WHEN WE WERE THE KENNEDYS

Little excites me more than a good book and/or an author who’s new to me.

My reading is eclectic, so I’m not sure how I came across Monica Wood’s When We Were the Kennedys: A Memoir From Mexico, Maine. But onto “my list” it went, then I put a hold on it at my local library, then last week the library opened for curbside pickup.

And last weekend, in two gulpish sittings, I inhaled this beautiful memoir.

It came out in 2012, so many of you may have come across it already. If not, here’s some praise:

“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

“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


The time is the early 60s. Wood’s father, 57, works in the paper mill and one day on his way to work, “drops,” as the locals put it, leaving four daughters, a grown son, and his wife. Crushed by grief, they try to pick up the pieces. Their working-class, melting-pot Maine town is deeply Catholic and one of the pleasures of the book is seeing how faith permeates their lives, sustaining and connecting them with their neighbors.

All the girls attend Catholic school with the nuns, learning a combination of English and French. Mum, with the singing parakeet on her shoulder, irons their uniforms every morning and sends them off with a bologna sandwich, an apple, a cookie. Every night before going to bed the girls pray the Our Father, the Hail Mary, Angel of God, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Act of Contrition. They say the Rosary, attend Sunday Mass, and collectively adore Father Bob, Mum’s brother and the family priest, who smells of Aqua Velva, goes into the next room seven times a day to pray his breviary and when he leaves, touches the girls’ heads murmuring In nomine Patris…Of course he turns out to be an alcoholic.

One of the beloved sisters, Betty, is “retarded,” as Wood explains they said in those days.

Dad and Mum had shared “worry for their eternal second-grader who could knit but not purl, who could not add two and two or reliably spell cat. More than one well-meaning meddler had suggested a home for the ‘feeble-minded,’ a place to unburden us all of the bruised fruit of Mum’s womb. Mum and Dad had met these well-wishers with equal parts fire and ice: Betty would grow up with us, go to school with us, make her First Communion and Confirmation like any other Catholic child, be our big sister as long as she could, and our forever little sister after that. Mum and Dad had decided that, together.”

The Woods live in a third-floor apartment; the Norkuses–Jurgis, they call the husband–are the Lithuanian landlords who live on the first floor. The Norkuses spy, they yell, they go through the Woods’ garbage, they impose rules such as that the girls can’t have their friends over: “Too much stairs!”

“The Norkuses came to America with rags on their feet. That’s how Mum and Dad had always told it, an oft-repeated detail from which I assembled a larger drama: disembarkment in a cold rain, the words Mexico, Maine pinned to a rotting sleeve, the thronged and misty vista of New York Harbor. They’d stumbled stiff-kneed down a gangway, impossibly young and yearning to breathe free, a sepia-toned couple impossible to connect with the Technicolor czars who swivel their joint gaze toward me as I come up with driveway with my grocery bag.

‘Hi,’ I say. I bend to pat Tootsie, tightening the grip on my bag.

‘Lazy poodie!’ Jurgis yells. He means the cat, a white tumbleweed with gum-pink ears. ‘Lazy poodie!’ he yells again, then a downpour of Lithuanian accompanied by laughter–or something–and a slashing gesture with his open palm.

Translation one: I am happy my cat pleases you. Is she not exquisite?

Translation two: I intend to chop off your head. Wait here while I prepare the cleaver

‘Uh…’ I say. ‘Okay.’ ”

When JFK gets killed, Mum identifies completely with Jackie: “We share a bond,” she explains. At one point, the whole crew piles into Aunt Rose’s car and, picking up “Fath” (Fr. Bob) along the way at the Baltimore sanitarium where he’s been drying out, head to Washington DC…

But you’ll want to discover the rest on your own. A big In nomine Patris blessing to Monica Wood for reminding the world of the beauty of family, small-town NE life, and Moxie.

4 Replies to “WHEN WE WERE THE KENNEDYS”

  1. Thanks, I’ve requested it from the library. It reminds me of Kerouac’s “Visions of Girard”, set in 1920s Lowell, Massachusetts.

    1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

      Wonderful, Brett. I grew up on the coast of NH, not far from Lowell. In my twenties, On the Road was one of our bibles as we hitch-hiked to Nashville, California and Prince Edward Island among other places…I hope you like When We Were the Kennedys as much as I did.

  2. I immediately ordered it on my Kindle and finished it in quick order. Just what I needed in these days,.. While I was only 7 years old when Kennedy was assassinated, I do remember that day. As a cradle Catholic, I could appreciate the relationship of faith in the family’s life. Thank you for the recommendation.

    1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

      I’m so glad, Jean! Yes, the bedrock of faith and the devotions and prayer and shared community life was wonderful…

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