Posted on Feb 28, 2008

Harry Marten, chair, English Dept.,
Feb. 28, 2008

Ann Miller Marten came into Harry Marten’s life when he was five, marrying his father after his biological mother died.

“She brought her piano and her affection and made our worlds immensely better,” Marten said.

The woman who worked as an administrative assistant at a New York City high school and an advertising firm was “astonishingly organized, remarkably affectionate, very cultured and a fine pianist. Though I probably wasn't the most receptive audience, she shared her interests lovingly, taking me to the Metropolitan Opera and children’s concerts with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic.”

Now 95, Mrs. Marten remembers none of this, having suffered from progressive dementia since her late eighties.

“She lives in a world nobody can reach. I try to create it and imagine what that world would be like,” said Marten, the Edward E. Hale, Jr., Professor of English and chair of the English Department.

Marten’s observations and creative reconstruction of his mother’s dementia will be the focal point for a discussion and reading titled, “If the Sun is Up, It’s the Day,” Thursday, March 6, 4:30 p.m. in Everest Lounge, Hale House.   

The event, free and open to the public, is co-sponsored by the Catholic Chaplaincy and the Human Resources Employee Wellness Program.

Marten will read from “Shadowlands,” his evocative account of coming to grips with dementia in the only mother he has ever known. The essay is online in the August 2006 issue of Inertia magazine.

He also will share passages from his memoir, “But That Didn’t Happen to You: Recollections and Inventions.”  

“This reading will be of special interest to anyone who is a caregiver for a loved one with dementia, like Harry and me,” said Catholic Chaplain Thomas P. Boland Jr., who organized the event. “I believe strongly in the power of narrative to help us plumb the depths of our experience.”

For Marten, that narrative is consuming, as he and his wife, Ginit, care for mothers in advanced stages of dementia. Ann Marten is now in a nursing home in Sterling, Virginia, near her daughter, while Marten’s mother-in-law, Virginia Palmatier, lives in the Kingsway Nursing Home in Schenectady.

“Shadowlands,” subtitled “Portraits in Old Age,” is part of a collection of essays Marten is writing.

“Usually I pick my projects, but this one picked me,” Marten said. “I wanted to understand my mother and know this experience because it was coming at me all the time. The essays will offer voices to my mother and mother-in-law, who are now essentially voiceless. They’re my observations and thoughts, my imagined sense of what their lives are like. Both are inhabiting a kind of shadowland.  

“I wrote it because I couldn’t not write it. I wrote it so I could make a record of it, so others could read and identify.”

For more information about Thursday’s program, contact Chaplain Boland at ext. 6087 or