Tante Annette was a model at Peck’s, where there’s an L.L. Bean outlet now.
Annette was so tall, Grandmaman used to say.
Oo, ooo la la, my mother said. Tante Annette was my role model, said my mother.
Peck’s was near the mouth of the Androscoggin, just inland from where the Bates Mill gave off its effluent to the river. The Androscoggin, during the mill days, was the most polluted waterway in America. On the town side of the factory, girls called out the windows to the boys from Bates College, my father’s alma mater. Oooo mechant canard — Oh, wicked duck. Alouette, gentille Alouette…— Oh, pretty goose. They made thick, navy wool blankets. I still have one, with a red and white striped satin border and my name on a white label sewn for summer camp.
My mother was a model, too, and she made it out of Maine and went on to New York, where she became the floor model at Lord & Taylor, circa 1976. She walked the main floor greeting people and looking tall, in Charles Jourdan shoes.
Your mother was a floor model at Peck’s, Grandmaman said to me, another time.
That was Annette, I say. Mom worked at Lord & Taylor.
She was so tall and pretty. Jolie. Mon dieu, Grandmaman said, crying, drinking straight from her bottle. Why was Grandmaman crying? Why did she ever cry? Life, joy, remorse. Her second baby died of a disease. Congenital, or environmental, perhaps.
It’s my mother who worked in New York, I repeated, and she looked at me and said, You’re so pretty. The bottle was Grandmaman’s pollution.
After 1917, every mayor in Lewiston was French. Grande-grandmaman Léa came by Grand Trunk Rail in 1895, a middle child among nine. Féline, her sister, worked at the mills. No one else in the family worked in the mills, said Grandmaman, only they did. The family talks, instead, about the cousin who also became mayor, and how Léa made magnificent hats for Anglos and was tailor to the wealthy of Auburn, across the frothy Adroscoggin. She rode in a carriage with her hair piled high wearing tailored dresses. They talk about Grand-grandpapa Philippe, who died early, of meningitis or some other toxin, possibly alcohol.
My mother talks about how she used to be the floor model at Peck’s.
No, that was Tante Annette, I remind her. You were the floor model at Lord & Taylor.
Oh, Annette. I loved Annette. She was so elegant. Who did you say?
Ohhh. My mother peers off. Who’s Annette? She looks round. We’re at a family reunion, hosted by Cousin Roger with the Gallic chin and Vichy mustache. Tante Terry is here, and my mother’s childhood best friend, Cousine Raimonde, who lived with the family in Lewiston. Tante Simone, Tante Annette, Tante Fleurette: they have all passed on by now, of old age. Oncle Roger, he died jumping from a train near a lumber farm outside Montreal. Oncle Raymond, who never got over World War II, they say alcohol took him as well.
My mother takes my hand. She never drank, never worked in the mill. What was her toxin? Who are all these people? She asks me. They keep hugging me and asking How do you do? She is very slim and her hair is dark and dramatic, and she is beautiful so people hug her.
They’re your cousins. Remember Raimonde? You called her Taffy.
Taffy, my mother says. The past is there before her, across a spray of water.
Secret Americas features writing about images from the U.S. National Archives.
Image via Flickr: “Foam on the Polluted Androscoggin River, Seen from the North Bridge at Lewiston, 06/1973.” Photograph by Charles Steinhacker, National Archives and Records Administration.
Elizabeth Kadetsky’s short stories have been chosen for a Pushcart Prize, Best New American Voices and two Best American Short Stories notable citations. Her personal essays have appeared in the New York Times, Guernica, and elsewhere. Her memoir First There Is a Mountain was published by Little, Brown in 2004. She is assistant professor of fiction and nonfiction at Penn State.