Transcript

270:

Family Legend
Transcript

Originally aired 08.06.2004

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Prologue.

Ira Glass

In Eddie's family, there are lots of stories about his mom's aunt, Mary. Nobody wanted to cross her. She said what she felt, and did what she wanted. She'd open the Christmas present that you gave her and tell you right then, right to your face-- no, this is too small, this is inappropriate.

Eddie Schmidt

My parents claim that she would drive up and down the Garden State Parkway and take the azalea bushes off the side of the freeway, and take them home. Because she felt that they were free.

Josie Schmidt

She said, "Oh, they're just growing on the road!"

And we tried to explain to her, no, Aunt Mary, they're not growing, just growing there wild, you know-- someone planted them there. And then she would try to make excuses-- well, she only took a little piece of the plant, she didn't take the whole thing, there was plenty more there.

Ira Glass

There was the time she invited the family to dinner but didn't want to cook a chicken in the middle of a hot summer day. So, she cooked it in the morning, covered it with a piece of newspaper, and left it sitting in the attic. All day. Nobody wanted to take a bite, but you didn't argue with Aunt Mary.

And then there was her laugh.

Eddie Schmidt

Aunt Mary had a tremendous cackle. It really was like a sort of room-stopping sound that as a kid she always appeared to me like sort of the joker from the Batman TV show.

Ira Glass

Here's Eddie's dad.

Bob Schmidt

That laugh was very strange, too.

[LAUGHS]

So, a cross between The Riddler and The Wicked Witch of the West. But she wasn't necessarily trying to be funny. She would just say something crazy, and then you would laugh at her laughing. You weren't laughing at what she said, you're just laughing at her laughing because it was ridiculous.

Josie Schmidt

Because it would be a big--

[LAUGHS]

--one of those kinds of laughs.

Ira Glass

Aunt Mary lived with her second husband, Uncle Vito, under one roof, but separately. They slept in separate beds, ate food from separate refrigerators.

Eddie Schmidt

Uncle Vito had a refrigerator of his own in the garage and Aunt Mary had her refrigerator in the kitchen.

Ira Glass

And that came about how?

Eddie Schmidt

I guess Aunt Mary did not really care for Uncle Vito's children, her stepchildren. And so she put a padlock on the refrigerator in their house, so as to keep Vito's children out of it. And so Uncle Vito decided that it would just be easier to keep his own set of food and drink in the garage. And beyond that, he I guess actually built his own sort of, like, Italian, manly palace in the garage, where he had a couch, and a television showing sports games, and, you know, a little rug. And that was his sanctuary.

Josie Schmidt

And whenever we went there, whenever there was a spread on the table, we were always very nervous about which food would you take. Because it might be all out there together, but there would be always a back and forth about which food you should be selecting.

Eddie Schmidt

The two of them, they kind of would compete with each other. It was sort of like a little hosting duel. I remember that Aunt Mary would say to my father, "Hey, would you like a beer?" And you couldn't refuse Aunt Mary, so he would say, sure.

Bob Schmidt

Aunt Mary would offer you a beer. And Uncle Vito would look, and-- "Have one of my beers." And Uncle Vito would be, "I have some Miller in my refrigerator, in a bottle." And Aunt Mary would place this rusty beer can in front of you, with some store brand beer. And there was actual rust on the can.

Eddie Schmidt

She'd give him a beer, and it would have rust on the top. And it was like a really old, cheap beer.

Ira Glass

I mean, let's just hold the story right there, and consider what is being said here. The way this family's story goes, she handed out beers so old that the can was rusted. And the story's been told so many times that that has basically become fact. But even though that is possible-- there were still some steel beer cans back in the seventies when all this takes place-- how likely is that? Is that really something to be believed?

Eddie Schmidt

You know, I do. You know why? Because my mom describes her Aunt Mary's hygienic habits around her own home, in that she never used soap to wash dishes. Ever. She'd just rinse them. And she let her dog, you know, lick all the dishes. And the one time that my mother--

Ira Glass

Wait, wait, wait, wait. Again, I say-- now I know that that's the story that's told in your home and it's a family legend. But is that actually a believable story?

Eddie Schmidt

Well, I think it is. Because my mother was so horrified one time at the prospect that the dishes weren't really washed with soap, that she went under the sink to find dish detergent. And when she did, she opened the container and started pouring it into the dishwasher, and rust came out. And so--

Ira Glass

Again!

Eddie Schmidt

I think there's a lot of rust.

Ira Glass

Again, I say that's a really great story that you guys tell each other. But first of all, detergent can't turn into rust, because detergent isn't actually metal.

Eddie Schmidt

Well, no-- I mean sure, there's probably some exaggeration. But there's so many Aunt Mary stories that are equally outrageous, if not more outrageous, that I can't help but believe that there is certainly more than a kernel of truth in these details.

Ira Glass

And that, I guess, is exactly the point. It's hard not to exaggerate these stories. In any family, there are certain stories that get told over and over. And other stories that are never talked about. They explain who's who in the family, they keep the pecking order in order.

Well, from WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass.

Today in our program, family legends. In our show, family members compare notes about stories that they've been kicking around for years, or have been completely suppressing, and try to figure out the truth behind the stories-- what really happened.

Act One, Take My Cheese, Please. In that act, we hear the greatest Aunt Mary story of all Aunt Mary stories.

Act Two, We Don't Talk About That. In that story, a guy tries to figure out a mystery that's nearly a century old about his own family.

Act Three, Admissions. In that story, a mom, two daughters, and the worst acceptance letter in the history of college admissions.

Act One. Take My Cheese, Please.

Ira Glass

Act One.

So, let's pick up again with Eddie Schmidt and his mother and father. Eddie's sister, Lori, figures in the story at a key point.

The setting-- the whole family, plus Eddie's Uncle John and Aunt Vivian, were at Aunt Mary's for a meal.

Eddie Schmidt

I remember, you know, Aunt Mary setting out the whole spread, and a lot of, you know, cold cuts and salami and pepperoni and cheeses. And I guess there were two different kinds of cheese from which you could choose. Somehow, Uncle Vito's cheese, the nicer cheese, provolone, had found its way onto the table. And maybe something that we didn't always get at home too often. But Aunt Mary was very insistent that we choose one kind of cheese, the American cheese.

Josie Schmidt

Lori was really wanting the different cheese. I think Uncle Vito had something that looked much more appealing to a little girl and she asked me if she could have it. As I went to reach for it, Aunt Mary did not want me to have that cheese. And she said, oh no, Lori should have this cheese. You know, this is good cheese, I bought this for her. And so she did not want to give her Uncle Vito's cheese.

And Lori, not being old enough to know that you don't cross Aunt Mary, was very insistent about having what she wanted, and she did make a little bit of a fuss. And so I said, oh no, Lori, this is the cheese, this is good cheese. This is the yellow cheese, this is the kind you like. Aunt Mary picked this out specially for you. And Lori got the cheese Aunt Mary wanted her to have. She did not get Uncle Vito's cheese.

Uncle John and I thought it was ridiculous to have something put out on the table that someone couldn't have, so we passed a look. You know, we rolled our eyes a little bit to each other behind Aunt Mary's back, we thought. Thinking, oh my god, what an issue over something so ridiculous.

Eddie Schmidt

But that's all, it was just a look--

Josie Schmidt

That was it.

Eddie Schmidt

Just a look.

Ira Glass

Now, do you remember this look that your Uncle John and your mom passed between them?

Eddie Schmidt

I don't remember any shared glance. And my mom says that if there was, she can only think, in retrospect, that that's sort of the maximum gesture that they would have shared between each other. Because Aunt Mary was so, you know, owl-eyed. At the most, they had a split second sustained eye contact. That's it.

Ira Glass

And then after that, nothing else happens that day, no more fights, no more comment-- that's it?

Eddie Schmidt

Nothing else happens. And we spend the afternoon and we return back home to Staten Island. That's it.

Josie Schmidt

A few days after we had visited, Aunt Mary called up. And I thought that was unusual. Usually if we had seen her, we wouldn't hear from her again for a month or so. Anyway, she proceeded to tell me this whole story about this dream she had about Uncle John and I. She said we were laughing at her about the cheese. And this dream was reality to her, and she really thought we slapped her in the face by laughing at her. And we really had hurt her feelings. And she was very distraught and crying.

I mean, I was flabbergasted. Because I wouldn't think I could hurt her feelings, you know, as a hard person, a tough person. When I knew she cried, that that's how much it upset her-- and I really felt terrible. So although we didn't feel we did anything wrong, I did apologize to her. And she seemed to accept it. And we never heard about it again.

Eddie Schmidt

So a few years after this, Aunt Mary passes away and my family, my whole extended family, gets together for the reading of the will. And Aunt Marian is my mom's youngest sister, is actually the executor of the will. So she gets to read the will to everybody that's there. And to everyone's great surprise, Aunt Mary actually had $100,000 with which to will.

Aunt Mary had been really cheap her whole life, and I guess would-- if you were there for a meal, she would rip a paper napkin in half and give you half to use as your napkin. And she would rinse her underwear out in the sink when on a trip. So she'd just have one pair of underwear she'd have for the whole trip. So no one could possibly imagine that she had all this money. But I guess from being so frugal, she had actually saved.

Ira Glass

I'm just biting my tongue here about that story-- about the underwear, about the actual truth of that story.

Eddie Schmidt

I don't know, my father maintains that he saw her washing her underwear out in the sink, so.

Ira Glass

Well, sure. Sure, you're on a trip, like, sometimes you run out of underwear and you have to wash one out in the sink. But that's different than, you own one pair of underwear for a week long trip, and you just wash it out over and over because you're too cheap to buy more than one pair.

Eddie Schmidt

Well, again. See, you would think that that's just kind of a crazy story. But then they said that after she died and they had to go through her things, they found cupboards full of underwear in plastic that she'd never touched.

Ira Glass

Again, again-- cupboards full.

Eddie Schmidt

All right. Packages, several packages.

Ira Glass

OK, but anyway, your point stands. She was very cheap.

Eddie Schmidt

So she had actually amassed $100,000 with which to will. And she had ten nieces and nephews. And so $10,000 for each.

Josie Schmidt

Marian started reading for us and started going down the list. Teddy and Johnny, those were two of my cousins, would be getting $10,000 apiece. Marian and Nick would be getting $10,000 apiece. And she went through the list, and when it came to Vivian and John and Dad and I, the money was not to be given to us. It would be set aside for our children in trust. We would not be allowed to touch it.

When we heard this, we were flabbergasted. We couldn't understand it. We argued with Marian, we were very angry, very embarrassed. And then we started-- after arguing and yelling-- then we started crying. I just couldn't understand. Why would Aunt Mary do that to me? I was the good niece. I was the only niece that went to visit Aunt Mary. And we knew that we had cousins who hadn't spoken to Aunt Mary in maybe ten years. So, you know, we kept saying, why everybody else? Why are we being singled out? What are we being punished for?

Eddie Schmidt

Only after going through the full gamut of emotions from embarrassment, to humiliation, to tears, to anger, were they even able to process and think-- could it really be the cheese? Could it really be? And then they had to think, well, there was nothing else.

Josie Schmidt

It hadn't been that many years previous that the whole cheese incident came up. In probably my whole lifetime, that was the only time I remember making Aunt Mary cry. And so as John and I said, oh my god, it must have been the cheese. That's the only thing we ever did that really caused her to be upset with us.

Ira Glass

But the cheese. It just seems so crazy.

Eddie Schmidt

Yeah, my read on it is that Aunt Mary-- who is really a tough cookie, a tough woman, who I think didn't really show her emotions-- I think because she had this crazy dream where she was humiliated and laughed at for not giving the good cheese to my sister, I think that it made her so vulnerable. I mean, my mom says it was the only time that she ever, ever heard her cry. And so I think Aunt Mary-- that that well of emotions came out. And I think she felt really angry that someone could make her question what she'd choose to do, and put her in that kind of position. That, I guess, she just never forgot that she had been exposed that way.

Ira Glass

You know, when you say it like that, actually, I feel like I actually kind of understand it. Like the dream that she had-- I mean, she was right. Your mom and your uncle, they were laughing at her. Actually, she was sensing something that was real. And of course it made her feel really, really bad.

Eddie Schmidt

Right. Well, and I think a different kind of person-- it might have been like, this small thing could have been a revelation where they changed the way they are. But I think for her, that was not going to happen.

Ira Glass

What's the role of this story in your family? Is this one of the ones that gets told over and over?

Eddie Schmidt

Yes. Yeah, this story, it's on the greatest hits. And actually at the time-- during the day, during the time that cheese happened at lunch-- nobody even thought about it afterwards. And the story was not shared at all. But it only really became this big story to share over and over again because Aunt Mary took it to heart. And, you know, paid everybody back. And, if anything, I think it probably makes all the sort of odd, funny things about her that we talked about earlier on become even bigger, as well.

Ira Glass

Oh wow. You're saying because of the cheese and the will, that's what leads to all the other stories.

Eddie Schmidt

Well, yeah. It's almost like you're trying to sleuth out why it happened. So you start going back to the beginning-- going, oh OK, well she was always eccentric. And we were always intimidated by her. And then there are probably other funny family stories. But the Aunt Mary stories take on this whole life of their own.

Ira Glass

What's so interesting is that if, in fact, she was doing this as an act of spite and to get the last word, it's so misplaced. Because of course you don't get the last word. The living absolutely get the last word in every possible way.

Eddie Schmidt

Right, although you do get lionized with some amusing qualities.

Ira Glass

This is what I'm talking about. You start with one $10,000 bequest, and before you know it, people are saying that you only owned one pair of underwear.

Eddie Schmidt

Right. We get the last word, but there can be no rebuttal.

Ira Glass

Eddie Schmidt, and his mother and father, Josie and Bob Schmidt.

[MUSIC - "Now Mary" by The White Stripes]

Act Two. We Don't Talk About That.

Ira Glass

Act Two. We Don't Talk About That.

Some family stories are notable mostly because of their absence. That they're too disturbing or too scandalous for anyone to ever acknowledge.

Kevin O'Leary's family specializes in stories like that.

Kevin O'leary

My great grandfather had this Edison Amberola A-1 phonograph player. Its cabinet is made of carved mahogany and a brass crank sticks out from the right side. Inside there are four drawers, each holding 25 Edison Gold Moulded recordings. The recordings are tubular wax cylinders, about the size of an empty roll of toilet paper. Each one has a cardboard sleeve with a picture of Thomas A. Edison on its side.

Here's how it works. You open the door, pull out a drawer, take a wax cylinder from its sleeve, insert it horizontally onto the player, turn the crank a little bit, and place the needle on the spinning cylinder.

[MUSIC]

For three decades this Edison sat in my grandparents house in Iowa, which is where I first saw it. I used to ask about it all the time, but no one would ever play it. It initially belonged to my great-grandfather, my grandfather's dad, who bought it in 1911. He was 28-years-old at the time and he and his young wife, my great-grandmother, lived in Council Bluffs. It was exactly the kind of thing a well-to-do family would have in those days-- a little like having a Steinway in the living room.

The same year my great-grandfather bought the phonograph, my great-grandmother gave birth to their only child, my grandfather. I know this now, but I didn't before, growing up. Whenever I would ask about the Edison or my great-grandfather, or any related history, all I got were shrugs and silence.

My grandfather would never discuss his parents, so his kids-- my mom and my uncles Jim and John-- literally had no idea who their dad's dad was. They didn't know where he was born, or what he did for a living, or what he looked like, or even his name.

Kevin's Mom

I have no knowledge of him at all. Any more than I think my brothers do.

Uncle John

Nobody ever talked about him, nobody ever said anything about him, and nobody ever showed us any pictures about him.

Uncle Jim

If the man was to walk into this room right now, I'd never know who he was.

Uncle John

Evidently there was something that wasn't either on the up and up, or done like it was supposed to. Or somebody in-married or whatever the problem might have been-- happened. And so from that point on, it was just-- shut up, not to talk about, not said anything about. Never, as far as I can remember.

Kevin O'leary

What's weird about this is that John B. Keeline I, my great-grandfather, wasn't some small town nobody. He was one of the most prominent men in Council Bluffs. He was rich. Very, very rich. His parents and grandparents had been directors and heavy shareholders in the Council Bluffs savings bank, and amassed a small fortune they'd inherited at 21. I found his probate papers. They're dated from 1888 to 1904. Besides the astonishing amount of bank stock and dividends listed, he also owned two thirds interest in a Wyoming territory cattle ranch and thousands of head of cattle, acres and acres of land in Council Bluffs, and about $200,000 in cash, which today equals about $3 million.

He sounds like the kind of guy who would have generated some conversation within the family. But it wasn't until eight years ago, when my grandfather died and our family gathered in Iowa for the funeral, that I began to piece together the mysterious story of John B. Keeline.

It was after my grandfather's burial, and a guy from the cemetery led us on a tour to see some of our family grave sites. We were walking behind him when he stopped and pointed to a small headstone, about the size of a house brick and covered in oak leaves.

The caretaker took a deep breath, and you could tell he was about to say something. But he never got the chance. My grandmother was all over him. "That is not a member of the Keeline family!" she snapped. "You don't know what you're talking about, just move along, young man."

A word about my grandmother, who's now dead. She was a tiny woman, just over five feet tall, who wore a tremendous amount of jewelry. And she also had a way of scaring the bejeezus out of just about anyone. Imagine a tiny, old, white lady, with the temper and fashion sense of Mr. T, and you get the idea.

So nana had control of the tour from there. We kept moving, walked up a hill which overlooks the rest of the cemetery, to my great-grandfather's grave. He has a modest stone, about the size of the yellow pages, resting in the grass. He died in 1926. John Beresheim Keeline. My great-grandmother's stone lies to the right of his, Margaret C. Keeline. She died in 1913.

This was the first time anyone in my family had ever acknowledged the existence of these two people. I wondered why their lives were so short. She was only 27 when she died, and he was only 43. More than anything, though, I wondered why my grandmother flipped out on the poor fellow from the cemetery. I memorized the dates on their headstones, and on the way back to the hotel I had my father drop me off at the local library.

I found the microfilm for the local paper, the Council Bluffs Nonpareil. I scroll through until I reach the edition published on the same date as the one carved into my great-grandfather's headstone. November 15, 1926. The headline ran across the entire page, in big bold letters. John B. Keeline Kills His Wife And Himself. There are a few sub-headlines, also in big bold letters. Poultry Raiser And Ex-bank Official Also Wounds Sister-in-Law When He Runs Amok At Home With Shotgun. And another one: Turns Home Into Shambles After Protracted Drinking; He Dies Instantly, Spouse Lives Short Time. And the final one, She Planned To Get A Divorce, Friends Say.

I was immediately self-conscious about someone in the library walking by and seeing the gruesome headlines on my screen. I made some copies and headed to the bar across the street from the library, ordered a Budweiser, and read the story again. It's pretty graphic. Council Bluffs, Iowa, Monday evening, November 15, 1926.

Matt Malloy

John B. Keeline, 43, sportsman and chicken farm owner, shortly after nine Monday morning shot and killed his wife, Carla, 26, wounded his sister-in-law, Mrs. Henry Andreason, and blew out his brains.

Quarrels over a threatened divorce and the supposed refusal of Mrs. Keeline to place a second mortgage on their home, which had been deeded to her, are believed to have precipitated the killings.

The immediate cause of the shootings is said to have been Mrs. Keeline's desire to leave her husband and go with her sister to Gary, Indiana to live.

Members of Mrs. Keeline's family say that such quarrels have been frequent during the last month and that Keeline had been under the influence of whiskey and on the verge of delirium tremens for weeks.

Sheriff P.A. Lainson, Coroner H. Cutler, and County Attorney Frank F. Northrop have been reconstructing the crime from the evidence of bullet-scarred walls, blood patches, and other signs at the Keeline home, 201 Frank Street.

Their reconstruction of the crime disclosed that Keeline attacked his wife while she was preparing to dress in their bedroom. Brandishing a loaded 16-gauge shotgun, he advanced upon her as she cowered, totally nude, in the door of a clothes closet with her hand over face in an attempt to ward off the shot, which a second later went crashing through her hand and into her left jaw and neck.

Mrs. Andreason was attracted from her own bedroom where her child Gloria, six-months-old, lay asleep. Taking one terrified look into the bedroom, Mrs. Andreason is believed to have noticed the nude body of Mrs. Keeline, writhing in a pool of blood at the half-open closet door, then ran to the stairs, intending to summon aid.

Before she had descended three steps, she was met with the other charge from the shotgun in the hands of Keeline, and staggered the remainder of the distance downstairs, with part of her left shoulder torn away.

Keeline then went downstairs, placed the empty shotgun on a chair, went into the butler's pantry, leveled the 20 caliber special police pistol at his head, pulled the trigger, and fell over a chair.

Mrs. Andreason, mother of the dead woman and mother-in-law of Mrs. Henry Andreason, said her daughter had talked of her troubles for several days.

Sunday night, during a visit to her mother, Mrs. Keeline is quoted by members of the family as saying, "I'm afraid of John. He insists on keeping a loaded gun where he can reach it and he has threatened me. Once I hid it, but he made me search it out and give it back to him. He is drinking all the time and I'm afraid he will do something to me." The mother advised her daughter as best she was able.

Keeline is said to have been admitted to an Omaha hospital less than six months ago, suffering from the effects of excessive drinking. He lay between life and death for days, hope being given up on several occasions, until they finally rallied and returned to his home.

After being nursed through a period of convalescence, which followed this outbreak of what is described by Mrs. Andreason as delirium tremens, Keeline began drinking again, and abusing the wife who had nursed him. His condition gradually becoming worse, until it ended in Monday's bloody tragedy.

Mrs. Carla Keeline was the third wife of John B. Keeline. The first wife was Miss Margaret Coyle, member of a prominent Council Bluffs family, who died in a local hospital following treatment for injuries she is said to have received when she fell over a chair in a scuffle with her husband while he was suffering from the effects of drink.

Kevin O'leary

Miss Margaret Coyle, she's my great-grandmother, the one buried next to him. Later I found her death certificate. It says she died of Septicemia after 28 days in the hospital. A newspaper article announcing her death in 1913 says nothing about how she was injured.

Matt Malloy

The death of Mrs. Keeline number one left Johnny Keeline, then two-years-old, motherless.

Kevin O'leary

Johnny Keeline. That's my grandfather, who we all called Papou.

Matt Malloy

A few years later, Keeline married Miss Zelma E. Shellenberg, at that time an employee of the Beno store in the city. Four years ago, wife number two obtained a divorce from Keeline. Mrs. Keeline number two is alleged to have brought her charges after coming home unexpectedly from a trip to the Pacific coast and surprising Keeline with two other local men and three women, engaged in a drunken orgy at the Keeline home.

Mrs. Keeline number three, killed Monday in the mad attack which turned the old Keeline homestead into a shambles, was married to John B. Keeline two years ago, at which time she worked at the Wilcox flower store. The girl was well known locally.

Kevin O'leary

So his third wife's, Carla's, was the small headstone the guy in the cemetery was trying to point out. I went to see it later. All it said was Carla, 1902 to 1926. There's no last name.

At the hotel later that night, after everyone's kids were asleep, I gathered the rest of my family into my uncle's room and read out loud what I had found to them. The news I was telling them, in brief, was this-- my great-grandfather the man who was your grandfather, was married three times. He beat his first wife to death in a drunken rage-- that was your grandmother. He was never punished. His second wife, after years of abuse, divorced him. And his third wife he shot in the face before killing himself.

When I finished reading there was a long silence. Someone said, "Well, there's the big family secret." And that was about it.

Then a bunch of us piled into a hotel van and went to a new floating casino on the bank of the river between Council Bluffs and Omaha. No one mentioned the article again, and no one ever asked me for a copy.

I suppose I kind of forgot the whole thing, too, for a while. And then last year, the Edison, which I inherited, arrived at my apartment. The first day I got it was the first time I ever heard it played. It sounded so beautiful, so old. But creepy, too.

The more I thought about it, the more I was convinced that my great-grandfather's story had to mean something in my family. It had to have affected us in some way. It didn't seem possible that we had all just forgotten it, that the brutal facts of his life had just floated away as soon as I told him in the hotel room that night.

I decided to ask my mom and uncles about it. I went to Iowa to see Uncle Jim. He's the youngest of my mom's family and we've always been pretty close. He started out, like all the kids, saying that he really hadn't given the whole thing much thought. But after awhile, he opened up. And then he told me something I was totally unprepared for. That his father taken him aside 40 years ago, when he was in his early 20's, and confided in him.

Uncle Jim

It was at the Central [UNINTELLIGIBLE] Savings Bank, where at that time I worked, and at that time he owned. And he had told me of the problems.

Kevin O'leary

What did he tell you?

Uncle Jim

Well, he told me that his father was an alcoholic. That he was a vicious person. cruel person, I guess, is maybe a better way to put it. Had killed, or was involved in killing his mother.

Kevin O'leary

He didn't elaborate on it?

Uncle Jim

He said this is what had happened, and his dad knew the chief of police-- and this was during prohibition and everything else, and he could always go down and get a gallon of whiskey or whatever it was that he wanted. You know, without any problems. What the relationship was between the chief of police and dad's dad, I have no idea. He didn't elaborate on that. But he had this thing that-- I guess he killed his wife.

Kevin O'leary

Do you remember what you feel like when he told you that?

Uncle Jim

Well, yeah, I can remember exactly how I felt like. I was surprised. But on the same hand I told my dad-- I said, well you certainly have gone beyond that. And I said to my dad, I said, well it's not always like father like son, is it? And I said, you're a perfect example of that. I said, I can only hope that I can follow in your footsteps.

Kevin O'leary

Did he--

Uncle Jim

He got very emotional at that point in time, and that was pretty much the end of the discussion.

Kevin O'leary

Did he put any restrictions on you with that information?

Uncle Jim

Asked me never to tell anybody about what he had told me. And I gave him my word I wouldn't.

Kevin O'leary

So you never confided this information to anyone.

Uncle Jim

No, no, no. You're the only one that I've ever told this to. And I guess I can say I hope that it will never go any further than this, but I guess it will. I gave my dad my word that I'd never tell. To me, right now, is that I have broke my word to him.

Kevin O'leary

I called my Uncle John in Colorado. He's actually John B. Keeline III, the middle child. He couldn't believe his brother never told him.

Uncle John

But see, why? I mean this is what this whole goddamn family's made up of, is a bunch of [BLEEP]. Because why didn't my mom and dad keep all that [BLEEP] a secret? Every [BLEEP] thing in this world is a secret. Gosh, I'm not going to tell you guys, because this is a secret. I'm not going to tell you guys, this is a secret. You know, I think that just pure-ass sucks. Excuse the expression, but I think it just sucks. I mean, you know. I mean, that's just like me saying, well I was told everything up front and then I'm going to keep it a secret from my brother and my sister. I think that's [BLEEP], I really and honest to god think it's [BLEEP].

Kevin O'leary

Uncle John told me that Jim's secret conversation with their father and the secret about my great-grandfather's murder-suicide are just two more items in a long list of family secrets.

Take the story of Uncle Heine. They were told all their lives he was their mother's uncle. In fact, he was their grandfather, their other grandfather. He used to come over to the house, but everyone who knew was sworn to secrecy.

Uncle John

And how in the world they convinced them that if, in fact, they would ever happen to open their mouth and say-- I mean, those people had to live in ungodly fear. You know? How many times do you think Uncle Heine wanted to say, you know, I'm not your Uncle Heine, I'm your grandfather.

Kevin O'leary

Finally, when their mom was dying, the kids figured it out. And even then, my grandmother wouldn't say a word.

Kevin's Mom

Jim was the one who came in from the hospital-- it was the day we were going to bring her home and everything. He says, guess who our grandfather was? And I just looked at him, I said Uncle Heine. He said how'd you guess? I said it's the only thing that makes sense. And mom was not going to discuss that. I asked her one time after I found out. I said, you know, tell me about Uncle Heine. "I'm not going to discuss it with you." And that was the end of it. And she was dying, Kevin, I wasn't going to argue the point with her.

Kevin O'leary

That's just the way it was. Secrets were the norm. What nobody fully understands is why their father, John B. Keeline II, went along with it. They all adored him. Not only his kids, but the whole town of Cherokee, where they lived. He was honest and kind, he never even swore. It was his wife, my grandmother, the tiny one with all the jewelry, who insisted on the secrets. So because of her, my mom and uncles all say, the family operated under a strict policy of don't ask don't tell.

Uncle Jim

We would have a discussion or whatever, or disagreement, whatever it was in the family-- "We'll talk about it tomorrow." End of discussion. Tomorrow never came.

Uncle John

You know, every time you turn around, you hear somebody say about eight or six words about something or other and you kind of think, well Jesus, none of that makes sense. But that's all that's ever said.

Kevin O'leary

So they had two grandfathers, and all their lives they never heard the truth about either one-- Uncle Heine or John B. Keeline I. But they were way angrier about Uncle Heine because they saw him all the time. John B. Keeline I was a man they'd never met from a town they didn't live in. But what's strange is, that when I asked them again about the newspaper article, I realized they'd all avoided taking in what he really did. My mom said the killings might have been an accident, and thought she remembered something about cleaning a gun. Jim suggested that the woman he killed might have driven him to it. And then there's John.

Uncle John

Kevin, I honest to gosh can't even remember what the article was about. I couldn't tell you one absolute word or one thing about what was in any one piece of the article.

Kevin O'leary

It's as if they'd all had been just as happy to leave it a secret. Here's my mom.

Kevin's Mom

I wasn't told these things. There was a reason, evidently, that they didn't want to do it. And I can understand you wanting to find out more, and everything. But on the same hand, I don't want anything said or done that would hurt my dad, or hurt my dad's name. And I feel very strongly about that. My dad was everything to me. I'd just leave it all under the rug before I'd-- basically, I guess, tarnish his name.

Kevin O'leary

In some way, they'd taken on their father's shame about the whole thing and left the history untouched to protect him, and each other, and themselves, against the judgment of outsiders. Exactly the way families are supposed to.

I still play the old cylinders on the Edison from time to time. This one called, Then You'll Remember Me. There's a line in the song that goes like this, "There may perhaps, in such a scene some recollection be, of day's that have happy been. Then you'll remember me."

[MUSIC - "Then You'll Remember Me"]

Ira Glass

Kevin O'Leary lives in Toronto. Actor Matt Malloy read the 1926 newspaper article for us.

Coming up, a 12-year-old ruins a day that is 18 years in the making. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

It's This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Our program today, Family Legends.

Act Three. Admissions.

Ira Glass

We've arrived at Act Three of our show. Act Three, Admissions.

This is one of those stories that didn't turn into a family story until one of the kids went to college and started telling this story, and then realized just how unusual her family was. It's partly a story of a prank gone wrong, but it's a prank that the family was building up to for years. Katia Dunn tells the story.

Katia Dunn

Megan Curtis can remember her first campus visit as a prospective student. She was eight-years-old. She was the youngest of three girls that on spring break, summer vacation, even some Christmas breaks, when other New Jersey families were going skiing or to the beach, Megan's family was touring college campuses.

Megan Curtis

NYU, Columbia, U Penn--

Katia Dunn

You can hear in her voice how much she enjoyed those visits. Megan figures that they visited 40 or 50 schools before they even began filling out their applications.

Megan Curtis

I was intentionally brought along on all these visits because, you know, in 10 years I would be going to college too. So it was important for me to have some sort of impression of these places.

Katia Dunn

And were you excited at all about college?

Megan Curtis

No, I hated going on them. It was boring, it was really boring.

Katia Dunn

It was Megan's mom who insisted on the visits. She was obsessed with finding the perfect school for each of her daughters. She read the college guide so often that their bindings wore out.

Not satisfied with the book's rating systems, she posted charts on the refrigerator with rankings of her own. She hung up a map of the United States and traced a pizza pan on it. Colleges inside the circle were OK to apply to. Colleges outside the circle were too far from home.

Megan Curtis

I remember going, searching high and low to find Wite-Out strips that were the same color as all of the applications. So, like, let's say James Madison had manila paper-- you know, she really went all over the state of New Jersey looking for the exact right color of manila Wite-Out strips. And she found them.

Katia Dunn

It wasn't enough, said her mother, to fill out an application. When Megan's older sister, Amanda, started applying to colleges, she needed a way to stand out. So her mother commissioned the owner of the local video store to make a film about Amanda's field hockey career. It was set to Eye Of The Tiger. Megan remembers it clearly.

Megan Curtis

The video starts off with Mandy giving this really awkward monologue.

Amanda Curtis

Hi, my name is Mandy Curtis. I'm the captain of this year's varsity field hockey team at Middletown High School South.

Megan Curtis

Very clearly, my mother scripted for her. That sort of runs through every single accomplishment that she had ever made in her field hockey career, going all the way back to the seventh grade.

Amanda Curtis

And eighth grade, I was the captain of my eighth grade team, and selected as an all-star.

Megan Curtis

She wouldn't get in if she left any of these things out.

Amanda Curtis

On JV, I dressed for a few varsity games for the state championships, and saw some time.

I do remember thinking it was pretty cool that I had a video.

Katia Dunn

And here's Amanda.

Amanda Curtis

It was filmed in front of our house and it was such a suburb sort of scene. And I'm sure it did nothing to help me. If anything, it made me look probably younger and more immature and not ready to go to college. But I thought it was pretty good. I still do.

Katia Dunn

To understand what happened next, you have to consider that, by now, 12-year-old Megan was feeling pretty sorry for herself. She was miserable. Her mom's obsession with college put everyone in the house on edge. And with everybody worrying about her sister's application, nobody was paying any attention to Megan. All the family cared about was the letter they knew would soon arrive from the Davidson College admissions office, saying whether Amanda had been admitted to her first choice school. And if Megan thought the application part of the process had been agonizing-- well, this was worse.

Megan Curtis

I couldn't take the waiting anymore. You know, I was every day checking the mailbox. It wasn't there, It wasn't there, it wasn't there.

So I decided that it was time to end the waiting and write my own acceptance letter for Amanda. And so I did that.

I found the dean of the admissions' name, and the address of the admissions office. And I cut out the heading, their letterhead. So I sat down and I wrote this letter. Actually, I have it here.

"Dear Amanda, it is with great pleasures that we write to inform you of your acceptance to Davidson College, class of 1996. With a record number of applications this year, it was not easy to get in this year. But after reading your inspiring application, we knew you would be an admirable addition to this institution's cast of stars."

The letter was very clearly written by an eleven-year-old.

"We were especially impressed with your amazing sports talent.

I know that this must be a very inspiring time for you but is also very important to concentrate on the first tuition deposit. We need it pretty soon. Please make sure to send the check to our admissions office right after this letter arrives at your house.

We hope you are as happy as we are that you got in here.

Sincerely, Nancy J. Cable, Dean of Admission."

I remember thinking, God, this is great. This is so good, this is my best work. I really should try to send it to her.

I somehow, I think, just wanted her to feel like she had gotten in. Because she so badly wanted to get in. And more than that, my mother so badly wanted her to get in. And I think, in some ways, it was probably for my own benefit, too. I wanted to be a part of this whole thing, too.

Katia Dunn

Megan's dad ran a business out of their house, which made finding the FedEx envelope and filling it out no problem.

Megan Curtis

I put the envelope in the screen door, rang the doorbell, bolted away, and then sort of waited around a little while so I could casually make my way back into the house, coming through the garage door entrance so that nobody would suspect me.

And the moment I walked into the house I knew that I had made a really, really bad decision.

Katia Dunn

Amanda was still in bed when the letter arrived.

Amanda Curtis

The doorbell rings, and my mom went to get it. I'm surprised she didn't fall down the stairs because she was running up frantically to me. And, you know, just flew open my door, was like "It's here! It's here!" And woke me up, literally, like that. And I remember then just sitting on my bed opening it. And definitely very nervous, and of course my mom is hovering over me. And at that point I think my dad had come in.

So I open the letter and I remember reading it. And, oh my gosh, what relief. Like, utter emotional relief. Thank god, I got in. And so there's this great elation, just such excitement and happiness. And I don't even think I read the whole letter, actually, at that point. Because I was just like, you know, just a real sigh. And my mom, of course, very thrilled and hugging me.

And then I see the little figure of my sister, Meg, coming up the top of the steps. And I see her in the doorway looking very sort of meek.

Megan Curtis

I was completely terrified. I decided that the only solution was to come clean now. I couldn't take the immense guilt. So I went upstairs and I said, feeling like I needed to somehow make light of it, somehow draw their attention to how funny this was, came out and said, it was me, I did it. You know, wacky smile and jazz hands.

Katia Dunn

As you can imagine, this didn't fly. The way her mom saw it, Megan had taken one of the biggest days of their lives, the day Amanda would get into college, and turned it into a joke.

Megan Curtis

My mom thought that I had just committed the most egregious sin that one could commit. How sick are you that this would even enter into your mind? This is not something that a normal person would do.

Katia Dunn

Here's Amanda.

Amanda Curtis

My mom would say, how could you be so evil, how could you be so terrible, how could you hate your sister so much? Things even like, you're not part of our family, where did you come from, that kind of abuse. That definitely pounded into Meg's head that what she had done was really, really, really wrong.

I know Meg went into her room, and to be honest, I don't think she really came out of her room. You know, I mean, metaphorically speaking. I think that was kind of a turning point for Meg that she really started to sort of shut herself off from a lot of us.

Megan Curtis

I felt awful about myself afterwards. I had this serious guilt, and I cried, and I just went into this very serious depression. I started wondering, maybe there is something wrong with me. Why did I do this?

Katia Dunn

About a week after Megan's letter arrived at the door, Amanda got another acceptance letter from Davidson College. This time, it was real.

Megan was off the hook as far as her sister goes, but the situation with her mom was a little more complicated. Actually, it still is. Even today, way after Megan has graduated from Vassar College, she still gets upset talking about all this.

And when I ask Megan if I can interview her mom for the story, she said she didn't think her mom would want to talk about it much. Megan was sure her mom was still just as mad about the letter as she had been years ago. Which is why I was so surprised when her mother told me how she remembered it.

Megan's Mom

I think of this as a funny time. I don't think of this little prank of hers as being-- now, looking back on it, quite so evil as I did then. It was funny, it is funny, it was funny.

Katia Dunn

When you told Megan that she had done a horrible thing, did you feel bad about it, when you told her that? Do you feel bad about it now?

Megan's Mom

I probably was over the top. I probably reacted more strongly than I would have, in retrospect. I'm sure I overreacted.

Katia Dunn

When I told Megan what her mom said, she was floored.

Megan Curtis

OK, that's kind of shocking that she said that. I have always had the sense that she really felt like this was still a really bad thing to do. And it wasn't funny in any way.

Katia Dunn

So what do you make of this?

Megan Curtis

I don't know. I mean, I feel like she's making it up.

Katia Dunn

So you think she's lying?

Megan Curtis

Yeah, I think she's lying. She didn't think it was funny, that's ridiculous.

Katia Dunn

So it sounds like you still have some resentment.

Megan Curtis

[LAUGHS] Well, you know, I mean, I guess I shouldn't if this is the way she really feels. And I think you have to come to a point where you stop holding grudges against your parents.

Katia Dunn

Megan's mom explains her behavior this way. Back when she was choosing a college, she didn't look around for schools, nobody helped her. She ended up choosing the school closest to the cousin's house where she would be eating Thanksgiving dinner. She always regretted it, she says, and she wanted her kids to have something different.

Megan's Mom

I thought I was doing a great thing for my family. I was doing for my children what I had wished that my parents had done for me. I think they recognize the lengths that I went to get them to heights that I thought they could achieve.

And they all got into excellent colleges and they all have done wonderful things that I'm proud of and that they're proud of. Whether or not they think my part in it was an important part, I'm not sure. I wonder. I wonder if they'll look back and say, wow, look at what mom did for us. Maybe they won't, I don't know.

Katia Dunn

Megan's been telling the fake letter story for years. And for her, the moral is this-- look how crazy my mom acted with this college admissions stuff.

Recently, her mom started telling the story, too. And she draws the same conclusion as her daughter.

Megan's Mom

The story was about how over the top we were and how it took a little girl to bring us down to reality. I think that's what it's about. Not to say that we wouldn't do it the same way again. Because I think basically we are who we are and even though we see the error of our ways, that doesn't mean we won't necessarily repeat them. I'm already thinking of where my granddaughter might go to college. I have a brand new granddaughter.

[LAUGHS]

We've already started the piggy bank with the money in it, and talking-- she's three months old.

Katia Dunn

Vassar College, expect a video for the class of 2022 any day.

Ira Glass

Katia Dunn. Her program was produced today by Sarah Koenig and myself with Alex Blumberg, Diane Cook, Wendy Dorr, Jane Feltes, and Lisa Pollak. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Elizabeth Meister runs our website. Production help from Todd Bachmann and Will Reichel. Special thanks today to [? Fuan ?] Williams and Dmitri [? Schube ?].

Our web site, www.thisamericanlife.org, where you can listen to our programs absolutely free or buy CDs of them. Or, you know, you can download today's program in our archives at audible.com/thisamericanlife.

This American Life is distrubted by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight for our program by Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, people ask me all the time, what's he really like? and I think they have finally figured out a way to get it across.

Kevin O'leary

Imagine a tiny, little, white lady, with the temper and fashion sense of Mr. T, and you get the idea.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

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