When We Were the Kennedys: A Memoir from Mexico, Maine

When We Were the Kennedys: A Memoir from Mexico, Maine

by Monica Wood

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Winner of the 2012 Sarton Memoir Award

“Every few years, a memoir comes along that revitalizes the form…With generous, precise, and unsentimental prose, Monica Wood brilliantly achieves this . . . When We Were the Kennedys is a deeply moving gem!”—Andre Dubus III, author of House of Sand and Fog and Townie

Mexico, Maine, 1963: The Wood family is much like its close, Catholic, immigrant neighbors, all dependent on the fathers’ wages from the Oxford Paper Company. But when Dad suddenly dies on his way to work, Mum and the four deeply connected Wood girls are set adrift. When We Were the Kennedys is the story of how a family, a town, and then a nation mourns and finds the strength to move on.

“On her own terms, wry and empathetic, Wood locates the melodies in the aftershock of sudden loss.”—Boston Globe

“[A] marvel of storytelling, layered and rich. It is, by turns, a chronicle of the renowned paper mill that was both pride and poison to several generations of a town; a tribute to the ethnic stew of immigrant families that grew and prospered there; and an account of one family’s grief, love, and resilience.”—Maine Sunday Telegram

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780547632292
Publisher: HMH Books
Publication date: 07/10/2012
Sold by: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 359,153
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

MONICA WOOD is the author of the novel Any Bitter Thing, an American Booksellers Association extended bestseller and a Book Sense Top Ten pick; Ernie's Ark; and My Only Story, a finalist for the Kate Chopin Award.

MONICA WOOD is the author of When We Were the Kennedys: A Memoir from Mexico, Maine and of the novel Any Bitter Thing, a national bestseller and Book Sense Top Ten pick. Her other fiction includes Ernie's Ark and My Only Story, a finalist for the Kate Chopin Award. Her writing has appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine, New York Times, Martha Stewart Living, Parade, and many other publications. Wood lives in Portland, Maine.

Read an Excerpt

Prologue:My Mexico

In mexico, maine, where I grew up, you couldn’t find a single Mexican.
  We’d been named by a band of settlers as a shout-out to the Mexican revolutionaries — a puzzling gesture, its meaning long gone — but by the time I came along, my hometown retained not a shred of solidarity, unless you counted a bottle of Tabasco sauce moldering in the door of somebody’s fridge. We had a badly painted sombrero on the welcome to mexico sign, but the only Spanish I ever heard came from a scratched 45 of Doris Day singing “Que Sera, Sera.”
  In fourth grade, after discovering that the world included a country called Mexico, I spent several befuzzled days wondering why it had named itself after us. Sister Ernestine adjusted my perspective with a pull-down map of the world, on which the country of Mexico showed up as a pepper-red presence and its puny namesake did not appear at all.
  In high summer, when tourists in paneled station wagons caravanned through town on their way to someplace else, hankies pressed comically to their noses against the stench of paper being made, I sat with my friends on the stoop of Nery’s Market to 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. These people didn’t linger 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 an idling car to ask the posse of sun-burnished children, Why Mexico?
  We looked at one another. I was the one in the wrinkled tee shirt bought at the Alamo by my priest uncle, Father Bob, who loved to travel. Or maybe that was my little sister, Cathy, or my next-bigger sister, Betty, or one of our friends. Who could tell one kid from the next? White kids in similar clothes; Catholic children of millworkers and housewives. We lived in triple-decker apartment buildings — we called them “blocks” — or in nondescript houses that our fathers painted every few years. The only Mexico we knew was this one, ours, with its single main street and its one bowling alley and its convent and church steeples and our fathers over there, just across the river, toiling inside a brick-and-steel complex with heaven-high smokestacks that shot great, gorgeous steam clouds into the air so steadily we couldn’t tell where mill left off and sky began.
  Like most Irish Catholic families in 1963, mine had a boiled dinner on Sundays after Mass and salmon loaf on Fridays. We had pictures of Pope John and President John and the Sacred Heart of Jesus hung over our red couch, and on holidays my big brother, the frontman in a local band called the Impacts, came with his wife and babies and guitar to sing story songs packed with repentant jailbirds and useless regret and soldiers bleeding to death on heathery fields. In my friend Denise Vaillancourt’s French Catholic family they ate meat pies — “tourtières” — on Christmas Eve and sang comic Québecois songs about mistaken identity and family kerfuffles. I had another friend, Sheila, who lived just our side of the Mexico-Rumford bridge, in a Protestant, two-child, flood-prone, single-family house; and another friend, Janet, who lived atop her parents’ tavern, the regulars marshmallowed onto the barstools by three in the afternoon listening to Elvis on the jukebox. At St. Theresa’s we greeted our teachers with a singsong “Bonjooour, ma Soeur,” diagrammed morally loaded sentences at flip-top desks, and drew flattering pictures of the Blessed Mother. We went to Mass on Sunday mornings and high holy days, singing four-part Tantum Ergos from the choir loft in a teamwork reminiscent of our fathers sweating out their shifts in noisy, cavernous rooms. The nuns taught us that six went into twelve twice, that the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, that California exported avocados and Maine exported paper — tons and tons of paper, the kind our fathers made.
  Though our elders in Mexico — who spoke French, or Italian, or Lithuanian, or English with a lilt — cherished their cultural differences, which were deep and mysterious and preserved in family lore, what bound us, the children, was bigger and stronger and far more alluring than the past. It was the future we shared, the promise of a long and bountiful life.
  The unlikely source of that promise penetrated our town like a long and endless sigh: the Oxford Paper Company, that boiling hulk on the riverbank, the great equalizer that took our fathers from us every day and eight hours later gave them back, in an unceasing loop of shift work.
  “The Oxford,” we chummily called it, as if it were our friend. From nowhere in town could you not see it.
  The mill. The rumbling, hard-breathing monster that made steam and noise and grit and stench and dreams and livelihoods — and paper. It possessed a scoured, industrial beauty as awesome and ever-changing as the leaf-plumped hills that surrounded us. It made a world unto itself, overbearing and irrefutable, claiming its ground along the Androscoggin, a wide and roiling river that cracked the floor of our valley like the lifeline on a palm. My father made his living there, and my friends’ fathers, and my brother, and my friends’ brothers, and my grandfather, and my friends’ grandfathers. They crossed the footbridge over the river’s tainted waters, carrying their lunch pails into the mill’s overheated gullet five, six, sometimes seven days a week.
  In every household in town, the story we children heard — between the lines, from mothers, fathers, mémères and pépères, nanas and nonnas, implied in the merest gesture of the merest day — was this: The mill called us here. To have you.
  This was one powerful story. Powerful and engulfing, erasing all that came before, just like the mill that had made this story possible. In each beholden family, old languages were receding into a multicultural twilight as the new, sun-flooded story took hold: the story of us, American children of well-paid laborers, beneficiaries of a dream. Every day our mothers packed our fathers’ lunch pails as we put on our school uniforms, every day a fresh chance on the dream path our parents had laid down for us. Our story, like the mill, hummed in the background of our every hour, a tale of quest and hope that resonated similarly in all the songs in all the blocks and houses, in the headlong shouts of all the children at play, in the murmur of all the graces said at all the kitchen tables. In my family, in every family, that story — with its implied happy ending — hinged on a single, beautiful, unbreakable, immutable fact: Dad.
  Then he died.

Table of Contents

Prologue: My Mexico     xiii

1. Morning     1
2. Wake     21
3. Hiding     35
4. Explorers     55
5. Too Much Stairs     77
6. Paper     97
7. Three Vanillas     111
8. Offer It Up     123
9. The Mystery of the Missing Man     137
10. Just Nervous     149
11. Widows’ Instructions     165
12. Our Nation’s Capital     179
13. Anniversary     199
14. I Hear Music     213

Epilogue: New Page     223
Acknowledgments     233

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When We Were the Kennedys: A Memoir from Mexico, Maine 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 19 reviews.
VeryPickyReader More than 1 year ago
This is as close to a perfect book as I've read. It is part social history, part memoir, and written so beautifully that I found myself rereading whole sections as though they were poetry. In fact, Wood writes more like a poet than anyone I've read, taking obvious care with every word and sentence. This book got rave blurbs from Ken Burns -- yes, that Ken Burns -- and Lily King, and rave reviews from all over for a reason. It is a triumph of voice and story- telling. Ken Burns says "wow" and I'll second that. Ignore the anonymous two-star non-review (No text. What's up with that?). Read this, and believe me, you won't be sorry. Just don't make any important plans once you start. It's really hard to put down.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was so moved by this book. Growing up in Maine during that era, I connected with so many parts of this lovely tale.
shoreylj More than 1 year ago
Monica Wood is one of my favorite authors. This memoir is excellent. Perhaps I like it so much because I recognize those early 1960's when the mills were the heart of small Maine towns situated next to rivers and John Kennedy was the hope for the future. As a prior reviewer notes, it is a social history, as well as a memoir. It drew me in and elicited memories of childhood. Amazing how she was able to portray both the child's viewpoint at the time and the context that came as an adult. Please do not make us wait so long for your next book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a beautifully written, touchingly narrated story of a young girl -- and now a mature woman -- looking back on a painful chapter in her life with love, tenderness, nostalgia for times past, and uncanny insight into what lies ahead. I cherished every page. Ms. Woods reminded me, too, of my own deep hometown roots, the value of community, family, traditions. A must-read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Monica Wood will be forever blessed for honoring her family with this book. I loved all of it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
So well written. Love the description. The author is talented in so many ways.
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Micben More than 1 year ago
This memoir is beautifully written and very moving. I felt as if I knew this family. I am the same age as the author and also grew up attending a Catholic school. I remember exactly where I was when I heard about Kennedy. The author bings an era back to life, as well as the end of life as we knew it.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The most engaging, emotional book i have read in years! Highly, highly recommended!
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Heartbreaking & melancholy for those taking care of a parent with Alheimers.
LPlourde More than 1 year ago
THE TOP TEN REASONS TO READ MONICA WOOD’S MEMOIR WHEN WE WERE THE KENNEDYS #10 It’s the best book I’ve read in YEARS. My husband says the same thing. Agreement like that doesn’t happen very often. #9 Monica Wood’s initials are M. W. —which surely stand for Master Wordsmith. #8 The book opens with the sudden death of nine-year-old Monica Wood’s father, and that’s just the start of the trials and tragedies in this memoir. Yet OPTIMISM sings through its pages. #7 Monica Wood is a fiction writer first and foremost, and her memoir peels away layer after layer to reveal the story—just as the best fiction does. #6 If you loved the town/city you grew up in, Monica will make you love it even more. #5 If you’re of a certain age and grew up in the 50’s and 60’s, you’ll revel in the detailed time capsule she’s created. #4 Monica Wood’s family, the characters in the story, will seem like you already know them; or if not, you’ll want to adopt them. #3 It’s a book you can’t stop reading at the same time you don’t want it to ever end. #2 Monica Wood says more in a single phrase than most authors do with piles and piles of paragraphs and pages. #1 While Monica Wood shares her TRUTH to its core in her memoir, she simultaneously helps readers to understand their own TRUTHS.