FALMOUTH – Recently, Jeffrey Neil Young, an attorney representing the artists suing to reinstall the labor history mural at the Department of Labor, wrote a column about the mural’s significance. In it he describes some of the different scenes depicted, such as Maine mill workers, including child laborers. One of them was my grandmother.

Born in Biddeford in 1872, Emma Bergeron began her work life at 9 years of age as a bobbin girl in the Bates Mill. She pushed what resembled a large shopping cart (empty bobbins in one basket, full ones in another) between the weaving machines and changed the bobbins.

Each weaving machine had a wide, totally unguarded power belt, dangerously close to the bobbin. The eventual result for my grandmother was the loss of a finger. But, I suppose, she was lucky: Somehow she escaped the white lung disease that felled so many of the mill workers.

Many years later, she described to me something of her days spent, from dawn to dusk, in the unventilated, noisy and dangerous weave room but said nothing about what had obviously been the greatest toll: My grandmother, a quite intelligent woman who was fluent in both French and English, could neither read nor write. She could only “make her mark,” like many young mill workers before the protection of child labor laws.

FAMILY TIES

At about the turn of the 20th century, probably long after leaving the mills, Emma Bergeron married Albert O. Marcille, who, in 1910, was elected mayor of Biddeford.

He was the first person of French Canadian extraction to hold that office in the state of Maine, which was a very big deal in predominantly French Biddeford.

Together the couple raised three children who were all to earn degrees beyond high school. One, my Aunt Arline, became a successful teacher in the Biddeford school system. In addition, my grandfather taught night school. But for all of her life until her death in 1969 at 95, my grandmother continued to “make her mark.”

There were the minor problems like being unable to read a cook book or knitting instructions, but there were much more serious consequences.

One day, Cecile Gagne, who lived downstairs in the three decker in which we all lived, came to the door quite upset with the content of an article in La Presse, the French language newspaper published in Lewiston.

She placed the paper in my grandmother’s hands and demanded to know what she thought of the article. Even though they had been close friends and neighbors for more than 20 years, Cecile had no inkling that Emma could neither read nor write.

“This should be good,” I thought, but, to my surprise, with carefully worded questions, my grandmother learned everything important in the article and so was able to give her opinion.

All the while, Cecile suspected nothing.

I was beginning to understand the shame being illiterate caused my grandmother and the lengths that she would go to keep her secret.

DENIAL

My grandmother was the long time vice president of the St. Andre Church temperance group, La Cercle Lacordaire de Sainte Jeanne D’Arc. Many times the group wanted her to be its president, but she always refused.

She told us privately that she just couldn’t pull off being president without someone finding out her secret. I was both very proud of her and sad for her too. It was a great lesson in the importance of literacy for a 7-year-old to learn.

My grandmother, then, was partly responsible for my becoming an English teacher, but all of these years later I wonder why someone in my family didn’t teach her to read and write. Was it all denial and secrecy?

I don’t know. All those who might have known are dead, and there was no mural in my family to remind us of the toll in human suffering in the workplace before the protection of child labor laws.

Oh, and what about Gov. LePage’s role in the removal of the labor history mural? More denial and secrecy or just bad politics?

– Special to the Telegram