When We Were the Kennedys: A Memoir from Mexico, Maine by Monica WoodWhen We Were the Kennedys: A Memoir from Mexico, Maine by Monica Wood

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

byMonica Wood

Paperback | June 11, 2013

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1963, Mexico, Maine: The Wood family is much like its close, Catholic, immigrant neighbors. 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 this family saves itself, at first by enlisting the help of Mum's brother,&nbspa charismatic Catholic priest. And then, come November-her country shocked by the president's death and her town bracing for a labor strike-Mum announces an unprecedented family road trip. Inspired by the televised grace of Jackie Kennedy, herself a new widow with young children, Mum and her girls head to "our nation's capital" to do some rescuing of their own. The result is an indelible story of how family and nation, each shocked by the unimaginable, exchanges one identity for another.
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.
Title:When We Were the Kennedys: A Memoir from Mexico, MaineFormat:PaperbackDimensions:256 pages, 8 × 5.31 × 0.69 inPublished:June 11, 2013Publisher:Houghton Mifflin HarcourtLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0544002326

ISBN - 13:9780544002326


Read from the Book

Prologue:My MexicoIn 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

Editorial Reviews

"When We Were the Kennedys is a sharp, stunning portrait of a family’s grief and healing, and it also offers a refreshing lens through which to view the JFK tragedy, as his family’s loss helps the Woods feel less adrift in their own sea of anguish...Wood writes beautifully." —Washingtonian "Wood movingly renders her childhood in Mexico, Maine, and her large Catholic family's fight to survive after her father's sudden death. It's a pleasure to linger with her elegant prose, keen eye, and grace of thought."—Reader's Digest “The book is a shining example of everything a memoir should be.” —U.S. Catholic "This is a beautifully composed snapshot of how a family, a town—and, later, a country—grieves and goes on...The bonds between family members, neighbors, and coworkers, as well as men and their professions, are all explored here with sensitivity and a sweetness that isn’t saccharine." —Library Journal "Braiding her own story of mourning together with the heartbreak all around her, Wood has written a tender memoir of a very different time." —O, the Oprah Magazine "Every few years, a memoir comes along that revitalizes the form, that takes us by the hand and leads us into the dream world of our collective past from which we emerge more wholly ourselves. With generous, precise, and unsentimental prose, Monica Wood brilliantly achieves this, bringing back to life the rural paper mill town of not only her youth but America's, too, its bumbling, hard-working, often violent, yet mostly good-hearted lurch forward into the 21st century. When We Were the Kennedys is a deeply moving gem!"—Andre Dubus III, author of House of Sand and Fog and Townie "This is an extraordinarily moving book, so carefully and artfully realized, about loss and life and love.  Monica Wood displays all her superb novelistic skills in this breathtaking, evocative new memoir.  Wow."—Ken Burns, filmmaker "Monica Wood has written a gorgeous, gripping memoir. I don't know that I've ever pulled so hard for a family. When We Were the Kennedys captures a shimmering mill-town world on the edge of oblivion, in a voice that brims with hope, feeling, and wonder. The book humbles and soars."—Mike Paterniti, author of Driving Mr. Albert “Monica Wood is a stunning writer and When We Were the Kennedys a luminous and resonant achievement. If I were standing beside you, I would press this book into your hands.”—Lily King, author of The Pleasing Hour and Father of the Rain Wood’s book...goes much beyond the story of her family’s grief. The book is a meditation on time... It’s also a record of a vanished way of life... it avoids sentimentalizing small-town life... By bringing such a town to life, with all its complexities and imperfections, it’s to Monica Wood’s great credit that she goes a long way to answering these questions. The New Yorker online "In her intimate but expansive memoir, Monica Wood explores not only her family's grief but also the national end of innocence. Braiding her own story of mourning together with the heartbreak all around her, Wood has written a tender memoir of a very different time." --Oprah Magazine "On her own terms, wry and empathetic, Wood locates the melodies in the aftershock of sudden loss...That a memory piece as pacific and unassuming as When We Were the Kennedys should be allowed a seat in the hothouse society of tell-alls is a tribute to the welcoming sensibility of its author and the knowing faith of her publisher. " Boston Globe "It's a pleasure to linger with her elegant prose, keen eye, and grace of thought." --Reader's Digest "Best of America" issue "Wood's gorgeously wrought new book...is a sharp, stunning portrait of a family's grief and healing, and it also offer a refreshing lens through which to view the JFK tragedy, as his family's loss helps the Woods feel less adrift in their own sea of anguish." --The Washingtonian "Best of Washington" issue "Extraordinary, powerful and moving...This heart-wrenching, emotional, sometimes funny, oftentimes astonishing, and always compelling story is far better than the best novel...You will find yourself pausing, rereading entire paragraphs and thinking about what you've read...Read it and weep. Read it and wonder. Read it and rejoice. Kennebec Journal/Waterville (Maine) Morning Sentinel "This is an extraordinarily moving book, so carefully and artfully realized...Monica Wood displays all her superb novelistic skills in this breathtaking, evocative new memoir. Wow." —Ken Burns, filmmaker "A tender, plaintive...genuinely compelling depiction of family grief...a bittersweet, end-of-innocence family drama." --Kirkus "My great book of the summer...It’s a terrific book, telling the story of Wood's family after the sudden death of her father when she was only nine. That’s sad, of course, but the book isn’t about being sad, it’s about being a family. It’s also about an era—the year was 1963—and draws a parallel between Wood's story and the national loss of President Kennedy." Bill Roorbach in Orion Magazine