A Doctor Without Borders

Around the world with my Anglo-Belgian Epidemiologist mother-in-law

Mary Godenne packed her steamer trunk for the Congo, where she planned to practice tropical medicine on the subjugated people in that Belgian colony. But she never made it.

Instead, she sailed the ocean blue to complete her M.D. residency at Yale Medical School, helped develop and administer the Polio vaccine, and met Jack McCrea, a genetic-brainiac just in from Australia (via Scotland). Appropriately, the pair would conduct a DNA recombination experiment that would produce my wife: An Australo-English-Scottish-Belgian hybrid who is a rare orchid indeed.

When Claire and I began dating, in Knoxville, Tennessee, you could say I was already on a world tour.

I was intimidated, at first, by my eventual mother-in-law. Of course. My own bachelor of arts — in English! — looked especially like a leisure-time activity compared with her gender-precedent-setting degree from Yale Medical School, followed up with a Doctor of Public Health from Columbia.

Dr. Mary spoke with a Belgian-French accent, which gave me an in: I had acquired relevant language skills from the Alliance Française in Paris, as many of you are reading in my Friday memoir. And even if my French vocabulary was limited, my accent was good, so I could fake it with raised eyebrows and mad gesticulation, just like actual French people do. And unlike Mary, I had actually spent time in the Congo. That all helped distract her from my work as the editor of a movie magazine, which may have added a whole new layer of frivolity, in the eyes of a Beligian-born epidemiologist meeting her daughter’s goofy (but promising!) new boyfriend.

A relief: She accepted me, once I laid the vous-form on thick, reinforcing my respect for her as my girlfriend’s mom and a medical phenom.

Dr. Mary has been on my mind a lot recently, as she went through her final decline and death, at age 98, in an Alzheimer’s-care home in Massachusetts. Sadly, her strong body long outlived her brilliant mind, so it was with a sob, and then a sigh of relief, that we accepted the news that she was gone.

I like to think of her life trajectory as the ultimate road to elsewhere: growing up in the family clinic in Brussels (father: Belgian doctor; mom: English nurse; they met tending the wounded of World War I); pedaling her bicycle through the Belgian countryside as the Battle of the Bulge raged nearby; getting her medical degree at L’Université Catholique de Louvain; and then heading for the Congo — no, wait — New Haven, and marrying another guy with an accent, but of a very Down-Under kind.

When Claire and I were married, our announcement ran in newspapers all over the planet, to ensure that people in London, Brussels, Sydney, and Perth knew that Mary and Jack’s daughter had married a guy from Bridgeport, Connecticut.

That’s where P.T. Barnum said “a sucker is born every minute.”

Certainly true on October 29, 1956.

Early on in my relationship with Claire, I became aware that she had many wonderful qualities, but a sense of direction was not among them. About the time we got together, I was reading The Songlines, by Bruce Chatwin, in which he recounted the epic travels made by Australia’s First People.

Chatwin defined their songlines this way: “Aboriginal creation myths tell of the legendary totemic beings who had wandered over the continent in the Dreamtime, singing out the name of everything that crossed their path — and so singing the world into existence.”

When I read that, I knew why my future wife couldn’t find the parking garage after swimming at the YMCA, in downtown Knoxville: Her songlines were singing Belgium, Scotland, the Congo, and New Haven into existence.

One thing led to another, and Claire and I produced a grandson for Dr. Mary. On an early visit to her with our diaper-rashed infant in tow, I explained how we had just discovered the soothing properties of Calendula ointment, made with “marigold petals.” OK, maybe I slurred those words I little. “Miracle petals!” my epidemiologist-in-law shot back, “What is that?”

A few years later I was interviewing an eminent pediatrician for a freelance piece about a childhood scourge: the coxsackievirus. After one of my questions, the guy paused, then said, “You know, you really ought to be talking to Dr. Mary McCrea about this. She did a lot of the early work on coxsackie.”

I paused, myself, and then said to him: “You mean, my mother-in-law? That Dr. Mary McCrea?”

We both basked in astonishment of that coincidence. And at the world-ranging accomplishments of this viral dynamo.

Mary Godenne McCrea Curnen, M.D., created a path like no other. I’ve been privileged to follow it, too.

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