Put your finger on middle C,” the woman says, and when the child hesitates, she wraps her hand around the child’s finger and guides it to the right key. “This is middle C. Now hit the key with your finger.” She removes her hand and the child, timid and restless, obeys. “Play it again so you remember where middle C is.”
The child frowns at the key and asks, “Why isn’t it middle A?”
“Because C is the middle of the keyboard, not A. Play C a few more times . . . you’ll soon have an ear for it.” The woman gets up from the piano bench and walks toward the kitchen. “When you’ve learned the keys, I’ll teach you to play ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.’”
Left alone, the child goes back to composing storms at sea, pudgy hands splayed across as many keys as possible, pounding out long, rolling thunder on the low keys, lightning cracks in the middle with both fists, raindrops dancing from fingertips at the high end. Moving back and forth on the bench, at first slow and deliberate, then faster, faster, the small child performs a dark and ferocious storm.
Elsewhere in the house, the woman cannot help but hear the violence being done to her beloved Chickering as she works at something useful, cooking, sewing, ironing, counting coins earned from passers-by who can’t resist her roadside sign: Flowers for Sale. It’s only when she hears something topple that she goes back to the living room.
“I fell off,” the child says.
“Well, hop back on, but go gentle on the keys or you’ll wear them out.” She returns to her chores, pausing to blot her face with a handkerchief pulled from her apron pocket.
It’s the swampy days of August, and the woman is at her busiest. Flowers, full-blown and brashy, beg to be cut, daylilies need deadheading. So in the afternoon she calls to the child, picks up a trug and pruning shears, and together they go into the hazy sunlight. They walk the garden path, past mums and asters, cannas, zinnias, to the end of the last row where she bends from the waist and takes hold of a sheaf of sword-length stems covered with peachy blossoms edged in yellow. “We’re just in time for these,” she says. “Melodie doesn’t last very long but it’s worth the trouble.” Her forearms are like dry sponges from years of sun exposure, her face ruddy.
The child wanders off to find ground cherries, crouching low, swishing the bushes back and forth, searching for golden fruits hidden in dry husks, tweezing them out with fat fingers, eating them greedily.
At the other side of the garden, the woman goes on with her work, bent over, sweat stinging her eyes, until storm clouds roll in. Soon she calls out, “Hear that rumbling? We’ve got to go in now.” The child is slow coming toward her and she calls again, “Hurry before lightning comes down and strikes us dumb.”
“Strikes us dumb,” the child echoes.
“Uh-huh. Struck me dumb when I was about your age—but only for a split second. Get a move on now.”
Safe back inside, she disappears into her bedroom and emerges a while later in a clean dress, wiry hair slicked down, Lily of the Valley banishing the fusty odor of work. “Help me set the table, it’s coming on six,” she says to the child, “and remember, forks go on the left.”
At some point in her life, the woman stopped questioning everything. Something had settled in her spirit that allowed her to accept things for what they were. Rarely did she disapprove of what others were doing, whether their doing was noisy or disappointing or destructive. “Live and let be” became her credo. Of course, it helped that she was no longer young and unschooled in life.
She was not a needy person, not overly attached to anyone, neither husband nor sons, brother nor sisters. She had a few friends but didn’t socialize much. Should a relative or acquaintance die (and those deaths were coming with regularity now) she would clip the obituary from the newspaper, file it away with the yellowing stack in her closet and return to the stove to mind her chicken and dumplings. She chose not to clip the occasional article mentioning her name—that is, her husband’s name with Mrs. at the front end—announcing her membership in the Ladies Aid Society, her appointment as church organist, her visits to family back in Brookville.
Through the decades, should her husband decide to haul the family from Pennsylvania to Washington, D.C., then to Maryland, back to Pennsylvania, back to Maryland, down to South Carolina, lastly to Florida, she didn’t protest, merely dug up her gladiolas and canna lilies and packed her homemade work dresses along with her Sunday clothes, her crescent hats with gossamer veils and her fox stole, an unsought gift from her husband, rarely worn. Then she closed the lid of the Chickering, got out her crocheting and sat down in her rocking chair to await the moving van.
“Can I come stay next week?” the child asks.
“That’s up to your Daddy and Mommy.” The woman waters a fern on the jalousied porch of the fourth and most spacious of her Maryland homes. “Swing me,” the child says, so she pushes the hammock with one hand while she snaps a dead leaf off the leggy dracaena with the other.
The child chatters on, “This room is really a jungle but the animals are friendly, and there aren’t any spiders so there’s nothing to be afraid of, so can I sleep out here tonight please, please?”
She shakes her head. And when the child asks, “Why not?” she says, “Hammocks are for napping, beds are for sleeping.” She wipes palm fronds gone dusty with her fingers, then jockeys the fern back onto its stand. Eventually she walks back inside with a chore or a burden in mind. In the stillness of the friendly jungle, the child dozes off.
She was a Martha, not only by inclination, but by name. The middle C of her name was Adelia, from the German, meaning of nobility or elite. Tell that to Martha Adelia’s father, the day laborer with a flair for fashion, who made the local newspaper just by appearing on the sidewalks of Brookville wearing a natty striped suit and straw hat.
But he wasn’t dressed up on that long-ago August day when he saved Martha Adelia from certain death.
It happened just before the turn of the century at a family picnic, when all the cousins ran off to play after dinner and maybe her father was in shirtsleeves whittling by the porch with the menfolk and her mother was clearing dishes off the makeshift table under the oak tree and none of them saw her fall in the well, the well with no cover that the older kids stood around and tossed rocks into then waited for the thunk, the well they were told to keep away from or they’d get switched, the well where she dropped like a rock with a thunk.
And surely the kids screamed but the one who screamed loudest was her father. “DeeDee, DEEDEE.” Dropping his pocket knife, running to the well, plopping onto his belly, straining over the edge, reaching down down down, he grabbed her by the arm and he pulled, didn’t stop pulling until he had a hold of her tiny, sodden body and set her beside him, startle-eyed and gasping for air. And two weeks later, surely he was the one clapping his hands the hardest as she blew out the candles on her birthday cake.
He was still calling her DeeDee when she left town to train as a nurse and later when she was a married woman with a husband on the road and later yet when her three sons were on the tip of adulthood with war coming on. He called her by her baby name even when she was closing in on sixty and her sons were off chasing bright ideas. By then he was living alone in a one-room shack with walls of plastered newspapers. His cheeks had caved in from want of nutrition and the fronts of his white shirts turned the color of burlap from cheap whiskey dribbling down his chin. And although she saw him for who he was, she never pestered him about the need of reformation.
It would be a mistake to think the woman was apathetic or stoic—she had ready opinions about liberal ideas and newfangled appliances, about certain religions and detective shows on TV. At times, family disagreements got the better of her. Yet, she faithfully wrote her father and her mother and visited them in their separate houses and got together with her siblings, well, at least while their mother was alive. Hers was a full and present life and there wasn’t much space for self-pity or spats or reflection on things past—her short-lived nursing career, the church wedding she never had, a silk negligee laid away in the bottom of her chest of drawers.
Living in the present is a central tenet in the writing of Meister Eckhart, the fourteenth-century German philosopher-theologian, whose commentary alarmed some medieval religionists and thrilled others. To Eckhart, life in the “present now” consists of freedom from the past and its grievances, the grace to live day-by-day, to accept whatever comes along, to deal with others even-handedly. In his sermon on Luke 10, Eckhart suggests that Martha of Bethany had found this freedom. He sees in Martha a mature, spiritual person who had already chosen what her sister Mary was only beginning to learn at Jesus’s feet: “Martha was so well grounded in her essence that her activity was no hindrance to her; work and activity she turned to her eternal profit.” She was busy with things but never overwhelmed by them; she had troubles but she was not in trouble. Random thoughts and secret longings that tore at her heart in the night did not debilitate her during the day, for she had work to do, virtuous, kindhearted work.
Eckhart’s characterization suits Martha of Brookville well. Hers was a level-headed spirituality fostered through honest toil and close calls. Her daily devotions composed of piano chords and arpeggios, silent prayers crocheted into doilies intricate as cobwebs, meditations sown in the garden where the rose bloomed because it bloomed.
Her husband was always leaving her. Monday mornings he stowed his suitcase in the trunk of the sedan and drove off to troubleshoot problems at commercial bakery firms up and down the mid-Atlantic, returning with a week’s worth of dirty dress shirts. Friday afternoons, she dutifully fixed his dinner, aiming for 6:15, while he holed up in his office paying bills, managing investments, scheduling the coming week. Saturdays she put his shirts through the wringer washer, dried them on the clothesline, starched and ironed them along with his initialed handkerchiefs while he kept doing business. Sundays he chauffeured her to church.
Some Fridays he returned home with items bearing the label of the hotels where he stayed weeknights, amenities meant to make life on the road homier: towels, soaps, ink pens, stationery, ashtrays, blankets, wooden coat hangers, a clock or two, a Gideon’s Bible, once a dressing gown with the initial S. She found a way to dole these niceties out to others without his knowing and found a way to keep hold of the nobleness within her. His absences were not worth fretting about.
One Sunday during the woman’s Maryland years, her minister preached a sermon on the parable of the talents. At the end of the service he left the pulpit and stood at the front of the sanctuary holding an offering plate full of money. But he was not asking for more money; he was giving it away. “I invite you to come forward and take a coin,” he said. “Take it and multiply it—use it to do a good work.” She and her husband went forward and each took a silver dollar. He pocketed his; she gave hers to the missionary society, as she always did with flower money. To him it was only a dollar. To her it was a woolen muffler or a bundle of kindling for a person she didn’t know.
Sometimes her good work happened right on her doorstep when a panhandler, cold and hungry, came along and tugged at her heartstrings. Smelling of wood smoke, his eyes pleading have mercy not pity, all he wanted was food in exchange for doing a chore or two around the house. If there was a law against panhandling, she ignored it and set about frying up some ham and eggs.
Small talk filled the minutes (“a lot of rain lately, good for my flowers, everything needs a soaking now and then, how long has it been since you’ve eaten”). A few hours later, chore done, the man named Jim or Mike or Joe would doff his cap and walk away, wearing a shirt or shoes she had appropriated from her husband’s closet and carrying a bag she always kept at the ready, filled with odds and ends for life on the road, maybe a nicety or two.
In his biography of Meister Eckhart, Joel Harrington expands on what the cleric had in mind in his sermon on Martha. While some theologians accuse Martha of shallowness or immaturity, of choosing inconsequential things over Christ, Harrington maintains Eckhart sees her otherwise: “Martha came to know herself first, before she came to know God. She knew the world and its temptations, as well as her own internal struggles.” Struggles like being single, childlessness, business concerns, death of a brother. These things were settled in her soul; she was “freed from the why of cause and consequence.”
And so it was with Martha of Brookville. She had internal struggles that family and acquaintances could only guess at: Why does my mother-in-law resent me? What if we had never left Pennsylvania? Why was my middle son struck by polio? Why did I almost die birthing my third son? At some point, all these things were settled in her heart of hearts, pruned away to prevent disease from entering.
“Le point vierge” Thomas Merton calls it—the cloistered place of the soul—or in Eckhart’s homiletic, ground of the soul. A place devoid of pretense and speculation, tilled and ready for the spark of God that comes as a still small voice or Shekinah glory or “smacks like lightning in the giant night.” And when sparked, the fallow soul-ground turns fertile and yields a lifetime of spiritual graces.
Once, when Martha Adelia was a little girl, she dashed under the limbs of a great tree during an angry storm and for a split second her hair stood straight up, her skin crawled, and words failed her. As the thunderbolt shot out of the darkest cloud, she turned toward it, inexplicably, much like the leaves of a tree just before lightning splits its trunk.
Years later, when she was in nurses’ training, she walked into an unfamiliar church on a Wednesday evening for a prayer meeting, a service she had never experienced before. During the meeting, as people around her sang hymns and bowed their heads to pray and the minister read scripture, she sensed something happening deep within. And like a leaf quaking in the storm, she turned to the source of the power.
Even into her eighties, tears welled in her eyes as she told of the soul-ache she felt that night.
“It’s been a long time since you played my piano,” she says to the child-become-a-woman. “Remember how you used to fly all over the keys making up music? I did the same thing, only my piano was the shelf back of my mother’s stove. Played ‘til my fingers ached but never made a sound.” Her shoulders hitch up in a shiver despite her bulky sweater. She minces over to the air-conditioner on the living room wall and leans in close, her nose almost touching the controls. She turns the dial and the air is suddenly still. “I need to go out before it gets too hot and water things awhile. Come turn on the spigot for me, my hands don’t grip like they used to.”
Standing in the muggy Florida heat, she aims a stream of sulfur water at her scanty flower bed. “The glads have gone by, but the cannas are still shooting up,” she says. Her voice matches the ground below, sandy and drained.
The child-woman sniffs the air and sneers, “Rotten eggs.”
“Well,” she says, “that’s something you just have to deal with if it’s flowers you want to grow.”
Cover image by David Cooper.