Monica’s Mexico wasn’t the sunny land south of the border, her Mexico was a small town in Maine dominated by a paper mill that paid the bills and poisoned the water. Her Mexico was a place of hardworking fathers, immigrants or sons of immigrants, who toiled in the mill while mothers kept house in “blocks” (three-decker apartments), and children attended Catholic school with French-speaking nuns. Her Mexico was a town of loving families, helpful neighbors, scary landlords, and pride in the mill that kept the town going. And her Mexico would be shattered when her father suddenly died of a heart attack one bewildering April day in 1963.
Only nine years old, Monica didn’t even have the words to describe to herself and others what happened to her father (“you say deceased,” her older sister Anne gently told her). Monica, her young sisters Cathy and Betty, and her mother were all strangers to this new land of grief. Other fathers would tenderly close ranks: fathers of friends and most importantly, her mother’s brother Father Bob (or “Fath”, as the girls joyfully called him) who, although equally bereft and emotionally fragile, cocooned the grieving family with his loving presence.
The death of their beloved president, John F. Kennedy, later that year sent the nation into mourning but for Monica and her family, the aftermath of his death brought an almost curious sense of comfort. They felt a kinship with the Kennedys: here was another grieving widow, here were other children mourning the loss of their father, and here was another uncle stepping up to take a father’s place. Monica Wood’s When We Were the Kennedys is a lovely, bittersweet memoir of lost fathers, courageous widows, and a very personal Mexico.