Thursday, July 05, 2012

A Poignant Memoir of Life in Mexico, Maine - Review of "When We Were the Kennedys" by Monica Wood

Monica Wood has penned a deeply moving portrait of her family and its hometown of Mexico, Maine.  Looming over the neighboring town of Rumsford was the region's major employer - The Oxford Paper Company mill.  The plant's presence, its ever-present stench, its long history of labor disputes permeates the fabric of each family in Rumsford and Mexico.

Monica's father worked - and practically lived - at the mill for much of his life until it claimed him, cut down at an  early age from a heart attack that left his widow to continue to raise the three daughter who lived at home.  As Monica remembers those days - timing that coincided with the nation losing its young "head of family" to an assassin's bullet in Dallas, Texas - she recounts how her mother drew inspiration from the way in which Jackie Kennedy handled her public widowhood.

The memoir is full of loving memories of quirky neighbors and landlords, of acts of kindness, of the ever-present parochial school experience that the Wood girls shared, and of visits with their uncle, Father Bob.  Father Bob's descent into alcoholism and subsequent recovery serves as a subplot that adds real texture to the family's struggles and indomitable spirit.

The deep impact of the paper mill - its economic impact and its spiritual impact, is beautifully present in the last pages of the book:

"As I drive over the Mexico-Rumsford bridge on the way to a house Anne has bought with her groom, the valley opens like a coat I can't wait to put on.  The cleaned-up river makes its old ribboning trail.  The mill - now, as then - hunkers on the riverbank, outsize witness to my childhood.  The Oxford, with its bruising power to give and take, was my first metaphor.  I pull over to give it a good look.

I was there, it tells me, still pushing smoke signals into the sky.  Beneath those clouds, I experienced the shock of loss, the solace of family, the consolation of friendship, the power of words, the comfort of place.  Beneath those clouds, I learned that there is, as my birthday Bible instructed me at age ten, a time for every season.  Beneath those clouds, my parents died before their time. But they lived here,too, thankful for their chance.

The sign across the river says NewPage, after the investment company that bought our Mead-Westvaco, which bought out Mead, which bought out Boise-Cascade, which bought out Ethyl, which bought out the Oxford.  They've just shut down the Number Ten - temporarily; again - another two hundred jobs gone.  The mill looks like an animal that has outlived its ecosystem.  Huge, beached, but still breathing.  When did it cease  to sound like God and instead like an old man wheezing?  Puff . . . puff . . . oooom, it says, sighing over what might be its last generation of children, most of whom, like me, will make a break for it when they come of age and spend the rest  of their lives looking back.

Of course they will.  There is such joy here.  The day is chilly, the sky so high, the steam clouds shaking with memory.

Thank you, I tell the dying beast.   I forgive you." (Pages 230-231)

Wow. That is good writing.



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