Monday, January 13, 2014

When We Were the Kennedys

I am ten years old. I've just placed Nancy Drew and the Mystery of the 99 Steps back on the shelf beside the rest of my grandmother's collection. Her house, a treasure trove of books, is a place where I am constantly lost in a world of fiction. My sister Mara and I spend the next few hours "investigating." We search for clues in the dirt and follow footprints we are probably making ourselves as we circle our grandparent's house. Mara climbs the tree on the forbidden side of the house. I don't dare take the risk. Instead I look for clues in the marks on the wallpaper, the dirt in the rear bumper of Grampa's truck. As I make my way through the Nancy Drew collection my grandmother owns, and then on to The Hardy Boys, my sisters and I play this game many times.

A couple of decades before I was born Monica Wood was playing the same game a few streets up the hill at her house. And in When We Were the Kennedys she describes this game exactly as I remember playing it. Just as she describes most of my memories of Mexico, Maine.

I expected to enjoy this book. I enjoyed Ernie's Ark and I thought Secret Language was touching and quite beautiful. I knew that it would probably be a bit surreal to read a memoir about a town I know better than I know any other place in the world. The place I lived for a third of my life. I didn't know that it would change the way I feel about that town.

Like Wood, I knew Mexico as a town in Maine before I ever knew it as a country. My cousin Kate always said that the smell of the paper mill meant we were almost to our grandparent's house. The mill is not a pleasant smell. It permeates everything and makes newcomers gag. But for me that smell means family. It is the smell of my grandparents home and where I graduated high school. That mill employed my grandfather, fed my mother and my uncles, paid for my Christmas gifts and filled the gas tank in my first car.

Monica Wood has developed an incredible memoir around that town. She has taken one tragic, poignant and life-changing year and turned it into a piece of art that delves into questions of mortality, spirituality, community and culture through the eyes of a very young child.

Wood develops the mill into a character of its own in a way that seems to me perfectly obvious and yet I had never realized it before. This is the reality of a town built around a mill. The mill is a character, a being all its own. It is what feeds the town while the town, in turn, feeds it. The town gives it their fathers, husbands, wives, daughters, sons. Feeds it time, energy and souls.

For me this book is obviously personal. Mexico is a town I have very mixed feelings about, but no matter what it is the place where I find a large portion of my family and most of my known ancestral history. With both my grandparent's gone I now go to Mexico to visit my nieces and nephews, my parents and my siblings. Even though I left the town over a decade ago, it's the kind of place that never truly leaves you.

If you've ever lived in a Maine mill town read this book. And if you haven't, read it because Monica Wood can give you a beautiful idea of what it is like to live in a riverside mill town. All the good, the bad, the mill town uglies and the games children play in a town like Mexico.

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