Glance at the smiling, sun-kissed girls on the cover of Monica Wood’s gorgeously wrought new book, When We Were the Kennedys: A Memoir From Mexico, Maine, and you might assume it recounts a magical, privileged summer spent chasing boys and learning to sail in New England. But this is a book about sharing something else with America’s royal family: the tragic, shocking loss of a father in 1963.
Wood grew up the third-oldest of four girls in a working-class Irish Catholic family in the mill town of Mexico, Maine. There were “pictures of Pope John and President John” over the Woods’ couch, but Monica’s world revolved around “a single, beautiful, unbreakable, immutable fact”—the presence of her father, Albert, a foreman at the Oxford Paper Company. When Monica was in fourth grade, he died of a heart attack and her world collapsed.
When We Were the Kennedys is a sharp, stunning portrait of a family’s grief and healing, and it also offers 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. “For now,” the author writes late in the book, “Jackie’s story made Mum’s bearable.”
Wood writes beautifully. When her uncle, a priest, presides over Albert’s funeral, he follows the casket “with the poise of a sailing ship, his billowing vestments filled with the breath of God.” At her father’s wake, family members tell stories of Albert as a young man: “Instead of being snuffed out like a spent cigarette, Dad’s expanding, like the trail of smoke steaming up from his ashtrays, and the smoke goes everywhere.”
Near the end of the story, the Wood girls take a palliative trip to Washington, a visit that prefigures Monica’s eventual matriculation at Georgetown. For a small-town girl, the move to 37th and O is rocky at first, and she brings along more than a bit of her Mexico. But soon she finds herself moving on, with new friends and “plans that include Paris—the city in Europe, not the town back home in Maine.”
John Wilwol can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @johnwilwol.
This article appears in the July 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.