This year, for NANOWRIMO (National Novel Writing Month in November) I'm writing a semi-fictional novel of my family history, told through the perspective of a pocket watch that is passed from generation to generation. It's something that hasn't been done much in literature, though I'm not the first to do it. The book will be written in 30-days or less and will have a minimum of 50,000 words - this is how you 'win' NANOWRIMO.

These are the notes from each day as i write. It's a challenging thing to bridge family history with fiction but necessary if I want to tell a cohesive story because so much of the actual history was not recorded or shared. I'm including all that I have been able to find and fictionalizing other parts with what seems likely based on oral history, actual records, or my own experiences.


Day 17 : The day spent with Gramps is as close to factual as I can get. I don’t remember if he actually said “I’ll break your legs” to the man at the Elks, but there were definitely threatening words said when we were asked to leave. I’ll never forget the look of shock and sweetness on the woman’s face in his parking area when he called her an ‘old cow’ - those words are etched in my memory.

As for the pile of checks - I don’t remember the name(s) and he never gave me a reason. I do know this, until he was unable to do so - he sent checks to every one of his grandkids for their birthdays and Christmas and at the beginning of the school year to buy new school clothes. When my maternal grandfather died, he sent money to my maternal grandmother on a regular basis until her death.

He was a man who believed in family and taking care of the people who needed it. As far as I know, I’m the only person who ever saw him cry - it was a hugely traumatic event for me and (obviously) for him. It was at this point that I started to realize that my being there might be causing more harm than good. It was my first time dealing with someone going through dementia and I certainly could have handled things much better.

When he started to blame me for small, odd things, going missing around the house - I took it personally. Looking back, I really wish that I would have stayed longer, learned about how to deal with progressively worse episodes, and been a person that was there for him when he needed someone - in reality though, he probably would have broken my nose and hit me with a baseball bat - so maybe it’s better I got the hell out of there.

Day 18: I have no records for the brothers and their civil war service. I simply know that they were participants and that they survived. It seems fitting that the watch does not get to witness what happens. I have one photograph of John W. His eyes look out from it with a haunting that I can easily imagine as my ancestor carries on with his life - and looks at the carefree children around him. I engaged ChatGPT in helping me imagine scenarios that the brothers might have lived through. To imagine those scenarios, I entered information about their skills, ages, and the units from Michigan that participated in the American Civil War. The unit assignments are not historical, they are fabricated, but I have to admit, there is a part of me that feels like it is possible they could be real, somehow being transmitted from the past to me in the present.

One interesting note - in the interview I did with my grandfather about our family history, he told me that we began with three brothers after a war. I don’t know if he was referring to the three brothers who form the basis of the family in France or the three brothers in Detroit. At that point, getting detailed and specific information from him was incredibly difficult. As I’ll write in the next chapter, we sat at his kitchen table going through boxes of ancient photographs - most of which he recognized but couldn’t give details about.

Day 19: I wanted the chance to record the few stories Gramps was able to tell me about the photographs. I wish that I’d had a tape recorder with me on those nights we sat going through the photos but in truth, most of them he sat and agonized over. He would look at them and I could feel his frustration as he saw people he knew, wanted to name them and talk about their stories, and simply couldn’t.

This was when I truly started to understand just how far his disease had progressed. It was heartbreaking. I want to emphasize though, John Sr was an absolutely terrifying man. While I felt sympathy and pity for his condition, there was also a sense of the fact that he could flare up at any moment. I would have loved to have spent many more days with him going through those photos, but it simply wasn’t meant to be. His condition and my being there made it an unstable situation. I wasn’t trained to be a caregiver, I had no idea how to deal with his tantrums and meltdowns. I dreaded him asking that we should go out again - I snuck out and bought the groceries when they were needed - without him. It was awful - and yet - with those stories, with that time that I spent with him, I came to know just what kind of man he was. Perhaps there is no one else who ever got to see so deeply into the depths of my grandfather’s soul as I was privileged to do. His love and frustration with his wife, his sense of duty, and his regrets. Although, to be fair - he didn’t share a lot of regrets - he may not have had any.

I’m purely fictionalizing the connection between Gramps and the Mob. The places and dates are roughly correct - the facts of the story. He really did open up the first licensed card room in Alaska, he really did take his family there, they really did have to scrounge for vegetables in the Army base rubbish - but that’s all I actually know about that. They left Alaska, he came back to Tacoma, bought a trailer park, and began working overseas. I also remember my father telling me Gramps got him a job working in a funeral parlor in high school - but the part about the bodies - I made that up. The fact that Gramps drove a Cadillac and Bonanno and his sons were connected with a California Cadillac dealer is a fun coincidence, as is my father eventually moving to Tucson where Bonanno retired, and the fun alignment of the dates. Nothing more.

Day 20: When I told my brother about this project he expressed his enthusiasm to read it but when I said how far it had veered into the realm of memoir and personal experience he asked me how I could stand to do it. “I’ve spent so much time exploring the shit that we managed to crawl out of, I don’t think I could spend another minute rehashing it. Aren’t you sick of thinking about it? ” My inclination at first was to take that personally - something I have a bad habit of doing in my life but upon reflection I realized that it hadn’t been any sort of attack - that idea stemmed from my own bizarre disdain for personal memoir which I am slowly coming to understand is not only important as a way for the writer to memorialize their own experience, but also as a way for the reader to come to terms with their own expression of the human experience - which - if I’m being honest, is really another way of saying suffering.

My brother is right. It sucks reliving some of this. It’s like the PTSD I suffer from, a souvenir of my time in the Marines. To some extent, maybe PTSD is exactly what all writers suffer from and by putting the words to the page, they hope to never have to relive them again. Today’s writing brought up some post traumatic stress that I had thought was long put behind me. Living in the house with the junkies, working at the mill, trying to fulfill what I saw as my duty as a grandson, and even being a dog owner - trying my best to take care of a little guy who relied on me for everything. That particular period was every bit as hard as the seven layers of hell that we lived through on the death farm. Also, I’m coming to realize, this period I’m living through right now is filled with suffering too. Ultimately that’s not the story I’m telling right now, I’ll stick to what the watch can observe. And as the next chapters will show - the watch hasn’t been with me for quite some time now.

Day 21: Once again I’m fictionalizing my grandfather’s life based on a few stories and photos. I know that he worked in Iraq and Saudi Arabia for the ‘utility company’ as an accountant. I also know that he was forced to leave Saudi Arabia and told that if he returned he would be executed because he had set up a card room. As we sat at his kitchen table he showed me photos of Larry, Mo, and Curly and told me about some of their adventures exploring together. They worked for him. There was also a very disturbing picture of a man’s hand hanging from a rope after it had been severed and a picture of the now handless man. My grandfather wouldn’t give me details but said “he was caught stealing” which was probably true - but he wouldn't comment on the fact that the man without a hand looked an awful lot like one of his three friends. This entire chapter is based on those few stories - also the story about my uncle is true. He intentionally made terrible grades all the way through school in order to keep expectations low, but when the city of Seattle gave him a standardized test, he got the highest score in the city.

Every detail of the story of the house on Michigan Street is exactly the way it happened. It is etched in my memory.

While I’d love to use my imagination to tell more of John Albert Sr’s time in Indonesia - it is complete fabrication and as such, I feel like I don’t want to construct another family since it would be a pure invention of my mind with no basis in reality told to me or experienced.

Day 22: It’s a lot harder to write my father than it is to write my grandfather or other relations. A big part of it is like that bit I wrote for the watch today - my dad has a maximum security prison in his mind - there are things in there that no one will ever know. He projects an image to the world and anything that doesn’t fit with that image is locked away on death row and will never be released.

In some ways, I wish he were still cognizant enough that I could show him this book, that I could give him the chance to set the record straight, that I could let him fill in all the facts - but even if he still had all of his mental faculties, I know how that conversation would go - he would simply disown me and allow his anger to sever any relationship that might exist. Any people that don’t fit with the image he projects to the world or who threaten the story he tells about who he is, he discards or moves away from.

I’ve watched him lose every friend he’s ever had over the years. It starts out that they love him, they can’t talk enough about what a great man he is. Then, something happens, I don’t know what. Maybe he loses his temper, maybe a piece of the carefully crafted story he tells them falls apart and reveals his lies, maybe nothing happens but he just begins to suspect that they are too close to discovering who he really is - and then they are gone. He finds new friends and the process begins again. I wonder what the real him is actually like.

No one will ever know at this point, unless he has been keeping secret journals and records (which I doubt because I think his lies to himself are just as firmly protected) or unless his wife reveals the man he really is (which I also doubt would ever happen because I think she and he have collaborated on their mutual story for so long that their fictions align). I’m doing my best to not make this a smear job. I think I may have failed at that already. A part of that is my own resentment at his never allowing us to be close - in large part, I think for the same reason. The difference between me and his discarded friends is that I have had a reason to keep trying for all these years. The reason is because he’s my dad.

I thought that writing of the moment I extorted my dad with the watch would be satisfying, but it wasn’t. It was sad. I see the relationship so much more clearly now. I see the lens he views the world from. He makes so much more sense to me now - and also - I realize that all these years thinking that was a victory versus my father, it wasn’t. It was a defeat. Yes, it gave me what I needed to escape a god-awful situation - but it was that moment that I truly realized how unimportant I actually was to my Dad. A gold watch meant more to him than the welfare of his son. I feel sorry for my dad. I don’t think he has ever experienced what loving someone else actually feels like. There’s no room in his heart for anyone but himself and there may never have been.