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Martha and Gordie, 1956?

Is a Life Ever Too Ordinary for a Memoir?

DL—This is the fourth excerpt from A Sugary Frosting, the memoir of Martha Blowen, my lifemate and business partner who died in 2008 of metastatic intraductal breast cancer.

The previous posts (first, second, third) covered Martha’s premature birth and her family’s recent move to Worcester, Massachusetts, where her father had taken on to serve as minister of Congregational church there and her grandparents’ demanding stay with them and their precipitous departure.

This excerpt presents early memories. Isolated memories that seem too ordinary for a memoir can be a challenge to incorporate into a memoir as they usually lack inherent drama. How to place early memories into a narrative so that they give a sense of the foundation of a life without turning the reader off. Let me know in the comments below if you think I have succeeded with Martha’s text in placing early memories in a readable context or if this is too ordinary for a memoir.

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In spite of the scandal of having my uncles whisk my grandparents away, my mother and father established themselves in the Hadwen Park Congregational Church of Worcester, and our family settled into life as the minister’s family. We were necessarily a “perfect” family, straight-jacketed into the role of the model Christian-family. My parents believed the congregation required this, and saw no reason why we children should not want it too. Outside the parsonage, no child was ever to do anything that would embarrass Daddy, compromise his role as minister, or show us as less than a model Christian family. In this, there was no sham. Being a model family was what we were to be, what we were raised to expect of ourselves, what we thought of ourselves as being. Or at least, having to be a model family was how I integrated what I heard into my life, taking it in as I took in my mother’s cooking.

In the next years, John Mark entered grade school in Worcester, and I grew into a toddler. One afternoon—it must have been winter as the sun had set and the room was dark, I woke up after a nap, and John Mark, hearing my cries, came into the bedroom to soothe me. It was suppertime and soon my mother came to lift me out of the crib and bring me into the kitchen. This is my first memory, and it is a pleasant one. My mother was an affectionate woman who loved to touch and be touched. Babies provided her a great source of comfort. When not faced with a social conflict, she had a way of being present that made a child feel special.

Then as I grew up a bit, I began play with Gordie Howe who lived nearby. Perhaps I was going to his house when, being discovered on the sidewalk alone, I was told I couldn’t go up the street by myself. I was a willful child and did not like being told I could not do something—especially when I wanted to do it.

Perhaps this admonition had some connection with the time I walked to the downtown with John Mark. I have some vague recollection that this was about running away from home. Running away was perhaps something that John Mark had read in a book. I was too young to know that running away would entail not being at home for supper nor having my dollies when it was time to go to bed. John Mark was five years older and that made quite a difference to our ability to evaluate a situation. Perhaps he was simply going for a walk and was weaving a tale about running away—and had every intention of not missing supper. In this process of either running away or taking a walk, we got lost. I don’t remember how we got back, nor how my parents responded. Did a church member see us wondering downtown and bring us back? Worcester was after all a sizeable city, the second largest in Massachusetts after Boston, and two children ought not to be wandering.

Hadwen Park was a community within the city. For most people, it was centered around the park and its shopping district. But for my family, it was all about the church and my father. Gordie’s parents were members of the church, and this reinforced my sense of the world revolving around what was going on in the church. Gordie and I continued to be inseparable friends, and after a while, we made plans to marry when we grew up. One day, not wanting to wait until we grew up, I told Gordie that my father could marry us. Together we went to him. Daddy spoke about the seriousness of marriage and told us he could not marry us. He said that he couldn’t make believe he was marrying us because he was invested with the power to actually marry people.  In spite of how disappointed we were, he would not make believe to marry us. “As if” was all we wanted. (It was the equivalent of the parent giving an explanation of sex when a child asks where she came from only to have the child respond, “Sally comes from Boston. Where do I come from?”) Make believe can be as good as real when you and your fiancé are four.

On another occasion, Gordie and I made believe that the pile of large maple leaves on the slope was money. Often we would swing on a set in the back yard. We also played John and Mary. These were the children characters in a reading series used in the public schools, and no doubt, I had picked the names up from John Mark. And if playing John and Mary passed unnoticed, other pastimes did not. When I played with Billy and Louise Latola who also lived down the street and we had a fine time throwing mud at each other, I was punished. Was it because in those days my mother still had a wringer washer and so the laundry was a lot of work, or was it because of the danger of getting mud in my—and our—eyes, or was it because the minister’s little girl was not supposed to be seen as doing anything naughty. Of course, I was not a naughty child. I was simply a willful one.

I had blond hair and reasonably can presume that I was a “little darling.” One day, when some ladies showed up—I can’t remember if they had come to the parsonage or if they were at a church function but it must have been a Sunday because I was all dressed up—I showed them my rosebud petticoat. I was clearly the center of attraction, and not being given to introversion, I enjoyed being the focus of their admiration. As the youngest in the family, I was made much of and perhaps allowed for Emily and John Mark to escape the attention that would have fallen on them had I not been there to enjoy it.

Action Steps

Here is a mini-course which discusses action and narrative drama and the need to remain within the perceived truth:

1. But Is It a Memoir?

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Two requests

1. What are your early childhood memories? Tell us in the comment section.

2. Let me know in the comments below if you think I have succeeded with Martha’s text in placing early memories in a readable framework.

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