The woman I knew as Mémere was born Marie-Celine Josephine Plourde in a small town in the Province of Quebec. She was one of the younger children in a large family.
Her father, Honoré, was, according to family legend, a farmer and mayor of a small town. Josephine, as she was called, attended a convent school.
Lowell: The City of Spindles
When she was about 16, Honoré’s political fortunes changed and the somewhat barren soil of this particular part of Quebec at last refused to yield healthy crops. The family — that is Josephine’s parents and their younger children — moved to Lowell, Massachusetts, settling there in the neighborhood called Little Canada and finding work in the city’s hulking and legendary textile mills.
After several years in Lowell, the family moved to Michigan. By this time, Mémere was a widow with a small daughter. Eventually she met and married Pépere, Narcisse Laurin by birth, but called Nels or Nelson by nearly everyone. They had six children together, five of whom survived to adulthood.
Mémére was very old by the time I was born, and spent most of her time seated in a chair in her daughter Annie’s living room. During the months we lived with my mother’s family, I was her chair companion, perched on the arm, pretending to do card tricks for her or pretending to read stories. She taught me enough French so that I was very impressed with myself. Mémere had great patience with me.
Learning About Lowell
Years after Mémere's death, I became curious about her life in Lowell. All I knew is what I'd heard from my mother and grandmother: That Mémere loved city life. During her years in Michigan's hinterland — and that was most of her life — she traveled east to Quebec and Massachusetts whenever possible. The huge trunks stashed away in the attic of the family home bore witness to her wanderlust.
As a college student, I became interested in Mémere's life in Lowell. During my first year in Madison, I stumbled across a book about the Lowell textile mills, a classic called Loom & Spindle. After that I read whatever I could, adding a history major to my journalism degree. Using the vast resources of the Wisconsin State Historical Society, I became immersed in the history of the Lowell mills and of French Canadians in the United States. Academically, I had come home.
The history of texile weaving in Lowell began when Francis Cabot Lowell memorized the design of English power looms. In 1813, backed by a group called the Boston Associates, Lowell built the first such loom in the United States. Soon textile mills lined the banks of rivers in New England cities. The most famous of these was the city named for Lowell himself. Here Yankee farm girls were recruited to operate the machinery. At this time, urbanization was associated with moral decline so the Boston Associates devised a scheme to keep the girls' morals intact: A system of well-supervised boarding houses.
The Lowell mill girls are famous for the system and for many reasons, including the creation of the first employee newsletter in the U.S., The Lowell Offering.
By the 1870s, the character of the textile mill work force was changing. Families of immigrants took the jobs of the mill girls: Italians, Armenians, French Canadians and other groups. One of the best known oral histories of immigrant mill workers can be found in Tamara Hareven's "Amoskeag."
Another classic, now more than 25 years old, is historian Thomas Dublin's "Women at Work."
And by a Fellow Blogger
Naturally, this fascinating part of American urban-social-economic history has attracted interest from novelists. One of them is Terri DuLong of Island Writer, whose book "Daughters of the Mill," I have just finished reading. Terri's love for history and her desire to inform current generations about the plight of women in the late 19th century shines through in this book.
Some writers knock you over the head with character development. Terri is more subtle. Her characters grow on you. They face choices that were harder to make several generations ago.
Terri's concern for women's issues is evident in the twists and turns of plot she provides for readers. You never know what will happen next in this book.
I am always delighted to find bloggers with interests and backgrounds similar to mine. I have found many, and Terri is one of them. Like the plot twists in her book, Island Writer has you coming back for more.
And the potato masher? What has it got to do with all this? About a year into my research, after Grandma Annie died, I began amassing my own collection of family artifacts, concentrating on kitchen items and anything to do with needlework or textiles. Worn and cracked and beyond use, this potato masher is something that might have been discarded had I not rescued it.
My Mémere is with me always. She is there when I hold my head a certain way, chin slightly down, gazing straight ahead. The kitchen utensils she held in her hands so often are merely material reminders of her life.