When George and Jean Melby decided in 2003 to sell their business, it triggered a crisis for their then-40-year-old daughter.
For June Melby, Tom Thumb Mini Golf was not just a popular Chain O’ Lakes tourist attraction, it had been her summer home since age 10.
“I was so devastated to find that out,” Melby told the Waupaca County Post when recalling Tom Thumb’s sale in the summer of 2003. “The only thing I could do was take a lot of pictures and write and try to hang on to it.”
This week, June Melby’s My Family and Other Hazards was released by Henry Holt and Co.
Humorous and often poignant, her memoir is an insightful look at working in a small family business.
Melby writes about the endless demands the business made on her family and her feelings as a child whose summers were usually spent working rather than playing.
Shortly after her mother told her the business would be sold that year, June called her younger sister Carla.
“I always felt like the mini golf course was like the sick sibling that got all the attention I never got,” she recalls Carla saying.
Melby notes in her book that Carla as a child felt so ignored that she even became jealous of the Collie: “Dad would say ‘Good dog’ or ‘Good boy’ to him all the time,” she says, “but he never said anything like that to me.”
My Family and Other Hazards has 18 chapters, each named after a hazard at the course. Beginning with the first hole, The Rocket, the book offers both a tour of the course, as well as Melby’s journey of self discovery.
“There’s a memory embedded not just in each hazard but in each corner of a hazard,” she writes. “After thirty years, these eighteen holes are like an elaborate diary.”
Each hazard also represents a theme that integrates the anecdotes into a meanigful narrative.
For example, hole No. 3, The One With The Hill In The Middle, is about the despair of a 10-year-old girl who realizes that owning a mini golf course does not mean she gets to play all day. It means she will have to work throughout the summer.
“It wasn’t easy to have people come to your backyard to spend part of their vacation. For one thing, they are on vacation. You are not. So you do your best to have a good time about it,” she writes in a later chapter. “People on vacation, I realized, are like people in the hospital. They get special treatment. You had to talk to them nicely and sometimes very slowly.”
Melby shares her family history, how her father grew up on a farm during the Depression, how a coin toss determined that he would join the Army at the end of World War II while his brother would take over the farm, then lose it.
After buying Tom Thumb, her parents, who were teachers in Decorah, Iowa, spent the next 30 years without a vacation. They spent their summers running the family business.
She describes how her father painstakingly built and maintained each of the hazards. And how her mother raked the weeds out of the lake, mowed the golf course, replaced the greens, painted and planted and cooked and cleaned.
“We all worked, but it appeared to me that Dad had gotten the long end of the straw. His job was the motors and Mom did everything else,” Melby recalls in her book. “Okay, he also repaired the hazards when pieces had rotted. But it was calm work. Leisure work. Jobs that seemed more or less optional.
Melby explains in detail the arduous task of cleaning the pool at hole No. 11, The Covered Bridge. Her mother spent hours vacuuming and sponging out the old water, removing the dirt and leaves, scrubbing on her hands and knees, then refilling the pool.
“It was her job to clean it. Because cleaning the pool is a terrible job. And like most other Mom-jobs on the planet, no one else will do it,” she writes.
Underlying the book’s various chapter themes is a broader theme about sacrifice.
It seems the sale of Tom Thumb mattered so much to 40-year-old June Melby – even though she was the sibling who moved the farthest away to California to pursue dreams of being a musician, a standup comic, an actor and a poet – because her childhood memories included a shared life of sacrifice. Because the Melby family spent 30 summers bringing moments of joy to hundreds, perhaps thousands of people.
“Which is the better road to happiness: Pursuing your dreams, that is, going after happiness selfishly, like it’s your own personal goal? Or generosity, that is, finding your own happiness by helping others find theirs?” she asks near the end of the book.
Many of Tom Thumb’s visitors came summer after summer, first as children, then as parents, even grandparents.
“There was a family who came here every summer by canoe,” Melby said during her interview with the Waupaca County Post. “They didn’t always play golf, but they always bought cotton candy. It was a summer tradition for the children and they called it their candy boat trip.”
Eleven years after the Melby family sold it, Tom Thumb is up for sale again. United Country, Udoni & Salan Realty Group is marketing the 1.7-acre parcel, the 18-hole mini golf course, boat docks and 2,000-square-foot home located at Whispering Pines Point, where Bass Lake and Beasley Brook converge.
“It would be great if someone would buy it and keep it going,” Melby said. “Tom Thumb has been there since 1959. The hazards were made by hand and should be in a folk art museum.”
Melby will visit the Waupaca Historical Society, at the Holly Center, 321 S. Main St., at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 7. She will discuss the history of mini golf and her book.
Copies of Melby’s book are on sale now at The Bookceller in downtown Waupaca.