Monica Wood’s memoir centers around the sudden death of her father on his way to work in Mexico, Maine as his children are readying for school. In When We Were the Kennedys experiences of a literary child in 1963 assume imaginative life in the reader. By literary child I mean one who loves reading. For unwitting consolation Monica turns to Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, and then discovers Nancy Drew. Writing mysteries herself, she becomes Nancy Drew. She is mystified by her own story, The mystery of the missing man. After closing the book, I was reluctant to leave this child Monica behind.
As one might expect with a child’s witness of life and death, there’s a lot of wisdom in this book. As a papermaking metaphor, I find the texture of this little life webbed and intricately woven, like the stock of fine paper shaken very fast across its industrial wire. This telling weaves tighter and tighter just as the stock’s water evaporates, lifts, rolls away. More on the subject of its craft in the next post but, for now, only one flaw I find in this book: a three word sentence connecting the prologue with chapter one. As a memoir containing no malicious violence (except that which pertains in the title) this book is powerful in many ways, especially in its detailed expression of tension between grief and perplexity. But the opening segue would’ve been more profound to me without those three words. The words are there to extend power, but the power of the segue is without the words.
The life and death of God is everywhere in this memoir of mill town experience in the western mountains of Maine. Could I raise the dead? —This nine-year-old Catholic child wonders on seeing the whitetail deer hanging in her neighbor’s garage doorway after the hunt. “Fearful that it wouldn’t work, or maybe that it would …. Death—even of a deer—was God’s business, and you were supposed to leave God’s business alone.” (Page 24)
This is a memoir of a child’s mill-town communal experience after the sudden drop-down-dead death of her father as he approached his car. He was a foreman, respected and loved by everyone, with decades’ long experience doing every job imaginable in papermaking before his ascent into the management level. There he still performed manual labor as he took on necessary jobs should anyone be out that day. For a while his little girl thought he, and all these workers, owned the mill. He was a Prince Edward Island man who used hyphenated terms like “fearful-grand singing,” “desperate odd” (meaning shy, said of his daughter), “they’re a rig,” meaning a strong compliment on an item of dress. At one point she imagines him thinking, Now that’s some desperate-handsome paper, said of “The Oxford” paper. “The Oxford” is the mill of her childhood, the support of the twin towns.
Twenty years later our family lived a stone’s throw away from where Monica and her family grew up in four rooms of a small apartment block. We cleaned a tiny empty house briefly lived in, courtesy of the town, at the corner of Mexico and Middle Avenues, just up the hill from the celebratory Chicken Coop…of Monica Wood’s day and our own. Today it is A Thai restaurant, but, while taking pictures for this post, we found this sign behind the building. At the Chicken Coop we celebrated my 36th birthday, thanks to generous giving from relatives left behind in the midwest.
Slept on the floor of the little house for perhaps one week, a rooftop or two away from Monica Wood’s childhood Worthley block apartment house, triple-tiered. Her landlords were Lithuanian, often pictured as having arrived in the states with rags on their feet. Thirteen years after our Mexico stay we lived just across the Androscoggin River and up the hill in Rumford in a similar triple-tiered apartment house, but one with a peaked roof and dormers. Rent in these towns was still being paid by the week, as in Monica’s childhood. Our ceiling sloped and we saw the mill out the window 33 years after Ms. Wood’s childhood experience, this smoking steaming behemoth having passed through a chain of corporate hands.
The mill is the centerpiece, a steaming cauldron amid built up blocks — the town within the town — its great gray monolith partly obscured in its own mist and moving cloud. But now R. was working there, the migrant success story. After living rurally, here is when and where I begin to realize the Catholic culture, the inner unspoken grace that Monica Wood gives creative tongue to in When We Were the Kennedys. Our landlady was Catholic, and her family of older resident women, were from New Brunswick — French — and one was a nun. This is all I had to go on, for otherwise Catholicism in Rumford/Mexico wasn’t spoken of.
…To be continued…
(Today’s post is even longer than Mexico, Maine, last week’s introduction. The finish is planned for tomorrow.)