June Melby’s childhood summers were spent in an unexpectedly fairytale land: Wisconsin. Strewn beyond the lush green lawn are a towering castle, Ferris wheel, fountains, and flashing lights. For Melby, these are commonplace. Bored with rockets, windmills and wishing wells, 10-year-old Melby is more concerned with crafting the perfect Sno-cone.
For 30 years, the Melby family owned Tom Thumb Miniature Golf, comfortably nestled onto a pristine Wisconsin peninsula. In her new memoir, My Family and Other Hazards, Melby waxes nostalgic about youthful summer days in her mini golf wonderland. But nostalgia alone is not the heart of Melby’s message. Her focus, from title to acknowledgements page, is family. In fact, each chapter is dedicated to one hole, with each hole representing a different life lesson learned at Tom Thumb. Hole number one, for example, is about “Expectations.” Hole number 10 is about “Family (The Extended Kind) and The Weird Things We Do Together.”
Family is the only thing that matters for the Melbys, though summer vacations spent at Tom Thumb were anything but relaxing getaways together. “From 10 in the morning to 10 at night we were butlers and waitresses and everything else,” Melby says. “Our jobs were to constantly help people.” This applied to every family member except the youngest of the three girls, Carla. While Melby exhausted herself scraping, sweeping and painting, Carla’s days are shrouded in mystery. She never fails to show up for dinner, though, which is all that concerns anyone.
By the time Melby graduates from college, she is weary of spending her summers toiling away at Tom Thumb. Seeking drastic change, she trades Sno-cones and Wisconsin sunshine for the bright lights of Hollywood. “I had a backlog of needing attention, so I went out looking for what I thought I deserved,” she explains. “I got so close. I had the ABC casting department apologizing to me that I didn’t get my own sitcom deal.”
While Melby chased stardom, her parents kept Tom Thumb running, opting to change next to nothing throughout their tenure as owners. “I have a great respect for my parents,” she says. “When I was a kid I thought they were so dumb. They never made decisions the way I would have. They never charged enough money. We could’ve actually made a profit! I set out to become rich and famous while my parents ran Tom Thumb as a mission, as a service to people, and didn’t care about getting rich.”
In 2003, while struggling to make a living in L.A., Melby’s parents decided to sell Tom Thumb. “Now what do I do?” Melby writes, a question befuddled mini-golf patrons often find themselves asking. “Your best bet is to remember you are a mere mortal,” is the answer she offers them, though she also had to tell herself that. Not being able to realize her dream of purchasing Tom Thumb and sending her parents off into retirement, Melby reveals in the book her insatiable urge to return to Wisconsin, to summers past, to days she didn’t always appreciate. The final month her family ran Tom Thumb, she returned to work the shack, make Sno-cones and revel in the easiness of nostalgia.
Now, thinking back on their beautiful Wisconsin peninsula, a land surrounded by crystalline lakes and adorned with whimsical hazards, Melby is reminded about what made Tom Thumb so special. It wasn’t the hazards, the life lessons, or the value of hard work, but the people. “People came specifically to our backyard to have fun. They had so much fun there!” she exclaims. “My dad eventually got rid of the radio because he couldn’t hear people when the radio was on. He wanted to hear them laughing. You can never go back to being a child, but summer itself is a chance for people to be a kid again. Tourists used to wear beer caps, dress in silly clothes or matching shirts—they’d strum their putters like air guitars—and they’d show up on our lawn ready to let loose. Summer is an excuse to do that. How awesome is that?”
Two years after Tom Thumb shut down, Melby left Hollywood behind and returned to the Midwest, the land of fairytales. Each summer, Melby and her family would swim, boat and relax in the lakes around their old, familiar Wisconsin peninsula. Each year her father would request the family dock so he could visit Tom Thumb. For all that was lost when Tom Thumb was sold, Melby gained an appreciation for how special her family, and all those summers, really were. “We talk about Tom Thumb because we have never left it,” she writes. “We are still there, and always will be…”
Alex Layman is a writer living in Austin, Texas. Follow him on Twitter.