US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Read: When We Were the Kennedys By Monica Wood

By Catherine O'Connell-Cahill | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
When We Were the Kennedys
By Monica Wood (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012)

Monica Wood writes that her book When We Were the Kennedys: A Memoir from Mexico, Maine “results from my having been an observant child living in a vibrant place and time.” Amen, especially to the word observant.

This vividly recalled tale from the early 1960s brought back my own childhood: Dad going off early to his blue-collar union job with Mom at home holding down the fort; walking to St. Matthias School in my scratchy plaid skirt, where I sat next to Jagiellos and Engstroms and Liebhabers, the children and grandchildren of immigrants.

Wood’s father (and her grandfather and her brother and the fathers of almost all of her friends) toiled proudly at the Oxford paper mill that loomed over the town of Mexico. His union job put meat and potatoes on the table and paid tuition to the parish school, where the Sisters greeted their pupils every day with “Bonjour, mes enfants.” “In my family, in every family,” writes Wood, “that story—with its implied happy ending—hinged on a single, beautiful, unbreakable, immutable fact: Dad. Then he died.”

Wood recalls with heartbreaking clarity the weeks and months after her father’s sudden fatal heart attack, her reactions, and those of her mother, her three sisters, and Father Bob, her mother’s younger brother. She navigates the embarrassment of being the only kid in fourth grade without a dad, losing herself in books and in the family of her friend Denise, whose father still presided every night at dinner.

Her mother stops going outside except for Mass and a rare trip to the bank, and when neighbors ask about her, Wood writes, “I don’t say: She does everything the same but she’s not here.” Then comes the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, which somehow changes everything.

This book is a shining example of everything a memoir should be.

This article appeared in the July 2012 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 77, No. 7, page 42).