Growing Up in Maine’s “Cancer Valley”
Kerri Arsenault Living in the Shadow of a Smoke-Spouting Paper Mill
This essay originally appears in Freeman’s: Home.
Mexico, Maine sits in a valley or “River Valley” as we call the area, because I suppose you can’t have one without the other. The hills are low and worn and carved by the waters surrounding them, and trees line the rivers, which confine the town. It’s a paper mill town where smokestacks poke holes in the smog they create. That’s money coming out of those smokestacks, my father used to say about the rotten-smelling upriver drafts that surfaced when the weather shifted. That smell loitered amid the high school softball games I played beneath those stacks and lingered on my father’s shirtsleeves when he came home from work, allowing me to forgive the rank odor for what it provided.
From the porch steps of the house where I grew up, to the right, you’ll see a street of clapboarded homes, the quiet interrupted every now and then by a braking logging truck. A mile or two out of town, the road narrows and small creeks knit through pastures shadowed by hills, a working farm or two, a long straight road, and smells of cut hay, muddy cow paths, rotting leaves, or black ice, depending on the time of year. The seasons, they calendared our lives.
To the left of the porch, you’ll see the end of the road. There, the pavement dips down to reveal the town’s only traffic light, a gas station, and the roof of the Family Dollar Store. Behind the store lies the wide, slow-moving Androscoggin River. Just beyond the Androscoggin, on an island in the neighboring town of Rumford, the paper mill’s largest smokestack emerges like a giant concrete finger. From anywhere in town you can orient yourself to this stack or the ever-present ca-chink ca-chink ca-chink of the mill’s conveyor belts and find your way home, even from a pitch-black walk in the woods. When mill shutdowns occur for holidays or layoffs, the smokeless stacks resemble the diseased birch trees dying throughout New England.
Where stack meets sky, the river pivots and heads southeast, under bridges and over rapids, pushing through falls and dams, around islands and along inlets, through Jay, Lewiston, Topsham, Brunswick, and other small towns, until it meets and mingles with five other rivers at Merrymeeting Bay, whereupon it finally and quietly slips into the Atlantic Ocean.
April 2009 and I am home for my grandfather’s funeral.
My parents’ house sighs with winter’s leftover lethargy. Spring has arrived in Maine with driveways full of mud and sculled up snow-plow debris; salt stains, shredded earth, and derelict mittens lie in the wake of its embracing path. A few dirty buttresses of snow linger like pocked monoliths, meting out the new season’s arrival. The swollen Androscoggin pushes flotsam downriver in the commotion of spring’s thaw, and insect hatches will soon begin bursting along its surface until summer opens like an oven. My mother comes out on the porch where I’m standing. Want to go for a walk? she asks, her face pinched with the sharpness of her father’s death.
We head up Highland Terrace and stop to peek in the windows of an abandoned house, one I always liked, with its wraparound porch, turreted roof, and buttercup-yellow paint. The owner is sick but refuses to sell the house, my mother says as we walk across the battered porch. So it sits there, this once elegant home, shedding its brightness, yellow flecking the half-frozen ground. Spray-painted in the road near the driveway: “Fuck you, bitch.” The fug of the mill swallows us.
Ahead, we reach the top of the hill, and there, my old high school. To the east, snowmobile trails and abutting them, the mill’s decommissioned landfill. To the west, the football field slices the horizon and beyond that, lazy fingers of smoke lick the sky.
We walk inside the school, and my mother stops in the office to chat with the principal. The lobby smells of Band-Aids, warm mashed potatoes, and damp socks. Being there reminds me of Greg, my high school on-again, off-again lumberjackish boyfriend who lived near the town incinerator. I loved him like I would a sorry stuffed animal, one who had lost an eye or whose fur was rubbed raw. Kelly, a girl who wore her black, perfectly feathered hair like a weapon, was in love with him too. When he and I fought—usually because of her—I’d listen to sad songs on my cassette player over and over until he’d call and I’d forgive him in a pattern of everlasting redemption. I only saw Greg once since I graduated. He came to my parents’ one Christmas break when I was home from college. He and my mother caught up while I leaned against the kitchen countertop across the room. Peckerhead, my father said when he entered the room. He called all boys I dated “Peckerhead” but only if he liked them. If he didn’t, my father would sit at our kitchen table like a boulder while the boy fidgeted by the kitchen door in blank-faced silence. Greg eventually married Kelly and got a job at the mill, alongside his sister Janet, who pitched for my high school state championship softball team.
After my mother and I leave, we follow the dirt path behind the football field, past Meroby Elementary where I got into a fistfight with Lisa Blodgett. Lisa and I took turns swinging horizontally at each other’s head until a teacher intruded on the brawl. Lisa’s strength was tremendous for a sixth grader, her grit shaped by being one of the youngest girls in a family of 14 kids, most of them boys. When I looked in the mirror that night at home, I was sure I looked different, the way you think you do when you lose your virginity. It was my first and last bare-knuckled fight, except for a few unconvincing swipes at good old Kelly one night at a dance. My best friend, Maureen, who towered over both of us, protected me from Kelly’s sharp, red fingernails.
Down Granite Street, an untied dog begins following us, growling. Just ignore him, my mother says. But I hear his snarls over the thrum of the mill. As I turn to look at him the dog sniffs my heels, his tail down. I walk faster. My mother continues talking. The dog gives a final bark and sits down in the middle of the road. I look over my shoulder until we are out of his sight and he is out of ours. Down the hill, past the Green Church, the town hall, the library, the fire station, the post office, we walk through the oversized parking lot at the Family Dollar Store. Someone sits inside the only vehicle parked there eating a sandwich with the windows rolled up and the engine running. Nearby, the vacant lot where the Bowl-O-Drome used to be and behind it, St. Theresa’s, our shuttered Catholic church where Father Cyr gave me my first communion, confirmed me, and listened to my first confession. I’m sorry I lied to my parents, I said to him, though that itself was a lie.
“Our mill’s primary product has become as precarious as the livelihoods of the men and women who make it.”
On the corner at the traffic light, a gardening store, a newish shop, to me anyway. Lawn decorations, perennials, stuffed animals, and miniature tchotchkes for terrariums strain the overstocked metal shelves of the store. Most mom-and-pop shops have closed in town, but for a few. In their place, discount stores like Marden’s Surplus & Salvage, Wardwell’s Used Furniture, the What Not Shop Thrift Store, and other such second-hand outlets and pawn shops appeared over the years, as if the people who live here only deserve leftovers. Walmart with its blinking fluorescent lights and the faint smell of formaldehyde, hijacked the rest of the commerce.
I am inspecting a snow globe when I hear my mother shout, Kerri, guess who’s here? Do you know who this is? Inevitably, she plays this remembering game, usually in the grocery store, where she will stand next to someone, grab his or her arm as if she were a koala, and ask me, do you remember so-and-so? I will stand there frozen, in the frozen foods, staring at my mother and the person she has grabbed, their eyes like dinner plates, waiting for my answer. Sure, yes, I remember you! I had said earlier that same day to Mr. Martineau, the man who lives across the street from my grandfather. After Mr. Martineau left the store my mother told me he has Alzheimer’s. He doesn’t remember you, she said.
Kerri, come see who’s here! she shouts again. I walk around the aisle like Gulliver, jiggling the doll-sized plastic floral arrangements, pitching the teeny flowers to and fro. My mother raises her arms upward like a magician. DO YOU KNOW WHO THIS IS?
Hi. Long time no see, the woman says. Yeah, what is it, about twenty years? I say. Her dry yellow bangs slump over oversized round glasses that hide pink powdered cheeks. On her bulky sweatshirt, something plaid. Where do you live now? she asks, leaning on the counter, arms crossed like a fortress. California, I say, feeling bad, not knowing why. San Francisco! I clarify. Oh, I went there once. Didn’t like it. The people are not very nice. And I never found anything good to eat, she says.
I look around the store for my mother, for the exit. It seems quiet around here nowadays. Much less going on than when we were kids, I say. No, not really, she says. Really? I say, wondering if she means there is something going on or there isn’t. I went by the Recreation Park yesterday. It’s just so . . . so different, I say, hopeful. I glance at her around the periphery of her glasses, our conversation. She stares at me over the top of her rims, as patient as a road, looks at me without blinking: my leather jacket, my Prada eyeglasses, my fitted jeans. Nope, you’re the one that’s different, she says.
We leave the store and my mother tells me the mill plans to shut down Number 10 paper machine, and others are on a transitional schedule, meaning they too may lumber to a slow hissing halt. In the past few decades, with technology displacing people and digital media overtaking print, the production of coated magazine paper—our mill’s primary product—has become as precarious as the livelihoods of the men and women who make it. We want to sell the house, but nobody wants to live here anymore, my mother says, panning her hand from one side of the street to the other. Homes sag with ruined lawns—and the families who live in them haven’t fared much better. Around the block, we pass Kimball School where I attended K–4.
Weeds root in the tar playground and a plastic bag twirls in the damp breeze. A rusty chain-link fence girdles the property. Dr. Edward Martin gutted the school years ago and transformed it into a medical office, but after he died, the building closed up permanently. Broken glass breaches the milkweed that surrounds the maple tree we had sought shade under during recess. Down the street, my grandfather’s house, buttoned up, the furnace long expired. Remnants of crabgrass and soggy leaves flatten his once thriving garden. Mr. Martineau, who my mother and I saw at the grocery store earlier, emerges from the house across the street. He waves. We wave back.
My mother and I walk home in silence. Halfway there, I run my hand along the cool green iron railing that parallels the sidewalk and snag my sweater on it. The rusted, dismembered rail is scattered in bits at the bottom of the banking. On my way from school, I’d roll on my side down that banking, again and again. With grass stains on my clothes, I’d run home, as if my head was made of that same iron rail and my house was magnetic north.
I see the porch of our house from several blocks away, and it looks as it’s always looked, only smaller as things often appear when you are older. My mother and I stomp our feet on the front porch to dislodge road grime from our boots. I can’t imagine what will happen if the mill closes, my mother says, as she opens the door. So many people are out of work already, she clarifies. It will be a ghost town. I take off my coat while my mother digs out the local newspaper, her forefinger thumping a news article about the mill. We have to sell the house, she says. But she has been saying this for years.
The next day, I go for a run through Strathglass Park, a collection of two-family homes by the mill’s founder, Hugh J. Chisholm.
Brick-by-brick—five million to be exact—Chisholm assembled the houses with long-lasting materials for what he hoped would be a long-lasting industry: slate roofs, granite foundations, handmade headers and balustrades, concrete steps, plaster walls. He even wallpapered the living rooms. Now, broken snowmobiles and other lifeless remnants litter front lawns, and listing, half-baked additions or porches scab the once pristine houses. Sheets shroud leaded glass windows, their bottoms knotted to let in light or keep rooms dark. Garbage lies in heaps alongside scattered woodpiles and abandoned bright plastic toys are half-covered in snow and dog shit. Wind chimes tinkle above the din of a yowling mutt. The road is a glacier. I mince my way along the icy path ahead.
Wandering around in this forlorn landscape, I think later that night, it is a ghost town, a place all but vanished but for its dull eggy odor. It complied with my memory of it, yet it also did not, a blend of nostalgia and something else as unrecognizable as the back of my own head. It’s not where we grew up, a childhood friend said to me years ago. What, then, was it? It was home, that much I knew, and home is the heart of human identity, a blurry backdrop like that fake plastic tree I leaned on during my high school senior photograph.
When I was a kid, my mother stayed home while my father worked: her making pot roast, him making smokestack money. We explored the world through textbooks, Matchbox cars, and made classroom dioramas of what we thought a Mayan village or a Midwestern dairy farm looked like. The rest of the world seemed to be New Hampshire or Canada. Families didn’t go on overseas vacations,or hardly even interstate. Our lives were focused inward . . . Red Sox scores, union strikes, and long gas station lines in the 70s, though nobody ever connected the high price of fuel to what was happening in other countries. For us, it was just inconvenient.
Monumental changes were happening in America. However, there were no movements in Mexico and Rumford but for the men walking across the footbridge to work. Blue-collar families like mine were more likely to dry bras on a clothesline than burn them. We lived in a Shrinky-Dink world where everything was there, just smaller. We were lucky in this, felt safe with our doors unlocked at night and ameliorated most of our sins within the latched doors of St. Theresa’s confessional. At nighttime football games we watched our high school fire-twirling majorettes toss their batons skyward in a spinning, blazing fan. They caught them dead center every time. Those kerosene-soaked batons in the dusk of autumn, they smelled of permanence.
One year blended into the next with only slight differences in star athletes or town leaders and sometimes one turned into the other. Family businesses occupied Main Street, anchored by the Chicken Coop. “Good Eatin’ That’s Our Greetin’!” their tagline declared in flat, red paint. On Wednesdays the Bowl-O-Drome hosted my gum-chewing junior high league, and on Fridays it murmured with the sporty jesting of my father’s league. I bought penny candy from the variety store next to the bowling alley, as did my mother, as did hers. Up and down the street, businesses opened and closed their doors with the seasons, the economy, and the sun: Lazarou’s car dealership, the Dairy Queen, RadioShack, Dick’s Restaurant, and our radio station, WRUM. The footbridge to the mill spans the Androscoggin where Main Street tapers off. Three generations of my family and exponential relatives worked there, as did most people who spread cretons on their toast before clocking in. We were stamped out like Christmas cookies, as good French Catholics were. We got up, ate, worked, and went to bed, deriving small pleasures between the routine and sometimes because of it.
In the drowsy summertime, when the sun dipped low over the foothills and the humidity of the day invaded kitchens and bedrooms, people in our town flocked to their porches. There, they chatted while dusk knit itself into a tight blanket. The sounds of clinking dishes, faint music, vehicles purring, and light-as-vapor laughter scented the air. Night fell like a bruise. During those school-less days, I often sat on the dusty curb in front of our house and counted the out-of-state license plates as they sped by on their way to somewhere else. When I could finally drive myself I’d cruise around Rumford and Mexico with all the other teenagers, pivoting our used Monte Carlo in the Tourist Information Booth parking lot before another revolution through town. My parents thought the Information Booth was where all the “druggies” hung out, and sometimes the pot smokers did, but really, it was a harmless venue in a small town with nothing else to do but drive around in aimless circles.
My parents shaped their own well-worn paths. While my father walked back and forth across the bridge to work, my mother lugged laundry up and down the cellar stairs, day after day, one skinny arm cradling the laundry basket, her free hand gripping a Viceroy. With a screech and a whack, the screen door would slam shut after she elbowed it open. She would dump clean laundry on the kitchen table, snap each article of clothing three times, fold them sharply into tight wedges of fabric, and stack them like the reams of white paper my father brought home from the mill. When the screen door wore out, my mother replaced it with a new one that came with a squeaky spring. She left it defective, announcing herself into infinity with only my father to hear. His hearing, long dulled by the hum of paper machines, was the perfect match to her perpetual clamor. She’d let her Viceroy expire before finishing it and send me to fetch her a new pack from the corner store. I’ll time you, she’d say. Now GO! And off I went. Go? She didn’t need to tell me twice.
In Mexico and Rumford, what we needed, we had. Everyone knew everyone and we liked it that way—for what other way was there? It was quite the place, my mother says. There was never any reason to leave. Things stayed in this balance, with minor adjustments every now and then until small working-class towns started to ebb alongside the industries that nourished them.
I still gag every time I drink a glass of water, a reflex that emerged in my youth when I lived within a football field’s reach of the mill and the Androscoggin. At the time, I sweetened the mephitic water with Tang or Zarex or drank no water at all. But as an adult, the memory of our drinking water’s brackish and sweetish chemical smell/taste, combined with the sour air above it, precipitates what feels like smothering when I put glass to lips.
By 1970, when I was three, the river’s dissolved oxygen level was exactly zero. Newsweek named the Androscoggin one of the ten filthiest rivers in the United States. Everything in the river died. Don’t eat the fish, we were always told, but we couldn’t have anyway because we never saw any to catch. There also were no swimmers, fishermen, or boaters in the river William B. Lapham, in his 1890 book, History of Rumford, called it “beautiful,” noting “the scenery bordering upon it is picturesque and often grand.” If you squint, the Androscoggin still fits Lapham’s description. But if you open your eyes, you’ll see what was invisible to me my whole life: the mill’s pollutants hovering low over the naturally formed glacial bowl of our valley and in the toxic sludge congregating in landfills and the riverbed. What I did see when I was young, however, was the rainbow-colored foam eddying on the river’s edge, which was as enchanting as the gray “mill snow” that floated softly up from the smokestacks and down upon any surface in town.
What did we all do? We plugged our noses and placed our drinking glasses upside down in the cupboard so ash wouldn’t get in our milk. The pollution was as trapped as we were. Dioxin, cadmium, benzene, lead, naphthalene, nitrous oxide, sulfur dioxide, arsenic, furans, trichlorobenzene, chloroform, mercury, phthalates: these are some of the byproducts of modern-day papermaking. Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, lung cancer, prostate cancer, aplastic anemia, esophageal cancer, asbestosis, Ewing’s sarcoma, emphysema, cancer of the brain, cancer of the heart: these are some of the illnesses appearing in Rumford and Mexico. Occasionally in suspicious-looking clusters, sometimes in generations of families, often in high percentages. When anyone tried to connect the dots between the mill’s pollution with these illnesses, logic was met with justification, personal experience with excuse, stories with statistics, disease with blame.
Between 1980 and 1988, 74 cases of aplastic anemia, a rare and serious blood disorder, are recorded in the River Valley. It is the highest rate in the state. A study is ordered to find the cause. Researchers examine potential environmental and occupational sources, such as benzene, a chemical used in papermaking and a known cause of cancer in humans. Each aplastic anemia case gets parsed: some are eliminated from the study because they are referrals from other hospitals; some are eliminated because the stated diagnosis didn’t fit into the strict scientific criteria; some are eliminated because certain cancer treatments themselves cause aplastic anemia. In the final report, nobody can determine the exact cause. It is as if nobody ever had the disease at all.
“Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, lung cancer, prostate cancer, aplastic anemia, esophageal cancer, asbestosis, Ewing’s sarcoma, emphysema, cancer of the brain, cancer of the heart: these are some of the illnesses appearing in Rumford and Mexico.”
1984-1986. Hospital discharges indicate nine leukemia cases in the Rumford and Mexico area.
1989. The Rumford mill discharges 1.2 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the environment.
1991. In rapid succession, five people in Rumford and Mexico are diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a rare form of blood cancer associated with exposure to dioxin, a toxic chemical formed in the paper-bleaching process. WCVB, a Boston TV station investigates the flurry of diagnoses in their news series Chronicle and calls the episode, “Cancer Valley.” During this time, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston asks our town physician, “What the hell’s going on in Rumford? We’re getting all these kids with cancer coming in from your area.”
The Los Angeles Times talks to our state representative, Ida Luther: “We have a very, very high cancer rate, but we always have lived with that. Nobody can prove anything, but I just can’t see how tons and tons of air pollutants going into the air can do you any good. At the same time, I don’t want to make [the paper mill] out to be a villain. They’re here to make paper and—there’s no question about it—this valley depends upon that paper mill.” The mill responds by claiming there’s “no clear link between mill wastes and cancer or other diseases.”
2001.WCVB films “Return to Cancer Valley” in Rumford and Mexico.
2002. Cancer is the leading cause of death in Maine.
2003. Maine’s age-adjusted cancer incidence rate is the second highest in the nation and Maine’s death rate from cancer surpasses the national average.
2004. Cancer remains the leading cause of death in Maine. 2010. Toxic environmental exposures associated with childhood illnesses cost Maine about $380 million every year, according to the 2010 Economic Assessment of Children’s Health and the Environment in Maine.
2012. A headline from Maine’s Kennebec Journal: “Some Label Toxin Spike as Positive; pulp and paper industry says increase is a good sign, state officials not alarmed.” What doesn’t alarm state officials and the Maine Pulp and Paper Association are the “9.6 million pounds of chemicals [that] were released by 84 Maine mills between 2009 and 2010, an increase of 1.14 million pounds over the previous year” because the increase in pollution shows an increase in papermaking. Our mill is fingered as the number one pollution producer, releasing over three million pounds of toxic chemicals into the environment for those same years.
2012. Cancer is the leading cause of death in Maine. Dr. Molly Schwenn, director of the Maine Cancer Registry, tenders an explanation. She says contributing to Maine’s high cancer rates are “lower levels of education, high rates of poverty, unemployment, and lack of health insurance.”
2013. The Cancer Surveillance Report by the Maine Center for Disease Control confirms cancer is still the leading cause of death in Maine.
There’s a lag between exposure and diagnosis, experts declared. People could be exposed from other sources, scientists explained. There are uncertainties, decried the Environmental Protection Agency. Continued follow-up is needed, said the mill. While organizations debated who to blame, people in Rumford and Mexico quit jobs or school to care for sick family members; lose health insurance because they lose their jobs; and put canisters on pizza shop countertops to pay for medical bills.
It was often difficult to tell where the mill ended and where Rumford and Mexico began. The mill’s employees, in the 1920s, published The League, a compendium of work and community related activities. In it, you’d learn “Charlie Gordon was seriously ill Thursday A.M” or in the “Rewinder Gossip” column, you’d find out “Joe Provencher is in his second boyhood for he is wearing short pants again.” The newsletter also reported first-aid room statistics, townwide events, movie times, attendance at mill fire drills, or changes in the sulphate mill, the bleach plant, and the finishing room. It changed to the Oxford Log in 1952 where someone wrote a story on Labor Day beauty parade “Cutter” girls “dressed in daring ankle-length dresses” and whose “blue bonnets and sashes were made of fine Oxford paper.” In that same newsletter, you could also read about Johnny Norris, who worked on the supercalendar machine, who, while on vacation in New York City, found it “hot and confusing.” Or Hollis Swett of the “Island Division” who got caught in a lightening storm while fishing at Weld Pond. The Oxford Log published profiles of high school basketball stars who were sons of millworkers. Or of Nick DiConzo, a paper tester, who prepared the ski jump for the Black Mountain’s Winter Carnival. You’d see vintage photos of the workers adding bleach to vats of pulp, or working in the Kraft mill—gloveless, barefoot, smiling as if there was no end to the prosperity. And it looked to be true; by 1930, our mill was the largest paper mill under one roof and Hugh J. Chisholm, eventually combined 20 paper companies to establish International Paper, then and today, the biggest paper company in the world.
I am home visiting. My parents and I sort through papers, organizing things after their move to a new, one-story house in Rumford.
They still haven’t sold their old house. It’s been on the market for a few years. If the bank takes our old house, who cares? my mother says. She flips through a newsletter from 1970. It’s thick, printed in color, and features my mother because she helped plan that year’s Winter Carnival Ball at Black Mountain on account of her “first-hand knowledge” of the queen’s duties; she won the title and a tiara in 1962 when she worked in the mill’s personnel department. She was a young mother at the time, wearing a pixie cut and polyester miniskirts that showed off her good legs. In her victory photo, my sisters Kelly and Amy sit in front of her wearing matching blue velvet dresses with white Peter Pan collars, stiff as Communion wafers.
In 1942 when my mother was born, legendary 20-foot walls of urine-colored foam emerged from canals 40 miles downstream in the Androscoggin. By then, almost 50 years of flotsam and effluent had choked the fish. Aeration of the river dimmed. Water temperature rose. Manufacturing and its concomitant pollution reached a stinky zenith. The smell emanating from the river was so appalling people fled town or shuttered themselves in. Coins in men’s pockets tarnished. Stores closed. House and car paint peeled like burnt skin. Residents vomited. Laundry hung on clotheslines, blackened with ash.
I was 16, my mother says, when the National Geographic Society entered into a 15-year contract with our mill. The windfall, while providing steady work, also brought with it a windfall of pollution that exacerbated the toxic load the Androscoggin River-master was already trying to manage. National Geographic demanded white, coated, glossy paper and our mill made it. Making it, however, required using even more chemicals. The town’s economy flourished. As the mill modernized and expanded, each year that newsletter, like the town’s future, got whiter and brighter. And each year the Androscoggin River and the skies above, seemed dimmer and dimmer. My parents were caught between a stinky past and a hopeful future.
My father, in between the overtime hours or double shifts, along with other millworkers, built Black Mountain on land leased to them by the paper company. The men felled trees, carved up the rocky slopes, and jammed iron ski lift poles in unsympathetic soil so they could have a place to ski. Every winter of my childhood, on weekends, my father piloted our station wagon along the frost-heaved roads winding through the outskirts of town, past the smokestacks, past the Swift River where he learned to swim, past the cemetery where his father was buried, where I lugged my steely equipment uphill through the icy parking lot, collapsed on the snow, and thwacked down the metal buckles on my leather boots pinching my fingers.
I was small, the runt in a pack of kids who were already small, and tried to keep up with them and my father, who was probably one of the best skiers on the hill. As I followed them, my leather boots and leather gloves became soaked with sweat and subsequently frozen, in an endless circle of discomfort. We skied until the T-bar stopped clinking and growling, lolling to rest like an iron dinosaur and the last light of dusk would slam shut over the smudged hills. We’d return the following week just as the T-bar purred awake.
A video: I am four. My father crouches over me on skis and I stand in front of him on skis too, between his legs, facing forward, gaining speed as we race down the mountain. He warns me to watch what’s in front of me, but to also look far enough downhill to see what lay ahead. I think I’m skiing on my own volition. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I couldn’t have stood for two seconds without his arms there to carry me.
I ask my mother, What about the pollution when you were a kid?
What do you mean? she says.
Didn’t it bother you? The pollution? I say.
It was the smell of money, she says. Plus, we just had a lot of pride.
I heard this word a lot as a child. You were “proud” to be from Rumford and Mexico. You took “pride” in the mill. “Pride” in the paper we made. “Pinto pride” we scrawled on pep rally posters in honor of our mascot. Mill managers instilled a “pride” in their workers. What did it mean, this pride?
I learned from an early age, to be conspicuous was to be coarse. You didn’t speak too loudly or too much, blend in. This sameness, it turns out, was partially the source of our pride—we were all in it together, no matter what “it” was. We were a community and like most communities, were proud of what we did, even if it was something we didn’t necessarily like. It was part of the same invisible social rules that also felt claustrophobic, so it was difficult to differentiate the two. It was a subtle force, like airplane cabin pressure—massive but invisible. In this togetherness our loyalties to each other and our town were fierce, even if the intimation to conform was benevolent.
This absolute loyalty didn’t stop at the edge of town; it extended to hopeless causes like the Boston Red Sox and the New England Patriots who for decades disappointed us with their fruitless company. But we stuck with them because that’s what we did despite their unwillingness to love us back. This mix of sameness and loyalty and pride and stubbornness made us tight. We created this shelter for ourselves but it also meant outsiders remained outside. People “from away” weren’t allowed into the sanctity of our tribe. And we certainly didn’t want to be part of theirs. Solidarity was a matter of safety and comfort, but it was also a matter of hardheadedness that didn’t always serve us well.
The mill, the main source of this pride and connectedness, provided us with what seemed like limitless opportunity, the tentacles of its fortune reaching into the county, the region, the state of Maine, America. Our reliance on the mill was like our Catholicism. We were given something to believe in while ignoring our own suffering, all the while waiting for the big afterlife party in the sky. We depended on the mill, as did loggers, whose lopping of the trees was seemingly anathema to the very thing relied upon to earn an income.
Brenda Nickerson walks into the kitchen where my parents and I are still looking through old mill newsletters. My mother and Brenda have been friends since childhood and I went to school with her daughters who were named after Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. My mother says to me, to Brenda, It was like ‘Happy Days.’ You know the show? That’s what we lived. We lived like ‘Happy Days.’ Brenda agrees. I ask my mother if this was true for when I was a kid. Yes, pretty much . . . but I don’t know what happened after that. It’s when our kids had kids that everything changed.
You mean like me? I ask. It changed in my generation?
Yes, she says. We had our parents’ and grandparents’ values.
Your generation has different values.
Brenda says, Your generation had too many choices.
When my father retired from the mill after 43 years, he received a toolbox (that he used), a Bulova watch (that he never wore), and asbestosis of the lungs. The toolbox decamped to our dusty barn and I found the watch years later, in perfect shape, in the garage on a shelf by the cat litter. Since retiring, asbestos manufacturers, whose products he came into contact with as a pipe fitter, compensated him for his scarred lung tissue; sometimes he received three dollars, sometimes a few hundred. Eventually, the monies petered out as did his lungs. He was tough, sometimes to a fault, and I never heard him complain even on the night he died. He told me a story once about how when he was a kid he walked around all day with a sharp pebble in his shoe, so that when he took it out, the relief was even greater than if it were never there at all. In the summer of 2013, he collapsed on the ninth hole of the golf course, face up, in the middle of his daily game. After months of tests, he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer and then a few months later, lung cancer, which can develop from asbestosis; with that trifecta, the man simply couldn’t breathe.
My father asked us not to speak to him about his prognosis and our family complied in mute alliance. Weeks of chemotherapy and radiation, a blood clot in his lung, a catheter, a feeding tube, an oxygen tank, the gloom of hospice, my father shrank to half his size. No taste, he said as he tussled with a piece of pasta as if it were barbed wire. He lost more weight and lost interest, too. My mother tried to get him to do his physical therapy, eat a popsicle. He just stared out the living room window while we whispered behind his back.
I went home almost every week that winter. When I did, I drove into Maine from New Hampshire across the Piscataqua River Bridge. One of the first things I’d see was the state-funded welcome sign: “Maine. The Way Life Should Be.” Was there ever such a Maine as this? I wondered as I sped up the Maine Turnpike. The promise of that phrase just never added up. The silvery creeks, iron gray lakes, red lobsters, rocky beaches, the deluge of trees—they summoned a representation disconnected from my Maine experience. It seemed we had lived on the edge of poverty, anxiety, and illness rather than on the edge of a primeval forest. Practically everyone in our town called the area “Cancer Valley” in a jokey way, yet nobody ever took the nickname seriously, even to this day. It smells like farts! kids from other high schools would say about our town because of the foul odor discharged by the mill. And so it did.
“It seemed we had lived on the edge of poverty, anxiety, and illness rather than on the edge of a primeval forest.”
Maine’s story somehow became so appended over the years, that the story became the story itself. It was like that game you played as a kid where you sat in a circle and one person would whisper a phrase in their neighbor’s ear, and that child would whisper it to the next one, and so on. At the end of the circle, the last child would repeat the phrase aloud. Inevitably the murmured telling and retelling distorted the words so the original phrase was no longer recognizable.
I was riding the Metro-North train from New York City to Connecticut one night that same winter, exhausted from my visits home. When I told my seatmate I was from Maine, he said, I love all that fresh air and woods! Maine is God’s country! I wanted to tell him that behind the photos of birch-lined streams and the lobster logo-ed gifts on the Maine Tourism Bureau website, there is a state perishing under the weight of its own advertisement and where “God” is noticeably absent. Instead I said, It’s a terrific place to grow up, which was largely true.
But the real contradictions were these: we clear-cut our forests while tourists exalted them; pollution bankrupted the fresh air we advertised; we poured dioxins into our environment, which ended up in lobsters that tourists ate; Henry David Thoreau lauded the “Pine Tree State” but his voice was drowned out by the growl of chainsaws; and what gave our town life could also be what’s killing it. As the folksy Maine saying goes, you can’t get they-ahh from heeyahh. In other words, the way life should be, the idealized state of Thoreau and tourists, may have never actually existed except in the landscape of our minds.
Slowly, my father began to eat. All he wanted was pistachios, so I bought bags of them. Those are too expensive for me, he’d say, as he gobbled them up. We talked about baseball and books so I bought him The Art of Fielding, which I read from at his funeral. We watched movies. He made puzzles. By spring, he was able to roll his wheelchair outside to sit in his driveway in the yawning sun.
Always a great athlete, he loathed just sitting around. You’re throwing like a goddamn GIRL! he’d yell at my throws from third to first if they weren’t fast enough, even if I was only ten. He played third base too, the “hot corner” he called it. He was an institution in that position, never relinquishing it to younger guys as he aged. I watched him summer after summer fielding stinging line drives down third base line as he crept in to take away the bunt. He was quick, efficient. I never saw him make an error. Now, he struggled to lift a knee.
Late summer, 2014. I kiss my father hello and after a few minutes, he turns to the TV. My mother shouts something from the kitchen over the clamorous rattle of Pawn Stars. I slump in the overstuffed chair.
Over the next couple of days, I learn the new routine of their lives: my mother empties his catheter bag, changes his cannula, washes dishes, makes coffee, turns the heat up, turns the heat down, helps him to bed, tucks him in. One day the “oxygen man,” a nurse, Andy (their handyman), on the next a parade of strangers and friends amass then disperse, like a dandelion gone to seed in a quick wind. In the morning, my mother walks my father to the kitchen, her arms wrapped around his waist. I hear them in the hallway.
I slept liked shit, he says. I just couldn’t sleep. I don’t know.
What’s the matter!? my mother says.
It ain’t much of a life, he says.
My mother procures a voice-activated phone, a walker, the best hearing aids, a hospital bed, bathtub rails, hospice aides, ice cream, Netflix. The days drift. Dinner comes early. The late afternoon winter light hesitates, then crashes, darkening the curtained room. We fold ourselves into the furniture and flip channels.
“Do you or does anyone you know suffer from lung cancer? Give us a call at . . . ” The lawyer on the TV beckons.
Maybe I’ll call, my mother suggests.
What the hell are you talking about? my father says.
Your lung cancer. Maybe I’ll call them about your lung cancer, she says.
I don’t have lung cancer, he says. My mother never brings it up again.
My mother tracks his oxygen levels, like volunteers do on the Androscoggin River, judging impairment by percentages, keeping the lower numbers at bay by turning up the O2. The river’s oxygen percentages lie somewhere between impaired and threatened, as do my father’s. In 1966 the Androscroggin Rivermaster tried to recreate the river’s natural aeration by installing “bubblers” in the Androscoggin, which injected air into the water to increase oxygen levels. My father’s body, like the Androscoggin, seems to be recycling the toxins discharged by the mill. But he, unlike the river, would never breathe again without a machine to help him.
When I get better . . . he says as he hunches over, his oxygen tank hissing away in the other room, its plastic line leashing him to his chair . . . I’ll visit your new house. As he keeps trying to live he keeps dying. He is dying at the same exponential rate as the town . . . an unbuilding of a body that had previously built a mountain. His chest working overtime like he often did in the mill.
“Vacationland,” our state motto, appears on key chains, tee shirts, coffee mugs, and our license plates but the holidaysof my youth were never a seaside fete. As a teenager, my sister and I would sometimes drive to Old Orchard Beach, two hours south, where we’d buy fries on the pier and watch French Canadian men in skimpy bathing trunks cavort in the water. Rather than swim, I’d smother myself with iodine and baby oil and lie on the hot sand, getting the tan that proved I had been somewhere.
We also made yearly visits to my father’s mother “Nana” and my step-grandfather “Pop” in Kennebunk, Maine. Despite its sacrosanct location, they lived closer to the town dump than to the beach. For hours, we’d sift through other people’s trash with Pop, or play on the broad front lawn with their dog Bijoux, a crabby spoiled Chihuahua. When Pop entered a room, his egg-shaped bald head flirted with the ceiling. His voice was booming and fearsome, yet he was affectionate in his toothless smile, the way an octopus was, embracing his grandchildren with a manic repulsive grip. My grandmother kept her emotions as tightly bound as her arms, which were always crossed over her chest, and she only allowed small giggles through her thin hand, which rose to cover her mouth when she laughed.
The rooms in their house smelled of cigarette smoke and age, a sour, untidy odor I evaded by sleeping in their camping trailer parked in the driveway. Pop, we learned after he died, molested a few of my female cousins. As for the beach, we would sometimes go, but I would rather have been pawing though the trash or the animal-shaped candles in the tourist shops than face a marauding jellyfish sloshing in the lazy waves or meeting up with Pop in an unkempt, upstairs hallway.
E. B. White wrote dispatches for the New Yorker from his saltwater farm in Brooklin, Maine. When he drove there from New York, he too crossed the Piscataqua River. In his essay “Home-Coming” he wrote that every time he drove over the river, he “had the sensation of having received a gift from a true love.” While he and I may disagree on how we feel traversing the state line or our reasons for doing so, we agree on the reason we are pulled there. “Familiarity is the thing—the sense of belonging,” he wrote. “It grants exemption from all evil, all shabbiness.” I’m tethered to Maine by this sense of belonging but also by a sometimes paralyzing ambiguity I wrestle to understand—an inexplicable love for Maine and what it represents, even if some of those things are false. I don’t think it was ever really a paradise, except maybe for the Abenaki Native Americans who fished the Androscoggin until their lives and the salmon they ate were choked out by disease and settlers.
When we leave home, we leave behind our past and encounter a version of home when we return, built of legends true and false. For me, those legends are so big—Hugh J. Chisholm, Edmund Muskie, Cancer Valley, Henry David Thoreau, Paul Bunyan, Black Mountain, my parents, and trees, endless trees—that it is hard to see beyond their shadows. So when I drive back over the Piscataqua River Bridge with Mexico in my rearview mirror, I may not see “true love,” but I know leaving home can be as complicated as living there and as inescapable as your own DNA.
The night I watched my father die he kept trying to speak, but only a thin awful wail emerged as he thrashed his body against the steel bedrails and wrestled with his sheets. It was the only time I ever saw him make a fuss about anything. What he was trying to say, I’ll never know, but I do know I no longer have to keep secrets from him or for him. What you don’t know won’t hurt you, my mother always said offhandedly. She was dead wrong.
I saw in that outline of his body, a lifetime of 7–3 shifts at the mill, where the hot racket of the paper machines would have made me turn into a lifeless cotton ball, a weeping remnant of a human being. I saw in him, too, a lifetime of working for an industry that in the end, led to his end.
You look like your father! People always said to me and still do. Our eyes, in particular, are/were the same blue-gray and one of mine sags a little, as if I am falling asleep, the same as his. In that sameness, I saw what he saw, or at least I imagined I did, or tried to, especially on our walks around town where his telling and retelling of the same stories became more distilled each time he told them. He’d narrate as we went: This is an historic spot, he said one time, pointing to the road, as we passed a vacant lot that used to be his high school. This is where Roger Gallant dropped a jar of mercury. I imagined the balls of silver pinging along the road in tantric lines. We walked across the frozen soil and scuffed our boots across the thin snow to uncover a plaque of people who donated money for the plaque. He pointed to a Gallant, class of 1951. That’s him, my father said. That’s the guy that dropped the mercury.
“I saw in that outline of his body, a lifetime of 7–3 shifts at the mill, a weeping remnant of a human being.”
In the aftermath of his death, two years on, I still can’t look at photographs of him, because in them I remember his emaciated body, sacrificed so I could have a new pair of shoes to start school every fall or a new softball glove when I turned sixteen. And in his eyes I see me.
Paul Bunyan looms over the Tourist Information Booth in front of the Androscoggin where Bunyan-sized logs once floated downstream toward the mill. In blue pants, a matching blue watch cap, and a short sleeve red polo shirt exposing his brawny arms, he proffers an equally enormous axe that could clear-cut the Amazon. That statue has been around as long as I remember, although it used to tower above Puiia’s Hardware across the street, a catchall shop where I bought charcoals and sketch pads for juvenile renderings of horses. He was donated to the town when Puiia’s closed. As a kid, I didn’t pay much attention to Bunyan despite his size, and he blended into the background, as improbable as that seems.
I read that Rumford’s Paul Bunyan got a facelift between 2000–2002, a body overhaul including a paint job, a new axe, and steel supports secured to a huge block of concrete, which to replace, they had to remove Bunyan’s head. After they fastened the supports and before reinstating Bunyan’s head, the workmen wriggled out of Bunyan’s neck. After Paul’s resurrection, Rumford held a festival in his honor featuring a lumberjack breakfast, zip line rides over the waterfalls, a facial hair contest, a flannel shirt dinner dance, and an axe-throwing competition.
Bunyan’s origin remains a mystery. Small towns, from Maine to Minnesota, claim him as their own, yet they agree the boy giant was the hero of all woodsmen. Legend maintains when Bunyan’s cradle rocked, the motion caused huge waves that sunk ships. He also allegedly whittled a pipe from a hickory tree and could outrun buckshot. Our Bunyan, I found out, was crafted from the mold of the Muffler Man, a giant fiberglass statue who proffered mufflers as advertisement on US byways in the 1970s. Whatever the myth, there our Bunyan stands as a guardian or curiosity for those ambling through the waning mill town of my youth, his shadow sometimes as brooding as the hurtling river beyond. Senator Edmund Sixtus Muskie’s smaller, more serious memorial of squat dark gray granite lies just down the riverbank from Bunyan. Muskie was a giant in real life at 6’4” and the man who penned the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, though no match for the long shadow cast by Bunyan. Both memorialized in Rumford, their acts equally significant; one deforested the woodlands, the other tried to reclaim them, the rocky pools on the edge of the Androscoggin spanning the gap between the two of them.
My father used to make fun of the Bunyan statue and the ludicrous blue hoofprints painted on the sidewalks in downtown Rumford, made by Babe, Bunyan’s blue ox. The town selectmen voted, in 2009, to use $6,500 from their economic development fund to create Babe, figuring that he and his hoofprints would encourage tourists to follow his path. What they forgot to consider was that there’s not much left in town to see but Paul Bunyan himself and those garish blue steps that end abruptly at Rite Aid.