Friday, January 09, 2009

Raymond Proulx, 1923-2009

My grandfather died this week. The following is adapted from the first chapter of The Daddy Shift, for which I had interviewed him.

My great-grandfather was born in rural Quebec, Canada. At the age of twelve, he immigrated with his widowed mother and four sisters to Lowell, Massachusetts, and all of them started work in the city’s textile mills.

In Lowell, my great-grandfather married and had thirteen children. My grandfather, Raymond Proulx, was born in 1923. Starting at the age of eight, my grandfather worked side-by-side with his father at home, tending the garden that helped feed them and taking care of the pigs, chickens, and cows they kept.

I asked my grandfather what lessons he learned from his father. He replied: “You do what you have to, and if you don’t, you don’t eat.” Their relationship was not an intimate one. Discipline was strict and enforced with the back of a hand.

At fifteen, my grandfather found a job in a slaughterhouse butchering cows. He quit school and never went back. In 1945, he was drafted and served in World War II. In 1946, he married my grandmother and started work at a quarry—a job he would hold for the next forty years.

“My wife was so poor,” he said. “They didn’t have nothing. I took her out of poverty when I married her. At the quarry, I got fifty cents an hour, working like a horse. There wasn’t a union, we just worked. If you asked for a raise, you’d get four cents.”

A year later my mother was born; my two uncles both came within the following decade. “It was my wife’s responsibility to take care of the kids, and I used to go to work,” said my grandfather.

He told me that he wanted to play a role in their development—which he defined as making “sure they do what they’re supposed to do”—but the main measure of his success consisted of going to the quarry every day and putting a roof over their heads. “I used to go to work, come home. I didn’t drink at all. I didn’t spend my money foolishly. Everything went to feed the kids and the clothes.”

I never heard any of his children say otherwise; my mother says that she often saw my grandfather work seven days a week, for up to 12 hours a day. By the standards of his time and social class, my grandfather was an excellent father. He had been a soldier and a breadwinner and those were the two things he was proudest of. I had always had the impression that he defined those two roles by duty, modesty, and steadfastness.

His sacrifices were enormous, but my grandmother, Cecile Proulx, seemed almost crushed by the burdens of her life. I can’t include her voice here—she died years ago—but I have pictures and memories of a woman who seemed to be always battling against herself and the world, her lips set, her eyes fearful.

“She worked for me,” said my grandfather of his wife. “I always said, You work for me. She took care of the kids and I took care of the money; I brought it home, so she would have enough.” When I asked him if he faced any challenges in raising the kids, he replied: “I never did. My wife took care of all that. She brought the kids up.”

In reading through my college journals, I am surprised to see many small reminisces about my grandfather—though I didn’t see him more than twice during my undergraduate years, his appearances in my journals outnumber those about both my parents. In one entry, I recall an incident when he had accidentally killed a man at the quarry and we found him at the kitchen table, head in his hands; on another page, I describe a bicycle he built for me, “the best bike I ever had, the fastest in the neighborhood.”

We were never close. Why did I write about him so often? I think in many ways I was haunted by how different he seemed to be from me; I was quite simply incredulous that we were related. He apparently represented some rough masculine quality that I never had and didn’t want, but which still held the same attraction that the image of Havana seemed to have for the second-generation Cuban-Americans that I knew in my Miami high school. My friends had no desire to go back to Cuba—they felt their families led freer, richer lives in Miami—but they still romanticized Havana’s shark-finned cars and crumbling buildings, which cast a long shadow over their lives. My family had not crossed an ocean strait, but in many ways I was just as far away from my grandparents.

My grandfather died on January 7, 2009. Raymond Proulx didn’t want a funeral; the family isn’t having one.

2 comments:

Electronic Goose said...

Beautiful post. ....And I'm sorry for your loss.

Elisa said...

I am sorry for your loss, Jeremy.

Also, it's funny how much we have in common. I was raised in a combination of Miami and New England as my father worked in the textile mills. My first job was at Malden Mills in Lawrence, Massachusetts. I know Lowell quite well.

I am looking forward to reading the rest of your book!