Stories by Tracy Winn
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The Story Behind the Story

Readers ask, “Where did the title story of Mrs. Somebody Somebody come from?” and I want to satisfy them by saying, “From a blend of memory, and imagination.” But, as rich as the stew of memory and imagination might be, that reply leaves out too much. The story behind “Mrs. Somebody Somebody” began when I was about Stella Lewis’s age and living with my best friend — we’ll call her Daria.

Daria and I were very different sorts of people, but did almost everything together. She hailed from the South, the youngest in her liberal family; I from the Northeast, the oldest in my then predominantly conservative one. Her awareness of social injustice, of racism, sexism, and socioeconomic inequality and discrimination of all kinds was acute. Mine needed development, to say the least. She was figuring out that she was a lesbian, which I didn’t understand. She admired Bob Dylan; I swooned over The Beatles. She went for Adrienne Rich; I for Robert Frost. Although my family’s alien ways exhausted Daria, compelling her to nap afterward, she would visit them with me every Sunday.

She and I traveled to Europe, dragging everything we owned behind us, missing trains, arguing about the pronunciation of words in languages we weren’t qualified to speak. She secured work in the basement of a hotel sending provisions up to the kitchen in a dumbwaiter. I found myself situated by the sea as au pair to a vacationing Parisian family. We wrote one another long letters; mine bemoaning lost opportunities with French men; hers about her loneliness and the one other American at the hotel, a boy who played piano and introduced her to cigarettes. When we returned to the U.S., we shared friends, books, poetry, music, debate and an even smaller living space than before. We made one another laugh. I cut her hair for her. She drove me to the doctor’s when I was sick. I thought I could maybe help her find a nice boy. If I had been listening, she might have said something to bring me along, as more and more, she defined herself by her sexual orientation.

The next summer, while we were working in different corners of the U.S., she quit sharing the details of her life with me. The only explanation she offered came in a note that said, “The beans are still cooking — it’s too early to spill them.”

Gradually, she stopped returning my phone calls. And then, quietly, moving on with her own life, she removed herself from mine. I felt as though she had died, and the loss changed me as surely as her death would have.

Her disappearance triggered a long spate of self-examination during which I tried to understand how she could leave me behind. I reread all of our letters, replayed scenes between us, dissected interactions looking for — and finding — my insensitivity and self-centeredness. Signposts of the distance she’d put between us became visible in hindsight. I’d been so focused on what was going on in my life that I hadn’t paid enough attention to hers. I hadn’t acknowledged or accepted her increasingly political self-definition as a lesbian. In reflection, I learned how much care is required to maintain a deep friendship. I started to pay better attention to people outside myself.

As the years passed, I saw Daria only in dreams. I can’t tell you how many scenes of disappointed reconciliation I experienced in my sleep. During this time, I was also learning to write, and I grew to share Eudora Welty’s sentiments: “What I do in writing of any character is to try to enter into the mind, heart and skin of a human being who is not myself…. It is the act of a writer’s imagination I set most high.” I began to understand that the loss of my best friend wasn’t going to loosen its grip on me until I wrote my way to resolution with it.

The problem was, I couldn’t find an appealing context for the story of that friendship. I wanted to set it somewhere young women’s lives pushed up against one another in the way ours had, somewhere one character would be called on to act on her principles just about every minute, and where the other could fail to understand.

More years passed, and I saw Lowell for the first time when accompanying my daughter’s middle-school class trip to the Lowell National Historic Park. Shortly afterward, a late night local news clip about a baby who had fallen into a canal caught my attention. A mill worker on his coffee break dove from the mill’s second floor to save the baby. I wondered what sort of person the mill worker might be, and what sequence of events led to the baby’s fall. Lacking facts, imagination rushed in.

When it dawned on me that the baby-rescuing mill worker must have been as principled and caring as Daria, I zipped back to Lowell to poke around on my own. The geography (there really are canals) and the architecture intrigued me. Not naturally extroverted, I mostly stayed in my car — a shy voyeur — and drove around looking and looking, a notebook in my lap, a map on the seat. Down by the Merrimack River, I found an old mill building with broken windows, and a front door hanging open. Leaves blew across the floors of the big abandoned rooms. People had spent their entire working lives within those walls. I could almost see their stories blowing around with the leaves. Carved in stone over the entrance: “HUB HOSIERY.”

The factual research for “Mrs. Somebody Somebody” started before Google became a verb. I couldn’t unearth much in my local library about hosiery making, although I did discover an awful lot about the inventions of nylon, elastic and the circular weave machine. Luckily, I came upon a listing for a book called The Last Generation by Mary H. Blewett, available at the Lowell National Historic Park. Ms. Blewett had interviewed the men and women who worked the mills between 1910 and 1960 and compiled their stories as first-person monologues. Her book distilled the working lives of immigrants for whom Lowell’s mills were central. Their names alone, from so many countries, would have made me curious about them. Their stories drew me in. The working people Ms. Blewett’s book introduced to me inspired many of the secondary characters in “Mrs. Somebody Somebody.”

Feeding my curiosity was the fact that I married into an Italian family from Holyoke, another mill city in Massachusetts. My in-laws were contemporaries of the subjects of Mary Blewett’s book, and like them, centered their lives on family, the Catholic Church, the corner store, and the Italian-American Social Club. I read The Last Generation excited to understand my husband’s upbringing in the broader context of immigrant experience in this country.

On my fifth or sixth trip to Lowell, serendipity joined the mix of memory, imagination, and curiosity fueling the story. I stumbled on a heart-stopping exhibition of photographs of life there after the Second World War. The black-and-white stills captured old Chevrolets crossing the Ouellette Bridge, people knocking back Angel’s Tits and Tom Collinses at Harley’s Café, the Paramount Theater with its lit marquee, the women’s hats (those little dotted veils!), folks dancing on Saturday night at the Colonnade Ballroom to bands with names like Billy High Hat and Holidays, and enjoying picnics in their Sunday best across the river in Pawtucketville. Those photos filled in the details — the salient facts from which fiction steals its authority — and gave me the gumption to believe in Stella Lewis and Lucy Mattsen when they trooped out with the other sweaty workers to share a cigarette on Hub Hosiery’s platform a couple of minutes before a baby fell into the canal.