I race through some books, urged on by an exciting plot. I dally over other books, though—trying to prolong my time with a particularly memorable voice.
I have been lingering over Five Thousand Days Like This One, by Jane Brox.
What a pleasure to have found—via a Yankee Magazine list of “New England” reading—this collection of graceful, finely crafted essays, first published in 1999.
This “American family history” opens with the death of Brox’s father—a farmer in Dracut, Massachusetts—but meanders on, like the nearby Merrimack River, to other topics connected to the family’s twin legacies: the hard work of running a farm, and harder work still in the textile mills of Lawrence. Brox examines the city’s beginnings as a mill town, its 1911 strike, and the devastating flu epidemic of 1918. She broods over the fading away of New England’s farms.
A deceptively simple writer, Brox lets her epiphanies creep in quietly as she considers the external and internal forces that affect a family: place and poverty, but also nostalgia and dreams. She reflects on her father’s devotion to and frustration with farming. She writes of bread and boundary lines, soils and storms. She peels poetry out of an apple:
“Ripening as the fall itself slopes towards its close, Baldwins—a pie-apple, a keeper—taste better after the frost. They’re picked in October when the orchard grasses have already turned and morning frost lingers in the shadows. As the winter progresses, the skin of a Baldwin wrinkles in storage, but its flavor and crispness hold, and its wine-dark smell fills closed-in cellars and refrigerators.”
Left to determine the future of the family farm, Brox contemplates the past as a way to plot her future. But her memoir also serves as a poignant marker for readers who share similar family histories. As the granddaughter of immigrant mill workers—from another textile town, Fall River—I cherished this celebration of hard work and humble workers.