For me, everything began in Maine, as it had for generations before mine, but none any longer. The scent of pine was always stereotypically pungent and everyone was hard-pressed to find a place to stand without a dry needle crackling under their feet. This was an old mill town, all brick factories and French-Catholic churches framed against crisp azure skies. The streets were perpetually cracked and sandy from obscene amounts of snowfall and most of the residents lived in worn four-story tenement houses clustered downtown.
A decade before I was born, my mom left her first husband, because any relationship that is based on doing right by a baby when you’re seventeen years old is likely to suffer over time. Several years later, in the late 1970’s, my mom and papa, two of the many, many bikers in the area, fell in love and got married in their leathers and faded Harley t-shirts and then they got to work on creating me.
We lived in a large brick tenement on the Androscoggin River, its rusty banks serving as our back yard. My older brother, with his thick red hair running wild on an amusingly large head, was 10 years my senior and given free reign to do as he wished. I knew him then simply as the good-natured kid who was into break-dancing and also trapping me on the floor face-down in figure-four leg-locks that he’d seen wrestlers do on WWF episodes. It wasn’t until thirty years later that he began to chronicle for me all the marijuana he had smoked and cheap booze he drank back by the river at an age where, when I reached it, I could barely leave my front yard unsupervised. When I was that young the nauseating thought of alcohol was one that only served to bring back a faint memory of my parent’s friends putting a nipple on a can of beer and thinking it was hilarious to feed a little to me like it was mothers’ milk.
My mom was always thin like a wisp, with long, soft chestnut hair. When she wasn’t chain-smoking and eating macaroni flavored with only salt, pepper, and butter- she was working out to Jane Fonda VHS tapes or listening to Willie Nelson cassettes. My father, who was (proudly!!) from Quebec, was strong and barrel-chested with an unruly ginger afro. He was a wild man, charming and brash, and the biker gang he ran had an unwavering respect for him. He once led a massive motorcycle rally against a proposed helmet law and I still have the yellowed cut-out from the newspaper where he’s doing a trick on his bike, head bare as sin, standing on the seat while zooming down Main Street, daring the cops to say something.
Everything my father did was from the mindset of an outlaw. He drank heavily and according to my mom, “fought like Muhammad Ali”. Unfortunately, it wasn’t all Laconia Bike Week and Creedence sing-alongs. Cocaine eventually got thrown into the mix and my dad went to rot in jail as a result. I still have a stack of letters from that time, peppered with cheerful comments about the nice “house” he lived in in New Hampshire. The letters to my mother offer a picture of his struggle, as the prosecutors tried to cut deals with him if he’d give his friends up to them, but he stated in many letters he’d “rather die than be a snitch”. So that was that. My papa spent years in jail, scrawling “Fuck N.H. Live Free or Die” on the back of every scrap of paper he could get his tobacco-stained hands on, so my mom moved us down to Connecticut toward a new life and away from the poverty-stricken Franco-Canadian existence she’d always known and which had not served her terribly well. My father faded away as part of that package.
Our move never fully kept us away from central Maine though. Every holiday and summer vacation was spent up there. My father’s parents still lived on the third floor of the old sparse apartment building on Park St. as they always had. They spoke terrible English and it used to terrify me to visit. I’d sit in the barren kitchen, popping an endless stream of M&M’s into my mouth, watching my grandmother’s heavy wrinkles gather around her perpetual smirk, her tiny eyes- pink and glassy- staring at me intently, her chimp-like lips reaching for the murderously hot black coffee she drank unflinchingly. Many of her phrases I perceived as animal sounds: “eh?” “neigh!” “bah.”, and the rest of her communication was just a series of sharp warbled questions that forced me to ask “what???” over and over again. If my mom had been kind enough to stay the course at the apartment with me, I’d look toward her out of the corner of my desperate eyes, willing a translation or a change of topic that wasn’t focused on asking me a series of unintelligible questions while I tried miserably to field them.
My grandma, hunched over to a height well under five feet, always sporting worn leggings and short-sleeved cotton shirts, would sometimes make my silent, kind grandpa drive us to a local diner so that she could show off her little redheaded American granddaughter. I’d be paraded around like a poor man’s Shirley Temple, wrapped in the white faux fur coat she bought me annually, shyly saying hello to one French-Canadian World War Two veteran after another. Then the whole silver-haired gaggle would sit around enjoying their hot dogs and saying God knows what about me in French for the rest of the visit.
When it was time to return to Connecticut and my mother had me buckled up in the car, like clockwork my grandma would hurry over and not-terribly-subtly slip me an envelope from her knobby, age-spotted fingers. It always contained at least one hundred dollar bill, if not several. Even at five years old I knew to display total discretion when taking it and act as if I had been handed nothing. This remained our game until the year she passed away, when she gave me three separate certified checks containing sizable chunks of the last of her secret, hoarded money. My papa once told my mom that his mother barely gave him new clothes or shoes and that he was always hungry, yet she had money stashed everywhere. I suppose she’d always been saving it for me.