When We Were the
Memoir from Mexico, Maine
Winner: 2012 May Sarton Memoir
Award for best memoir by US or Canadian woman
Winner: 2013 Maine Literary
Award for memoir
New England Book Festival Award in Autobiography
Magazine summer-reading list
Boston summer pick
If you want to see a YouTube video of me discussing the book, Houghton Mifflin
Harcourt produced this one:
There are links to other videos on my home page.
Many people have asked about family and event
photos, so here's a DropBox link: WWWTK Photos
Wood’s book...goes much beyond the story of her family’s
grief. The book is a meditation on time... It’s also a record of a vanished
way of life...
it avoids sentimentalizing small-town life... By
bringing such a town to life, with all its complexities and imperfections,
it’s to Monica Wood’s great credit that she goes a long way to answering
these questions. The New Yorker online
her intimate but expansive memoir, Monica Wood explores not only her family's
grief but also the national end of innocence.
Braiding her own story of mourning together with the heartbreak all
around her, Wood has written a tender memoir of a very different time." --Oprah
"On her own terms, wry and empathetic, Wood locates the
melodies in the aftershock of sudden loss...That a memory piece as pacific and
unassuming as When We Were the Kennedys
should be allowed a seat in the hothouse society of tell-alls is a tribute to
the welcoming sensibility of its author and the knowing faith of her publisher.
" Boston Globe
"It's a pleasure to linger with her elegant prose, keen eye, and
grace of thought." --Reader's Digest "Best of America" issue
gorgeously wrought new book...is a sharp, stunning portrait of a family's grief
and healing, and it also offer a refreshing lens through which to view the JFK
tragedy, as his family's loss helps the Woods feel less adrift in their own sea
of anguish." --The Washingtonian
"Best of Washington" issue
of Monica Wood have long marveled at her powers of narrative conjuration, her
ability to summon characters and landscapes and all-but-forgotten modes of
living ...infusing them with raw vitality, and sending them off to their fates
on the printed page. When We Were the Kennedys, a work of nonfiction, takes a very
different approach: tipping present-day readers out of our armchairs and iPads
and dropping us half a century into the past.....We’re living it all, fresh
and new, through the mind and senses of nine-year-old Monica....And Wood lays it
all out with piercing particularity....Most readers will feel a comparable
surprise, I think, in discovering how easily they can lose themselves in a life
story so unlike their own..." Richard
Grant in Down East Magazine
marvel of storytelling, layered and rich. It is, by turns, a chronicle of the
renowned paper mill that was both pride and poison to several generations of a
town; a tribute to the ethnic stew of immigrant families that grew and prospered
there; and an account of one family's grief, love and resilience." Maine Sunday Telegram
"Extraordinary, powerful and
moving...This heart-wrenching, emotional, sometimes funny, oftentimes
astonishing, and always compelling story is far better than the best novel...You
will find yourself pausing, rereading entire paragraphs and thinking about what
you've read...Read it and weep. Read it and wonder. Read it and rejoice. Kennebec Journal/Waterville (Maine) Morning Sentinel
is an extraordinarily moving book, so carefully and artfully realized...Monica
Wood displays all her superb novelistic skills in this breathtaking, evocative
new memoir. Wow." —Ken Burns,
tender, plaintive...genuinely compelling depiction of family grief...a
bittersweet, end-of-innocence family drama." --Kirkus
year millions of words will be printed about the 50th anniversary of the
assassination...None will be as moving as When
We Were the Kennedys. ... Her
brilliant, lyrical words pin us to Mexico...the time...those hopeful days before
the 'mighty, mighty Oxford' went down under a cascade of labor disputes...before
all the bright, ethereal promises of Camelot vanished." --Yankee
"My great book of the
summer...It’s a terrific book, telling the story of Wood's family after the
sudden death of her father when she was only nine. That’s sad, of course, but
the book isn’t about being sad, it’s about being a family. It’s also about
an era—the year was 1963—and draws a parallel between Wood's story and the
national loss of President Kennedy." Bill
Roorbach in Orion Magazine
gorgeous, gripping memoir. I don't know that I've ever pulled so hard for a
family.”—Mike Paterniti, author of Driving Mr. Albert
is a beautifully composed snapshot of how a family, a town—and, later, a
country—grieves and goes on.
The bonds between family members, neighbors, and coworkers, as
well as men and their professions, are all explored here with sensitivity and a
sweetness that isn’t saccharine." --Library
shining example of everything a memoir should be." --U.S. Catholic
finest memoirs need not only a compelling story, but reflection and insight that
transform the material so that the reader is moved and changed. Wood [uses] a
novelist’s skill to create thrilling moments of understanding." --New
this amiable, specific glimpse of small-town life in 1960s-era Maine...a
refreshingly functional family learns to accept loss and preserve love." --Publishers
lesson in family and communal ties, this book is a perfect summer read.” Bangor
"This book is some of Wood's best writing — lyrical, honest, and
moving. It evokes a tangible time and place, and palpable emotions. When We Were the Kennedys is about a moment. The moment when
everything started to change — for Monica Wood, and for so many others,
Wood is a stunning writer...If I were standing beside you, I would press this
book into your hands."—Lily King,
author of The Pleasing Hour and Father of the Rain
We Were the Kennedys is a deeply moving gem!"—Andre
Dubus III, author of House of Sand and Fog
new memoir, When We Were the Kennedys,
feels immediate and intimate, even as it centers on events that happened before
a good portion of her audience was born...Distinctly American."
East Bay Express
writing is simply luminous as she conjures up a lost place and time....brought
to vivid life by her prcise and poetic prose. Her skill at characterization is
so refined that I felt I really knew each member of the family....Though it
doesn't shy away from the tragic and heartbreaking, Wod's story is ultimately
one of hope...the power of love and family..." Story Circle Journal
and first chapter from
We Were the Kennedys
Memoir from Mexico, Maine
Denise Vaillancourt, who shared her father )
is a memoir: the truth as I recall it. You will find herein no composite or
invented characters, no rearranged chronologies, no alterations in the character
or appearance of the people I remember. I changed only one name. One chapter
contains a blizzard that my sisters now inform me occurred on a different
occasion; and indeed, when I looked up weather for November 1963 I found not
only no blizzard, but—astonishingly—no snow to speak of. The inaccurate
memory is so embedded in my psyche, however, so inextricable from the remembered
events of that chapter, that in the end I decided to leave it alone. Otherwise,
events or processes I could not remember with accuracy or was too young at the
time to understand—for example, papermaking, strike politics, the specific
character of my father's work—I filled out as accurately as I could through
research, the venerable Rumford Falls Times, and the memories of others.
The bulk of this story, however, results from my having been an observant child
living in a vibrant place and time.
In Mexico, Maine, where I grew up, you couldn't find a single Mexican.
been named by a band of settlers as a shout-out to the Mexican
revolutionaries—a puzzling gesture, its meaning long gone—but by the time I
came along, my hometown retained not
a shred of solidarity, unless you counted a bottle of Tabasco sauce moldering in
the door of somebody's fridge. We had a badly painted sombrero on the WELCOME
TO MEXICO sign, but the only Spanish I ever heard came from a scratched
45 of Doris Day singing "Que Sera, Sera."
In fourth grade, after discovering
that the world included a country called Mexico, I spent several befuzzled days
wondering why it had named itself after us. Sister Ernestine adjusted my
perspective with a pull-down map of the world, on which the country of Mexico
showed up as a pepper-red presence and its puny namesake did not appear at all.
In high summer, when tourists in
paneled station wagons caravanned through town on their way to someplace else,
hankies pressed comically to their noses against the stench of paper being made,
I sat with my friends on the stoop of Nery's Market to play License Plate.
Sucking on blue Popsicles, we observed the procession of vehicles carrying
strangers we'd never glimpse again, and accumulated points for every
out-of-state plate. These people didn't linger to look around or buy anything,
though once in a while a woman (always a woman, with the smiley red lips all
women had then) popped out of an idling car to ask the posse of sun-burnished
children, Why Mexico?
looked at one another. I was the one
in the wrinkled tee shirt bought at the Alamo by my priest uncle, Father Bob,
who loved to travel. Or maybe that was my little sister, Cathy, or my
next-bigger sister, Betty, or one of our friends. Who could tell one kid from
the next? White kids in similar clothes; Catholic children of millworkers and
housewives. We lived in triple-decker apartment buildings—we called them
"blocks"—or in nondescript houses that our fathers painted every few
years. The only Mexico we knew was this one, ours, with its single main street
and its one bowling alley and its convent and church steeples and our fathers
over there, just across the river, toiling inside a brick-and-steel complex with
heaven-high smokestacks that shot great, gorgeous steam clouds into the air so
steadily we couldn't tell where mill left off and sky began.
Like most Irish Catholic families
in 1963, mine had a boiled dinner on Sundays after Mass and salmon loaf on
Fridays. We had pictures of Pope John and President John and the Sacred Heart of
Jesus hung over our red couch, and on holidays my big brother, the frontman in a
local band called the Impacts, came with his wife and babies and guitar to sing
story songs packed with repentant jailbirds and useless regret and soldiers
bleeding to death on heathery fields.
my friend Denise Vaillancourt's French Catholic family they ate meat
Christmas Eve and sang comic Québécois songs about mistaken identity and
family kerfuffles. I had another friend, Sheila, who lived just our side of the
Mexico-Rumford bridge, in a Protestant, two-child, flood-prone, single-family
house; and another friend, Janet, who lived atop her parents' tavern, the
regulars marshmallowed onto the barstools by three in the afternoon listening to
Elvis on the jukebox.
St. Theresa's we greeted our teachers with a singsong "Bonjooour,
ma Soeur," diagrammed morally loaded sentences at flip-top desks, and
drew flattering pictures of the Blessed Mother. We went to Mass on Sunday
mornings and high holy days, singing four-part Tantum
Ergos from the choir loft in a teamwork reminiscent of our fathers sweating
out their shifts in noisy, cavernous rooms. The nuns taught us that six went
into twelve twice, that the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, that
California exported avocados and Maine exported paper—tons and tons of paper,
the kind our fathers made.
Though our elders in Mexico—who
spoke French, or Italian, or Lithuanian, or English with a lilt—cherished
their cultural differences, which were deep and mysterious and preserved in
family lore, what bound us, the children, was bigger and stronger and far more
alluring than the past. It was the future we shared, the promise of a long and
unlikely source of that promise penetrated our town like a long and endless
sigh: the Oxford Paper Company, that boiling hulk on the riverbank, the great
equalizer that took our fathers from us every day and eight hours later gave
them back, in an unceasing loop of shift work.
"The Oxford," we chummily
called it, as if it were our friend. From nowhere in town could you not see it.
mill. The rumbling, hard-breathing monster that made steam and noise and grit
and stench and dreams and livelihoods—and paper. It possessed a scoured,
industrial beauty as awesome and ever-changing as the leaf-plumped hills that
surrounded us. It made a world unto itself, overbearing and irrefutable,
claiming its ground along the Androscoggin, a wide and roiling river that
cracked the floor of our valley like the lifeline on a palm. My father made his
living there, and my friends' fathers, and my brother, and my friends' brothers,
and my grandfather, and my friends' grandfathers. They crossed the footbridge
over the river's tainted waters, carrying their lunch pails into the mill's
overheated gullet five, six, sometimes seven days a week.
In every household in town, the
story we children heard—between the lines, from mothers, fathers, mémères
and pépères, nanas and nonnas, implied
in the merest gesture of the merest day—was this: The mill called us here. To
This was one powerful story.
Powerful and engulfing, erasing all that came before, just like the mill that
had made this story possible. In each beholden family, old languages were
receding into a multicultural twilight as the new, sun-flooded story took hold:
the story of us, American children of well-paid laborers, beneficiaries of a
dream. Every day our mothers packed our fathers' lunch pails as we put on our
school uniforms, every day a fresh chance on the dream path our parents had laid
down for us. Our story, like the mill, hummed in the background of our every
hour, a tale of quest and hope that resonated similarly in all the songs in all
the blocks and houses, in the headlong shouts of all the children at play, in
the murmur of all the graces said at all the kitchen tables. In my family, in
every family, that story—with its implied happy ending—hinged on a single,
beautiful, unbreakable, immutable fact: Dad.
Then he died.
The morning of my father's death
begins like all other mornings: my mother stirring oatmeal at the stove, cats
twining around her legs, parakeet jabbering on her shoulder. My oldest sister,
Anne, who teaches English at the high school, is at work already; and Dad, who
got up at five-thirty for first shift, is putting a crew together in the spongy
air of the Oxford's woodyard. Or so we believe. Betty and Cathy and I, our hair
starched from sleep, rouse ourselves after Mum's second call. We attend St.
Theresa's, a French Catholic elementary school that we can see, over the rooftop
of my friend Denise's block on Brown Street, from our third-floor kitchen
window. I'm in fourth grade, Cathy in second. Betty—mentally disabled (we say
"retarded" back then)—is also in second grade, for the third time;
she sits at the desk next to Cathy, who lately has been teaching her to knit, a
suggestion from Sister Edgar, who has just about run out of ideas.
Below us, on the second floor, come
the muted morning sounds from the Hickeys: That's Norma leaving for work as a
secretary at the power company. Her mother, the only one-armed person I know,
scoops up the Lewiston Daily Sun and
snaps it open in a nimble abracadabra, one of her most enthralling
sleight-of-one-hand feats. Mr. Hickey—a sweet, frail man "let go"
from the mill for his ailing eyes and lungs—stays inside, drinking tea from
Mrs. Hickey's white cups.
Below that, on the first floor, our
Lithuanian landlady begins her daily cooking of cabbage and other root
vegetables that smell more or less like the mill. The ancient Norkuses speak
halting English, charge us seven dollars a week in rent, and engage in an
intermittent skirmish with Mum over whether we kids should be allowed to bring
our friends up to visit. Too much stairs, they say, which could mean
In the Norkus block, where we live,
the three apartments are identically laid out—four rooms, a screened porch in
front, an open porch landing in back—but each has a separate, and separately
revelatory, air of foreignness. The Norkus apartment, densely furnished,
emanates a steamy, overdraped blurriness that I still associate with all
Lithuanian households. The Hickeys' floor, quiet and tidy, seems like a trick,
its scrubbed interior latitudes magically expanded. Every time I enter, I think
of the Popeye cartoon in which Olive Oyl peers into a tiny tent and finds the
inside of the Taj Mahal. Our top floor, full of girls and mateless socks and
hair doodads and schoolbooks and cats and unlaced Keds and molted feathers,
operates on the same principle, in reverse: when you open our door, the physical
In this filled-to-brimming place on
the morning of Dad's death, Mum's parakeet flutters down from her shoulder to
perch on my oatmeal bowl, his scaly feet gripping the rim. He pecks at my
breakfast, spattering gruel, gibbering words gleaned from my mother's patient
repetitions. He can also sing and dance, but not now; Mum wants us at school on
time and so far it doesn't look promising. Cathy appears, wearing half of her
school uniform—the starched white blouse—and a slip. I'm half-dressed, too,
in opposite: army-green skirt and pajama top. Mum presses our clothes in stages,
so that is how we put them on.
the morning radiates the particular cool of April. Betty comes last to eat, in
full uniform, everything tucked and smoothed and buttoned up right, her ankle
socks neatly creased. Mum always makes sure she's fully shipshape before moving
on to us. We dawdle over orange juice as Cathy, against orders, puts the
parakeet on a pencil to see if he'll do a spin; it's his best trick and kills
the room every time. This is how mornings go, a tango of getting ready, each
girl a separate challenge, Mum alternately shooshing us and making us sit!
sit! sit! to eat.
I'm the slow eater. The
"absent-minded" one. I watch out the window, but nothing looks
different. Dad is already dead but I don't know this yet, can't imagine this. No
shiver in the air catches my eye, no subtle darkening in the same old steam
clouds cluttering the morning sky. I am nine years old; when I look out the
window, all I see is Mexico—my Mexico, the only one that counts.
From here I see the Dohertys' back
line hung with clothes. Next to them, the Gagnons'; we play with their girls and
have a crush on Mrs. Gagnon, with her ripple of auburn hair. Cater-cornered from
the Gagnons are the O'Neills, and then the Yarnishes, their driveway patrolled
by a disgruntled crow that hollers, "Hiii Joe, hiii Joe!" all day
long. The rest of the neighborhood fills out with Gallants and Fourniers and
Burgesses and Nailises and Fergolas, a census that repeats to the town line of
our stewpot town and crosses the river to Rumford, the mill's official home.
get chocolate cake whenever we want—Mum's splendid recipe survives to this
day. Lemon tea bread, cherry pie, yeast doughnuts, just ask! We have a talking
bird and priest uncle. We never have to clean our plates or finish our milk. Dad
comes home every day with candy in his pockets. Father Bob, Mum's baby brother,
comes to town once a week and sometimes says the First Friday Mass, where all
our friends simmer with envy that God's young, dashing stand-in belongs to us.
Mum gives us dollars to bring to school to save the pagan babies. Last
year Dad bought a 1962 sea-green Chrysler Newport, brand-new. We think we're
like most people, must have applied a kind of rhythm to his workday. I followed
that rhythm in my mind many times after that morning: his feet hitting the floor
upon waking, the morning ablutions, the soft exchanges with my mother as she
hands him his lunch pail and clears his breakfast plate, the door clicking shut
behind him, the three downward flights. Possibly he stops to pet the Norkuses'
cat, Tootsie (like all men in our family, Dad is a cat man), before stepping
into the street.
he is in pain; I hope not. Even so, his last mortal moments are swaddled by the
familiar. He leaves us, turns right onto Gleason Street, passes the O'Neills',
the Gagnons', the Velushes', turns right again at Miss Caliendo's onto Mexico
Avenue to the Venskus block, where they rent out their row of six attached
garages at the back of the wide, blacktopped driveway, each bay just wide enough
to fit one car.
he stops here for a moment, gazing down that long paved drive, for at times he
still deeply misses the furrowed fields and quilted hills of Prince Edward
Island, Canada, and the siblings who remain on the family farm. Is this crisp
April morning one of those times? It's cold but the air contains the coming
spring. So, yes, he stops—right here, at the head of the driveway, hanging on
to the post—to take it in. He doesn't yet know he's running out of breath; he
thinks it's memory doing this, the memory of the long dirt lane to the homestead
he left at age twenty. The farmhouse with its blistered roof. The pumped water.
The lilacs and hollyhocks. The neighborhood of colorful characters who live
along the road.
must be memory doing this, squeezing his chest, summoning an anointed place that
could not give him what he found here: steady, decent, good-paying work. He
found his wife here, had five children over twenty years. His youngest, Cathy,
is eight; his oldest, a son who lives ten miles away, will turn
twenty-seven in a week. Is he thinking of us now? He lets go of the post, steps
onto the blacktop, walks—slow, so slow—to the garage door, intending with
all his heart to put in another blessed day of a life he never dreamed possible.
another eight years he can retire, this man who has never taken a vacation or
owned a house. Does he think of this as he reaches for the handle? Can he
picture long visits back to the Island, then endless, easeful days back here,
tilling the borrowed plot he keeps in his father-in-law's yard just a few houses
up the street from where he stands now—tight-chested, filling with memory—at
six o'clock in the morning, April 25, 1963, in the first waking of an ordinary
day? Here we go, people say at these humdrum moments of repetition, the
day's momentum released by the turn of a key or the punch of a time card or, in
Dad's case, the sliding open of a garage door. The door makes a loud,
sacrilegious clang against the morning
bursting in his chest.
drops his lunch pail. Sees a flash of light. Thinks of us in our innocent beds.
hope he had a moment of purity, a clearing of all thought and memory, a
beautiful surrender. Dad was a Catholic who believed in the saints. I hope he
saw the face of God.
teenage boy who found Dad grew up to be a stage singer of no small reputation.
But on this morning he's just a neighborhood kid, an older boy whose mother
teaches piano. He's home from college and on his way to Fisher's Store, where he
works sometimes as a clerk. Passing the Venskus block, humming an aria he's been
rehearsing with his teachers, he makes a disbelieving double take.
sight of my father lying in front of the garage door, cap knocked off his head,
lunch pail spilled at his feet, must surely endure in his memory. He thuds down
the blacktop, hard and quick on his feet, but Dad has flown, he is no longer a
person, and the boy can see this. He runs to the back doors of the Venskus
block, pounds on a window, a door, until people come running, but the commotion
stays tucked inside them, nobody speaks above a whisper. A man they know is
lying here dead, his family just over there; if you crane your neck and look up,
over the roof of these garages, you can see the skeletal back stairs of the
Norkus block, where inside, on the third floor, this man's widow, who does not
yet know she's a widow, is pouring oatmeal into a pot of water, humming
something pleasant and known.
calls the constable. The boy with the marvelous voice says a prayer.
have met this now-grown-up boy a handful of times over the years. I have watched
him perform. He sings in a rich, operatic tenor, heart-crushingly beautiful, in
which, I believe, Dad's final moments still live.
We were an ordinary family; a mill
family, not the stuff of opera. And yet, beginning with the singing boy who
found Dad, my memory of that day reverberates down the decades as something
close to music. Emotion, sensation, intuition. I see the day—or chips and
bits, as if looking through a kaleidoscope—but I also hear it, a faraway
composition in the melodious language of grief, a harmonized affair punctuated
now and again by an odd, crystalline note fluting up on its own. A knock on a
door. A throaty cry.
Not long after the boy pounds on
the Venskuses' windows, Mr. Cray, our town constable, comes plodding up the
driveway of the Norkus block like a horse in mud. Mr. Cray, florid and hefty
like Dad, moving with Dad's heavy step, the first dissonant note of the day. I
squint down three stories as I dawdle over my oatmeal. "Mum, Mr. Cray is
My mother bursts into song. Or so
it seems, on this morning in which nothing is as it seems.
my mother sings. Ohhh.
a moment—before the first stir of alarm, that tight knot of suspicion
struggling up to my throat—I assume that Mum's keening will be shortly
explained, will become another glinting droplet in the blizzard of information
that composes any childhood. Her hands fly to her forehead, she whirls around to
face the door, egress blocked by a laundry basket and ironing board that she
bulls her way around.
confused now, and getting scared. What is Mum doing? As we listen to Mr. Cray's
footfalls on the stairs—a sound exactly like Dad coming home from work—the
morning acquires a pitiless momentum. Mr. Cray passes the Norkuses' on the first
floor, keeps going; passes the Hickeys' on the second floor, keeps going; and
finally stops outside our door, which my mother flings open, crying out,
"He's dead, isn't he!"
Who? Who does she mean? Big Mr.
Cray, as formless and crumpled-looking as a pile of warm sheets, appears in our
shoe-filled front hall. A strange commotion arises there. I begin walking
backwards, something we do sometimes for fun. Backwards, retreating from the
noise in my mother's throat, backwards into our bedroom, backwards, trying to
reverse time. Betty waits there, sitting on her bunk, alarmed but
uncomprehending, her eyes pale as dimes. Cathy—the bravest, the one who takes
nothing at face value—stands her ground in the kitchen, where the morning will
take on the shellac of permanence and become the museum piece we will all come
back to again and again, seeing something new each time in this preserved,
last, Cathy barrels into our room, crying, "Dad died!" She's eight
years old, the announcer, the town crier, the loud one. And she's blubbering
loudly now, drowning out the disquieting sound just outside our door. Her
army-green sash divides the white of her blouse but her skirt still hasn't made
it from the ironing board. She's got a hairbrush stuck in her hair.
"Daddy's dead!" she announces again, making it true, understanding it
all of a piece, accepting a sorrow she will never quite get over. I cry,
too—instantly, violently—but my reaction feels less like grief (though how
can I tell, having known none until now?) and more like the moment after a
physical blow, that helpless empty space between the blow and the pain. Betty
looks at us for a long moment, receiving the news more slowly, her eyes refusing
to register the thing we say to her again and again, whispering first, then
louder. Then louder. Until she cries.
we all know.
My mother will explain to us later
that she dreamed it—three nights running, she dreamed that our
fifty-seven-year-old father dropped dead on his way to work. She will wonder
aloud whether she offered Mr. Cray any relief when she met him at the door
already speaking the words he dreaded to utter. All that was left for him was to
gets the news at the high school, where she's fully entered a cool spring
morning in that alternative, all-consuming world. Hello to her carrel-mates in
the English/History office. Coffee in the black-and-orange Mexico
Pintos mug. A commotion of students in the lobby down the hall, a faraway
sound like muffled applause. A copy of the Lewiston
Daily Sun lies on a table littered with stained spoons and spent sugar
packets. She glances at the headlines. Yesterday an integrationist was killed in
Alabama, and now President Kennedy has sent his brother Bobby to talk to the
governor. Across the globe, a country called Laos simmers into civil war; this,
too, concerns the president. All this seems so far away, but she often twines
current events into her examination of literature, just as Father Bob, known for
his stirring, everyman preaching, twines Walter Cronkite into his Sunday
sermons. She shakes a stubborn fountain pen, going over notes for her
first-period English class, adjusts her hem before stepping into the waxy
She must be so happy.
Her teaching career will prove long
and fruitful, but today, in the dwindling of year one, she is probably too
young, too in love with literature, to see the folly of teaching Spenser's The
Faerie Queene to a galootish group of "shop boys." They must love
looking at her, this cute ninety-pounder in a lavender skirt and vest, the white
ruffles of her blouse leaving ripples of motion like angel feathers as she
smarts down the hall in her French heels. Her hair is pulled into a chignon; she
wears gold clip-on earrings and a glimmersome bracelet, onyx disks trimmed in
gold, a present from Father Bob, who loves buying jewelry for his girls.
My sister loves
clothes—"maybe too much," she once confessed to Father Bob, who
reminded her that as a young man St. Francis of Assisi was himself quite the
snappy dresser. And anyway, fashion provides the underpinnings of her teaching
philosophy, the bones in the corset: students are worth dressing up for. When
you enter a classroom, any day, every day, you should look as if you plan to
accept an award.
At first bell, the boys storm the
room in a great collapse of size-twelve shoes and day-old stubble, smelling of
machine oil and Brylcreem. They look
older than their teacher (one of them probably is), but my sister—though
pretty and fragile-looking and dressed for spring and still living at home and
twenty-two years old and not yet possessed of a driver's license—carries an
air of grit that she will shortly put to use in a way she cannot, in this
hopeful, entering moment, foresee.
"We didn't get it," the
boys tell her about their homework, sixteen lines of Spenser.
"Did you read it?" Her
lipstick today is a shade called Peachstone.
"Of course we read it!"
"Did you think about it?"
"Exactly. It's not enough to
read. You have to think. So. Let's think."
As they think, someone—perhaps
Mr. Cray—leaves a knotted message with the school secretary, a message further
tangled by whoever delivers it to Anne. A student, most likely, one of the good
girls who work in the office during study hall. This girl ferries the message
through war-era corridors to the windowed, oaken door of my sister's classroom.
There has been a mishap in Miss Wood's household but nobody seems to know quite
experiences a lurch of fear for her little sisters, then looks back at her boys,
who are struggling over Edmund Spenser's lapidary raptures: Mirrour of grace
and majestie divine … shed thy faire beames into my feeble eyne. Whatever
appears in their teacher's eyne at this moment makes them go silent as
me," she tells them. "I've been—summoned." The nuns at her
college used words like this. Composing herself, she lingers a moment at the
too-big wooden lectern, her hands grasping its cumbersome sides. She smoothes
the pages of the open anthology, the teacher's edition, too wide and too heavy
and hard-backed. Everything in this room is bigger than she is.
"Duane," she says. Her throat is all dried up. "And Ed. You're in
charge." Two lunky boys in short sleeves stand up, nearly step on each
other getting to the front of the room, where they will lead the class in the
cracking open of sixteenth-century lyrics. They're good with a hammer and she
trusts them to do it right.
She leaves the room at a normal
clip, closes the door behind her, then begins to run, her toes jamming into her
pointy shoes, down the long corridor to the office, where the school secretary
offers her the phone.
home," Mum says. "I need you." She does not say why and Anne does
one downhill mile separates the high school from our block. The principal gives
Anne a ride, offers to come upstairs. "No," she tells him, trembling
now with alarm. "I'm sure it's fine."
we hear her, coming back to us, quick-quick, her patent-leather pumps puncturing
each wooden tread—first floor, second floor, third floor, quickening as she
nears us, quick through the door.
clamor stuns her but in she comes. Crying baby sisters. Mother heart-shocked in
a chair. Ironing board still heaped with unpressed laundry, a bottle of starch
dripping over a soggy blouse. The parakeet dancing on his perch, sugartime
sugartime sugartime he sings, nervously back-and-forthing on his spongy
feet, he wants out, he wants out, he wants out. The cats have fled to hide
inside things inside other things. The shape of our family has been upended and
rearranged, its roof flattened, its gateposts ripped from the earth by God's own
brutal hand, and only the animals know enough to make a run for it.
Stepping into this exploded,
delicate thing that will forever now be us, Anne decodes the muddled message at
last. So simple, so razoringly precise: Dad died.
She pulls herself together and, in
the lingo of our time and place, begins to "do" for us. Make the
calls. Greet the visitors. Feed tea and toast to our weeping mother. Fold up the
ironing board. Finish the dishes.
Someone has to "do." And
so. She does.
My brother, a married Air Force veteran with two boys, is a pipefitter in the
mill, where he gets the news in a similarly convoluted way. "You're wanted
at home," somebody says. So Barry drives heart-thumpingly home—to his
home, a little house in Dixfield, the next town downriver.
wrong?" he asks Nila, who's buttoning Stevie into a little shirt after
walking Mike to his kindergarten.
His wife looks up, alarmed.
"Nothing. What are you doing here?"
"You didn't call for me?"
She shakes her head, eyes
darkening. "No. Someone called for you?"
So Barry calls the mill back,
confused. "You must have another John Wood," he tells the front
office. In paperwork he goes by "John"—John Barry. Anne is Mary
Anne; on Prince Edward Island you call children by their hidden names. In this
year of 1963, the mill at its booming peak, there might well be another John
Wood somewhere among three thousand employees scattered over three shifts,
someone from Byron or Roxbury or West Peru or any one of our surrounding towns,
another John Wood wanted at home for a reason nobody has the nerve to explain.
work in the pipers?"
father died this morning."
sprints back to his car, drives too fast to Mexico, and thunders up those three
do not see my brother often, but when we do, he brings his wife and boys and his
beloved May Belle acoustic guitar and takes over the parlor, where we beg for
melodramatic rockabilly songs about heartbreak and missed chances in a velvety
timbre that Dad called "fearful-grand singing." But he brings nothing
with him today but a powerful sense of dread as he bursts through the door and
looks into the drained face of our mother and asks, "Is it true?"
apartment harbors few places to grieve in private: four rooms and only two with
a door. Barry drags a chair from the kitchen and slips into the bedroom, where
after a few minutes I crack the door open to the astonishing sight of my adult
brother, facing away from me, sitting astride the spindly chair, his head down,
his arms cradling the chair back, a pose not unlike the one he sometimes takes
with his guitar. His shoulders heaving up and down, he forms soft, strangulated
notes that stir me much the way those lyrics about heart-broke lovers often do.
I've never seen him, or any man, cry. For a brief, melting moment I believe I'm
hearing the sound of my brother singing.
Before Anne came home—thirty stopped minutes, a grotesque, ongoing now
in which our mother shed her former self like a wind-shook tree—we children
aged with fear. Our mother was both overly present—all that gasping and
keening—and also eerily far away. We stood at the edge of the kitchen, knotted
together, edging first toward and then away from those awful sounds, but because
we, too, were yowling and keening there was nowhere safe. "I've lost my
best friend," Mum cried, to no one, to God, to the ceiling. "I've lost
my best friend." When she hid her face in her hands we mobbed her, petting
her hair, her arms, then backed away again as her up-gushing grief took another
do we do?" Cathy whispered. She was standing so close that the heat of her
breath moistened my neck. She and Betty looked at me; I was the one in fourth
don't know," I whispered back. "I don't know I don't know."
hot breath on my neck. "You have to get Anne."
how would I get the number? And who would answer? And how would I tell them what
was happening, Mum bent at the waist, Mr. Cray thumping back down the stairs,
everybody crying? But then the phone rang and Mum said, Come
home, I need you, and for a second I thought, That's
Dad on the other end, maybe that's Dad on the other end, until Mum squeezed
me too hard—my arm hurting, my hand twisted between her body and mine—and
then let go because she couldn't stand up, she had to sit, and then those
terrifying, animal sounds gushed out again, and it seemed as if we were all
stuck fast, stuck in one eternal moment, a locked trap of disbelief.
now, a miracle, Anne is home—Anne's home!—and that encased moment geysers
open, briefly cleansing our monstrous pain.
The door opens and opens. The phone
rings and rings. People arrive and arrive and the day moves despite all, and we
children, who had felt the queasy stirrings of duty—At least you have your
children, Mr. Cray said—see now that nothing will be asked of us. We don't
have to save Mum after all. We don't have to think up a way—think! think!—to
call Dad back from heaven.
Childhood is over, but Anne's home,
so we can still be children.
The rest of that morning, after
Dad's unthinkable departure, fills with arrival. Father Bob, who will oversee
Dad's funeral, comes home to us from his parish in Westbrook. He embraces Mum,
blesses her—In nomine Patris…—murmurs
into her neck another prayer or incantation or perhaps something only a baby
brother can say to his fourteen-years-older sister, something in plain English.
Whatever it is, it doesn't work; my mother sits again, vacant, wordless, her
lips gently parted.
priest in the room is supposed to smooth things over, heal confusion, make
ritual out of chaos. I cling to my shaking uncle, to the familiar scent of his
blacks—his rabat and collar and jacket—but there are so many people here
now, another neighbor coming through the door, and here are Aunt Rose and Cumpy—my
aunt and my grandfather—and two of Dad's workmates from the mill, and after a
while I realize that Father Bob, too, has headed for the bedroom—Barry has
gone back home to break the news—where he lies on the bed with his black shoes
on. I steal over to my own bedside, terrified.
Men crying everywhere.
stares at the ceiling. Glasses fogged, cheeks gone scarlet, mouth quavering so
badly it seems poised to slide off his face. He does not look at me but knows
I'm here. "Is it all right for a man to cry, Monnie?" he asks me. He
loved Dad more than he loves his own father.
kind of question is this? What kind of question is this? I answer with another
right," he says, though I can barely hear him. "It's all right for a
man to cry."
don't know what to do with this information; I'm afraid to touch him, my beloved
uncle who has loved me in turn for as long as I can remember.
He makes painful, held-in, small-animal sounds, his tears pooling on the
pillows I share with Cathy. Then someone—I think it's Anne—touches my
shoulder, releases me from this too-private moment, and leads me back out to the
kitchen, now filled with people, tears all over.
Hickey shows up with a tuna pie; the O'Neills drop off some biscuits; other
neighbors, too many to sort, bring meat loaf, deviled eggs, soda bread. At some
point, somewhere between Mr. Cray's visit and Father Bob's arrival, somebody
asks, "Where's Cathy?"
looks at me.
"I don't know."
don't. Their faces scare me. The whole house has tilted somehow, and it's hard
to see, and to hear, and everybody seems to be saying something to somebody who
is saying something to somebody else. Those first few hours are like being
caught inside a washing machine, an agitated drowning.
"What do you mean, you don't know?"
Mum says, panicking, alive again after a zombielike lull that I have no way of
recognizing as shock. My mother, who never panics over anything, starts to
shake. "People don't just vanish into thin air."
Dad did. His soul, anyway. His baptized soul lifted from his body and vanished
into thin air.
On any other day, a vanishing child
would present no calamity. Kids
always turn up, like cats, playing in a neighbor's yard or eating in some other
kid's kitchen. Why does it matter that Cathy's gone missing? We're always
missing. We live in an era when mothers throw their children into a teeming
neighborhood with the instructions "I don't want to see you kids till
But Mum is up now, her eyes
darting. "Mother of Mary," she murmurs. All the adults are, suddenly,
puts on a sweater, heads for the door. Where is Cathy?
WENT TO SCHOOL," says Betty, who speaks in stammering capital letters, and
just then Cathy materializes from the thin air into which she vanished, having
been sent back home from St. Theresa's, where she'd showed up in Sister Edgar's
second-grade classroom, her hair unbrushed but uniform complete, to slip behind
her flip-top desk and take out her pencil and prepare to do Religion, which was
the first subject of the day no matter what grade you were in.
"Why are you late?"
Sister Edgar asked.
sister's pink quivering lip: "Now."
Edgar, a young, kindly nun, stork-tall with dolorous dark eyes and long, lithe
fingers, ushered Cathy back into the hall, assured her that her mother would
surely prefer to have her near, then sent her home—one block away—with her
unspent lunch money fisted into one hand.
"You went to school?" Mum
says, incredulous, sitting down again with the weight of this fresh news. Her
youngest child went to school, alone, carrying the unspeakable burden of Dad's
death. Mum is raising good girls and this is what good girls do. Dad's
bold-hearted girl, his favorite, has transformed herself within an hour into a
child so invisible she can vanish into thin air and nobody, not even her own
mother, will notice.
Something about Cathy's instinctive
act of normalcy makes the thing that is happening newly unbearable. I go to the
place where I, too, can disappear. I slink to a corner—a shadow of space
between the couch and the door to the screen porch, with a book, or a sheaf of
Dad's paper, and I bend my head to another family with a different story, either
writing one or reading one. I stay there until Anne finds me and leads me back
to the kitchen, which has filled with people and a flocklike physical warmth
that brings an aimless, muffling comfort. We take turns nuzzling against our
glassy-eyed mother, though nothing we do can cure what ails her.
before nightfall, when we can barely close the fridge for all the casseroles and
have literally run out of places to sit, a final visitor arrives: a well-dressed
stranger in a tie, his hair damp and neatly combed, his face grave with
sympathy. Mum is sitting in the kitchen, same chair into which she collapsed
hours ago after Mr. Cray said his yes. A silver pin glints from the stranger's
brushed lapel: Oxford Paper Company.
man, who looks like Don Ameche, Dad's favorite actor, is the mill manager. In
memory he is tall, broad, grave. My mother, who has not risen from her chair all
day, rises for him.
so sorry," he says. His shoulders too wide, his jacket heavily structured.
I've never seen a man in a suit like this.
puts out her hands, which look thin and fairylike, and he folds them into his:
large, pinkish, full of a confusing authority.
so sorry," he says again. "We're all so sorry."
has Mum become so small? I look down; she's wearing the shoes she had on this
morning: low, sensible heels, but pretty, with a strap. This is her full height,
I can see, but it's different from the full height she woke up with.
didn't have to come," she tells the man, and now I hear an oddly vibrant
note in her voice, an incongruous little trill that pierces the fog of this
awful day, that softens the shock of her changed height. She is both larger, and
smaller, than her real self as she keeps her hands in the hands of this man.
praying for you," says the man. "For all of you."
you," my mother whispers. "It means so much to us that you came."
He stays only a few more
moments—charged, bright, layered moments in which I feel both enthralled and
muddled, honored and ashamed. An important man has come to see my mother; he
resembles an actor; his condolences tip a scale that I did not know existed. His
visit elevates Dad's standing; this much is clear. Which means this man is more
important than Dad.
that Dad cannot be, as I so long believed, the most important man in the world.
intuitions provide my first, feeble inklings about social class and its myriad
contradictions, its necessity in times of trauma, its cool, dispassionate
lessons about who we are and where we are in the world.
seems the whole town has come to see my family today, to offer food and sympathy
and reassurance. Why do I not feel reassured? Instead, I experience a profound
dislocation, a feeling like slipping on the shifting surface of my allotted
scrap of God's earth, in the country of America, in the state of Maine, in the
town of Mexico, my Mexico, the one Dad no longer lives in.
morning we woke up as the Wood family. Who are we now?