The town where I grew up was only foreign to the travelers who passed through on the road elsewhere.
The following is an excerpt from A Place Called Maine, edited by Wesley McNair. To purchase a copy, click here.
In Mexico, Maine, where I grew up, you could not find a single Mexican. Originally named in sympathy with the Mexican revolutionists, my hometown retained not a shred of solidarity by the time I came along, unless you counted an aged jar of Tabasco sauce in the door of somebody’s fridge. The only Spanish anybody knew derived from a scratched 45 of Doris Day singing “Que Sera, Sera.”
In third grade, when I discovered that the wide world included a country called Mexico, I spent several befuzzled days wondering why it had named itself after us. Sister Germaine adjusted my perspective with a pull-down map on which the country of Mexico assumed a shapely, pepper-red presence, and its puny namesake did not appear at all.
In high summer, when tourists in paneled station wagons caravanned down Main Street on their way to someplace else, hankies pressed comically to their noses against the mill’s smelly effluvia, we kids liked to sit on the concrete stoop of Nery’s Market and play License Plate. Sucking on blue Popsicles, we observed the procession of vehicles carrying strangers we’d never glimpse again, and accumulated points for every out-of-state plate. No one ever stopped to look around or buy anything, though once in a while a woman (always a woman, with the smiley red lips all women had then) popped out of a parked but still-running car to ask directions we could not provide, or to take our picture. I was the one in the smudgy tee shirt bought in Niagara Falls by my priest uncle, who loved to travel. Or maybe that was my little sister, or my bigger sister, or one of our friends; who could tell one kid from the next? The tourist lady arranged us to her liking and plunked onto one of our heads a straw hat she’d bought somewhere else in Maine (Norway? South Paris?). We dutifully smiled when she asked us to, imagining ourselves being admired many months hence by strangers passing a photo album around a Pennsylvanian parlor.
The tourist lady’s presumption didn’t rankle, not even when she found us insufficiently accessorized. Driving through the middle of nowhere in the early sixties, repelled by the stench of paper being made, she had spotted a posse of sun-burnished children with home-cut hair and thought: Oh, I must get that. Then she wound her way out of town, fiddling with her camera and eyeing the brightening hills until, an hour later, approaching the Rangeley lakes if she’d been heading north or the White Mountains if heading west, she cocked her head and asked her husband at the wheel: Why Mexico, do you think? I should have asked those kids.
Not that we could have enlightened her. What did we know (licking the wood-tasting dregs of the Popsicles for which we’d pooled our coins) about the Mexican Revolution? The only Mexico we knew was this one, ours, with its single main street, our fathers across the river there, toiling inside an omnipresent brick-and-steel complex that shot great, gorgeous steam clouds into the sky so steadily that we couldn’t tell where mill left off and sky began.
The first death is the one you mourn forever. My first was my father, and, as he himself might have said, it was a real corker. That loss — a sudden, stinging, inconceivable insult — remains so keenly engraved, so hard-glinting in its smallest detail, that it cleaves my childhood memories into a knife-clean “before” and “after.”
The morning of my father’s death begins like all other mornings: my mother stirring oatmeal at the stove, a cat twining round her legs, her parakeet jabbering on her shoulder. My oldest sister, Anne, who teaches at the high school, is at work already; and my father, who got up at five-thirty for first shift, is toiling somewhere in the spongy air of the wood room. Or so we believe. Betty and Cathy and I, our hair mashed from sleep, rouse ourselves after Mum’s second or third call. Cathy and I attend St. Theresa’s — second grade and fourth grade, respectively — a French Catholic school that we can see, over the rooftop of my best friend’s house on Brown Street, from our third-floor kitchen window.
Below us, on the second floor, come the muted morning sounds from the Hickeys: that’s Norma leaving for work at the power company. Her mother, the only one-armed person I know, opens her door to pick up the morning paper and snap it open in a nimble abracadabra, one of her most enthralling sleight-of-one-hand feats.
Below that, on the first floor, our Lithuanian landlady begins her daily cooking of cabbage and root vegetables that smell more or less like the mill. The ancient Mortuses speak halting English, charge us seven dollars a week in rent, and engage in an intermittent but escalating skirmish with Mum over whether or not we girls should be allowed to bring our friends up to visit. Too much stairs, they say, which could mean almost anything.
Mexico is full of buildings like ours, triple-decker apartment buildings with open stairways on the back side and three stacked porches attached to the front. We call them blocks. In the Mortus block, where we live, the three apartments are identically laid out — four rooms and a screened porch — but each has a separate, and separately revelatory, air of foreignness. The Mortus apartment, densely furnished, emanates a steamy, overdraped blurriness that I still associate, perhaps inaccurately, with all Lithuanian households. The Hickeys’ floor, occupied by two big and tidy women, seems like a trick, its scrubbed interior latitudes magically expanded. Every time I enter, I think of the Popeye cartoon in which Olive Oyl peers into a small tent and finds the inside of the Taj Mahal. Our top floor, full of girls and mateless socks and hair doodads and schoolbooks and cats and winter jackets and molted feathers, operates on the same principle, in reverse: when you open our door, the physical world shrinks.
In this filled-to-brimming place on the morning of my father’s death, the parakeet perches on my oatmeal bowl, his scaly feet gripping the rim. He pecks at my breakfast, spattering gruel, gibbering words gleaned from my mother’s patient repetitions. He can also sing and dance, but not now; Mum wants us at school on time and so far it doesn’t look promising. Cathy appears, wearing half of her school uniform — the starched white blouse — and a slip. I’m half dressed, too, in opposite: army-green skirt and pajama top. My mother presses our clothes in stages, so that is how we put them on. Outside, the morning radiates the particular cool of April. Betty comes last to eat, but no one hurries her. She’s mentally disabled (we said “retarded” back then) and gets to stay home with Mum, lucky girl. We dawdle over orange juice as Cathy, against orders, places the parakeet on a pencil to see if he’ll do a spin; it’s his best trick and kills the room every time. This is how mornings go, a tango of
getting ready, each girl a separate challenge, Mum alternately shooshing us and making us sit, sit, sit to eat.
I’m the slow eater. The “absent-minded” one. The writer, in other words. I watch out the window — with my adult, writer’s eyes now — but nothing looks different. Dad is already dead, but we don’t know this yet, can’t imagine this. When I look out the window — then or now — all I see is Mexico, my Mexico, the only Mexico that matters.
Across the way: the Velushes’ gloomy windows and creepy, tangled garden, a source of ever-evolving speculation. What abides there? Fairies? Devils? Across from them, the Gagnons: We play with their girls and have a crush on Mrs. Gagnon with her down-the-back ripple of auburn hair. Mr. Gagnon, rarely glimpsed, works in the woods. Cathy and I help Mrs. Gagnon with the piecework she brings home from the shoe shop in Wilton, stitching shoes in a chatty round robin, a scene of feminine collusion that will turn up in a novel forty years later. Cattycorner from the Gagnons are the O’Neills, cousins of ours on Mum’s side, and then the Yarnishes, their driveway patrolled by a disgruntled crow who calls “Hi, Joe! Hi, Joe!” all day long in a tone belying welcome. He bit Betty on the leg once. After that, the Dons, the Downses, the Witases, the Fourniers, kids at every stop. Most of us attend St. Theresa’s together; some can’t speak to their grandmothers except in a strenuous pastiche of mispronounced words and family sign language. Most of us have parents or grandparents who came from foreign climes — French Canada and the Maritime Provinces, Italy, Lithuania, Ireland — and the rest of the neighborhood fills out with Fleurys and Gallants and Lavorgnas and Desjardinses and Vaillancourts and Arsenaults and Nailises and Flahertys, a census that repeats itself to the town line and across the bridge to Rumford, the mill’s official home.
To the tourist lady we probably all looked the same: white kids in similar clothes, children of millworkers and housewives, oblivious of the wider world. What she didn’t see, because she didn’t stay, was that, like the trick tent in the Popeye cartoon, when you opened doors you found surprise. In our household, we had boiled dinner every Sunday. We had a picture of Pope John and President John and the Sacred Heart of Jesus hung over the couch. My brother — the frontman in a band called the Fabulous Impacts (they performed in matching shiny-green jackets) — came on Sundays with his wife and babies and guitar to sing the rockabilly songs we knew from the radio. At my grandfather’s on Mexico Avenue we listened to ballads from Ireland, long, lugubrious story-songs, often about death and dismemberment.
At my friend Denise’s they ate tourtières and sang comic French songs about family entanglements; reconstructing all the verses required a minimum of five bouffanted aunties. At Denise’s you had to say please and thank you, you had to remove your shoes, and you had to obey Mr. Vaillancourt, a sweet, taciturn man who reminded me of a tame bear.
I had another friend, Janet, who lived atop her parents’ tavern on the riverfront. There we listened to Top 40 songs on the downstairs jukebox. We ate bar food that we took upstairs, out of eyeshot of the regulars — those bleary, distant men, some soft and fleshy, marshmallowed onto the barstools at three in the afternoon; others so thin they appeared to be constructed from artfully twisted coat hangers. The Fortins called their place Tarry-a-While, and people did.
In church we sang exquisite, haunting, four-part Tantum Ergos from the choir loft. We prayed high mass in Latin. We began each school day by greeting our teacher with a singsong “Bonjooour, ma soeur!” and reciting the Lord’s Prayer or a Hail Mary in French. For my family, all this French represented a cultural compromise: as non-Franco kids, Cathy and I were a minority, having begun our school life at St. Athanasius in Rumford with the Irish nuns, switching schools only after the town discontinued its bus service.
In other words, we were not all the same.
Willa Cather famously observed that a writer acquires most of her material before the age of fifteen, years that determine whether the work will be poor and thin or rich and fine. The material in my town was rich and fine indeed. Out of our front doors walked future writers and actors and playwrights and singers and musicians, our art informed by a thousand twining strands.
The boy who found my father grew up to be an opera singer of no small reputation. Back then he was just another kid in town, whose mother taught piano; a teenager on his way to school who executed a disbelieving double-take when he passed the saggy row of rental garages on Mexico Avenue. The sight of my father lying in front of the garage door, cap knocked off his head, lunch pail spilled at his feet, must surely endure in his memory. I have met this grown-up boy on several occasions, have heard him sing, too — but only once. His tenor is rich and soaring and heartcrushingly beautiful, and to me every note sounds like that morning.
The other key player in the morning drama is Mr. Cray, our town constable, coming up the driveway as I dawdle over my oatmeal, watching idly out the window. Mr. Cray, florid and heavyset like my father, moving with my father’s hefty step, the first dissonant note of the day. I squint down three stories. “Mum, Mr. Cray is here.”
Here is where the memory of any morning turns into the memory of that singular morning. “Mum, Mr. Cray is here.” My mother bursts into song. Or so it seems, on this morning in which nothing is as it seems. Ohhh, my mother sings. Ohhh. For a moment — before the first stir of alarm, a tiny knot of suspicion struggling up through my esophagus — I assume that Mum’s keening will be shortly explained, will become a clear and ordinary droplet in the blizzard of information that makes up any childhood. Her hands fly to her face, she whirls around to face the door, egress blocked by a laundry basket and ironing board that she threads her way around. We’re confused now, and getting scared. As we listen to Mr. Cray’s footfalls on the stairs — a sound exactly like my father coming home from work — the morning acquires a pitiless momentum, embodied in Mr. Cray’s inexorable progress. He bypasses the Mortuses on the first floor, keeps going; bypasses the Hickeys on the second floor, keeps going; and finally stops outside our door, which my mother flings open, crying out, “He’s dead, isn’t he?”
Who? Who does she mean? Big Mr. Cray, as formless and crumpled-looking as a pile of warm sheets, fills up our tiny front hall. A strange commotion arises there. I begin walking backwards, something we do sometimes for fun. Backwards, retreating from the noise surfacing from my mother’s throat, backwards into our bedroom, backwards, trying to reverse time. Betty waits there, sitting on the bed, alarmed but uncomprehending, her eyes pale as dimes. Cathy — the bravest, the one who takes nothing at face value — stands her ground in the kitchen, where the morning will take on the shellac of permanence and become the museum piece we will all come back to again and again, seeing something new each time in this preserved, precious thing. At last, Cathy barrels into our room, crying, “Daddy’s dead!” She’s the announcer, the town crier, the loud one. And she’s blubbering loudly now, drowning out the disquieting sounds in the kitchen. Her uniform sash divides the white of her blouse, but her skirt still hasn’t made it from the ironing board. She’s got a hairbrush stuck in her hair. “Daddy’s dead!” she announces again, understanding it all of a piece, accepting a grief she will never quite get over. I cry, too, of course — instantly, violently — but my reaction feels less like grief (though how can I tell, having known none before this?) and more like the involuntary reaction to a physical blow, that helpless empty space between the blow and the pain. Betty looks at us both for a long moment, receiving the information at last, then she, too, cries.
My mother will explain to us later that she dreamed it — three nights running, she dreamed that my fifty-seven-year-old father dropped dead on his way to work. She will wonder aloud whether she
offered Mr. Cray any relief or comfort when she met him at the door already forming the words he dreaded to utter. All that was left for him was to say yes.
My father, like most people, must have applied a kind of rhythm to the ordinary day. I followed that rhythm in my mind many times after that morning: his feet hitting the floor upon waking, the morning ablutions, the door clicking shut behind him, the three downward flights. Possibly he stopped to pet the Mortuses’ cat, Tootsie (like all men in our family, Dad was a cat man), before stepping into our vacant driveway, where cars were not allowed. Perhaps he was in pain; I hope not. Even so, his last mortal moments are swaddled by the familiar. It’s cold, but the air contains the coming spring. He leaves us, turns right at the Dohertys onto Gleason Street, passes the O’Neills, the Gagnons, the Velushes, turns right again at the Caliendos onto Mexico Avenue until he reaches another driveway with six attached garages at the end, each bay just barely big enough to fit one car. He was a farmer on Prince Edward Island, Canada, and at times deeply misses the red, furrowed fields and his siblings who remain, but the farm could never give him what he found here: steady, decent, good-paying work. He found his wife here, had five children over twenty years. His youngest is eight and a half; his oldest is twenty-eight. In eight years he will retire. What does he intend to do then, this man who has never taken a vacation or owned a house? Extended trips back to the island, perhaps, or long, pleasant days here, in summer at least, tilling the borrowed plot he tends in his father-in-law’s yard just a few houses up the street from where he stands now, possibly short of breath, at six o’clock in the morning, the beginning of an ordinary day. Here we go, people say at these moments of familiar repetition, the day’s momentum released with the turn of a key or the punch of a time card or, in my father’s case, the fitting of his hand around the handle of a rented door. The door clangs upward. Here —. And he’s gone. I hope there was a moment of anticipation. A sense of a new kind of beginning.
The rest of that morning, after my father’s implausibly permanent departure, fills with arrivals. My sister is called back from the high school. My brother is called back from the mill. My priest uncle, who will oversee the funeral, is called back from his parish. By four in the afternoon we can barely close the fridge for all the casseroles and have literally run out of places to sit.
Late in the day, a final visitor arrives: a well-dressed stranger in a tie, his hair white and neatly combed, his face grave with sympathy. My mother is sitting in the kitchen, same chair into which she collapsed hours ago after Mr. Cray said his “yes.” A silver pin glints from the stranger’s shirt pocket: Oxford Paper Company. “The Oxford,” we call it; my father made his living there, and my friends’ fathers, and my brother, and my friends’ brothers, and my grandfather, and my friends’ grandfathers. This man, who looks like Don Ameche, my father’s favorite actor, is the mill manager. My mother, who has not risen from her chair all day, rises for him.
He stays only a few moments — charged, bright, layered moments that contain almost everything I will ever know. They are moments in which I feel both enthralled and confused, honored and ashamed. Because I’m a child, these moments arrive unsorted; I am not yet a writer; I do not yet think through the written word. And so I can only observe and wonder: An important man has come to see my mother; he resembles an actor; his condolences tip a scale that I did not know existed; his visit infuses an incongruous little trill into the muted dusk of our grief. The mill manager’s presence elevates my father’s importance; this much is clear. Which means this man is more important than my father. And that my father cannot be, as I so long have thought, the most important man in the world. These teetering intuitions provide my first, feeble inklings about social class and its myriad contradictions, its necessity in times of trauma, its cool, dispassionate lessons about who we are and where we are in the world.
The day of my father’s death ends, for me, a few weeks later, after I’ve begun to perceive another, related, equally subtle perception: my mother’s widowhood shames her. With the loss of her husband has come another, less tangible one — the loss of our appearance as a family whole. Gone is the illusion of bounty, the sustaining tableau of a man with a lunch pail leaving 16 Worthley Avenue every morning and returning to that same address every night. We are changed. We are less. My mother doesn’t say this, but it’s in the air, and I live in dread that some stranger will ask me, as people do back then, “What does your father do?” I live in dread of the answer. I can’t say the word “dead.”
Or so I thought. Learning to write is to learn that anything — anything in the world — can be made bearable. My sister gives me a new word, my first writer’s word. “You can say, ‘deceased,’ ” she tells me. My sister, my own future English teacher, instructing me already: “You say, ‘deceased.’ ”
Deceased. The word takes on the palliative properties of a mill manager’s visit. It provides the necessary distance from the thing it describes. It offers me a way out of my own part of the story, providing a solid place from which to observe the rest. Which is the writer’s job.
A few weeks after that, in a postscript to the day, comes another present, another gift from my sister. A diary. It is blue, with a fake-leather cover and pickable lock. It contains three hundred sixty-five glossy, lined, blank, waiting pages. I fill it up.
My writer’s material arrived in a day built of layers and layers of human endeavor that I have been sorting through ever since. That long, complicated day of my father’s death — fed by the shock of loss, the consolations of family, the comforts of place, the confusions of class and station, and a burgeoning awareness of the power of words — lives on in everything I write.
When I blow into town these days, I sometimes feel like the red-lipped tourist lady from forty years ago, trying in vain to see the place whole. Unlike her, I stop and linger, often for days, for I have two families here now: my own family of origin, plus the one I married into. Though I’ve lived in Portland for thirty years, Mexico is still home. Everything that ever happened to me — everything worth writing about — happened here. Mexico will always be the place where my father died, where the Yarnishes’ crow hollered down the street all day, where we began every school morning with a loud bonjour, where we helped our neighbor sew shoes for an industry that finally moved overseas, where we watched strangers in car after car drive past us, through us, checking their wristwatches or folding crinkled maps, road-weary and unseeing and aimed elsewhere.
- By: Monica Wood