A Milltown Memoir
Five Thousand Days Like This One: An American Family History
By Jane Brox
Beacon Press, Boston, 1999, 174 pages.
One hundred years ago, Lawrence, Massachusetts, was known as the worsted and woolen capital of the world. Home to tens of thousands of immigrants who came to seek their fortunes in the textile mills that lined the Merrimack River, by 1912 Lawrence produced more cloth per employee than any other city in the country. Such production came at high cost to the workers–dyers, cutters, spinners, weavers, and loom mechanics–most of whom earned miserably low wages.
Remarkably, some immigrants managed to scrape together enough money to buy land in the Merrimack Valley. The Greeks, Armenians, Poles, and Italians who left the industrial centers to take up farming replaced the original settlers–Anglo-Saxon Protestants from England and Scotland–who moved on or died out. Jane Brox, author of Five Thousand Days Like This One: An American Family History, is the granddaughter of such entrepreneurs. In 1902, Brox’s Lebanese forebears bought a dairy farm five miles west of Lawrence’s tenement district. Brox, an amateur historian who pored over maps, surveys, and legal documents to piece together a narrative of her family’s past, marvels at her good fortune: “How else could we have come this way since the April day when, according to the deed, my grandfather, who could hardly write his name in English, made his mark?”
Brox’s father’s death inspired Five Thousand Days Like This One, which chronicles both his life on the farm and the larger history of the Merrimack Valley. A collection of poignant essays, it manages to instruct without seeming didactic. Brox’s style is impressionistic–rather than list dates and statistics, for example, Brox combines facts with the oral history of her own family. In addition to stories, Brox relies on personal papers. “My grandparents spoke other tongues–Arabic on my father’s side, Italian on my mother’s–and our family doesn’t have much of a written past. There are no boxes of letters, no journals wrapped in burlap, not even a Farmer’s Diary . . . . [T]he family’s record is kept in documents–mortgages, deeds, and citizenship papers.”
One of the best examples of Brox’s method of mingling histories is her description of the evolution of Merrimack Valley milk production. In the late 1800s, dairy farmers stored their milk in metal jugs–set in stone rooms or running water or wellhouses–to keep it cool before delivering it to workers in the tenements, who filled their own basins, pitchers, and jars from the jugs. But as the population of Lawrence grew, Brox explains, demand for milk exceeded supply. Small farmers in the Merrimack Valley were forced to consolidate production. Bottlers began to collect milk from farms, process it, and deliver it milkman style, door-to-door, a practice that lasted into the 1960s.
Competition from large dairy farms in the Midwest forced farmers like Brox’s father to abandon commercial dairy production altogether. The few cows the family did keep provided milk for crumbly Syrian cheese and laban, a yogurt-like staple the Broxes savored. In the summer they mixed laban with cucumber and mint; in the winter, they mixed it with sweet jam. Much of Brox’s grandparents’ legacy manifests itself in the foods Brox remembers from her own childhood: laban, kousa, shish kebab, tabbouleh.
To keep his farm operating, Brox’s father turned to growing vegetables for markets in Lawrence, Lowell, and Boston: corn, tomatoes, eggplant, pumpkins, apples. Apple growing, once integral to New England’s agricultural economy, had begun to fade decades before Brox’s father planted his orchard. Brox quotes Henry David Thoreau lamenting that “none of the farmers’ sons are willing to be farmers, and the apple trees are decayed.” Even though her father never counted apples among his most lucrative crops, when Brox contemplates the future of the farm, it’s the apple trees she can’t imagine losing. The history of the orchard itself is a treasure of family lore: Brox’s grandparents created it unwittingly, while logging white pines to meet mortgage payments. Brox’s father painstakingly replaced the pines with apple trees. The memory of his special pruning technique, honed over the years, nearly prevented Brox from hiring a young pruner who had worked for Brox’s father the year he died.
From a historical perspective, the most valuable essays in Five Thousand Days Like This One address working conditions in the mills and the famed “Bread and Roses” labor strike of 1912. Again, Brox turns to fascinating primary sources to cobble together what amounts to a short narrative of the strike. To her credit, she maintains a professional perspective, even though her maternal grandfather, an Italian weaver, spent his adult life in the mills. This affable man grew his own fruits and vegetables, including, miraculously, fresh figs. He died when Brox was just four, but his favorite toast is the title of this book: “Cinque mille questo giorno,” a four-word shorthand, Brox says, for “May there be . . . may you have . . . may we all have five thousand days like this one.”At the time of the strike, Brox reports that as many as 60 different languages and dialects could be heard in the streets of Lawrence. To illustrate this point, Brox strings words for “snow” and “bread” together to marvelous effect–“la neca, neige, schnee, snow, snow, snow,” and “brot, bread, pain, pane, khoubz.” Fortunately, language barriers did not prevent workers from finding common ground. After refusing to work for 10 weeks, the strikers won an extra penny or two an hour–enough, at the end of the week, to buy four loaves of bread.
The strike of 1912 is the most written-about event in Lawrence’s history. Brox acknowledges, “A hundred historians have tugged at the same set of facts and statistics to gain their perspectives, to tell labor’s version, the feminists’ version, management’s version, a version roused by speech, a version roused by singing.” It would seem impossible to add a new perspective. But Brox has written one, infused with a woman’s love of words and love of place. Part memoir, part history, this is a family’s version, and, as such, unlike anything I’ve ever read.
Katherine Guckenberger is a new-media editor of The Atlantic Monthly.