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Marthe MulvaneyShortly after our first daughter Elissa was born, Margie started planning to go back to work. This required hiring someone for infant care.

As new parents, it seemed to us that we couldn't leave our precious infant with just anyone. Margie started to interview potential child care workers. However, she was not happy with any of the initial candidates. They were all too young, too inexperienced, and not sufficiently committed, from her point of view. Nobody was good enough. I started to think that perhaps Margie had set the bar too high, and that no ordinary human being could possibly be good enough to take care of our child. To make Margie happy, it seemed, the candidate would have to walk on water.

But one day, Margie phoned me at work, and told me that she thought she had found what she wanted. As she described the applicant, Marthe Mulvaney, my astonishment mounted. "She's not a kid", Margie said, "in fact, she's raised five children of her own." Sounded good. "Actually, before marrying, she almost became a nun." Uh, OK. "She lives right around the corner." Yup. And then the icing on the cake: "Oh, and she's an M.D., a retired pediatric anesthesiologist."

Regarding her credentials for infant care, it seemed to me that walking on water was about the only thing Marthe couldn't do.

When I first met her, it seemed to me that Marthe spoke English with a hint of an Irish accent, but that was misleading. She had actually been born in the province of Quebec, Canada, and her first language was French. This accounts for the spelling of her name, Marthe, rather than the usual English version of the name, Martha. In French, it's pronounced like the English word "mart", but in the US, everyone called her "Martha", as if there were an "a" at the end.

She had learned her English in Catholic schools, from Irish nuns, which accounted for her vaguely Irish accent. She joined a religious order which put her through medical school, and she became a medical missionary, I think (but I'm not certain) in Pakistan. But as she described it, she was more interested in attending morning medical rounds than attending morning prayers, and she was kicked out of the order before taking her final vows. This was a rather traumatic event, because it abruptly severed her ties with everyone she knew at the time (other than her family). By the time I came to know her, Marthe was no longer religious.

Marthe's medical career took her to Louisville, Kentucky, where she worked as a pediatric anesthesiologist, and then became the director of a well-baby clinic. It was in Louisville that she met and married Bob Mulvaney, who had a daughter from a previous marriage. Marthe then had four additional children with Bob, all born after she was forty. It was as her children were growing up and needing less attention that she answered Margie's ad for infant care. Thus began our long association with Marthe, initially as her employer, and quickly as friends.

Elissa, who was a colicky infant, found Marthe immediately soothing. Marthe needed only to lay Elissa down on her ample bosom, and Elissa would quickly fall sound asleep. And drawing on her medical background in a well-baby clinic, Marthe found the solution to Elissa's colic, something called "Maltsupex", a barley-malt product whose name is derived from "malt soup extract".

Marthe had learned many tricks at the clinic. An odd one that I recall was to apply "morning pee" to a baby's mouth to cure thrush (candida), a yeast infection that develops in the mouth and throat. She recommended this to poor clients who couldn't afford the expensive antifungal creams that are usually prescribed. Although it doesn't sound particularly appealing, clean urine is actually sterile, and the uric acid it contains can kill the yeast infection. Our children never had thrush, but if they had come down with it, I think we would have selected the antifungal cream, thank-you.

When Elissa began teething, we arrived at Marthe's house one day to find Elissa gnawing on a dog biscuit. I found this a bit upsetting, since I didn't think that dog food was manufactured to the same standard as food intended for human consumption. Marthe thought it was perfectly fine, and particularly excellent for a teething child. I asked her to stop giving Elissa dog biscuits, but I was never sure what she did when we were not there. Marthe also kept a pair of goats in her backyard. These were named Angus and Aberdeen, and she used to feed her family and Elissa raw goat's milk (the goats were tested for any possible disease that could contaminate the milk).

Taking care of Elissa both in our house and in hers, Marthe quickly became our friend as well as our daycare provider. She often took it upon herself to try to help us in various ways other than childcare. On one occasion, when she watched our house while we went away for a long weekend, we returned to find that she had remodeled our small kitchen. She had done this without asking, painting it, creating some new counter space, new shelves, and a mirror, among other things. While we might have been annoyed that she had re-arranged our kitchen without our prior permission, we were actually delighted with the result.

Marthe had a dog and a cat as pets. After Elissa began walking and talking, she toddled up to Marthe one day carrying Marthe's cat, held straight out in front of her in a chokehold, both hands around its neck. As the cat hung limply down from her hands, Elissa said, "Kitty, Kitty!", and Marthe thought to herself, "She's killed the cat!" However, when Elissa let go of the cat, it scampered off unharmed. With all those kids and a dog in the house, that was one tolerant cat.

As we anticipated our second child, Elissa's choice for a name for the baby was "Martha".

When I joined Le Cercle Franšais in 1980, Marthe started attending as well. This was very fortunate and much appreciated by all the members, since French was Marthe's native language, allowing her to help us out quite a bit. Canadian French in some circles contains a good deal of slang, and can have a fairly bizarre pronunciation. In fact, there's a dialect of Canadian French called "joual", which is pretty incomprehensible. Note 1  However, Marthe's father, a doctor, had always insisted on proper French usage and pronunciation in his family. As a result, Marthe's French was excellent, with hardly a trace of a Canadian accent. In other respects, Marthe's was a typical French-Canadian Catholic family, and she was one of eleven children.

Marthe took care of other local children as well as ours. Added to her own five children, one might get the idea that she felt responsible for all the children in our entire neighborhood. As time went on and my daughters got older, Marthe's daughters would occasionally act as babysitters. Elissa particularly loved Marthe's daughter Julie. When Julie walked in our door one day, I recall Elissa jumping up and down, waving her arms, and yelling excitedly, "Doolie, Doolie!"

Marthe's care was not limited to children. She took care of many adults as well. She informally monitored a woman taking medicine to control her manic-depressive episodes. She brought an elderly dying woman into her own home, and provided hospice care. She often dispensed informal medical advice, always referring her "patients" for appropriate tests and consultations when needed. Once when Margie had a persistent cough that might have indicated pneumonia, she said, "I'm almost certain this is nothing, but go get a chest X-ray - I'll watch Elissa" (the test was negative). Like many doctors, Marthe was less effective diagnosing herself, thinking that pain she was having was a back issue. It proved to be a hip problem, and she needed to have a hip replacement. She was annoyed to find that the operation left her with one leg slightly shorter than the other.

It seems to me that in a way, Marthe really was a natural-born nun, and I think that her religious order may have made a mistake in kicking her out of nun school. But she seemed to lack the religious commitment, and perhaps that was more important to them than anything else. Marthe was certainly an important mother figure to Margie, who had lost her own parents at a relatively young age.

We continued our friendship with Marthe long after our children no longer needed daycare or babysitters. Years later, Marthe died while on a vacation in the Caribbean. It was thought that she might have had a heart attack or a stroke while snorkeling alone - she was a strong swimmer (she used to swim across Lake Cochituate and back at the Wayland Town Beach). She was a unique person, and we miss her.

#0093   *FAMILY2   *PEOPLE

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© 2010 Lawrence J. Krakauer   Click here to send me e-mail.
Originally posted August 11, 2011

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Footnotes (click [return to text] to go back to the footnote link)

Note 1:   The Canadian-French dialect "joual" is named after the sound, in that dialect, of the French word "cheval" (meaning "horse"). I understand standard French pretty well, but I find speakers of "joual" to be almost completely incomprehensible.   [return to text]