Everyone has a story to tell, but the rules governing who gets to tell them and which ones get to be told only seem to narrow as the demand for memoirs goes through the roof. Fame and wealth (the more ill-gotten the better) still count for much. In the absence of name recognition, however, candidates for nonfiction glory should have a leg up if they hazard the trenches of a punishing disease (the more off-the-radar the better) or an all-consuming addiction and come out on the other end with a bankable penchant for gallows humor and inspirational wisdom.
That a memory piece as pacific and unassuming as “When We Were the Kennedys” should be allowed a seat in this hothouse society of tell-alls is a tribute to the welcoming sensibility of its author and the knowing faith of her publisher. True, Monica Wood disarms us in her opening pages with the blunt-edged device of family tragedy: the sudden death of her father on his way to work. But the turbulent event is really a decoy to lure the reader into the relatively untroubled waters of a working-class Irish-Catholic family making do in New England, 1963 to 1964, “a year,” comments Wood with plangent understatement, “containing almost everything I will ever know.”
The dominant character of Wood’s childhood elegy is actually a place: the improbably named milltown of Mexico, Maine, “made remarkable by the work of our fathers” at the Oxford Paper Co., whose humdrum rhythms and industrial toxins belied the glossy, organic exoticism purveyed by one of its more famous clients, National Geographic. It was en route to his hard-won job as foreman that Wood’s father collapsed at the age of 57, leaving her stunned mother and older sister to complete the raising of 9-year-old Monica and two younger sisters, one mentally disabled.
“We were an ordinary family; a mill family, not the stuff of opera” Wood concedes, as if sending out a caution to fans of her novels “Any Bitter Thing” and “My Only Story,” which turn on such Sturm-und-Drang-y plot points as child molestation and murder-suicide. The thematic thread that knots her memoir with those roiling works of fiction is the trauma of separation, as experienced by young girls who suffer the shattering loss of an pivotal father figure.
What we are able to glean about Monica’s dad is necessarily limited by the brevity of their time together: his amiable temper, his Irish inflections, an ant that once crawled in his ear. Mostly, the father’s filmy presence is made manifest through the more focused lens of his survivors: Monica’s superstitious mother, with her fatalistic Cassandra dreams and her fears of homeownership, or the Woods’ not: micromanaging Lithuanian landlords, the Norkuses, who patrol their staircase traffic like sentinels and inventory the Woods’ trash, handing back anything they deem salvagable.
Surrogate father figures ascend in prominence, most palpably her mother’s fracturable priest brother, Father Bob. The dedicatee of Wood’s last novel “Any Bitter Thing” and inspiration for its put-upon protagonist Father Mike, Monica’s loving, lachrymose uncle crumbles when the family requires a rock, becoming so unmoored after his brother-in-law’s death, he lands in a Baltimore hospital making sock monkeys for his bemused nieces.
The full measure of Wood’s lyric gifts emerges through the banality of childhood, rather than its drama. She freeze-frames a giddy state park picnic shared by Father Bob, the young Monica, and her sister Cathy, isolating imagery as specific and ethereally tinted as a Polaroid photo: coolers brimming with “bologna sandwiches and bottles of Moxie,” and the long drive home, “the three of us sun-achy and good-tired, our skin salt-tight and humming, our uncle joking at the wheel.”
The eponymous political clan, bountiful, ill-fated, and proudly Irish Catholic, loom in the family’s collective consciousness as a regal representation of the Woods’ mixed fortunes. Death knocks at both families’ doors, but at sun-achy day’s end, Monica’s is a happy childhood, made rich by the all-for-one spirit and steadfast work ethic of her factory hometown. Even the Norkuses, as close as the book gets to villains, are allowed a redeeming streak of generosity.
Indeed, the suggestions of Thornton Wilder’s emblematic New England community of Grover’s Corners is so omnipresent in the utter normalcy of Wood’s recollections, that the 11th hour inclusion of an anecdote about the girls running lines for a high school production of “Our Town” and Emily Webb’s iconic paean to life’s mundane glories (“Goodbye to clocks ticking . . . And Mama’s sunflowers . . . ”) feels redundant: an overemphatic fillip of sentimentality in a narrative that has largely avoided it.
Besides, “When We Were the Kennedys” sounds enough self-defining grace notes that it doesn’t need clocks and sunflowers. Hello to bologna and Moxie. And “old, ugly, hatchet-faced Khrushchev.” And the Wood family car-trip song, which goes “I hear music and there’s no one there.” On her own terms, wry and empathetic, Wood locates the melodies in the aftershock of sudden loss.