My Maine: Strike
A paper mill strike punctuates a father’s death in the childhood of a Mexico Maine girl.
By Monica Wood
Illustration by Patrick Corrigan
Excerpted from When We Were the Kennedys: A Memoir from Mexico, Maine. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, NY; Hardcover; 256 pages; $24)
The Times: THREE OXFORD WORKERS FIRED AFTER WILDCAT WALKOUT; ELEVEN SUSPENDED.
Shortly after school lets out for the summer, mill manager Charles Ferguson publishes an open letter in the Times to the citizens of Rumford and Mexico, pleading that a strike will serve no purpose whatever. In addition to depriving you of your pay, he reminds one and all, it would hamper the company’s ability to satisfy the needs of its customers. Without customers, the Company is out of business and your job security disappears. The rumor of a work stoppage may be without foundation, but I felt that you should know the facts before it’s too late.
The facts: We are the Oxford. The mighty, mighty Oxford. National Geographic loves us, they buy only Oxford paper for their color-picture magazine, which you can find all over town — all over America! all over the world! — stashed into bathroom magazine racks, towered onto parlor tables, stacked against screen doors to keep them from slamming shut. That’s our paper on which you read articles about African matriarchies and babies born at the North Pole and flowers so small and rare you can’t find them without a magnifying glass. That’s our paper in a magazine so colorful they pile up like totems because no mother in America — or the world! — can bear to throw one out.
The Times: BUILDING CAMPAIGN CONTINUES AT OXFORD.
The Times: OXFORD EARNINGS DROP.
The facts: Charles Ferguson came to our door, fifteen months ago now, to say, I’m sorry for your loss. He put on a jacket and took Mum’s hand and said kind words because Dad was a foreman in the woodyard, a good worker who was never late, a member of the long-service club, part of the Oxford family. Charles Ferguson — someone important, someone up there — ascended our stairs, past the Norkuses’, past the Hickeys’, and came to us, his Oxford Paper Company pin glinting on his lapel.
The Times: UPP WINS AGAIN; NEGOTIATIONS SET FOR AUGUST 3.
The Times: NEGOTIATIONS BEGIN.
The Times follows the zigzagging road of compromise, one edgy meeting after another. It follows also our humdrum daily doings. In one issue I learn that Chief Maurice Cray brought a complaint “against a Rumford citizen” who illegally parked in Mexico; that the sensational Impacts are back at the Eagles hall; that a Rumford meteorologist predicted a colder-than-normal autumn (“So sorry . . . signed, Armand A. Violette”). Senator Muskie publishes a defense of the Clean Water Act on page three. And on the next page, an anonymous essay called “The Truth about Cancer,” lamenting the Hollywood deaths of Charles Laughton and Dick Powell. “They have not died in vain,” proclaims the mysterious scribe who lauds the release of the dirty word cancer into polite company.
On the facing page, a reporter’s note on the specs of the Oxford’s new grinding room: Made of concrete. Covered with asbestos felt. No windows.
The Times: NEGOTIATIONS CONTINUE.
The Times: MANAGEMENT SPIKES RUMORS OF WHOLESALE PERSONNEL CHANGES.
The Times: BOTH SIDES LESSENING DEMANDS.
The Times: NEGOTIATIONS STALLED AT OXFORD.
During the mid-August labor talks, Denise and I celebrate our eleventh birthdays, five days apart, a cake for me at her house, a cake for her at my house. In celebration, I decide once and for all to rectify the Vaillancourts’ only perceptible deficiency by smuggling into Denise’s bedroom a homeless yellow cat we pick up on Gleason Street. The cat will live in the closet and be fed in secret until we can soften up Denise’s parents by inventing the cat’s dramatic backstory, in carefully timed, increasingly theatrical installments, salting it with quotes from St. Francis, the patron saint of animals (“O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console”), until finally Mrs. Vaillancourt, wracked with guilt, will mutter, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, you girls are right as always, let us open wide our doors! — whereupon we cue the cat for his big reveal.
Denise has a blabby little brother, however; before we can pass a single afternoon with our yellow birthday cat, Mr. Vaillancourt appears, filling the doorway of the bedroom with his square, stern shoulders and disciplinarian face. He’s just come back from a union meeting. Is he mad about the cat (at the moment unraveling an afghan crocheted by an auntie or mémère) or mad about NEGOTIATIONS STALLED?
“What do you girls think you’re doing?”
His eyes are pond blue, like Dad’s. Twinkly. He reminds me of a tame bear. I pick up the cat, who is purring beatifically, an ambassador from St. Francis for sure. It has a well-brushed coat and clean, translucent ears and, come to think of it, might not actually be homeless. I shift its fetching visage so that Mr. Vaillancourt can better admire its beseeching, topaz-colored eyes.
“We’re sorry, Dad,” says Denise, whose negotiation skills are just plain pitiful.
To this lame defense I must add, prematurely, our trump card: “We named him Omer.”
I remember Mr. Vaillancourt’s laugh as a modest, rolling chuckle, as if he disliked making too much of himself. This pleasant, trickling sound trails him like fairy dust as he trots downstairs — without a word of reproach — and sets the cat outside.
“Mr. Vaillancourt?” I ask when he returns. “Are you mad at me?”
He shakes his head no; he’s not mad at me. In time I’ll come to understand that I break his heart. He pats my head. He looks me in the eye. He calls me dear. He asks me how’s your mother. Then he goes to the phone, for he’s been called in, again, to do battle with a monstrous machine.
Monica Wood is the author of several novels, including Any Bitter Thing.