The mill is centerpiece, a steaming cauldron amid built up blocks — the town within the town — its great gray monolith partly obscured in self-generated 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.
In the memoir of her childhood Monica Wood tells us the heroic, founding industrialist story of Mr. Hugh Chisholm and his surreptitious study—or scoping out as rural people say—of the great falls and surrounding land. The lens is her schoolroom instruction by Sister Ernestine. Chisholm’s borrowed horse and sleigh took him down-river through icy fog where the thundering of the waterfall in rime-frosted landscape excited this man as he approached. He then climbed out to pat his St. Jude, and reward the horse with a cube of sugar.
The children wanted to know.
Chisholm was Catholic (sister’s response).
But the horse was borrowed!
“ ‘Then I assume the hotel man was also Catholic.” (p. 59)
Some pretty savvy mill town kids, those students of Sister Ernestine.
Where we lived the atmosphere of Rumford is but cloud over the valley. It lowers, diffusing the bristling contours of receding mountains. Many houses, geometric and roofed among many lines of leafless tree cluster, mysterious, on slopes rising beside and beyond the seething centerpiece. That centerpiece is below gabled blocks of apartments descending the hill in ranks. We lived above rooftops, chimneys and dormers, iced with the dreary not quite melting snow.
Monica Wood’s profound onomatopoeia for the ever-present sounding mill of her childhood is “Puff … Puff … ooom. Puff … Puff … ooom.” It is the sounding of the family friend, the sound of her father and all the men at work supporting them and the entire valley of the then-thriving twin towns.
Forty-five years later she hears it on her numerous returns—for family visits, research, and to renew the vision for her book. In reading its acknowledgments, I was gladdened and surprised to see husband and wife, the Madores, thanked for their contributions. Sharon was the Rumford librarian in charge of helping Monica with microfiche; and Mike, from whom Monica learned how paper was made … and about the trembling, weaving of fiber as it ran the length of wire—losing water—toward massive dryers. My spouse, R., worked with Mike, who was also his foreman, and the son of our landlady, Mrs. Rita Madore.
For a “God’s business” juxtaposition I will tell how Rita climbed the stairs one morning and, after checking out the broken commode, took down my phone number. She was planning on having it fixed. Later that day she died at the community center during her grandson’s basketball game. We went to the family calling hour at Thibault’sfuneralhome on Penobscot Street. In Parlor B the family and guests were assembled, Rita laid out in bejeweled delicacy, fineness such as I’d never seen her wear; surrounded by floral arrangements of great beauty but simplicity. I was completely charmed by the soft glowing light and grace of the setting; glimmering light all about her, dimness toward the back of the quiet murmuring gathering.
And I was amazed by the “family gathering” air of the occasion and the completely mundane conversations taking place, along with sporadic laughter. It was as though we were all in her living room with herself as hostess going from group to group, talking about the everyday things people in Rumford talk about. Mike, completely bereaved in his sports coat and tie, and after a big hug from both of us, and a few words about Rita, said to us, “So you got the truck today.”
Then he explained to me that that’s how it is in a small town. News travels. Several people had told him they saw it in the driveway of the Madore apartment house. There was a conversation about the toilet, about Rita’s enjoyment in hearing us move around up in the apartment; about our neighbors at camp, doings in the mill yard and community center. Mike mentioned the feeling of love and support he had from his friends, and how it was carrying him. Sharon the librarian was beautifully dressed and completely understanding about our own lack of “dress.”
“Puff … Puff … ooom.”
This is the sounding mill that brought us out of the rust-belt Midwest when other mills, known to us as factories—rubber and steel and ironworks—were… well… rusting away. To say it brought us is not quite true of course. We came looking for work, a place to live honorably, and we found this paper mill. Or, maybe like God, it found us and nourished us through R.’s faithful labor. Not everyone who wanted to work here amid its danger, clangor and stench, got the good paying job applied for.
But that description of the rooftops and funeral home I gave you above was written twenty years ago. And R. is no longer a technician there, though the mill is still running. And the mid-western factories are still rusting away. Her memoir has caught up with her life when the contemporary Monica Wood writes of another machine shut down.
“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 … ooom, it says, sighing over what might be its last generation of children, most of whom, like me, make a break for it when they come of age and spend the rest of their lives looking back.” (p. 230-1. Quotations Used with permission.)
As this narrative takes a desperate-grand turn, in a profound connection to the book’s ending, these words are found in the epilogue of When We Were the Kennedys.
I will not give the book’s last three words here but with them, the reader knows: No one in Monica Wood’s powerful memoir died in vain.