I re-read my Dad’s obituary today and marveled at how ineffectively it characterized his history, his life. A textile union leader born in Lowell, a veteran of World War II, how do you fit a story like his in a blurb? So I write this between the anniversary of his death, May 17th and the date of his birth, June 1st and just in time for Memorial Day.
My Father puzzled me. He often retreated into a catatonic-like stare and I’d wonder where he’d gone. I knew him as a kind man, a generous man. I knew him as brilliant and well-read. I knew him to be a great story teller and a bad poker player, but to say I knew him as a man would have been a lie. It was the way he tried to hide the ugly sides of truth from me, as fathers often do, and it blurred my perception. After a conversation with him I left with more questions than answers so part of me didn’t fully trust him. I had eyes. I could see poverty and despair. I gave up on fairy tales early on. I believe in them more now that I’m older.
We travelled back to Lowell together, the city we called home, known as “The Cradle of the American Industrial Revolution”. The Boott Cotton Mill, now a remarkable museum, depicts a history of workers. Tens of thousands of the nearly indentured worked in horrendous conditions with no real chance to do anything more than toil and barely feed their families. We toured the mill behind a young docent with my daughter asleep in her pram. But the stories of the mills were the stories my father had lived. By the end of that afternoon at the Boott Mill Museum the tour guides surrounded him, and he relayed firsthand accounts of what mill life was truly like in Lowell.
His widowed mother worked two shifts a day in the deafening noise of the weaving room. He was a child, himself, but with younger brothers at home he needed to help. So he entered that world as a teen in a dye room. Another worker had befriended him and trained him for his job, to stand on a platform and stir a vat of boiling dye… in a steam filled room… no railings, no safety gear, nothing to protect him from falling to his death but his fear of slightly moving… on that rickety stand in a pall of fog… for hours in necessary hell.
One mid-day, as the steam cleared he noticed his friend writhing in pain on the floor. He jumped down to help but the foreman ordered him back up the ladder to stir. From that rise he watched a fine man die. And that’s how it happened, that was the moment that ignited the fire within and the young, impassioned Demitri Boutselis decided to dedicate his life to improving the inexcusable conditions in the mills.
With the fury of a teenage boy he borrowed money to print union cards and began to assemble the force needed to bargain collectively. By age twenty he represented thirty-five thousand people as the youngest paid labor leader in history.
He fought battles, organized strikes, lived in constant threat of bodily harm but he fought for fairness, for principle, for rights. He fought to get one paid sick day per worker, per year and one paid holiday, their choice of either Christmas or Easter at home with their family.
I’d heard this all before but never with such ache in his voice and never through the hungry mind of a tour guide at the Boott Mill. Their eager faces, intent on understanding, living and tasting what they had only read of, and they sat at the feet of this Master of Tale who had been there.
I wished that my child had been old enough to witness this, to understand that greatness and courage stood before her. I wished her to know that this grandfather (who bought her every toy she ever looked at) once fought for a cause. I wished her to realize the impact he made on so many lives in ways that profoundly mattered.
And for the first time I understood who this man really was. Beneath the persona and irresistible charm, inside the brilliant mind who lectured everywhere from Holy Cross to the University of Moscow, there lived a man born from struggle, a defender from Hitler and greed, a man who had to Anglicize his name in order to feed his family. He was my protection from the deplorable.
Again I wondered where his mind wandered to, so trance-like but decided it was best not to know.
He died a few days short of eighty nine, a life well lived. The Lowell Historical Society gave us CDs of his recorded interviews. They’re all that’s left of his stories but they’re too painful for me to hear. Not even a Wikipedia entry graces a man such as my father.
Before he passed he wished he had financially provided for us. Compared to money, Dad, you were the wealth, you were the greater value and if you’re listening, Dad, I never told you how proud I was that day at the Boott Mill, what an example of generosity you were. I never told you what an honor it is to be your child. Your granddaughter is teaching the underprivileged now, making a difference in the world. You have provided well for us, Dad, because you left us the genes that we carry.
We are your progeny.
Happy Memorial Day to James J. Ellis… my Dad… and I wish the same to you!