Another Maine Metaphor is coming out, this one with a seasonal focus, Maine In Winter. But today I’m essaying about a neighboring town and author, in part because of personal connections with the town. The town is Mexico, Maine.
You read that right. Mexico, Maine.
Maine is more than half the geographic area of New England, and so far there is only a beginning immigrant quantity of Mexican-Americans in the White- Anglo-Saxon Protestant-founding of New England, USA. I’m seeing none at all in this part of the Western Mountains of Maine.
So, Mexico Maine? —White Maine? But the mill towns of Mexico and Rumford (over the river) had been home to immigrants from early days of the mill’s founding by Hugh Chisholm in the late 1800s. In those days it was woodland/farmland but possessed of the greatest national waterfalls east of Niagara — where Hugh Chisholm came from on hearing of these remote woodlands and this great unharnessed falls.
When we first drove into Mexico in our secondhand patched together 12-year-old gas hogging Buick, we saw the mill right off, of course. It was almost the whole reason we’d come.
An assignment had been handed off from Brunswick, and before that from Freeport, Maine: A Mexico volunteer was going to give us guidance on how to “get going” in the town. At that point we had no idea of these being immigrant towns. All the descendants of economic refugees in Mexico, Maine looked like us, WASPs. But they were mostly giant families of Catholic Italian, Lithuanian, Irish, French, New Brunswick, PEI descendants, with a few other white odds and ends (such as ourselves, a 4-person nuclear family), and at least one African-American family.
The Rumford Falls built the mill, and the mill built the twin towns out of immigrants. But to suggest that our little family were not immigrant-descended is wrong. No family on earth, of whatever size, no individual, no babe in arms, is not descended from immigrants. Even First Peoples, Native Americans, and other indigenous people are descended of immigrants. People have been moving around since there were people, some en route to this continent on the paleo-historic land-bridge from North Asia. The Saviour of the world was immigrant descended. Wherever we are, we are there because of migration.
Escaping the exhausted midwestern rust-belt, our family—at that point—was in need of housing, work, food, gas, everything that keeps a family going. We were on the brink of car-camping in Mexico in November with virtually none of the aforementioned. In the vernacular of the rural town we ended up in a few weeks later, we were “from away.”
From away was a label to cover the unknown quality. Most people in the rural towns we lived in were descended of settlers from Massachusetts, and before that East Anglia in England. “The name derives from the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of the East Angles, a tribe that originated in Angeln, northern Germany.” (Wikipedia) But that’s getting ahead of this narrative centered in Mexico, Maine. Now to connect our story with that of Monica Woods’ memoir, When We Were the Kennedys.
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 thismemoir 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 the child 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.
As one might expect with a child’s witness of life and death, there’s a lot of wisdom in this book. In a papermaking metaphor, the texture of this little life is webbed and intricately woven, like the stock of fine paper shaken very fast across its industrial wire. Her telling weaves tighter and tighter just as the stock’s water evaporates, lifts, rolls away. More on the subject of its craft in later 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), When We Were the Kennedys 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 lies outside 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. She was scared it wouldn’t work–or that it would! But even the death of a deer was “God’s business, and you were supposed to leave God’s business alone.” (p. 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 management. 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, sole 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. Our own family 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 researching for this essay, we found the Chicken Coop 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 initial 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.
…To be continued…