My father always stooped to pick up pennies he found on the side of the road. If he found one heads up, he considered it good luck and would tuck it in his hand. Tails up, he would leave the penny alone. To him, superstition was superior to religion; he thought he could control the output with steady input. If he stood in the batter’s box a certain way, he’d deliver a base hit. If he worked hard, his impoverished past would disappear. If he rolled the Eisenhower silver dollar he carried in his front pocket, as he did for decades, some unforeseen jinx would never occur. In the end, Eisenhower’s slim hairline and bald head wore down, leaving only a wish of an outline, adumbrated by my father’s own hand.
He held such talismans close. The square nail he took from a fence in Colonial Williamsburg became a story he could tell. His P-38, a small metal multitool that used to be part of U.S. Army rations kits, became a tactile vestige of his youth. Stones he plucked from lands he’d never see again became references to who or where he’d like to be. He even gave me a charm of my own: my first year at Beloit College in Wisconsin, he picked a metal nameplate off a paper machine with BELOIT pressed into the design and sent it in the mail. They make our paper machines in Beloit, he wrote, to remind me of the small Maine paper-mill town where I was from. I wish I knew what happened to that nameplate and its emotional residue once held close by my father’s hand.
The next time I’m home, my mother gives me a small veneered box topped with a silver metal figure frozen in a bowling stance that looks a little like my father as a younger man. It was the prize he won in 1970 for earning the highest bowling average. Inside, his expired licenses and membership cards, a wooden nickel, a tiny gold heart-shaped earring he must have found on the side of the road, and his father’s matching black onyx gold-plated bracelet, tie clip, and signet ring.
“Your grandfather William lived larger than he could,” my mother says, looking at the jewelry with contempt, snapping her words like gum. “He drove a new car while his kids lived like homeless people.”
I feel a little defensive, not knowing this is how my father’s father was seen, how my mother felt. William died when I was three, so his image was always varnished by his early escape. “Well, Dad’s mother abandoned him. She took off with another man. What about her?”
“William was just as bad,” she says.
While my mother’s accusations are perhaps deserved, I feel sympathy for William, this buying of shiny, pretty things while the world crumbled around him—even if it was partly his fault.
This getting and giving of property after someone dies always feels a little cheap, even though here I am participating in the practice myself. I’ve seen families destroyed over inheritances large and small, slit into tantrums and demands and warring sides. As far back as I can see, my family never left any valuable possessions in their dying wake. It’s not that we were poor. We always had enough. But that didn’t mean we didn’t want more.
As a kid, I used to read Richie Rich comic books, featuring a golden-haired “poor little rich boy” of the same name. Richie always wore a suit and a red tie and was so rich his middle name was a dollar sign and the dots over the letter i in his name were diamonds. Richie’s father—like Hugh J. Chisholm, the founder of the paper mill in our town—was an industrialist of enormous wealth and provided Richie with gold-bedazzled possessions galore. One cover shows Richie “camping,” roasting hot dogs from an ornate gold bench while a butler readies his linens and gold chalice for the meal. Richie’s cabin-size tent features a TV and, in case things get rough, a Bentley nearby to whisk him off to other climes. Richie was so rich, he once used sapphires for a snowman’s eyes. He epitomized what wealth could convey: a carefree life with the best toys money could buy. So when I look through my father’s stuff in that little trophy box, I can’t help but wish that wooden nickel had been made of gold—not for me but for him to spend as he desired.
There’s a fragility in the landscape after death, like the skeleton of a leaf, in the negative space of its design. We are especially tender after a death not deserved. But what death is deserved? We all know it’s coming yet we are perennially unprepared. When Prince Albert died an untimely death, Queen Victoria grieved almost pathologically for forty years, punishing herself as if she had made his death occur. I read she kept Prince Albert’s rooms as when he was alive, even had hot water brought in every day as if he were about to shave. She insisted on mourning rituals that increasingly shuttered her away from public life and I believe wore black until her own demise. Was this grandiose mourning a way to preserve Albert or herself? I am skeptical about the etiquette of death the queen invigorated all those years ago, like wearing black to signal pain. At the same time, I feel rude; my father was just buried and here we are carrying on, with my mother already moving out his clothes. In a year or two or three, what will our grief look like, what will his legacy be, how will I preserve what he meant to me?
The death of our town’s father, Hugh Chisholm, is intertwined with my own father’s even though they were almost a century apart. When Chisholm died in his Fifth Avenue apartment in 1912, the mill and town offices shut down operations for the day and flew the American flag at half-mast. Town leaders attended his funeral in Portland to honor the industrial-size legacies he left to our town: probably a future Superfund site and a paper mill of two million square feet of floor space over seventy-five acres, where my father worked and which eventually, I believe, caused his death because of the asbestos that had accumulated in his lungs.
Chisholm had proactively erected a tomb where he was to be interred, at the time one of the most expensive private monuments built in America. He modeled it after the ancient Roman temple in Nîmes, France, called the Maison Carrée, constructed during the reign of Rome’s first emperor, Augustus Caesar. In his last will and testament, Chisholm left his son, Hugh Jr., tons of cash and all his worldly possessions, including the Fifth Avenue apartment (which employed four servants) and a farm in Port Chester, New York, where his father had raised thoroughbred Ayrshire cattle on five hundred acres of land. John Russell Pope, who designed the National Archives and the Jefferson Memorial, crafted the Port Chester house with wood-paneled rooms, boxed ceilings, leaded glass windows, and intricate plasters, and he decorated it with chandeliers, velvet drapery, handwoven rugs, mirrored vanities, gilt-framed ancestral portraits, a billiard room, and built-in bookcases encased in glass that were stocked with leather-bound literature. So Hugh Jr. inherited all those furnishings, too. “He was never extravagant in personal habits,” the Los Angeles Times wrote about Hugh Sr., but his multiple homes, his servants, the tomb, and the pricey cigars he smoked, whose vapors harmonized with his own pillowy white hair, suggested he lived more extravagantly than anyone in our town had ever guessed.
Hugh Jr. also inherited the mill. He expanded and improved its operations by diversifying its assets and bulldozing his way through World War I and the Depression. After forty-four years of magnificent success, Hugh Jr. retired to the Ayrshires and to the Port Chester demesne. Now and again, he’d take out his boat the ARAS, a 1,332-ton, steel-hull, teak-deck, fourteen-bed, twenty-seven-crew luxury yacht he commissioned for two million dollars from Bath Iron Works in 1930. He sold the ARAS in 1941 to the U.S. Navy to be used as a gunboat in World War II. After the war the navy decommissioned the ARAS but it was too fine a ship to mothball, so Harry Truman commandeered the sleek vessel for his presidential yacht, which sheltered such luminaries as Lauren Bacall, Winston Churchill, Dean Acheson, Lord Ismay, Anthony Eden, Omar Bradley, and other white people in ties who conferenced in the evanescence of their deeds of war. When Dwight Eisenhower became president, he declared the ARAS too rich for his blood and the government gave it up for good. Before Hugh Jr. died in 1959 in his skyscraper office on Park Avenue from a heart attack, he began selling off the prizewinning cattle.
Hugh Jr.’s son, William, inherited the New York estate and mill operations as well. A mill publication called William’s reign “The Coated Age” because of the state-of-the-art paper machine, the North Star Coater, he installed for National Geographic’s paper needs. He also built a research and design facility and reinforced the power plant’s capacity. The schools were full, employment was up, and the baby boom was well under way. In 1961, William sold the Port Chester house and its surrounding five hundred acres to prominent residents who wanted to fend off overdevelopment of and encroachment on their neighboring country estates.
In 1967, the year I was born, William consolidated mill assets with Ethyl Corporation, a storied chemical company based in Richmond, Virginia. Then he retired. No more Chisholms remained in our town affairs. William died in 2001 at his home in Greenwich, Connecticut, the wealthiest town in the state. The only things left of both New York properties are billeted at the Brooklyn Museum: photographs of the Port Chester home and four limestone Atlante sculptures that graced the entry of the Fifth Avenue townhouse that got torn down to make way for other Midtown pieds-à-terre. I wonder if my father ever met or knew William, as they worked together at the same time, but I have never found records to indicate such an alliance existed.
Boise Cascade paper company bought the mill in 1976 from Ethyl Corporation. After Boise, Mead, which merged to become MeadWestvaco in 2002. Then Cerberus Capital Management purchased MeadWestvaco in a leveraged buyout to form NewPage in 2005. Catalyst, a Canadian paper manufacturer, bought the private-equity-funded NewPage in 2015. In a hundred years, our mill, like most of American manufacturing, went from natural resources to chemicals; from local to global; from making things with our hands to a more automated culture and disinterested funders, leaving laborers who no longer had enough to do. Those in our town who remember the prosperous years the Chisholm trio wrought still speak fondly of them to this day. Because of Hugh Chisholm Sr.’s hardscrabble upbringing, we didn’t begrudge him for his riches, even if parvenu. On the contrary, I’d say we had always aspired to the same, to be so wealthy we could leave an important legacy behind.
The first time I visited New York City was in junior high school in the early eighties with the Bolduc family. To me, the city was beautiful in all its gauzy grime: the smell of dried piss and sausage smoke; glamorous women in colored pumps clacking along Fifth Avenue; loopy hippies leering at our country-mouse clan. And as I leaned over the white wood barrier near Yankee Stadium’s locker room, Bucky “Fucking” Dent (as my father, a Red Sox fan, called him) touched my arm as he left practice. Though it seems corny now, visiting the Empire State Building was the best part of my trip. From the observation deck, on that sharp sleek monument, I saw farther than I had seen before. The wind up there took my breath away.
The Bolducs and I also made a pilgrimage to Trump Tower. Like the golden hue of Richie Rich’s comic books, the flashy brass of the Tower’s atrium signaled triumph of the fiscal kind. The Escher-like escalators created a visual illusion, where I didn’t know if businessmen in pinstriped suits were floating up or down as they left contrails of Drakkar Noir in their mechanized paths. We watched for an hour or two, perhaps to see someone famous like Trump himself or just to absorb the shine. It wasn’t long before I felt small and out of place in my yellow Bronx Zoo T-shirt featuring lions in a cage while ladies in heels clickety-clacked across the marble floors. Perhaps I wasn’t cut out for the richness I admired or was just wearing the wrong clothes. When I returned home, my New York trip made me a little embarrassed to come from where I did, yet it also evoked the envy of my friends. So I kept the feeling of it close at hand.
It’s easy to scoff at gold-lacquered dreams or to say you’d rather have love or health over yachts or prizewinning hobby farms. The sacks of gold Richie Rich and Trump inherited and that Chisholm earned bought a kind of freedom that could erase misfortunes with the plink of a few coins. For many of us who grew up working class, who have never had such abundance and imagined a lifestyle like theirs, to be so rich you didn’t have to work or struggle so hard is part of the American dream, the very same dream my parents, my grandparents, my great-grandparents ventured to achieve for the three generations they worked at the paper mill.
Trump Tower arose as an edifice to signify its owner’s wealth, but it symbolized additional sins. The hundred-million-dollar tower was built on the footprint of Bonwit Teller, an art deco luxury goods department store that had embraced an extravagance of its own: crafted from limestone, platinum, bronze, aluminum, and nickel and garlanded with ornate metalwork and original friezes, Bonwit Teller also sold expensive perfumes, furs, and ladies hats in pilastered and paneled rooms. Before Bonwit Teller’s demolition by Trump, the Metropolitan Museum of Art offered to rescue the friezes and other architectural remnants. But Trump had other plans. He envisioned a tall, “expensive-looking” building that showed off “real art, not like the junk … at the Bonwit Teller,” he told New York magazine. So under his direction, the friezes were jackhammered, the metalwork disappeared, and the building was ravaged then sighed to the ground. And some of the undocumented Polish workers who helped build Trump Tower under dangerous conditions went unpaid until they took Trump to court.
The legacies powerful men construct almost always emerge from the debris of other people’s lives, and ignore the moral and social violations they commit along the way. These architects of artifacts know they have the power to build then destroy the world, then move through it easily while most of us just watch it moving by. Indeed, to compare brave new worlds of shiny glass and gold and hand-rubbed marble to the monuments the rest of us erect—like headstones in the grass—exposes a rift as deep as regular buttons versus the blind privilege of sapphires used for a snowman’s eyes.
But even great riches can dissipate over time. When I follow the Chisholm family tree up and down the line, I see his descendants may have had problems as bad, if not worse, than mine. Cancer, alcoholism to the point of despair, and former debutantes who went off grid to shore up their mental health. A man named Colin Chisholm, who looks identical to Hugh Sr. and claimed to be related, has been imprisoned for fraud. And by 2014, the ARAS sat rotting and rusting in an Italian shipyard waiting for a fifty-five-million-dollar makeover. While I feel sorrow for the Chisholm family’s misfortunes, I wonder: Did they ever consider ours? Did Hugh Sr.’s descendants ever know of the cancer legacy left behind in our town, cancers the paper mill probably helped produce?
At home in Connecticut, I look through the rest of my father’s personal things my mother stuffed into my hands on the way out the door: commemorative metal pins from events he never attended and a small piece of coral from a beach far away. Who will I give his personal effects to when I die? There’s nobody after me. I’m the end of my genealogical line.
My father mustered these things together like building blocks of reality to create and navigate and express and give evidence to his life. Some he accumulated unconsciously, like the toxins in his lungs. I’d like to think my father’s asbestosis was a ticking bomb unable to be defused, that there was nothing we could do. But it wasn’t. It took its damn time, as long as it took for him to wear down poor Eisenhower’s head.
Kerri Arsenault is the book review editor at Orion magazine and a contributing editor at Lit Hub. Her writing has appeared in Freeman’s, Lit Hub, Oprah.com, and The New York Review of Books, among other publications. She lives in New England. Mill Town is her first book.
Excerpted from Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains, by Kerri Arsenault. Published by St. Martin’s Press. Copyright © 2020 by Kerri Arsenault. All rights reserved.