Characters from The Messy Art of Remembering and Becoming Whole


Mary Katherine (M. K.) Aubochon

In the novel, Mary Katherine is the protagonist and the youngest child in the O’Connel family. She is the one who turns her family upside down when she speaks the truth about her childhood. Being the center of attention was never an easy role for her. One of her earliest memories occurred after dinner when her second birthday was celebrated, but with all eyes upon her, she cried uncontrollably. Protests to drink her milk or eat her peas were demonstrated with her holding her breath until her face turned pink and her whole body shook. This caused an endless flow of laughter from her siblings, who pointed their fingers at her. “Look at her. She’s going to pop. Mom, please don’t make her eat her peas.” They called her Cover Girl when she smeared red sauce all over her face when she ate spaghetti, which incited her to spread another layer. To this day, M.K. still has a hard time when attention is lavished her way, but continues to push herself out of her comfort zone.

Marilyn “Birdie” O’Connel – Mother of Mary Katherine

Mary Katherine’s mother, Birdie, was an ex-debutante and social climber until she married Seamus, Jr.. In the book, M.K. must come to terms with the light and dark in her mom. One of the things her kids remember about her is her wonderful cooking skills; but, even though she went to finishing school in upstate New York, she wasn’t always a good cook. Once, as a newlywed, trying to impress her husband, she cooked what she thought was a king’s meal of Spam with peas and carrots. When she set it in front of him, his stomach flipped, his face turned different shades of green and he said:  “I can’t eat this, Birdie. I ate that every day in the Navy.” M.K. heard that story a lot over the years and never tried making Spam herself.

Seamus O’Connel, Jr. – Father of Mary Katherine

Mary Kathrine’s father is one of the anti-heros in the book, who causes his young daughter so much pain. He was a Jack LaLanne enthusiast who had a penchant for finding and losing jobs rather quickly, much to the chagrin of Birdie and the kids. He told even taller tales than his father. Seamus, Jr. wasn’t always such a failure in life. Before he met M.K.’s mother, he was living it up as a bachelor, spending money as easily as he swilled his beloved Tom Collins, doing his best to keep the girls at bay. When he was in the Navy, he left his sunglasses on the ship when he landed on Borneo. He was told that there was a chief on the island who always had a few things for sale so he might be able to pick up some replacement sunglasses. One of his shipmates said, “Maybe he has something to protect your eyes with too, but he’s a former headhunter. Too bad you won’t know how reformed he really is until you get there.”

Finally, Seamus, Jr. walked up a rickety wooden steps of the house built on stilts. The chief he was seeking was sitting behind a long table piled with canned goods, beer, chewing gum and, lo and behold, a pair of sunglasses. Friends or family who heard this story often fell into one of his punch lines: “So, he didn’t cut your head off?” to which he replied like they were the dumbest people in the world, “I’m telling you the damn story, aren’t I?” In the novel, stories like this helped M.K. connect to her father when she was an adult and coming to terms with the truth of her childhood.

Cager O’Connel – Oldest Brother of Mary Katherine

Cager is Mary Katherine’s older sibling, the one that her parents never thought they could have after five years of trying. He contributed to the unpredictability of M.K.’s childhood, though he was a lot of fun. He was infamous for an ill-conceived party he threw when he was eighteen; everybody in the neighborhood could hear the blaring music and see the party in full swing. The whole high school was inside the house, and it wasn’t very big. M.K.’s sisters hid out with her in the upstairs bedroom, keeping away hormone-crazed boys. As an adult, M.K. was seeking validation for her childhood experiences from her brother.

Finney O’Connel – Brother of Mary Katherine

Finney is the second-oldest sibling and was into meditation and taking trips beyond this world, and, while he was calmer than Cager, often had blowout scenes with their father. He’s the one that introduced Mary Kathrine to the bars in California. As an adult, M.K. doesn’t recall too many memories of her brother. Finney often rebelled against his father over whose turn it was to do the dinner dishes. One evening ended with them both wrestling each other on the upstairs landing. This ended miserably for them both when they fell down the stairs. Years later Finney revealed to M.K.: “I landed on his balls. I got him back for all the times he was an asshole to me.” To this day, M.K. always does the dishes just to avoid a confrontation.

Kitty Vanderberg – Oldest Sister of Mary Katherine

Oldest of the Mary Katherine’s sisters, she married at the age of nineteen, leaving her younger sister to fend for herself in a chaotic household. It was no surprise since Kitty often had shouting matches with her mother. Their mother consoled M.K. one day about Kitty moving out by telling her about her own favorite brother who was killed by a police officer. “Life is full of hellos and goodbyes,” she said. When M.K. is fifteeen, her mother abandons her by moving to Los Angeles to find a job. Kitty and her husband take her in, but they can’t replace her parents. M.K. takes solace in keg parties and getting the worst grades possible. In the novel, Kitty’s the one who is most opposed to Mary Katherine’s search for the truth, because in her eyes, their father could do no wrong and their mother was the true villian.

Prudence Williams – Sister of Mary Katherine

Prudence is the middle child and played the part very well. The other kids teased her for attempts at cooking, often calling her Ellie Mae for her cement-like muffins. She’s the one who developed Bell’s palsy when Birdie had a brain tumor. Like her sister Kitty, Pru had a contemptuous relationship with her mother. It wasn’t because they were so different, but because they had many traits that were alike. M.K. remembers their mother chasing her sister around the house with a cat-o-nine tails for taking her hairbrush and not returning it to her vanity. In the novel, Pru sides with her sister, Kitty, believing that their father can do no wrong.

Boomer O’Connel – Brother of Mary Katherine

Even though Boomer is only a few years older than Mary Katherine, he often took the parental role, but that wasn’t always the case. One Thanksgiving when he was twelve, he was forced to do the dishes and everyone ignored him when he complained about doing so. The family’s antique gravy bowl ended up slipping from his fingers and breaking. When his mother confronted him about being clumsy, he admitted: “I had a little Old Granddad.” While he was washing the dishes, he was sipping the remnants of the alcohol in the cups from dinner instead of dumping it down the drain. He drank it because it smelled and tasted familiar; their mother often mixed honey and lemon with whiskey for her children when they had sore throats. M.K. remembers her father picking her brother up like a sack of onions, slinging him over his back “to get him some fresh air.” Meanwhile Birdie rushed to get her elderly parents out the door to go home so they wouldn’t know their grandson was drunk. M.K., who was seven at the time, will never forget that night because her normally responsible brother was falling around like a rubber chicken.

Seamus O’Connel, Sr. – Mary Katherine’s Grandfather, Father of Seamus, Jr.

The elder Seamus was a self-made man who had a photographic memory and left home in elementary school. M.K. never met her grandfather but he left a mysterious, negative legacy and she often heard tall stories about him. He saw dollar signs even during life’s most tragic moments. When Seamus, Jr.’s, childhood house was on fire, his dad allowed the house to completely burn, furniture and all, in order to receive the largest insurance settlement. His shrewdness paved a way to move his family to an affluent suburb of Detroit. Stories like this were heard over the years at the O’Connel cocktail or holiday parties.

Grandma Madge O’Connel – Mary Katherine’s Grandmother, Mother of Seamus, Jr.

M.K.’s grandmother was married to Seamus, Sr. and was the mother to Seamus, Jr. She never left the house without wearing red lipstick and fingernail polish. Madge hardly ever carried on a conversation without a cigarette dangling from her mouth. During Seamus, Jr.’s, childhood, she worked for her husband when most mothers stayed home, a trait M.K.’s father resented the most. She had a Napolean complex that rivaled most short men, taking up as much space as possible in the world with her no nonsense attitude. She had no problem suing one of the biggest nail polish manufactures, for making her nails yellow, or her apartment building, for leaving boxes in the aisle of the downstairs grocery store. Her wins gave her more financial leverage to bail M.K.’s parents out of financial tight spots, which never seemed to end.

Aunt Joan Kangles – Mary Katherine’s Aunt, Sister of Seamus, Jr.

Aunt Joan is Seamus, Jr.’s only sibling and younger sister. They had a rivalry like no other. They both complained that their mother loved the other better than them. Aunt Joan often had holiday parties over her house, but M.K. doesn’t recall her mother ever attending on time. M.K.’s mother never forgave her sister-in-law for borrowing her wedding dress and delivering it altered and with a large port stain. Even Madge was partial to her daughter’s children, who affectionately called the matriarch Nana vs. the generic term for her son’s children who could only call her grandma. Aunt Joan represented the relative who was unbending and caused family divison.

Ellen Callahan – Cousin of Seamus, Jr. and Aunt Joan

She is the cousin to Seamus, Jr., and Joan and the relative who M.K. meets as an adult when she journeys back home for closure. She represents the diplomatic relative who flows with love and forgiveness and keeps the family together–most unlike Aunt Joan.

Grandpa Ashford Humphrey – Mary Katherine’s Grandfather, Father of Birdie

He was the father to Marilyn (Birdie) and grandfather to Mary Katherine. Her grandfather was a successful hotel proprietor in Detroit. M.K. remembers when he came over with his wife for the O’Connel holiday parties. He walked with a cane, hobbling through the door, handing his long black coat and felt hat to Birdie. He also had a dark secret that spread on this side of the family tree. M.K. remembers how he taught her how to give a butterfly kiss. In the novel, M.K., lived with her ailing grandparents with her mom after her parents divorced.

Grandma Edwina Humphrey – Mary Katherine’s Grandmother, Mother of Birdie

She was Birdie’s mother and M.K.’s grandmother and from a successful hotel family who migrated from Canada. Grandma Humphrey was a fine pianist, and artist, as well as perfectionist in the kitchen from all the years spent overseeing the hotel staff. She loved clothes, oftentimes buying dresses or shoes in three different colors if she really liked the design. Local store proprietors loved her because she kept them in business. M.K. remembers her grandmother in a wheelchair because of a rare bone degenerative disease. She often visited the O’Connel home with her husband, but stayed outside in the Cadillac because she had problems getting in and out of the car. She’d make the effort to come inside their house for the O’Connel family holiday parties. Her grandmother always had a cigarette in her mouth with the longest ash anyone had ever seen, but was flicked in an ashtray in the nick of time, never once landing on the carpeted floor. When M.K. lived with her grandmother, she remembers that she had an insatiable sweet tooth for Sanders chocolate candy. Birdie’s wealthy grandparents also contributed to the O’Connel family fund when money was tight.

Uncle Bob Humphrey – Mary Katherine’s Uncle, Brother of Birdie

He is Birdie’s only living brother and the uncle to M.K. whom she detests. He causes Birdie much grief as he positions himself to make as much money as possible off of his senile parents after M.K.’s parents divorce.

Aunt Clara Miller – Mary Katherine’s Aunt, Sister to Birdie

She is Birdie’s only living sister and the aunt to M.K., whom she also loathes. M.K. felt that her aunt and uncle conspired together against their sibling to gain financial leverage over their youngest sister.

Anselm Asbury

In the novel, Anselm is an important relationship Mary Katherine has after she separates from her husband. He is a dashing as well as a charismatic bachelor and, like her father, emotionally unavailable to M.K.. Anselm helps her connect to herself and ultimately her past so she can heal. One day, he told her they have a spiritual relationship and later learns that they certainly had that connection and then some. M.K. is brought to a crossroads in life in which she must choose between Anselm, who represents her past, or her husband and her unknown future.

Ben Aubochon – Mary Katherine’s Husband

In the beginning, Ben meets Mary Katherine when she is trying to start a new life after traveling down a dark path for some time. Ben is M.K.’s husband and father to their three children. Their marriage is tested when M.K. seeks experiences outside of their marriage to connect her to her past. He never questions her need to heal, but supports her as she spreads her wings for the first time. A broken bird no longer, his wife comes back but must choose whether or not to resume her old role, or demand the status quo change. In the novel, M.K.’s darkness that comes to light, illuminates what is hidden inside of Ben. Can their marriage survive the apocalypse?