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.