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Cancer diary entries

My Mother Chooses Between Me and My Grandparents

DL—This is an 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 post 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.

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Taking her cue from others and their needs, my mother was not a person to take care of herself.

In spite of her pregnancy, she had agreed to have my ailing grandparents, Enos and Emily Simmonds Yeomans Blowen, live in her home. This was not an ideal situation for my mother as my grandmother was senile, bedridden, and incontinent after having had a number of strokes.

Both of my mother’s earlier pregnancies had been difficult. Like me, my sister Emily had been premature while my brother John Mark had been born six weeks late.

In spite of this history, my mother had acquiesced to have Grandpa and Grandma Blowen make the move with her family. They were living in the Worcester house in a second floor room. While my grandfather was still ambulatory and could leave the room, my grandmother was not able to go about on her own. She depended on my mother to bring meals and take care of any personal needs. My grandfather could not do these things for his wife as he was not hearty enough to take charge.

My grandparents were demanding, critical people, and my grandmother was apparently under doctor’s orders to follow a certain diet. My grandfather, as my mother told the story later, didn’t understand the doctor’s care instructions and felt that my parents weren’t feeding Grandma enough nor providing her with adequate care.

To the contrary, my mother who had a compliant nature spent many days while she was carrying me—days when she ought to have been resting and conserving her strength for the baby she was gestating—running up and down stairs to take meals on trays or to lug down soiled bed sheets to be laundered and dried before the next demand for them arose.

It was not my mother’s habit to discuss and negotiate. It would have been so unlike her to call a halt to this overload of work that being geriatric-care provider imposed on her. Instead, she submitted. Another person might have insisted: “I am nurturing a new body and have to take care of myself to assure this baby is getting all s/he needs.” Instead, since she was always willing to meet the needs of others—almost impelled by her nature to subsume her needs to those of others, she presumed that the baby within her would make the same choice. She expected each of her children to sacrifice themselves for others as she did.

In addition to both the move and to the grandparents complaining upstairs, there was what must have been the stress of my father’s new job. It brought with it all the attendant tensions of adjusting to a new work environment with its demands and relationships. My father’s income was what kept the family solvent. In the weeks before my birth, his job entailed meeting new people who considered themselves his bosses and were using this opportunity to shape him into the minister each wanted. In those initial weeks, the sermons he preached would be used to judge him.

It was in this environment of strain and stress that my mother went into labor six weeks early.

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2 Responses to My Mother Chooses Between Me and My Grandparents

  1. Christine Terp Madsen
    Christine Terp Madsen August 10, 2015 at 9:52 PM #

    I can practically see Martha throwing up her arms in exasperation!

  2. Avatar
    Denis Ledoux August 11, 2015 at 9:37 AM #

    Yes, Martha was exasperated by her mother’s willingness to sacrifice herself and her children for other people. As memoirist, I had the task of selecting key elements of Martha’s relationship with her parents. Among those that came up prominently was this need of her mother’s to be a martyr and to expect the same from those around her.

    I can’t tell you how many times, when we had been planning a family meal, her son would call to say he had been slow to get going that morning and he would not be there for a few more hours, that she said, “Oh, that’s fine, dear. We understand.” It never occurred to her to have the meal at the appointed time (giving him a bit of negative reinforcement) and to have him eating the reheated leftovers alone. In her martyr way, she simply expected everyone to “understand.”

    In writing a memoir, the writer is necessarily focused on interpreting a life—otherwise it’s all a jumble of facts and dates. It has seemed to me, as it seemed to Martha, that the entangled relationship with her mother and her mother’s compulsion to be sacrificed was somehow tied to the etiology of her cancer.

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