Uphill Walkers: A Memoir of a Family

Overview

In 1952, Madeleine Blais's father died suddenly, leaving his pregnant wife and their five young children to face their future alone in a newly purchased house in rural Massachusetts. Uphill Walkers is the story of how the Blais family pulled together to survive and ultimately thrive in an era when a single-parent family was almost unheard of. As they came of age in an Irish-American household that often struggled to make ends meet, the Blais children would rise again and again above all obstacles — from the ...
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Overview

In 1952, Madeleine Blais's father died suddenly, leaving his pregnant wife and their five young children to face their future alone in a newly purchased house in rural Massachusetts. Uphill Walkers is the story of how the Blais family pulled together to survive and ultimately thrive in an era when a single-parent family was almost unheard of. As they came of age in an Irish-American household that often struggled to make ends meet, the Blais children would rise again and again above all obstacles — from the complex vicissitudes of Catholic doctrinal education to the inevitable sibling rivalries. At every step of the way they were inspired by a mother who expected much but gave even more, as she saved and sacrificed to provide her children with the same education they would have received had their father lived. Then, when they had grown to adulthood and begun to lead separate lives, the Blais children had to band together once more to come to the aid of Raymond, their troubled eldest brother, whose mental illness had driven his life to take increasingly darker turns. Beautiful, heartbreaking, and full of wonderful insights about sisterhood, brotherhood, and the ties that bind us together, Uphill Walkers is a moving portrait of the love it takes to succeed against the odds — and what it means to be a family.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Blais (author of In These Girls, Hope Is a Muscle, a high school basketball team narrative that was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist in 1995) turns her impressive reporting skills to her own 1950s rural Massachusetts childhood in this occasionally dense memoir. Her attraction to journalism, she explains toward the end of the book, is rooted in its "power to capture... what was real, the music of what happens, and to impound all those details that defy embellishment," yet it proves to be a power that both benefits and bogs down her memoir. For the most part, Blais evokes her family with verve, particularly her widowed mother's feisty spirit in the face of raising six young children on her own in 1952. Any Catholic school alum will relate to Blais's disgust when she relates such incidents as how her priest co-opted the pop tune "To know, know, know him is to love, love, love him," making it into a religious creed. But her analysis of such minutiae as the ads and articles surrounding her father's obituary can overwhelm her narrative. Her account would have benefited from firmer editing, given the wealth of family specifics. Besides her mother, Blais touches on her five siblings' lives, including an older brother whose mental illness surprisingly dominates the end of the book. Still, the flashes of brilliance in Blais's brushwork such as the scene where she and sister Jacqueline, now an editor at USA Today, finally discovered how to use their new vocabulary word "lapis lazuli" make it worth wading through her sometimes overreported journey into her past. Agent, ICM. (May) Forecast: A six-city tour will help get out the word about this book to New Englanders and Blais's fans, but this flawed effort isn't likely to be her breakout book. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
When Blais's father died unexpectedly in 1952, he left a family of six, and Blais's life changed forever. Blais, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Miami Herald and author of the best-selling In These Girls, Hope Is a Muscle and The Heart Is an Instrument, was the second oldest. She was five at the time, barely able to comprehend the situation. Her mother, widowed and pregnant, had a large family to support with meager resources. Here Blais chronicles her family's struggle to survive, tracing each sibling's growth to adulthood and her strong-willed, Irish American mother's progress toward old age. Especially poignant is the account of her older brother Ray's decline into mental illness and the resulting pain and frustration for the entire family. Although Blais captures both the feeling of growing up in the Fifties and Sixties and the warmth and camaraderie of her large family, her skillful, reportorial prose has a tone of objectivity and distance that is disconcerting in a memoir. Recommended, with some reservations, for public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 1/01.] Nancy R. Ives, SUNY at Geneseo Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A disjointed memoir of an Irish-American childhood in rural Massachusetts during the 1950s and '60s. In the first half of her narrative, newcomer Blais offers recollections of her father (a successful physician who died of cancer when she was five) and recounts anecdotes from her experiences at a Catholic school. Her mother, Maureen, was reluctant to remarry or work outside the home after her husband's death, so she raised her six children on the proceeds of her husband's life insurance policy and the charity of relatives. They didn't starve, but they had to resign themselves to eating "cheaper tuna" and a dessert they called "dogfood." As the eldest sister, the author was also the cruelest—shamelessly given to tormenting her sister Jacqueline (she defaced her diary, mocked her for being homesick at summer camp, and forced her to study the catechism in the dark). Blais feared only her eldest brother Raymond, a temperamental high-school dropout. After Raymond was mysteriously discharged from the Air Force, he began to show signs of mental illness and he was dependent on psychiatric drugs for the remainder of his life. His daily battles with his affliction soon come to dominate the narrative, and the author's other three siblings remain more or less faceless by comparison. There are other characters of importance in this story (the author's husband, for one), but they are all more or less overlooked as the narrative jumps through decades and bypasses significant events. An unfocused account that is intermittently moving but terribly unbalanced. Author tour
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780871137920
  • Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
  • Publication date: 5/28/2001
  • Edition description: 1 ED
  • Pages: 264
  • Product dimensions: 5.77 (w) x 8.57 (h) x 0.96 (d)

Read an Excerpt



Chapter One


The World of My Father


MY FATHER DIED WHEN I WAS FIVE, AND ALL MY LIFE, I HAVE WONDERED if he ever thought about how it would all turn out.

    What I know of him is skimpy and cobbled together from the obituary in the local paper, his yearbook from college, a few letters sent to my mother during the war. After he died we had no contact with his side of the family. My mother explained that both his parents were dead, which was not entirely true: his mother was alive, though hospitalized, incapacitated in some mysterious, unspoken way. We had a blurry hunch that there had been some kind of friction between my mother and his only sister. There were other Blaises in Holyoke. It was a common name, like Shea in Chicopee. When we were asked, as we sometimes were, if Leo or Clement or Roland Blais was any relation, we were schooled by our mother to answer no, emphatically, and to offer no further explanation, though chances are we weren't telling the truth and we were part of an intense cousinry that my mother, for some reason, wished to deny. We dodged discussions of the cause of death, and if people assumed, as they often did, that our father died of a heart attack, we were to nod in agreement. Cancer was in those days even more frightening because it was shameful, a judgment. My mother believed in euphemisms. We were taught to say he was "deceased," because it sounded more genteel, but which, in our agony to get it right, as often as not came out "diseased," adding to the confusion and prolonging the discussion.

    Of course ourmother mentioned him from time to time, but what she offered were scraps of memories, drained of any real substance. Your father liked pea soup, or, he enjoyed a round of cards. One time he brought home a hand-crafted pine chair from the Eastern States Exposition. He liked golf and football and fishing. Once, in an expansive mood, he brought home four Easter dresses for his four little girls. He and a couple of his pals sponsored a middleweight boxer who had done well in a couple of appearances at the Valley Arena. He was a man's man and even the men cried at his funeral.

    One time I talked to someone who'd gone to dental school with him at the University of Maryland, and he said that when they car-pooled home, they had a favorite Italian restaurant they stopped at somewhere in Delaware. When I must have betrayed in my expression an eagerness for something of greater substance, he added, "The guy who took over your father's office on Maple Street wasn't nearly as good. He ended up," and here he paused, as if to hammer home just how low my father's successor had sunk, "at the mall." A friend of my father's has told me that every November on the anniversary of his death he arranges for a mass to be said in his memory in Fort Lauderdale.

    Holidays were always a big deal in our house, a marker against the march of days, but we were not always sure what they meant. "Happy Ash Wednesday," we would say, or "Merry Armistice Day."

    At Christmas the year that my father died we had an unbelievable bounty, an avalanche of dolls and wagons and nurse's kits. Grief and greed commingled in my mind, mutual parasites. The more you lose, the more you want. My toy of choice was not found under the tree. Instead, it was a paper bag filled with the cards that came to our house after my father died. I could not read, but I liked their glossy feel, the big letters, the indisputable importance that attached to any envelope with a two-cent stamp. One day, the bag disappeared. So, instead of playing with the cards, I looked for them. Had Lizzie, our housekeeper, stored them in the pantry? The laundry hamper? Had my mother put them in the linen chest in the back hallway upstairs, the same hallway that would later contain her moldering collection of unused gowns and rarely worn suits? There were so many places to check. Maybe my older brother Raymond had hidden them in the cellar, that musty series of rooms made of stone, one of which had a Dutch oven in which occupants of the house had probably cooked meals in the summer a century earlier.

    The search became a game and occupied me for hours. I prayed to Saint Anthony, patron saint of lost objects, for a reunion with those cards. Over the years, I have had the impression we abused his goodwill, praying to him at the slightest hint of something's being missing, even the most humble object, someone's misplaced hairbrush or pogo stick or Halloween candy. To this day missing objects rattle me: when for some reason the scissors fail to materialize in the scissors drawer, I can feel a rage and despair totally at odds with the loss. Before any major trip or vacation, I enter a state of high distractibility in which I become convinced that my good watch or my favorite earrings have disappeared for all of time. When I find something I really like at a store, I am often tempted by an impulse to make a duplicate purchase. Once, during a reconstruction, a window was boarded up in a house where I lived, and for a long time afterward it recurred to me as an image in my dreams, restored and gleaming. In another dream, the house I live in has a whole extra house inside it but no one will acknowledge it.

    "You were five when he died," people always say. "Five," as if involved in some complex computation. And then they ask the question I have come to loathe, "Do you remember him?" I experience it as an impertinence—what right does someone have to ask something so personal?—and at the same time it stirs up a feeling of inadequacy.

    What little I may have known about my father once upon a time has been both overexposed and undernourished. Long ago, my father began to fade in the way a desert plant, rinsed by too much sun, denied its share of rain, eventually grows vague and dry.

    Do I remember him?

    The answer is yes and no.

    Yes, maybe.

    No, probably.

    His obituary appeared on the front page above the fold in the Springfield Union on Monday morning, November 17,1952:


Dr. R. E. Blais, Granby Dentist, Dies in Holyoke
Had Practiced in Paper City for 12 Years;
Served in Navy.


Holyoke, Nov. 16 — Dr. Raymond E. Blais of Center St., Granby, practicing dentist in this city for about 12 years and well known in professional circles, died today at the Holyoke Hospital after an illness of about two weeks. He was a veteran of World War 11 and served in the Navy.
Born in this city he was the son of Mrs. Annie (Nolin) Blais and the late Phileas Blais. He was educated in the local schools and received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Holy Cross College in Worcester in the class of 1934. Dr. Blais entered the University of Maryland Dental School from which he graduated in 1 93 7. He took a postgraduate course at New York University and interned for one year at the Jersey City Medical Center.
During the war, he served in the Navy and was commissioned lieutenant, senior grade. After his discharge from the service, Dr. Blais resumed his practice here and had offices in the Medical Arts building.
Dr. Blais was a member of the Holyoke Lodge of the Elks; Holyoke Council No. 90, Knights of Columbus; the Kiwanis Club; the Beavers Club; the Holyoke Dental Association and the Holy Name Society of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Granby. He also had memberships in the state and national dental organizations.
His leaves his wife, the former Maureen Shea of Chicopee Falls, a son, Raymond, four daughters, Madeleine, Jacqueline, Christina, and Maureen, all at home; his mother, Mrs. Annie Blais and a sister, Viola Kettell, both of Holyoke.
The funeral will take place at the John B. Shea funeral home Wednesday at 9 with a solemn high mass of requiem in the Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, Granby, at 10. Burial will be in St. Patrick's Cemetery, Chicopee Falls.


    Throughout my childhood, this flaking document was stored in the drawer of yet another piece of furniture that we had to be careful not to dent or damage because it, like so many other artifacts of dubious objective value in the house, might be Worth Something Someday. I treasured this record in part because it relieved me of the misleading burden of dead-end fantasies. We had not lost our father to a bitter divorce, to abandonment, to prison, all of which would have been far more desirable. No, he was gone for good, gone for all of time, and here, for what it was worth, was proof. On the left ear by the masthead the paper advertised itself as costing "three cents everywhere." I have always liked that ambitious everywhere, the implied conviction that this paper had a worldwide web of potential readers. On the right ear, the weather was predicted as "partly cloudy today and tomorrow." There was a weight to the paper beyond the mere ounces of space it occupied in the universe, a kind of gravity that linked my father's death with all the other events of that day on the crowded front page with its eight columns of news.

    The United States government acknowledged it had been testing the H-bomb in the Pacific.

    Korean truce talks bogged down at the United Nations.

    Other people had died, including a woman from Bennington, Vermont, who left a daughter named Edith, and a fifteen-year-old boy from Granby whose car rolled over on a country road.

    The paper is filled with incidental sociology.

    In the world my father left behind, race was as highly charged a subject as it is today. Black people received two mentions. Under the headline "White Drummer to Wed Negress" we learned that Louis Bellson, Jr., a musician in Duke Ellington's band, planned to wed jazz singer Pearl Bailey. A photo shows the good-looking couple, heads resting cheek to cheek, with a caption in which Bellson "denied a New York report he had jilted a white show girl, Iris Burton, of Brooklyn" in order to run off to London to marry the singer. What the paper doesn't say is that Bellson was Bailey's fifth husband, and it also doesn't say-how could it? the fullness of time had yet to unfold-the marriage to Bellson lasted thirty-seven years, until her death at the age of seventy-two.

    The other black man who received attention on that day was Paul Robeson, the son of a slave, who sang a signature version of "Old Man River." He had visited Hartford for a concert and drew an audience of seven hundred along with two hundred and fifty policemen. His inflammatory message on that evening was that in his opinion the "white ruling class" in the United States sought to keep "Negroes in their place" and he refused to "go along with that."

    In the world my father left, want ads were divided by gender.

    Women could become clerks and typists or an undraped artist's model for museum classes at Smith College. They could be a seamstress or a nurse. They could work as a waitress at the Arcade luncheonette on State Street in Springfield or as a dining room maid at the Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton. They could be the housekeeper for two motherless boys. They could be a feeder, a folder, or a shaker at the Wells Laundry on Franklin Street.

    There were at least four times as many ads for men, who could be mechanics of cars or air conditioners or furnaces or airplanes, assistant foremen, chauffeurs, grocery store managers, gauge makers, plaster molders, TV repairmen, newspaper printers, chemists, draftsmen, druggists, wood workers, tire and car salesmen, elevator operators, circulation managers, haberdashery salesmen, bellmen, porters, short-order cooks, shoe salesmen, shipping clerks, tool makers, truck drivers, time-study men. If a man had a way with words and a college degree, he could work at an advertising agency. A "jolly man" was needed for about four hours a day from November 28 to December 24 at the Forbes & Wallace department store.

    In sports, among the schoolboys, Chicopee and Westfield both had good football seasons, and someone named Pete Pippone of Greenfield was said to be a "slick kicker."

    For amusement readers could go to the all-new 1953 Ice Capades and see Brigadoon at the coliseum in West Springfield.

    Or, they could tune into the new flickering hearth with its black-and-white fuzzy flames. They could watch television. Three channels were available, with shows such as Guiding Light, Howdy Doody, Gabby Hayes, Musical Mom, Owl Theater, Daily Prayer, and Nightcap News.

    In the world my father left behind, readers could plan ahead and get a ticket to a flute recital by Miss Margaret Hanford, who would be accompanied by a string quartet on the following Monday evening at the Women's Club House on Spring Street. Selections from her upcoming program included Mozart's Quartet in D, reported to be a favorite of Albert Einstein's, and the seldom performed "Goldfinch Concerta" by Vivaldi, which, when executed with just the right combination of deft touches and well-timed trills, at least according to the Springfield Union on November 17, 1952, results in a kind of celestial warbling that might fool even a bird.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 4, 2001

    Unplug your phone and buy a Do Not Disturb sign

    Now that Richard Yates is dead, and George Higgins went onto grander things, it has been many years since I spent an entire night with a book in my hand and told lies to myself that, okay, 'Just one more chapter, then I'll turn the light off.' Still and all, it was 8 p.m. when I cracked open 'Uphill Walkers.' It was 7 a.m. when I turned the last page and put the book on my chest. I needed to lay still for a minute to give the stunned feeling time to evaporate. This is the story of a fatherless Irish family of four girls and two boys growing up in the cruel landscape of the the 1950s, when to be different from other families required suits of emotional armor to protect the soul inside. None could answer the whispered question that set them apart and made life such an uphill journey: 'Why don't you have a daddy like the rest of us?' The true story of author Madeleine Blais' childhood could easily have come to little more than an anecdote if less gifted fingers were at the keyboard. It's true, the Blais children did not have a father in those 'Father Knows Best' years. He died of cancer in 1952, a prominent dentist, yet, evident by the photographs on the book's cover, he was one of those quiet large men with powerful, woodworking hands who use them to capture butterflies and usher them out of harm's way -- but the gods saw fit to give the children a mother who was more than capable of hurling back anything that decade of subtle bigotry chose to fling at the Blais family. Maureen Blais had no business living in the 20th century. She was meant for kinder times. Think of a young Katherine Hepburn. Now add the sharp, independent tongue of Greta Garbo in 'Ninotchka.' One of her daily rituals was to flip through the newspapers of the 1950s and read aloud for the children any absurdity that caught her eye and ire. It was she who tried to shield the children from what she called the 'smuggos' who lived so contentedly, and without confusion, in the small Massachucetts town. Her views of life in those times were worth more than the eight-pound book, 'The Fifties,' that journalist David Halberstam would one day serve up. Those days of ignorance, and the years that followed, would claim one of her children, her eldest son, Raymond, named after her husband. What happened to Raymond is foreshadowed by the author and dutifully developed in the family saga as the years went by, though I don't suppose it was easy to set it down so truly. I can't imagine the writer not having to stop now and then to rage over the events that caused one of their troops to be left behind. Painful business, the truth. But very powerful. I'm resting there with the book on my chest that morning. Tired. No way I'm going to work. I thought: 'Something important happened last night.'

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