The Memory Keeper: Child Labor Photos
Esther’s own memories of Mamie are less vivid. She remembers Mamie’s big personality and her laughter. Mamie and her siblings would swap old stories in French and reminisce. But Esther was a child then, so she didn’t stick around to listen to those old stories, or if she did, she doesn’t remember them. “I went up there when I was small and I played with my cousins,” she explains.
Manning tries to get a little more out of her. He’s become an expert at tracking down the skeletons of people’s lives–when they were born, when they died, where they lived, whom they married–but those things are just facts. A personality is harder to find. Manning is always looking for some small window into his subjects’ souls–a joke, a habit, or just one good story–anything that might help put some flesh back on their bones.
“What do you miss most?” he asks. It’s a question he turns to whenever an interview runs dry. It makes people think of the little things–details they might have thought too frivolous to mention. When he posed the question to one of Addie Card’s great-granddaughters, she surprised him by answering, “The shuffle of her slippers.” When Addie was very old and her great-granddaughter would visit, it was the sound of her slippers that would reach her first through the closed door, letting her know Addie was all right.
Esther mulls over the question for a moment, then explains that she really just misses people getting together. “Nobody lives at 4 Mill Circle now,” she tells him. “That’s sad. That was the center of everything for us, and it’s empty. It’s been empty for years.”
It isn’t the kind of answer Manning was looking for, but it doesn’t really surprise him, either. These are the kinds of things that matter to people. Manning often argues that all history is local history. Every great war was fought by individual soldiers. Every president was someone’s son. Every story, no matter how epic, consists at the molecular level of dining-room tables and family reunions.
On a hill in Riverside Cemetery, not far from the Glenallan Mill, a 20-foot-tall stone cross reaches up to the treeline. Its front is intricately carved with flowers and leaves. Around its base are a handful of graves, all bearing the family name White. The Whites were the people who built the cotton mills, which in turn built Winchendon. They went north to recruit French Canadian workers, whom Hine in turn came to document. They were, in all regards, very important people. But as Manning wisely points out, they’re just as dead as everyone else. “The guy with the mausoleum isn’t any more important than the guy with the flat stone. He may claim to have greater importance in the context of his community, but for the family of the person on the flat stone,” he says, with a touch of sadness, “that person is who’s important to them.”
By the late spring of 2010, Manning is wrapping up his work in Winchendon. Of the 19 surnames identified in Hine’s captions, Manning has finished the family histories of 17. The final two migrated back to Canada. He’s beginning to turn his attention elsewhere–to Eastport, Maine, and to other towns where Hine set up his tripod. Still, there are a few last interviews to do before he’s done.
In June, Manning once again finds himself sitting at someone’s kitchen table, the clunky cassette recorder whirring in front of him. He’s found Ronald Paradis, Mamie’s son-in-law, still living in Worcester. Two of his daughters, Cheryl Szlyk and Deborah Begonis, are also sitting at the table, telling Joe what they remember of their grandmother. A few minutes into the interview, Deborah’s 27-year-old daughter, Jenn Ford, walks into the kitchen, and Manning stops short. “You probably don’t know this,” he says, “but you look exactly like your great-grandmother, Mamie.”
Manning has always harbored a hope that he might one day meet one of the Hine children in person, but he knows it isn’t likely. Even those photographed late in the project would be over 100 years old by now. But seeing Mamie’s face–the same eyes, the same mouth, the same earnest stare–reborn three generations later is soberingly close. As he drives home, he can’t shake the sensation that he’s just seen a ghost.
A few days later, he receives an e-mail from Jenn. At first she found the resemblance amusing, she says. Her father had always told her she had a Frenchman’s nose, and staring at the photos Manning had brought, she thought, Oh my God, I do get my honker from her. But she hasn’t been able to shake that haunting sensation, either, and she’s writing Manning for advice on how to get started doing family research of her own.