I cannot imagine how Martha survived her childhood. Honestly. I can't.
This photograph was taken in Germany, before there was me. On the back of it, written in my mother's hand are these words:
I like this. They're howling & each has a hand on one object.
They're looking at Jim to see who will win.
Two years after Martha's birth came our middle sister. (I am leaving her out of this story as much as possible out of respect for her privacy.) And four years after that, back in the States, came me. There were six years between Martha and me.
I am three or four; Martha a tiny nine or ten.
Because of her early isolation from human touch in the incubator, Martha couldn't stand to be hugged or kissed. It is not within my capabilities to fathom the constant state of frustration which was Martha's world. She was highly intelligent. Her two younger sisters were athletes; captains of their teams at school, first chosen for neighborhood games of dodge ball and team tag. Martha would be last picked and first out. There were requisite piano lessons and dance class. Imagine. Your sister, six years younger than you could play Beethoven; your fumbling attempt at Chopsticks was a mess.
And that constant, simmering angry undercurrent of disgust from your own father.
Handwriting, attempts at sewing, cooking, playing jacks, staying in the lines while coloring, on and on and on Martha couldn't do as well. Her disability wasn't recognized as a challenge with which she needed help. It wasn't recognized as a disability. She was called careless. It was her fault. I remember one time when Martha lost her balance. She tried to break her fall by grabbing something. It's instinct. Unfortunately what she grabbed was the corner of the tablecloth. The dining room table was set with the fine china for some fancy dinner. Crash. Martha was already mortified. My father stalked into the room, fuming. Anger was visibly leaching from his every pore. He hissed at Martha. She was getting up from the floor, already in tears and he hissed at her: What is the matter with you? You ruin everything!
In this picture, I am ten. Martha is fifteen and a half. Meaning that this was shortly after her suicide attempt. I vaguely remember this day. Martha had howled that she didn't want to be in a family photo. By this time she hated having her picture taken. (I look like a FREAK, she'd wail.) You can see my mother's grasp of Martha's wrist. (My mother was five feet tall.) I keep pointing out how physically small Martha was, don't I? People stared at her. Always. Polite people would then quickly avert their eyes. (Which was worse do you suppose? Kids staring at you, pointing? Or polite persons not making eye contact?)
Okay. Enough. My father was not a monster. He was a flawed, unhappy soul. I believe he was terribly lonely. And an alcoholic. Not ever falling down drunk. Just mean after his first martini, and meaner yet after his second and third. But my mother ...
Martha and I talked about our mother during Martha's last year of life. We had vastly different experiences; we had two different moms. To me, my mother was an angel, a saint. I wouldn't have been the least bit surprised if one day she developed stigmata, and we weren't even Catholic! She was my constant champion. My font of unconditional love. She made me feel as though I were her favorite, but I thought - even as a child - that she made each of us feel like that. She took all of our father's bilious venom. She just folded her hands on her lap, looked down, and took it. And then later she would have us singing songs while we did the dishes.
But from Martha's perspective, her mother wasn't there for her. She never stood up for Martha when she was being belittled. Was Martha so short because she was belittled into actuality? Well? Martha told me this story last summer. (I had heard this story from my mother when she - Mummy - was dying of cancer; how she regretted it.) Shortly after Martha's attempted suicide, her mother told her to dress up. That mummy and daddy were taking Martha - only Martha - out to a fancy restaurant for dinner. Martha was thrilled!!! Nothing like this had ever happened and she thought that maybe her cry for help had been heard. She got dressed without a fight and even put some mascara on, which of course ended up partly on her cheek.
The three of them headed out. I actually remember being a little jealous. Only they didn't go to a restaurant. They didn't go out for dinner at all. They took Martha to a psychiatrist. Oh God. I'm sure my mother hadn't wanted a scene, knowing that Martha would have refused. She was desperate to get help for her daughter and she probably had to threaten my father with divorce to get him to go.
When Martha told me this story she was bald from chemo. She cried hot angry tears, still feeling as betrayed as she had forty-six years before. But she started to laugh while she cried. "And they wondered why I had trust issues! Gee! Do you think?"
Somehow Martha did survive all of this. I shake my head as I type. How? How did she? The very good news is that before Martha died, she got to feel loved. Genuinely. To her very great surprise. She got to be the center of a giant, loving family who held her up and helped her out and took kind, loving care of her. She never married. She never had kids, though she was surrounded by kids who adored her. And the little girl who hated to be hugged was hugged and hugged and hugged. And she even hugged back, at the end she even hugged back.
I'll tell you all about this very real miracle tomorrow. Martha's story is continued HERE.
thank you for listening, and for being so kind