Below is one of various starts on a memoir I’ve been writing on-and-off for several years. My experience is middle American in many ways, and the challenge I’ve set myself as a writer, going back decades now, is to recognize and describe what is essential and universal in that middle-ness. My family was lower-to-middle middle class if compared to the status of people in our community. Economists might have labeled us working class. But we thought of ourselves as middle class.
My father and mother worked full- and part-time out of the house, respectively. We had a car, never a new one until my parents in 1972 sold the suburban house they had bought in 1956. I thought of my town neighborhood as the middle landscape, not the city next to us and not the rural area of the town, but a location that allowed us access to the nearby city of 100,000 people (Lowell) and bigger Boston, an hour away, as well as woods, fields, ponds, dairies, and farm stands of the close countryside. And it was the middle of the twentieth century. We were not in the middle of the nation or the continent, true. I’d like to think we were not middlebrow as a family. My parents had high school educations, but read avidly and followed current events in the broadcast and print news and watched “educational TV” along with the popular network shows. My two older brothers earned college degrees in teaching (art) and political science (culminating in a Ph.D.). We proceeded in the broad middle lane of the American experience when I was growing up, not speeding ahead to pass on the outside edge and largely avoiding the breakdown lane.
Judith Guest’s novel Ordinary People (1976), later a movie, featured a well-to-do if not wealthy family with internal problems. We were more ordinary than those folks. More average. At least that’s how I saw it for a long time in the rearview mirror. Growing up, I was too young to analyze our situation. So, as I began saying, I’d like to render the middle-ness of it all in a compelling way. The older I get, the more I see and understand the particular drama in the lives I know best. Nobody’s life is ordinary. Crisis. Joy. Struggle. Love. Boredom. Achievement. Anxiety. Pain. Luck. Violence. Regret. All these are in every box on the block. The test for the artist, the reporter, the interpreter, the inventor, is to make something memorable of it.
A Place in the Woods
THERE WAS A WHITE PLASTER CAT on the roof of the house next door. It was a French thing. The cat. Every mémère had a minou, a real kitty. My grandparents (Mémère and Pépère, sound like meh-may and peh-pay) had purchased the house after my father and mother bought their shoe-box sized ranch-style home at the corner of Hildreth Street and Janice Avenue in Dracut, a countrified suburb immediately north of Lowell, Massachusetts, the small, classic textile-mill city whose urban economy had lured my ancestors and thousands like them out of the frozen fields of Quebec in the late nineteenth century. The prospect of a paycheck from one of the red-brick factories that lined the Merrimack River for a mile was a strong enough draw to get them to leave whatever little of material value they had in Canada.
In 1956, my parents moved to Dracut, whose Native American name in Algonkian, Agumtoocook, means “a place in the woods,” and became the first in their respective genealogical lines to live outside the city. Dwight D. Eisenhower was in the White House in Washington, D.C. My father had no use for “Ike.” That’s the way he would say it, “I’ve got no use for him.” Dad had fought the Nazis in the U.S. Army in World War II, under Ike’s command, but that did not put him in the President’s corner after the war. My folks voted for Democrats. Whenever Ike’s name came up, my father would say, “The country slept for eight years.” His politics, and my mother’s, were shaped by the Great Depression of the 1930s and the activist presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. After FDR, many people in my parents’ generation believed the Democrats were the party of the “little guy” while the Republicans for them became the party of “big business.” Dracut, being a rural culture before the ethnic families of Lowell bought homes with small yards and a couple of aged apple trees, Dracut had a lot of old-time Yankee families with roots in the mid-1600s. These people tended to go Republican for their views on individualism, rugged, I suppose. Is there a squishy individualism out there?
Across the street from the Marion house was Fournier’s farm with chickens and a few milk-cows. The side yard of our lot bordered on a large field that led to a swamp ripe with muskrats and green leaper frogs. The land next to us had a long pile of loam about twelve-feet high covered with tall grass. For years, I thought of the loam pile as the King of the Mountain hill because that’s what we played there, shoving each other down to the bottom in ridiculous free-for-alls. Our house was a corner lot on an old route tying Lowell to Dracut. The sub-neighborhood was called New Boston Village, going back to the seventeenth century. The new Janice Avenue (we always said “Ave.”) ran out of pavement after three houses on each side. For a time the unfinished road was lit at night for safety with black oil pots that resembled cannon balls. The neighborhood would be built up by the mid-1960s, but there wasn’t a street light when my family moved into the little ranch. My mother, who did not have a driver’s license, thought she was at the end of the world.
There were five of us in the family . . . [to be continued]