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Child Labor Photos by Lewis Hine | The Memory Keeper

Child Labor Photos by Lewis Hine | The Memory Keeper
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It doesn’t take long for Manning to realize that Esther is a kindred spirit. As he places his binder of photos on the table, she matches it with one of her own. Esther is a keeper–one of those people whose calling is to tend the family tree and ensure that none of its branches ever falls off. The two of them talk shop for a time, comparing the usefulness of various genealogical Web sites and other resources. “Have you ever been to the Worcester library upstairs? The third floor?” she asks. Manning shakes his head no. “Oh, oh,” she replies. “The directories are there, the microfilm. The whole third floor is what you want to do.”

As the conversation turns to Mamie and her siblings, an outline begins to emerge. Like most of the Laberge children, Mamie left Winchendon as a young adult. She moved to Worcester, where she married Frank Mossey, a shoe salesman, in 1921. She lived there for the rest of her life. Esther visited her home only once and remembers little about it other than its extreme cleanliness. Most of Esther’s memories of Mamie are from family reunions at her grandparents’ house. The Laberge children had grown up on Mill Circle, a small loop of factory-owned houses in the shadow of the Spring Village Mill in Winchendon Springs. Most of the family left, but Henry stayed, and so when the siblings would meet, it was often in the same neighborhood where Lewis Hine had found them.

Esther shows a photo that was taken before her time. It’s 1944, and 24 members of the family, spanning three generations, are crammed in front of the camera at Henry’s home at 4 Mill Circle. His son, Amedee, has come home from the service, and he’s standing in the center in his uniform. Mamie has swiped the hat off his head, and in the photo you can see her wearing it as she peers over his shoulder with a guilty grin. It’s the most alive she’s looked in any of the photos she left behind.

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.

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Justin Shatwell


Justin Shatwell


Justin Shatwell is a longtime contributor to Yankee Magazine whose work explores the unique history, culture, and art that sets New England apart from the rest of the world. His article, The Memory Keeper (March/April 2011 issue), was named a finalist for profile of the year by the City and Regional Magazine Association.

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