I’ve passed through Biddeford, Maine a few times in my life; one of my mother’s aunts lived there. That made Biddeford one of Lewiston’s cousins, albeit a distant one. I think I had a friend there once, too. But mostly it was just another old mill town from someone else’s past.
In 2012, I viewed an art exhibit in one of the mighty Pepperell Mill buildings. The giant pillars and the hardwood floors, preserved by a century of dripping machine oil, no longer supported the spinning thrum of textile production. I spent quite a bit of time exploring Biddeford that day and even walked over the river to Saco. So intrigued was I by the gigantic mill structures and what I thought was the imminent demise in the decay, I took another trip to Biddeford and walked around a little bit more.
In retrospect, 2012 was an important year in the resurgence of Biddeford. According to this article in the Boston Globe, 2012 was the year the city shut down the trash incinerator that made the downtown area unattractive, to say the least. Ashes on your croissant, anyone?
Since that time, Biddeford’s renaissance has continued and the mills are being transformed and gloriously repurposed.
My mother and I were talking about the Boston Globe story and I asked her what she remembered about the place. She said “my father was born there.”
I was confused because I had assumed that my maternal grandparents met and married in Quebec and migrated to Lewiston. Not the case, apparently. My mother’s father, Albanie “Ben” Belaire was born in Biddeford.
I didn’t know Ben Belaire. In the family lore, he was a chef, he drove a big black car, and he drank. For the latter reason, he and my grandmother separated when I was very small. I don’t have any memories of sitting on his lap or walking in a garden with him. No one mentioned him and no one told any stories about him. “Remember the time” was never uttered. He lives in my memory as a tall man in an old Kodak snapshot.
(That’s my beautiful Aunt Dot in the foreground with Marie Anne and “Ben” Belaire.)
Knowing he was born in Biddeford changed my perspective on that geographical location. If it was possible that ancient rhubarb plants could transport me back to memories of my paternal grandfather (my O’Pa), then it’s possible the bricks and mortar of an old textile mill and its surrounding city could hold some clue to knowing Ben Belaire, my pépère. I’ve added this new piece of information to the box of notes and old photographs. It’s not much, but it’s a new thread in the bigger weave of who I am.
That’s why I’m interested in Biddeford; I’ve got roots there. And that’s also why I’m going to the Biddeford Ball on October 3. It’s a masquerade ball, a fundraiser. The proceeds, according to the Ball organizers, “will be used to illuminate the iconic brick smoke stack that defines the skyline and help create an exhibit for the Biddeford Mills Museum.”
The promotional card I picked up said:
“We band together in celebration of the mills that anchor our communities. To preserve and to share with future generations our pride in the hardy and industrious souls that built our fair cities and make our towns shine.”
Knowing who you are and embracing your story, the good and bad of it. That’s being authentic. That’s another one reason I’m watching Biddeford and cheering her on. “To preserve and to share with future generations”…that’s a good reason to get dressed up and dance until midnight in an old memory-filled mill building.
Tickets are on sale now.