Martha’s Story

MARTHA: “Now I understand why I did certain things, I can accept more… All you have to do is catch hold of the tail and pull it … reaching back for the spirit that was there. ”

I learn about sensory awareness.

Life’s Work

Whenever I reach the island I watch for her as the ferry nears the dock at low tide. I see her standing on the pier, high above the water, silhouetted against the old inn, from whose third-floor windows she looks out to sea on rainy days. Short, slight, dressed usually in red and blue, with salt-and-pepper hair moistly curling in the early morning mist under her round-brimmed white hat, she smiles broadly as we draw closer. Conversation on shore and aboard the boat stops in anticipation of landing, and I hear her soft, southern drawl: “I thought this day would never come.”

Up the steep gangplank, I am finally ashore, a little unsteady after an hour and a half on rough water. She gestures to me to make sure my luggage is on the truck to the hostel for my two-week stay. And then we hug, lightly. It has been a while, but lightly is enough for old bones. We walk up the dusty hill to the inn together, touch hands, smiling, bodies lean towards each others’. How could there be words?

Over the next three weeks, as we walk old trails and explore new ones, Martha slowly unravels for me what she had been learning during the past winter. For many years she has been engaged in a process of self-discovery. Now, she is delving more deeply, discovering new layers of what her life has been, so that she “can put the pieces together and find meaning” for her life “as it has been, and for the future.”

“In the process of putting the puzzle together, where there’s a missing piece,” I asked, “would you then go and talk about that with someone to get the waters ruffled … get things going?”

“Well, I could do that, or I would just start talking to the missing piece.”

“An internal dialogue?”

“As Robert Johnson [psychologist and author] says, all you have to do is catch hold of the tail and pull it.”

“What else do you do?”

“Dreams. Active imagination. Paying attention to my body, like the tense feeling I get in my neck. My journal every day. In conversation with someone. When something sparks, you kind of pick it up, maybe then, maybe later. That goes back to the painful part.”

“Trying to put it away. Because of the pain?”


“You never really do?” I ask.

“No. I don’t think you do. Even when you want to ignore it, you can’t give your body away, or those deep feelings.”

“What about the joyful parts? Do they get put away?”

“Yes,” she said. “See, what I did, growing up and in my marriage, was sit on all my feelings. But when I let myself pay attention, as the painful ones came out, the joyful ones came back too, and you see things that you didn’t see before. Like right now, talking to you about this, I think about how many times we have laughed over our stories, not just cried. I’ve got wonderful memories of all the times we’ve been together walking the trails and talking … The telephone can be a lifeline, can’t it?”

“It certainly has been for me,” I reply.

* * * * *

Martha has learned that when her feelings swamp her and memories come up, or when she is wondering what to do, she needs someone to talk to. “Sometimes you need another perspective, so you don’t have to carry the load all by yourself. There is growth in the sharing. It’s much harder to find any meaning when you can’t share what is happening with someone.”

“No, not like we do, no,” I replied. “You say you need people, because you really can’t remember … can’t handle what you remember on your own? And it seems you need a lot of time, to be able to take it all in, find out where it fits, how it’s affected your life, what you might want to change.”

“That’s right, you do. It’s a lot, isn’t it? But see, we’re talking about painful memories that have emotional impact in our lives. There are wonderful memories that carry all the way through as well. In the same way a feeling of joy will come up, and you can share that with someone else. I think you remember what you share in a different way than when you don’t.”

I ask her which comes first — understanding (and peace) and then more memories, or memories and then understanding?
“Well,” she replies, “you start with an ache or a pain, then the feelings. You can put it off if there’s too much pain to handle right then — but then, when you see that the selves are integrating … because of what you’re doing we’re calling it memories, but really they are pieces of one’s life, and so you become more of a whole person as you do this.”

* * * * *

Martha was a dear friend, 20 years older than I. There is no doubt that our long friendship influenced my perceptions and opinions about aging and memory. It allowed me more intimate insights into personal fears and joys and the depths and layers of memory-making. We shared the lineaments of tragedy, supporting each other in the bad times and during the remaking of our lives.

Walking Monhegan’s trails with her, relaxing in the sun and mist on the rocks at Squeaker Cove or Pebble Beach, I became aware for the first time in my life how deeply sensory and intense the physical, mental — and, yes, spiritual — processes of remembering and forgetting are. And how very dependent we are on community not only to sustain us, but also to keep alive our memories — and our very ways of remembering and forgetting. Martha also validated for me the dark side of community that I had been experiencing myself. How maintaining a place there can mean accepting stereotypes of spirit, of gender roles, and of memory and aging that perpetuate deeply damaging beliefs that can take a lifetime to unravel, face, and begin to repair.

“Life’s work,” as Martha said, “and not for the faint-hearted,” she cautioned, but I was hooked. My general interest in memory and aging had broadened to include sensory memory and a new awareness of community issues about memory and aging. I wanted to find out more and decided to return to the island as soon as time and finances permitted to study with Charlotte Selver and to talk with other island people about their experiences of memory and of aging.

Martha died that winter, encircled
in her beloved and loving family,
smiling softly, her breath quieting
towards a last sleep. Her ashes
have been walked along Red Ribbon,
all the way to Squeaker Cove at high tide;
over the deep crevasse and up the steep
climb to Blackhead rocks and the curved
horizon stretching around and back to
the trail for Lobster Cove; along
the lower coast trail, crashing with surf,
to the village road, hedge roses humming
with bees, and all the house-like places
she has walked and talked, and briefly lived.

As I write the names I am travelling in my mind
with the smells and sounds and tastes of the living
landscape, from which we all are born, walking
in our words, our voices, and our stories, remembering

“I love you Ann.”

“I love you too Martha — As you walk beside me now.”