Centreville Mill, one of the many big factories in the town where I grew up. Now, they stand like ghosts on the landscape….
Our high school class of 1963 (woah, we’re old) just had its 50th. reunion, and here’s what I know: Many of us are not the people we once were…Some of us are better. Many of us sport new hair weaves, synthetic knees, breast implants (reconstruction from cancer,) all leading me to realize: We live in a glorious age when medicine helps us extend life or replace faulty body parts. Many of us have left our full-time jobs; we cared for children and parents; we’re now sailing into our senior years. As Baby Boomers (on the cusp), we just might be the very last generation to enjoy such perks, and let’s face it–we didn’t have to fight a war to enjoy these.
What else did I learn at the reunion: I’m still called “the Principal’s daughter” (will that ever end?) I also discovered three women who told me they had massive crushes on my older brothers, when we were all in high school (now I‘m suspicious of their friendship). Fifty of our class came, with spouses in tow, and some partners even offered they ‘always like our reunion better than theirs’ (this said by a Pilgrim High alum.) It was a grand night where we ate, danced, and shared where we all are, on this journey of life.
I wrote the following as a tribute to the town that raised us (it was published last Thursday, in the Kent County Times.) Many of you sent me e-mails, asking me to send, so I decided to put it on this blog. My memories are probably similar to your own.
Glad to have reconnected with you all…I’ll look forward to hearing from you in future (consider subscribing to my blog at above right-hand corner.) You never know–You may appear in a post, in future. After all, you’re all part of my past, as well as my present. I hope you’ll join me for our journey into the future.
Now, enjoy “Memories of a Milltown Girl,” and tell me: “Did I capture your own memories?” Feel free to comment (click on Comments at end of post.)
Memories of a Milltown Girl
I am a child of a mill-town, proud of her roots. Like most of the town’s inhabitants, my parents raised us kids with a serious work ethic, most probably the best of both worlds—white collar dreams with blue collar belief in a system that rewarded hard work and loyalty.
My family was exceptional in that my father, the son of a laborer, was a college graduate who went on to become principal of our town’s only high school. In contrast, my mother’s family were factory workers. She worked in the mill until she married my father and had their first child. Like so many women of her generation, with the onset of children, she focused on her new job—raising her family.
On lazy summer afternoons, when my older brothers played baseball in the community field, I whiled away the time walking between the rows of millhouse duplexes that edged the playing field or ambled down to Red Bridge, that wooden and metal structure that spanned the banks of the Pawtuxet River. Here, I hung over steel handrails to gaze, far below, at swirling eddies of purple-blue water, never realizing it was dye-waste. After all, I was a child of 8, a milltown child, at that.
Our town was probably like many New England towns of the day, dividing along ethnic lines: the Italians in Natick; the Portuguese in Phoenix; the Irish on Arctic Hill; the Polish in Crompton. My family was ‘that Irish family’ on the predominantly Polish Pulaski St., named for the revolutionary hero, Count Casimir Pulaski. As a result, I grew up on the chewy, cabbage-filled pierogi that Mrs. Kraus, our neighbor, specialized in.
On occasion, I hiked down to Walczak’s, a one-room grocery jam-packed with every staple one could need—and a few treats. Here, I picked up a necessity for Mom. Behind the one-room store was the smokehouse where Mr. Walczak produced the kielbasa and sausages we grew up on. We kids would watch the smoke curl up from its chimney, knowing Mr. Walczak was busy at his craft. And I remember the fall-out from Hurricane Carol when our neighborhood lost electricity for a week. The Walczaks gave out meats to the neighborhood, rather than lose them. During that time, we brought them home, roasted them over our backyard fireplace, and invited neighbors in who had no electricity or outdoor fireplace. We all shared in the unexpected boon during a crisis, in that our sense of community was strong.
Arctic was the shopping hub for the region, before the Malls posed the death-knell for our town’s retail industry. The anchor department stores, Maxine’s and Seena’s beckoned as places where women and girls could find suitable dresses, along with accessories of hats, gloves, and jewelry. St. Onge’, a dismal place (in my girl’s view) since the color choices for garments were brown, grey, black, and olive drab, catered to men and boys.
During Christmas season, the shopping district dressed up, too, in holiday regalia, with garlands stretched from pole to pole across Main St. Colored lights twinkled across the expanse, while the sidewalks below teemed with people. We all greeted each other, by name, on the sidewalks as we went about our business. It was a glorious time.
And on holiday occasions, we school kids often positioned ourselves outside busier stores, collecting for some worthwhile charity. Later, we treated ourselves to a much-deserved snack at a favorite hang-out, the Donut Kettle, where we gathered in the booths to quaff cokes and gorge ourselves on those wonderful chocolate-frosted donuts. We timed it so we arrived just as a fresh batch came out, with the chocolate still warm and drizzly on top.
West Warwick was pretty much a “jock” town: we loved our sports and we supported our teams. In the fall, almost all went to cheer the high school boys on the football squad, and fathers anxiously awaited each Saturday when they could reclaim lost youth—if only for a while—through their sons.
In the winter, basketball took center-stage, followed by baseball, in spring. Hockey and soccer were never part of the line-up in our day. Over the years, championship teams were produced and the town rewarded its athletes: a fitting arena was established atop the hill overlooking the high school where loomed a new stadium, bordered by vast playing fields.
And we kids in our town worked hard to earn the money we needed for college. During summers and semester breaks, many of us worked in factories, as inspectors, packers, and foot press operators. Some even snagged coveted piecework positions, guaranteeing a higher wage based on product completed. We worked alongside neighbors, friends, aunts and uncles, coming home at night with the fibers of our trade embedded in the creases of our skin and under our fingernails.
If we worked at the mills for the money we needed, it was natural: we had seen the adults of our town go off to work each day, in the wee hours of dawn, black metal lunch pails tucked under their arms. From a very early age, we learned that perseverance, self-discipline, and hard work were expected. We knew, too, that higher education could be the ticket to a better life. None of us suffered a sense of entitlement; if opportunities were provided, it was the exception—never the rule.
Today, the only vestige of that by-gone era is the few mills that have been transformed into successful condominium complexes. The vast majority have crumbled in disrepair. The town’s real by-product is the men and women who settled all over the United States, as doctors, teachers, writers, scientists, business entrepreneurs, and good citizens in their respective communities, adding to and passing on core values they learned in that small town.
This is the real by-product of that town. It’s one whose influence grows over time.
Click on pic of John F. Deering’s 1963 class, to enlarge…I’m in the third row back, with Richard Szydlo to my right (He and I were named “Class Athletes.”) John Mailloux stands behind me. A lot of the “boys” were grumbling because the class pix cost $20.00 each. I told them they were “same as always….cheap.” We all laughed.
Colleen Kelly Mellor posts to this blog each Monday as she completes her book, Patient Witness (www.colleenkellymellor.com), about her medical experiences over a lifetime. Packed with useful information, tips on how to be your own health care advocate, and humor, it’s “wicked good,” as they say in Rhode Island. She’ll release it later in year (so “stay tuned.”) Her children’s books are available at www.grandpaandthetruck.com.