to be the most interesting, and I’d like to know more about her. Raising five girls alone, in itself, is memorable. How did that affect your mom? It had to have been huge. Aside from your grandmother wanting your mom to eat and your mom refusing, I’m not getting a sense of the mother-daughter dynamic. Will that be presented later? What mght your mom have been thinking as she dressed? Again, aside from not eating, I’m not getting a sense of who this young woman is on the most important day of her life. Also, I’d like to see the incident of the caramel pie presented in a different way in a different place in the narrative. It’s important, but it comes on too suddenly and then disappears. It sounds like I didn’t like this chapter. I actually did, but I think it could be a lot more powerful. Oh, I loved the bridal march “exploding” into the sweltering church. It’s not only a great image, but it portends married life in the Mafia. Excellent, Kathy.

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    • Maybe the sentence as I wrote it was unclear, but I said my mother was the first of the daughters to marry “without a father to walk them down the aisle.” In other words, the first to marry since the death of their father. Maybe I should have said it more straight forwardly. All of my mother’s older sisters were married at this time, so I’m refering to the husband of my mother’s oldest sister. I guess I need to make that clearer. I can see how you might be confused.

      I know what you mean about not getting a sense of my mom here. I was trying to communicate that she was a bit uptight and that she had food issues. I think part of my problem involves the fact that I’m unclear as to what my mom was like at this point. Probably my own uncertainty comes through.

      Great point about the caramel pie issue!

      Thanks so much for this feedback, Renee. I had no idea how hard it would be to write straight narrative. Jeez!

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  2. I love it. It flows nicely and your narrative style is great, especially the dialogue (which I know is really hard to write.)

    My only bit of feedback is that occasionally I think there are a few too many details squeezed into one sentence. For example:

    “My grandmother returned to her kitchen of knotty pine cabinets, the one my grandfather had remodeled well over a decade earlier, not long before his sudden death in a car crash on the road from Brush Valley to Homer City, when my mother was eleven.”

    There are a lot of themes introduced in this one sentence, and I would say it borders on a run-on. I don’t think you actually need all the details here. You could revise it to something like this:

    “My grandmother returned to her kitchen of knotty pine cabinets, which my grandfather had remodeled more a decade earlier, just before he died suddenly in a car crash.”

    …or something like that. I know it’s probably important to mention how old your mom was when her father died, but maybe you could introduce that another time. Anyway, I’m sure you see what I’m getting at.

    I like your grandmother’s character the most! Looking forward to more.

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    • Yes, that makes a lot of sense, Heather. Have always been inclined to write loaded sentences. I can see how it would be too much detail to digest in one sentence.

      About the digalog–yes, hard, hard, hard. Who knew? I simply can’t believe how hard this was. And isn’t weird that I had never really written straight narrative.

      This is brillinatly helpful feedback. Thanks so much, Heather!

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  3. Dialogue has to be horrible to write!!! Especially when you were not an “eye witness” to the event!!! I think you are getting some great feedback here and I know that it is going to come together. I want to know more about who your mom was—-your brief descriptions of her make me want to know more! That’s a good thing!! You drew me in….again!!! Way to go!

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  4. Dialog IS very hard to write! But you’ve delivered with aplomb, and a really nice peek into where your mother came from. I love how you’re not afraid to try new things with your story, and to share it with us. I think your style (and your spirit) very open and generous, and so full of love.

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  5. You’ve done a good job of this! And the touch at the end was superb. Just a little less verbal sugar (like “festooned”) would make the scene tighter and more stark – prelude to the tough life she’s likely to lead.

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  6. I think the character development is excellent, and I like the gentle dips back into your Mom’s family history (i.e., Dad has passed, she was Dad’s favorite). I was confused about the ‘hoarders’ thing. I know what ‘hoarders’ is now, but I’m not sure if Nana meant the same thing back then. I liked the impact it had on the wedding party, though. Overall, I found the chapter engaging and the narrative plausible. Creative nonfiction isn’t about reproducing moments exactly as they happened but about capturing the heart and essence of them.

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    • Glad these characters interest you. However, I can’t imagine what else “hoarders” might have meant. It’s even a word that was used in old English, as far back a Beowulf. However, the hoarder story as it stands here is actually conflated–I’ve put together 2 different things that happened in other contexts but chose to use the stories here. God, does that make sense? I will be interested to see if anyone else stumbles over that detail. It’s so important to know where readers get hung up! Thanks for letting me know. Great comment!

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    • True, I have shared lots of photos. Are you suggesting I do drawings of this event? That’s a great idea, but, I swear, I don’t know how to draw representationally. I’m not as good an artist as you! But, goodness, thank you for this comment. I’m so happy to know this story interests a Sicilian! Great news!

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  7. You are doing great work just getting something on paper you know. Everything you post is readable.
    You’ve heard this already, but there are a couple of spots where it seems like you’re cramming a lot of information into a really small space, like the kitchen with the knotty pine cupboards. Describing the colors and textures makes more room for the commentary about your Grandfather, and you won’t be brushing over the recent loss and this being the first wedding Nana is throwing without her husband to give away his daughter.
    Give yourself permission to take the time and really set the scene. What does the kitchen smell like that morning? Nana making pies? What kind of punch and it can’t be spiked or it wouldn’t go bad so fast, or is it that the day is just that hot? There are hints about it, but if it’s a factor there could be more. The church itself, again you’re setting the scene for the wedding. You can do some description about the community and the setting.
    We know that one of the groomsmen figures into the rest of the story, but what about the girls? Is the maid of honor the sister that was trying to get her to come to breakfast or another Becky? Is this an unforeseen rite of passage for your Mom where this is the last time she’ll be this way with the girls she grew up with? Do these girls come back in to the story as well? Narrative is easier when it intertwines with description.
    Nana is the character that stands out here. The chapter is about a. the event and b. Nana. Do you need 2 chapters on set in the morning of the wedding about Nana and one about the event itself where you tell the horders story?
    I hate writing dialog, but that seems to flow for you. What happens if you pull yourself out of this scene and just write it “as it happened” so you’re not switching between Nana and Mom, Aunt and Sis during the bulk of the chapter? I find myself struggling to keep relationships straight as the generational perspective switches in and out.

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    • I don’t know how to thank you for this incredibly helpful comment—so many great suggestions.

      I have to admit that even I was confused by some of the generational shifts in perspective. I knew it was a problem, but had no idea—or the time yesterday—to address them. I will definitely play with this.

      Also, I had never considered writing two chapters about the wedding day—one about the morning—another about the event itself. My problem here involves not knowing just how many liberties I can take with the narrative. My mother recalls so few details about this day, I could hardly write two sentences, let alone two chapters about this. Do you suppose it’s okay to just invent more of “what might have been?”

      Also, I think you are right about my need to fill in these scenes—especially in terms of setting. What did the kitchen look like, smell like, etc.

      This is an incredibly rich comment, and I cannot thank you enough!

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      • Memoir is a really interesting genre of non-fiction because by it’s nature some of it is going to be “filled in.” All you have to do is start the chapter with your commentary about looking at pictures and talking to your family has built a picture in your mind and that this is how you imagine it must have been and then go.

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  8. Kathy –

    I’m on the run today, so I’ll provide brief line-by-line edits for just the first few paragraphs:

    In this memoir when you refer to “grandmother” the word “my” is implied so it can be removed in all instances.

    Instead of “had grown up in” use “grew up in” (write tight).

    Remove the comma after 1961 and use “in” instead.

    LOVE the spillage story!

    Instead of “Now, however… use “Today, however…

    Reappeared, reassuringly, and returned all in the same sentence are too many re words. Change two of them to non re words.

    Earlier you said your grandmother was known for her attitude and spunk. She’s a great character that you want to continue to develop. So when you talk about her physical size, you may want to continue painting that word picture. Maybe something like this: “Though small in stature—only 4’ 11’—she had a large personality.”

    You’ve captured my attention. I want to know more. You’re doing a great job!

    – Laurie

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    • Do you think it’s okay to not use the past perfect tense in that first paragraph? I went back and forth, as she “had grown up in” happened before the action I’m sharing in that paragraph.
      Also, you are absolutely correct about these editing suggestions. I appreciate your specificity here—very helpful.
      You seem to agree that I need to do more with my grandmother’s character. I would love to do that, and I suppose I will. I’m just afraid that developing too much of the back story is going to make the book too long. Or do you think I can cut things out later if need be?
      Thanks for the feedback, Laurie.

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  9. Okay, I loved it. I did get a stronger feeling about your grandma than your mom. But that didn’t bother me. It’s almost…..like part of your mom’s story that grandma was the stronger presence. I am more curious about these “characters”. I would SO loved to have heard your grandma telling the caramel pie story, then your grandpa’s version. Your story has captured me. So I love it when you give us a little more….. 🙂

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    • Love your comments. They always motivate me to keep writing. Thank you for that. It’s interesting to me what you and other people are saying about my grandmother’s character, as she was more of a mother to me than my own mother. I absolutely adored the woman. Maybe that’s what everyone is picking up on. Thanks so much for reading, my friend. Hugs to you!

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      • 🙂 Interesting. Which is likely why you write so easily about your grandmother. She sounds like someone who would easily be adored. How can you not adore someone who would throw pies out of the window??? You’re welcome for my reading. It’s good to know I can motivate something more than ‘eye rolling’ from someone! 😉

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  10. Yes – it’s your Grandma that shines in this chapter – and tossing her pies out the window illustrates her large personality! I’d like to hear more about her spunk – how did she get by after her husband passed? What did your mom think of her? Painting a bright narrative around your mom’s wedding day, and using it to define your grandma, makes things fun and interesting, I love it.

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    • So happy to hear this works for you, Deanna. I have to agree that my grandmother is the largest personality in this chapter. As I said in the commment above, she was more of a mother to me than my actual mother. I absolutely adored the woman. Maybe part of that is what’s coming through here. Thanks so much for reading!

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  11. I enjoyed this so much, Kathy! The details are so vibrant. I love the “kitchen of knotty pine cabinets” and “busy fanning himself with the June issue of the Upper Room.” It’s perfect – not overdone or flowery.
    Those are the images that make the story come to life. Great job!

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    • Oh, wow, Jackie, thank you so much. How great to know that these details work for you. I worried that most folks wouldn’t know what the Upper Room magazine was and what it might say about my grandmother that she had that devotional guide in her home. I’m delighted to know this works. Hooray, I’m excited.

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  12. Although I loathe following the herd, I agree that the way this chapter is written, your grandmother is by far the most colorful character, but this tells me that you need to further tweak your mom. Since it’s her wedding day and she has no idea she’s marrying into the mob — the 800 lb gorilla at the core of your memoir — she should be more in the spotlight. Overall, I think it’s progressing nicely.

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    • Love the gorilla metaphor–not to mention the poundage–too perfect. At the same time, I think you are right about needing to develop my mom’s presence in this chapter. Glad you think it’s coming along, though. Thanks so much!

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  13. Kathy, It’s a good story. Your grandmother is more fully drawn, though, than your mother. Did you like her more, by any chance?

    But, what I found jarring was the voice, the perspective from which you tell this story. It doesn’t sound like a memoir, but more like a novel written in the third person. I don’t feel you in this story, and a memoir should be about you, primarily, and your relationship to everyone else. And it’s strange, because it’s written in the present, and we know you weren’t born yet, so it’s almost like it should be a prequel to your memoir.

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    • Hmmmmm–I don’t know why you think it’s written in the present tense. I can’t think of a single present tense verb in the chapter. I suppose, however, that if this feels like the present tense when it’s actually writtne in the past tense, that might suggest the chapter works well, making it feel more immediate–more present.

      At the same time, I’ve read a good many memoirs that go back and provide this kind of back story. Plus, I use personal pronouns–“my” grandmother, etc. I could insert discussion of how I feel about each of these characers, but then I would be “telling” rather than showing.

      I’m a bit confused, I guess.

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  14. This is great! You have described the day and your family perfectly. I got the bit about the first to marry without a father to walk her down the aisle.
    Can’t wait for more.

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    • Oh, cool, so glad to hear you got the part about my grandfather not walking my mom down the aisle. I thought I was clear, but if other folks understood, then I may have communicated clearly enough. Thanks for sharing this info. That’s good to know. So happy you’re excited to read more!

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  15. This post was like a snapshot in time…a fun read indeed! Your grandmother does indeed sound very witty, and with an attitude to boot :))
    Wish your mom had eaten something though 🙂

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    • I STILL wish my mom would eat something. She has weird eating habits to this day, I’m afraid. But, I’m so happy you got a kick out of my grandmother. I simply adored her. Great to hear from you today, Mun!

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  16. Looks like you’ve got tons of great advice already, so there isn’t much I can add to the critique. I will say I really enjoyed the dialogue, and your grandmother’s “how’s that for spillage?” line had me busting a gut. Good work, as usual!

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    • Gosh, I have gotten lots of great advice, haven’t I? But, damn, I’m happy to hear the dialogue worked for you and that you liked that line of my grandmother’s. God, she was a hoot! Thanks for reading, Mark!

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  17. I have just a few comments:
    1. LOVE that closing line.
    2. I think you should add something to the sentence about the mobster in the wedding party that tells everyone your mom did not know this little nugget.
    and
    3. When reading your comments, bear in mind that some of your readers are going to have small differences in language due to locality: for example, a post on Kana’s blog about her kiddo finally “going potty” referred to toilet training here, but in England means her kid was finally going crazy.
    I should also add, that I love your grandma’s wit. You should write a book just about her!
    Love to you, my friend.
    16 more days!

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    • Yes, you’re right about #2. I hadn’t thought of that here. Excellent point. And so happy you liked the last line. I enjoyed it, too. About #3–are you referring to the posibility of readers not knowing what a “hoarder” is or was? Can you tell me which word in this chapter might be problematic? But, yes, I will definitely keep that in mind!

      I know–only 16 days! Did you get my FB message yesterday? My yahoo account kept telling me your email address wasn’t valid, which I know couldn’t be true, as I had merely hit “reply” to get it. Weird.

      But, we can’t wait to see you! And Sara has been salivating for days! LOL

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      • Yes, I was referring to your one reader, who is sometimes also a reader of mine, and the confusion over the word “hoarder.” I know she is from the UK so that’s why I mentioned it. I wasn’t sure if that was one of those words that just meant something else over there….I did indeed get your FB message. I just don’t feel right leaving you and Sara waiting on our pokey butts to get to KY, but we will definitely spend the night on Saturday!….Yay for that (in my opinion, disgusting) PERCH! I hope you both like it!

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  18. There’s so much gold here! The “how’s that for spillage” totally cracked me up.
    Nana is the real star of this piece. While I love it (and her), I wonder if that’s your intent. Mom sort of fades into the wallpaper (except for her grumbling tummy).
    The other thing to watch is when to switch from third person storytelling to first person commentary. For example:
    “Judy, you need to eat,” my grandmother yelled up the steep steps of the Homer City home my mom had grown up in.
    Could read:
    “Judy, you need to eat,” her mother yelled up the steep steps of their Homer City home.
    Or:
    “Mama, do you have more jars I can pour this punch into?” my mom’s older sister Pat asked.
    To:
    “Mama, do you have more jars I can pour this punch into?” Judy’s older sister Pat asked.

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    • Oh, wow, I’m so happy you enjoyed this, Sandy. I need to work out the whole perspective issue, but if this works for you from a storytelling stand-point, I’m thrilled! So glad my grandmother made you laugh! And thanks for the specifics!

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  19. I love this, Kathryn! Charming, amusing, and delightful! I ADORE the image of Nana throwing a pie out of a car window! That make me chuckle out loud, causing my cat, Allie, to look up to see what I was laughing at! I love the inside joke about the hoarding and the image of the bride’s maids stifling their giggles. You SHOW us…and allow us inside of the story with all the wonderful little details. Well done! xo Julia

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    • Ha! Love it that I even got a sort-of response from Allie the cat! How fun is that! So happy to hear you enjoyed this post. I swear, my grandmother was a total hoot! Hope you’ve having a great day, Julia!

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  20. Whoa, this was fabulous writing! I loved it. The details you slipped in here and there were perfect and the dialogue kept things going at a good clip. Really made the story chug along and when I got to the end I was hoping for more. Just what you want in a story! Great job, Kathy!

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  21. Narrative works, Kathy. Your Nana is fascinating, as is the way you see your mother in this situation. Trying to know our parents before we existed is so tough. I still think the effort helps us to know them better.

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    • So glad to hear this works for you. I agree that my grandmother is an interesting character. And trying to understand what our parents were like before we were around is especially hard. Thank so much for reading. I’m loving your grandmother posts, by the way!

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  22. Nothing new to add here, Kathy. I agree with the earlier commenters about some of the details being, well, TOO detailed. I’m also fascinated by the fact that your Nana is the real star of this chapter, rather than your mother who is getting married! It obviously speaks to the different relationships you had/have with them, but it doesn’t take away from your memoirs or from this particular chapter, either. Keep it up!

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    • Yeah, I definitely need to work on how I introduce detail. It’s a bit too dense. I’m over eager, I suppose. Oh, well, so happy you generally enjoyed the chapter and my grandmother, as well. Hope your week is going well, Dana!

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  23. I love the way you pulled this together. I always love seeing the behind-the-scenes detail and you’ve created it well in this piece. I am most intrigued by your Nana. She seems to have a feisty personality! She’s aware of her eccentricities and finds humor in them.

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  24. “She had read it was best to marry on an empty stomach.” I loved that line best. This story was so rich in quotes and details. Even to the stomach grumbling at the altar. It felt metaphoric in the sense that it highlighted society’s expectations and our human hunger… Good job, Ms. Kathy!

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  25. This is just outstanding! I thoroughly enjoyed it. Love your grandmother. She certainly shines here. Great authentic dialogue. I don’t have much of a critique to offer. As far as content, it’s perfect, I think.

    Just a few mechanical issues – a couple of sentences that don’t flow easily. The one that beigns, “My grandmother returned to her kitchen of knotty pine cabinets…” and the one that begins ” One Memorial Day on the annual pilgrimage to their summer home, when my grandfather…” I think the second is easy to fix. Just take out the “when” before “my grandfather,” put a period after “set” and start a new sentence. (I love the pie story, by the way, and I think it’s perfect just where it is.) The first sentence, I’m not sure how to rework. Love the knotty pine but maybe to much about his death to fit in the same sentence.

    Love the last line. I’m surprised your mother didn’t have a low blood sugar moment and pass out.

    I’ve tried to write about my parents as they were before I was born and it’s incredibly hard to do. Thought you did a great job here. I can’t wait to read more.

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    • Thanks for mentioning those specific sentences, Tori. I agree that they need help. I appreciate the concrete suggestions, as well. And, I’m thrilled you enjoyed my grandmother. She was such a character! Great to hear from you, my friend!

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