Molly O'Neill's father believed that baseball was his family's destiny. He wanted to spawn enough sons for an infield, so he married the tallest woman in Columbus, Ohio. Molly came out first, but eventually her father's plan prevailed. Five boys followed in rapid succession and the youngest, Paul O'Neill, did, in fact, grow up to be the star right fielder for the New York Yankees. In Mostly True, celebrated food critic and writer O'Neill tells the story of her quintessentially American family and the places where they come together around the table and on the ball field.
Molly's great-grandfather played on one of the earliest traveling teams in organized baseball, her grandfather played barnstorming ball, and her father pitched in the minor leagues, but after being sidelined with an injury in the war, he set his sights on the next generation. While her brothers raged and struggled to become their own men, Molly, appointed "Deputy Mom" at an age when most girls were playing with dolls, learned early how to be the model Midwestern homemaker and began casting about wildly for other possible destinies. As her mother cleaned fanatically and produced elaborate, healthy meals, Molly spoiled her bro-thers with skyscraper cakes, scribbled reams of poetry, and staged theatrical productions in the backyard. By the late 1960s, the Woodstock Nation had challenged some of the O'Neill values, but nothing altered their conviction that only remarkable achievement could save them.
Mostly True is the uncommon chronicle of a regular family pursuing the American dream and of one girl's quest to find her place in a world built for boys. Molly O'Neill an independent, extraordinarily talented, and fiercely funny woman showed that home runs can be hit in many fields. Her memoir is glorious.
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About the Author
For a decade, Molly O'Neill was the food columnist for The New York Times Magazine and the host of the PBS series Great Food. Her work has appeared in many national magazines, and she is the author of three cookbooks, including the award-winning The New York Cookbook. She lives in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
We Would Be Heroes
Every one of my five brothers was bred to play ball. For a long time it wasn't clear which of the boys would make it to the major leagues, but we had no doubt that The One was among us. We were the chosen. I do not recall a single moment of my childhood in which I was not imagining my family's life or my own as an epic tale.
I kept a journal from the time I was seven years old. Across the thousands of pages, my handwriting changed the wobbly print gave way first to a bloated cursive and then to a careful combination of print and script but my purpose was unflagging. I was determined to redeem us, to save us not only from ourselves but also from the terrible possibility of being ordinary.
For their part, my family trusted me to write poignant and glowing accounts of its adventures and exploits. Knowing that our days would certainly be distilled into a heroic portrait of a certain America was a grave responsibility. My brothers, therefore, did not have time to worry about little things like social conventions or rules. They lived on an elevated plane, and their faith in future fame was absolute.
Before they were old enough to seriously practice the game, they spent hours in our backyard in Columbus, Ohio, tirelessly preparing themselves for the sound of the fans going wild. "Ahhhhhhh!" they'd gasp, bowing their heads, clenching their fists and stretching their arms straight up toward heaven. "Aaaaaa haaaaaa haaaaaaaaa."
To create the sound of the fans going wild, they pushed hot air from their diaphragms up into the backs of their throats; then they added the sort of hacking that might signal the expulsion of a large blob of phlegm. Finally, they exhaled. The raspy, wheezing result approximated the distant roar of fans behind Red Barber's voice on the radio.
These public broadcasts contributed to our neighbors' ongoing exasperation. My brothers, however, were not concerned. Day after day, they created a piece of performance art in which they were, simultaneously, the fans going wild, the player being honored, and the announcer describing the scene.
With no apparent provocation, the sound of fans would erupt from various points in the backyard.
"Yeahhhhhhhhh," said the swing set.
"Haaaaaa aaaaa aaaa," said the whirligig.
"What could they be doing over there?" said the neighbor.
"Molly, can't you keep them quiet?" yelled our mother.
"Please, you guys," I pleaded.
But the fans could not be silenced by then, for the players had abandoned their positions and were stumbling toward the center of the yard. Their heads were down. Their mouths were open. Their eyes were squeezed shut. Their faces were wrinkled as if each were pushing a particularly challenging bowel movement. They collided, hugging and jumping on one another. They were falling together like ecstatic converts leveled by the spirit. They were a writhing pile of victory. And the fans were going wild.
Bark-cloth curtains rattled on their plastic rings throughout the neighborhood: "Everything OK over there?" Screen doors screeched open "Can you keep it down?" and slammed shut. Babies awoke howling from their naps and the anguished voices of other people's mothers rose like thistles under our bare summer feet.
"Does anybody even keep an eye on those kids?"
But my brothers then rose from the pile of magnificent winners to become a team of commentators. They raced to the giant spruce in our front yard and scrambled up its branches. The tree was their radio tower. Each was determined to be the first to air the news. The spruce swayed precariously beneath the breathy wail of their broadcast. Boughs snapped. The trunk creaked. Dried needles showered down like ticker tape.
"Did you see that! I'm telling ya, that O'Neill! What a shot!"
"He had some wood on that one, O'Neill did! Heck, I don't think it's landed yet!"
"What a hitter! O'Neill won the ball game! He won the Series!"
It happened every afternoon. It was so embarrassing. They were so pathetic.
"My God, Molly, can you quiet them down?" My mother was inside nursing the baby but with each word "All I'm asking for is a moment's peace!" she was gathering a head of steam and getting closer to the window.
"For-heaven's-sake-Molly-they're-breaking-the-pine-tree-what-in-the-name -of-God-is-the-matter-with-you-get-them-out-of-there-oh-my-God-one-of- them-is-falling-get-him-Je-sus-Chrrrr-ist-is-there-no-end- to-this?"
There was no end to it. And so, in the summer of 1962, I tried a different beginning. "I'm adopted," I told my friends. "You know Anastasia, the youngest daughter of the czar, remember, that story in My Weekly Reader? That's my real mother. But don't tell anybody," I would add solemnly. "Otherwise, people might think I'm a communist."
My real brothers were princes who rode white steeds through snowy forests and defended my honor with gleaming lances, not these small serfs wielding fat red plastic bats on the patch of grass behind a modest suburban house in the Midwest. No wonder I didn't care about baseball: I was Russian!
I cultivated the habit of checking for my crown just to make sure that I wasn't wearing it in public by mistake and drawing attention to myself. Pat, pat, pat, pat. Using index and middle fingers, I would touch four spots in a circle around the top of my head.
"What in the name of God is the matter with you?" said my (supposed) mother. "Have you lost your mind?"
I took great comfort in my secret and superior station in life, but my royal status also had unforeseen consequences: the more I became Anastasia's daughter, the more keenly I suffered the pain of being deprived of a family who understood me. Then one evening Walter Cronkite mentioned Russia on the news. "What the heck?" said my (supposed) father as I rushed out the front door sobbing and trying to rend my garments.
As I came around the corner of the house, I saw that my mother had abandoned the dishes and was standing on the back stoop, waiting for my maniacal circuit to return me to our yard. I swerved to avoid her and headed for the maple tree. I flung my arms around its trunk and then, in what I hoped was heartbreaking desperation, began to wail.
"Now this is ab-so-lute-ly reee-dic-ulous," said my mother.
As she strode toward me, the low heels of her straw sandals creaking through the grass, I realized that it was time to tell my (supposed) mother who I really was. I braced myself to make the confession, but then, as she bent close to my ear, the smell of her lipstick Firecracker by Revlon erased my words.
"You are going to stop this right now and come in and help me dry the dishes. I mean it, Molly. Right now. Do you hear me?"
Meekly, I followed her back to the kitchen, took up a clammy linen tea towel embroidered with small chickens, and began drying the Boontonware plates. Somewhere between the salad plates and the dessert plates I realized that the daughter of the dead czarina didn't have the right stuff. Only the female offspring of my parents could survive being the only female offspring of my parents. And so I reluctantly parted with this fantasy and cast about for something else to explain my embarrassment, my scorn, and the lonely sense of separateness I harbored.
"My brothers are adopted," I told my friends.
In fact, my brothers and I were born to the same parents but we were raised by different people. Our parents changed, birth by birth, as their worries and consolations expanded and contracted like an accordion, usually in concert with their cash flow. We also grew up in different worlds.
An entire decade elapsed between my reign as tetherball champ at Indian Springs Elementary and 1972, when our youngest brother, Paul, began getting ejected from playground dodgeball due to poor sportsmanship. During that decade our hometown became a city, Ohio became Kent State, and the country became, however briefly, too cool for baseball.
My brothers and I therefore have differing accounts of the years we shared, but we all imagine the same beginning. There is the sound of a bat hitting a ball, steady and easy, like a metronome. We are in our backyard on Schreyer Place in Columbus. Our ballpark. The backstop is the chipped white clapboard on the back of the garage and home plate is an agreement, a general vicinity. First base is a honeysuckle that climbs the chain-link fence that separates our yard from the one next door, second is the redbud tree, and third a massive climbing rose. It is not exactly a diamond. It's more like an isosceles triangle, with third base about halfway along the hypotenuse. But it works for games as well as for fielding practice.
Our father is hitting fly balls thuk, thuk and four of my brothers are standing like very small chess pieces in the high grass just in front of the overgrown privet hedge that marks the end of our backyard. They are spanking the new leather baseball gloves. They are saying, "Hey batta batta batta." Our father's black hair rises in stiff Elvis waves that glisten with Brylcreem. Dusk is claiming the backyard and, as he watches the flight of the balls he hits, his slightly crooked smile is incandescent.
I am standing behind home plate, just out of reach of the bat, close enough to see how the hula girls on his Hawaiian shirt twitch whenever our father steps into his long, sweeping swing. Our youngest brother is balanced against my hip, facing out toward the field. He is eighteen months old and he is writhing against my forearm, kicking my thighs. He wants to run the bases.
Thunk! The Wiffle ball sails from our father's bat. "Lookie there!" he hollers. There is wonder and delight in his voice, as if a comet were arching through the humid Ohio air over his own backyard.
"Eye on the ball," he purrs. "Eye on the ball." His voice is initially soft as he directs his sons and then, as the ball wobbles at the crest of its rise, he explodes "Go! Go! Go!" like a commanding officer pushing his men out the open door of a plane.
Four of my brothers race through the grass, their gloves stretched toward heaven, their faces wrinkled fiercely, the tips of their tongues emerging like so many fat red nipples from between their teeth. I put the baby down and he begins stumbling along the baseline toward first. He is so pigeon-toed that he trips over his feet, falling and picking himself up, again and again.
I used to imagine that our cheers my clapping and cooing as the baby toddled the baselines, my other brothers' shouts would continue to grow as we did until they finally merged with the sound of real fans going wild.
It always comes back to that.
The sound of the fans going wild is forever. It is the moment when we make up for everything we've ever done wrong, overturn all judgments against us, erase any doubt directed toward us, and ascend to our rightful position very close to the right hand of God.
The sound of the fans going wild is an eternal moment, the moment when we would be heroes. Copyright ©2006 by Molly O'Neill