Monday, July 4, 2016: My Mom is 82, my father is one year older. At 59 years old, I am their eldest child. No one is feeling young around here at the moment.
In the month of June, shortly after I left the Inn to move to Vermont and finally had time on my hands to get away, I started driving from Vermont to Rhode Island to try and help my Dad fight bureaucracy. I’ve been getting nowhere. There is no direct route from here to there, and I mean that in many ways.
To physically get to Rhode Island I travel various routes and state roads from Southern Vermont through Massachusetts to Warwick where my parents raised me and my siblings, and lived most of their lives until they lost their condo in a fire on February 21st of this year. I pass through old mill towns and other forgotten places that have been riding the riptides of American prosperity and poverty over the past several decades. Cities like Brattleboro, Leominster, Fitchburg, Worcester, and smaller towns like Millers Falls, Athol, Pawtucket, and Slatersville.
A distinctive feature of the landscape I pass through are the empty old factories, many with the tall brick chimney you can see from a distance, the mills where textiles, costume jewelry, and furniture were once Made In America. The factories and their jobs are no longer the beating heart of impoverished ghost towns where meth and heroin addiction are serious problems. Interstate 91 travels through these parts and is now referred to as the Heroin Highway. The issue became a hot national topic when presidential candidates went begging for votes during the primaries in the New England states. Now we don’t hear so much about it.
What I am doing in Rhode Island is visiting lawyers and barging in unannounced at the offices of the woman who runs the condo association and the guy who was the property manager until he got fired.
One early morning I followed my Dad through downtown city traffic that turned into local suburban strip mall traffic, until we finally finished our day’s business and headed south through beach traffic on Route 95. I don’t know how this 83 year old man does it, running endless errands that require trips to city hall to notarize something and visits to insurance agencies to argue about claims adjustments and deductibles, but I can tell you he is exhausted and beaten down.
He doesn’t handle adversity well. He lived in a time when the GI Bill put him through college, a teacher’s union fought for his pay raises and healthcare benefits, and his retirement has been covered by a generous pension. He was able to put his kids through college with the help of Pell grants, scholarships, and our summer earnings. He had us putting money in Savings Bonds at the age of twelve, when I worked as a papergirl Monday through Saturday, two baskets filled with the day’s edition of the Providence Journal hanging off the back tire of my bicycle. When my brother Danny got the Sunday route we all pitched in and my dad drove us around in his Chevy station wagon, where we’d ride in the back and hop off to deliver the much heavier paper that couldn’t be folded and tossed onto the doorstep.
He retired and traveled the United States, whose history he taught for thirty-two years, and also made it to several European countries. I look at my generation and wonder how we got from there to here.
Life was good. He had healthy kids, no major illnesses, no lay-offs or financial worries. He never acquired coping skills to weather the bad times and is now ill-equipped for the perfect storm that has hit him. My mother’s Alzheimers’ and the fire at the condo are too much for him to handle at this stage in his life.
There are various reasons given for why nothing has been done over the past four months to get the owners of six units back into their homes after being displaced by the fire. None of them are good, most of them are excuses for incompetence and mismanagement. It’s a common case of he said, she said.
I made an appointment with the consumer reporter at WPRI News to meet me at the condo and tell my family’s story on camera but the staging for the roof had finally arrived and the condo association promised the work would begin on Monday, the day before my mother’s 82nd birthday. Flag Day. My Dad asked me to give them a second chance.
A week later I was back in Rhode Island. My mother had settled down, the meds were working, and after five and a half weeks on the geriatric psych floor of a hospital in Providence, they had found a bed at a nursing home not far from the condo. I was going to meet her there, along with my Dad, when she arrived by ambulance, and help settle her in. After crossing the Rhode Island border I received a phone call from my sister informing me that the woman who handles the nursing home’s admissions was on vacation and paperwork had been misplaced, things got overlooked, the bed was given to someone else. Blah, blah, blah…….
I can’t describe what I was feeling, the curse words I was yelling loudly, alone in my car as I swung into the parking lot of the condo. Not that this was their fault, but they had a string of fuck-ups unrelated to the nursing home and I needed to yell at someone. I took a few deep breaths before calmly walking into the office where I wanted to see some heads roll and get some real, not bullshit, answers about why the work hadn’t started on the roof as promised.
More excuses were given, something having to do with permits, hurricane regulations, blah, blah, blah. I stood and listened to the background noise of bullshit while trying to control my temper. It’s the property management company’s fault, they’ve been fired, the condo association has detailed notes of the steps they’ve taken to rectify things, the owners could have the possibility of suing the property management company for rent money as this project is going to take awhile and no one will be moving back into their homes until mid-October. Best case scenario.
“Have you been updating the other tenants on all of this?” I asked.
“Yes, we send out emails. Your father’s on the list.”
“My Dad lost his computer in the fire. He doesn’t have a smart phone and he was never very good at email to begin with. Two weeks ago my mother wasn’t doing very well in the hospital and we thought she might not make it. My Dad told me he wanted to bring her home where she could lay by the window and look out at the Narragansett Bay. Then he got choked up and told me, I can’t do that because I don’t have my home anymore.”
I was playing the sympathy card but the only one choking up was me.
“We’re doing our best. It’s moving forward now. These things take time. They’re starting the roof tomorrow.”
The following day, I walked from my sister’s house over to the condo and took photos of the hole in the roof covered with a bright blue tarp blowing with the wind off the Narragansett Bay. There were two roofers in the portico where my Dad used to park his car. They were eating donuts and drinking coffee. In the office they had told me they would be working inside today on something called a two hour firewall. I had driven three hours from Vermont and again I got nowhere. There is no easy way to get from there to here where I was now standing, feeling lost and helpless in the wealthiest nation in the world where I hear we have the very best workers, the very best healthcare, the very best of everything.
So they say. I got in my car for the three hour drive back home to Vermont.
Outside of downtown Providence, not far from the on-ramp to Route 95 North I passed a junkyard full of discarded American trash, things people no longer want. A pile of consumer detritus. An American flag flew atop it all.
Not long into my journey I pulled off in Woonsocket to take a walk and find a cup of coffee. The only times I ever came to this mill town were on the school bus when I was a high school hockey cheerleader. Yes, I was a cheerleader. Any time I find myself playing the cocktail game Three Truths and One Lie, the “I was a cheerleader” fools them every time. Most people believe the lie “I shoplifted when I was in high school” and think the cheerleader is the lie. I’m not sure what this says about me but it wins me the game every time.
I parked the car along the Blackstone River that once provided the water power to the textile mills that closed during the Great Depression then were revitalized during World War Two only to close again in the 1980’s, the decade of Ronald Reagan, that led to the 90’s when Bill Clinton signed NAFTA. Since the factories closed for good, unemployment remains high. In March 2013, the Washington Post reported that one-third of Woonsocket’s population used food stamps, putting local merchants on a “boom or bust” cycle each month when the EBT payments are deposited. The median income for a family of four is $38,000. What I mainly saw on my walk through town was bust and very little boom. Across the parking lot was the The Museum of Work and Culture where a few school busses were parked but other than that the city was quiet.
Woonsocket is referred to as the most French-Canadian city in the United States. In the early 1900’s a large wave of immigrants crossed the border from Quebec to work in the New England mills. My maternal grandfather was one of them. He first worked in a textile mill in Newmarket, N.H. not far from where I lived in the house on River Road for 23 years, then he moved to Pawtucket where he met my grandmother and eventually became a U.S. citizen. I am not sure if he crossed the border legally. All the years I knew him he spoke broken English and called all of his grandkids Joe because he couldn’t remember our Irish names.
At one point, 75% of the population of Woonsocket spoke French. A French language newspaper was published here and French language movies were shown at the local theater. Both buildings are now empty.
As I walked the city streets I wondered if my grandfather, and my father-in-law who was also a French-Canadian immigrant, were ever accused of being rapists and thieves. Did English speaking Americans complain when a shopkeeper spoke to them in French? I know my mother spoke French until she was eight years old and then quickly learned English to fit in, like most children of immigrants eventually do. When my siblings and I studied French in school she was very little help, having forgotten her first language. I often wish she had raised us to be bi-lingual. The Bienvenue sign painted on a brick building gave me hope that somewhere in America’s angry heart immigrants are still welcome on these shores.
I never did find a coffee shop but I took a lot of pictures before I left. I spent the rest of the drive home passing through more of America’s discarded cities and thinking about that pile of trash on the outskirts of Providence. I fantasized about renovating the lovely old empty buildings in Woonsocket set along the river where you can go kayaking or drive a few miles out of town and hike Purgatory Chasm. It’s not a bad place to live. Politicians need to come up with better ideas and tell different stories
Why can’t we work with what we have? Why can’t we revitalize our cities? I asked a lot of questions with no one riding shotgun to answer them. My younger daughter is flying into Frankfurt, Germany next week to study at a wine institute in Koblenz. I flew out of Frankfurt over thirty years ago after backpacking through Europe for two months. It’s a very American looking city rebuilt by Americans after we bombed it during World War II. Clearly we were once capable of revitalizing cities.
Rents are rising everywhere. The homeless population in San Francisco is reaching a crisis level. Couldn’t some hot shot techies move to places like Woonsocket and work remotely from home on their laptops? Open a few decent restaurants, improve the school systems….? But wait a minute, that would take a village as someone once said. A society that believes we are in this together and when one city fails we as a society fail too. How is that going to happen? Just a few days ago Congress couldn’t pass one single bill to enact a sensible gun law after the Orlando shootings. They couldn’t agree that those on the no-fly list shouldn’t be able to buy a gun. How the hell do we expect to get anything done if we can’t all agree on that?
My radio went in and out as I traveled the back roads. Hitting the seek button I found NPR. They were discussing the two years and seven million dollars spent on the third Benghazi investigation which has reached the same conclusion as the other two hearings. I thought about Woonsocket and other towns and what they could do with seven million dollars. Frustrated and disillusioned, I hit seek once again and found some bluegrass.
Back at home I sat on the deck and watched the sun set over Haystack Mountain. It’s now a private ski mountain. You have to be a member. Golf courses and country clubs have been like this for years. I walked many a private beach in Florida because like the Native Americans I believe the coastline doesn’t belong to any individual just as the air we breathe is also something we cannot own.
I recently saw a writer’s Instagram post regarding a phone call her mother received from a renowned surgeon at Sloan Kettering on a Sunday afternoon in regards to her cancer treatment. This writer is an Ivy League graduate and her grandfather once drank with Hemingway. She lives in a different America than I do. She knows all the right people, has a trust fund, and a literary agent who gets her chick lit books into the hands of big time New York publishers. I can only imagine what her circumstances would be like if there was a fire at her mom’s condo.
She also posted photos at a lake home her family owns, one of many vacation homes her family owns. This particular lake community received environmental protections and tax-exemptions that reduced the wealthy homeowners property taxes in exchange for public hiking and fishing rights, however the townspeople can’t get past the locked gates. It is they that bear the brunt of the reductions in the tax base that covers schools and fire departments and other social services, but no, truth be told, the public can’t get past the No Trespassing signs to fish in these waters. Although she rarely posts about current events and politics she calls herself a liberal.
The folks with the big lake homes and private ski mountains are a small minority who have access to power. They don’t want to fish and golf and ski with you and me, and the way things are now in America, they don’t have to. We all bear the brunt of their privilege.
On this 4th of July evening while my husband golfs at the public course over at Mount Snow, I look out at the setting sun and think about Vermont and how far away it feels from the rest of the world’s chaos, despite that damn private mountain. I wonder if New Zealand is like this, only better. I think about what it would be like to up and move to the other side of the world. I’m pretty good at picking up and relocating. But then I remember the words of Barbara Kingsolver that I recently read in her collection of Essays From Now or Never: High Tide In Tucson. It is from the essay Jabberwocky.
“A country can be flawed as a marriage or a family or a person is flawed, but “Love it or Leave It” is a coward’s slogan. There’s more honor in “Love it and get it right”. Love it, love it. Love it and never shut up.”
I am not about to shut up. If you’re listening, let me hear your questions and maybe together we can find the road from here to there.