Shoddy

From The Chestertown Spy, 8/23/2022:

My mother was born in 1905—“aught-five” as she would say in her faint New England accent—in Stafford Springs, Connecticut, a small mill town, not far from the Massachusetts border. Her father, Fred Wildey, worked for the American Woolen Company which operated out of the old Warren Woolen Mill. It primarily produced shoddy, an inferior fabric made from the shredded fiber of waste wool clippings, most often used to make inexpensive blankets for the U.S. Army. During the First World War, the production of shoddy blankets boomed, but in time, the mill’s government contracts ended, and the American Woolen Company had to reinvent itself. Today, the descendant of that first old mill produces worsted wool for high-end men’s suits, along with cashmere and camel hair for luxury overcoats. My, how times do change!

Mother had one older sister—seventeen years older, if I remember correctly: my Aunt Mary. They always called each other “Dearest.” Mary married a doctor and moved away to upstate New York. Mother went off to Wellesley College, and then, upon graduation, to the Fannie Farmer Cooking School in Boston where she met my father on a blind date. He was in his second year at Harvard law School at the time. They married in 1931 and moved back to Western Pennsylvania, specifically to Pittsburgh, just an hour south of Butler, the small steel-belt town where he grew up. At the time, Butler’s largest employer was the ARMCO (American Rolling Mills Company) steel mill, a sizable manufacturing facility that produced railcars for the Pullman Company and sheet metal for American forces fighting the next big war: World War Two. A few years ago, ARMCO merged with Kawasaki Steel, a Japanese company, and became known as A-K Steel. In 2020, A-K Steel was acquired by Cleveland-Cliffs; it, too, reinvented itself and now produces the lion’s share of the steel used by American automobile manufacturers, another good example of an old American song with some surprisingly modern lyrics.

But back to shoddy, that humble wool by-product once produced in mother’s home town. These days, “shoddy” has come to mean something poorly made or done, or work of an inferior quality. While that’s the modern derivative of the once-respectable textile product that Fred Wildey’s mill sold to the army, I’d hate to think my maternal grandfather was, himself, shoddy. I never knew him—he died long before I was born—but he helped produce my mother, and that’s good enough for me. 

My father passed away in 1987.  Mother lived on another fourteen years, but after her death, my siblings and I scattered to the winds. I guess you could say mother was the binding that held our family’s story together after my father died. It has always intrigued me that somehow my parents, two smart and gentle souls from quintessentially blue-collar towns, met (in Brahmin Boston of all places!), married, and eventually settled in a big city that was the antithesis of their own small-town roots. Did they reinvent themselves, too? It seems more than fate, almost unfathomably random even, but thankfully, here I am to prove it all true. But sometimes, in the wee hours of the morning, I still lie in bed wondering about their union, trying to make sense of it, or at least to reconcile what I think I know with what I’ll never know. 

But this I do know: my parents were married for more than fifty-six years. Their love produced four children and ten grandchildren. Today, I’ve lost count of their great-grandchildren; there are at least twenty, maybe more, and, I think, even some great-great grandchildren, including some great grand-nieces and nephews I have yet to meet. That’s hardly shoddy.

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer who lives in Chestertown. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy Magazine.

Two collections of his essays (“Musing Right Along” and “I’ll Be Right Back”) are available on Amazon. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.net.

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