January 6, 2015 around 4am, my aunt Martha passed away.
I am sitting here thinking about how to sum up how one little curmudgeonly woman shaped my life and I honestly don’t know where to begin.
Martha was born June 12, 1944. She was a wartime baby as well as sickly in her early childhood and as such was pampered to the point of being spoiled rotten. My mother was born 4 years later and it wasn’t long before she became Martha’s unofficial caretaker and companion. When the other children ran and played, Martha sat on the porch. While M was racing Selam around Grandpa’s farm, Martha was sitting with her aunts listening to the tales of our family’s lineage.
One would think that Martha would’ve been meek and mild, non-assuming and quick to demure. That would be the farthest thing from the truth! For all that Martha would claim that she wasn’t as smart or clever as “the rest of us” she was quick to let you know what she deserved, required, and would demand!!
Martha lived with my grandparents until we sold their house after my Grandfather’s death in 1992. My parents built the house we all live in now and moved Martha in sometime in the fall of 1993 or 94 (I’ve never been great about remembering that date exactly). Martha was unhappy living alone and while it took a little time for us to figure out how to live together as a great big family, we made it work just fine.
Martha’s health was never robust. Sometime in my early 20s she had a reaction to a beta-blocker that caused her to have vivid hallucinations. She “saw” armed gunmen at the windows, dancing trees and carried on multitudes of conversations with our dead relatives that were sitting on the couch with her. Some of our most hilarious Martha-stories come from this time. Most famously the night that I was alone watching her as D was off driving a bus and M was working. Martha swept out of her room, head held high, rage seething from her eyes. She proceeded to the archway to the kitchen, paused and dramatically demanded, “Are you coming to the meeting?”. She made calls to 911, she tried to bite me, she tried to walk-away (it’s like running away from home, but slower), and she never slept for more than few minutes at a time. Not surprisingly she slept for a couple of days once we figured out her medicines!
For many years Martha had a habit of getting up before daybreak to go to the local Hardee’s in Pickens to meet up with friends (we called them her cronies). We all knew that before 6 am we would hear Martha’s car crank up and she would be off! One morning shortly after she left the phone rang and it was Martha telling us she’d had an accident. On the phone she sounded perturbed but fine, so we were more annoyed than worried when we left the house to go get her. Turns out her car had suffered some sort of mechanical failure that resulted in her taking the big curve at the cemetery at about 45 mph!! She went airborne, somehow missing the gas mains and the telephone poles, before nose diving and flipping her Taurus in the yard of the 7th day Adventist church. The amusing thing about this is that Martha had made a habit of going by the local Flowers bakery and purchasing carts of day-old bread that we fed to the chickens. So… imagine, if you will, a flipped over Taurus and about 2 shopping cart’s worth of Bunny bread strewn all around it. The tow-truck guy was the best… as he was hooking up her car to flip it back over he stopped with his hands on his hips and with a very serious face he asked what happened to the bread truck.
So many stories.
Kyle and I always got at least 2 Christmas presents from Martha. One well before Christmas as she could never wait and one actually at the gift giving on Christmas Eve. It was a point of yearly contention with my Grandmother.
In our childhood we adored Martha. If I was ever sick then I could count on Martha to bring me Snoballs, or crayons and a coloring book. She loved us unconditionally.
As we aged Kyle and I found Martha a bit cumbersome. We were (and still are) fluent in sarcasm and rapid wit with clever word-play being a favorite game. Kyle is extremely well read and well y’all know how I am. So for a time we outgrew Martha. And then we became adults and once again grew to appreciate Martha.
Martha’s love for us overflowed to our children. I quite seriously believe that she would’ve caused physical harm to anyone that hurt my children. The one time we lost Sophie and couldn’t find her after tearing the house to shreds… Martha walked to the creek and through the woods calling for her. And then the boys. No children were ever more fiercely loved than my boys. She could not abide for them to be punished so anytime one of them was in trouble she would finnagle a way to sneak them a chocolate, or spirit them away to her room where they would watch game shows while making paper airplanes and doodling on her ever present yellow notepads.
She was our family informant in a time before Facebook and social media. She let us know what was going on with cousins, who had had babies, who had moved, who had divorced. She knew everything that was going on.
I could go on and on and on.
Now, lest my readers who didn’t know Martha think that she was the paragon of serenity and love… she was not. She was grumpy. And moody. And if you said boo to her about something she had done then she would yell and fuss and stomp her foot and bite her lip and cross her arms and have a full on, old fashioned pout, while shouting “well then go ahead and get a gun and just shoot me!!”
She did this often.
She had a habit of being in exactly the space you needed to be in at the exact moment you needed to be in it. Baking a cake? She would be standing directly in front of the oven door. Making supper? She would be leaning on the counter. Need to get to the dryer? She would be sorting her clothes for the washer. Seriously… it was her super-skill.
She drove us to distraction with her inability to stay on a sensible, healthy diet. She loved her junk food and her colas. She loved doughnuts and bon bons. Chocolate covered cherries were her Christmas time favorites and she didn’t want to miss out on helping the Girl Scouts with their famous cookies.
Late last year Martha’s health took a dive and she ended up in the hospital for 2 or so weeks. Martha, who loved every member of our family, found herself abandoned. No visitors (outside of us), no cards. It was like no one cared and you know possibly they didn’t. When she was stable enough to move out onto the floor we ran into a new problem… unsympathetic nurses. We all thought that since J and M were nurses in the hospital that Martha’s care wouldn’t be an issue. We were wrong. She was abused by staff, demeaned and made to feel unworthy of actually living by more than one nurse. That is inexcusable behavior that resulted in meetings with the director of nursing and many conversations with supervisors. Shameful.
So we managed to get her moved back to CCU where J works and while her care improved her spirit was broken. Why didn’t anyone come visit? Why no cards?
So I went on FB and made a plea. I didn’t think I had the time to wait on people to send her cards so I bought a couple boxes of cards and every time someone gave me a thumbs up I signed a card and taped it to her wall. When I didn’t feel like I had enough cards to make a difference I started signing cards from my horses, the dogs, the cats, heck even the chickens got in on the signing. I figured she needed to see the volume and as I had hoped, it worked. She rallied and started to improve. Even then she asked if specific family members had sent cards, called, come by… anything… and sadly I had to say they had not and I could tell it saddened her.
After my card campaign Martha stabilized enough to be discharged on Hospice care. So home she came. There at the beginning she was more like her old self… curmudgeonly and bossy.
And then there was the ding-dong.
God save us from the ding-dong. Hospice had recommended that we get a portable doorbell as a call bell so that Martha could retain more privacy and we wouldn’t have to stay right underfoot. Martha ADORED that thing. She carried it with her everywhere and declared it the most wonderful invention ever made.
She drove us nuts with it.
One night she literally hit the ding-dong button every 5 minutes. All night. Everybody says “why didn’t you just take it away from her?” well that just wasn’t an option… her anxiety would go through the roof at the mere mention of taking her precious away, so we learned to suffer through until she was able to use it more judiciously.
She never slept well. Matter of fact she spent more time sleeping during the day than at night. When I asked her about that she said “no ones coming to see me anyway” and how could I argue with her? No one ever came aside from her Hospice staff.
So we went into the holiday season. Martha was doing so well that the Hospice staff teased her that she was going to be released from their care. Then near Christmas she tanked. Pictures from Christmas morning show a confused and addled shadow of her former self, sitting morosely in a wheel chair while the kids opened presents. Throughout Christmas I think she had 2 cards. Sadness.
Then once more she rallied and New Years Eve she toasted in the New Year with a mug of champagne and complaints about “all that racket” outside. She complained again of how awful it was that the family had not visited her, nor even called. She asked me, in a tiny, sad voice “why do they think I don’t matter?” and I had no response.
And then it all changed. She became confused, and forgot who I was. She referred to J as “her male nurse” and at one point only remembered the name of Fred (her cat).
Suddenly she was the sweetest most compliant person. No matter what I fixed for her she ate every bite of it. She rarely complained and while her evenings were still restless she never once rang the bell (at least on my watch).
And then she died.
That was a hard, hard day for our little family. Beckett who had been her favorite lackey was inconsolable. Xander was sad, and Sophie was strangely quiet.
Per Martha’s request her funeral was a private affair. If no one would come visit her in life, then she didn’t want them coming to laugh at her in death (paraphrasing her words).
I’m thinking for all that it was a tiny funeral it was one of the most emotional for me because I never once felt like I had to put on my normal/typical face. I laughed, I cried, I giggled through the opening of her service only to giggle harder when M and J kicked and elbowed me. We buried her with her favorite things… bingo cards, her favorite bag, a chocolate covered cherry and her beloved ding-dong bell.
Just before they slid her into her crypt we toasted her life with a 13 chocolate covered cherry salute which induced another round of hysterics but somehow I think Martha would’ve approved.
It’s been nearly a week and the house has been a strange place. We are slowly going through Martha’s room. I had to dismantle her coat-rack because it was one of those visual things that I associated with her and my grandparents.
We’ve all experienced phantom Martha sounds. The clunk of her walker, the shsh of her feet shuffling across the floor. More than once Sophie has called to Beckett and it’s sounded not unlike Martha.
And sadly her phone now rings with calls from all the people who couldn’t spare the time when she was alive. Funny isn’t it… they only make time when it’s literally too late. But you know I feel sorry for them. All those people that Martha wanted to hear from, they will never know what a wicked sense of humor she really did have. They’ll never know the horrors of not getting her on your team for Trivia/Timeline night. They’ll never know how she would move mountains to make you feel better, or at least commiserate the injustice of the world. They’ll never know…
All they knew was a simple woman that didn’t fit into society… but we know who she really was: a misunderstood princess with a heart of gold, a short temper and indignant ego that we miss very much.