This blog has become the occasional home for memorial pages of the recently departed who are not necessarily related to me, as well as the long departed who are. Its Jewish focus makes it particularly apt for the tributes to my friend Martha, who was a rabbi’s daughter and went to the Stern College for Women, part of Yeshiva University. As it happens, she is buried at New Montefiore Cemetery, where my parents are also buried, and she lived down the block from Otto and Hetty Sternberg, my mother’s cousins. Martha met my mother several times and charmed her, which was not an easy thing to do. Jews don’t have a very clearly defined afterlife and, unlike Martha who lost her faith but retained Jewish observances like keeping kosher, I’m dubious that one exists. Nevertheless I like to think of Martha visiting with my mother in Queens and telling her funny stories about me.
On to the remembrances, more or less in chronological order — though the pictures are not.
On Shabbos afternoons when Martha would come back to 400 Plainview Road, Martha and I would sit in the backyard with our reflectors. Yes, reflectors. It was the 70’s. On cue, one of us would announce how thirsty they were. The other would ask very innocently, “Would you like me to bring you a drink?” That’s when the fun began. Drinks were to consist of one flavor of soda combined with one kind of juice. I mean cranberry juice and lemon soda is pretty good, but I might bring out ginger ale and tomato juice or prune juice and Cel-Ray soda. When asked how it was, Martha always answered with the required “delicious”. Martha made sure the drinks she brought out to me actually were delicious, though. Nothing but the best for her baby sister.
It is with a very sad heart that I write this.
Martha and I met when we were sophomores at Stern College. We were in many of the same Hebrew classes and commiserated about them through our college days. We took part in many college traumatic (yes traumatic) society pro
ductions. She of course helped write the plays with her wonderful wit. After college we became roommates for a while until our building caught on fire and we were forced to move out. At this point I decided to get my own apartment at 495 West End Avenue. Not too much later Martha joined the tenants there and we lived next door to each other. A short time after that I married and moved but we remained close friends. Fast forward to 1996. My youngest daughter Samantha was diagnosed with a Wilms Tumor and went under treatment. At the same time Martha was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and she also underwent treatment. We would share our stories about the different treatment plans. We always made sure to touch base with each other at least once a week. My daughter (thank Gd ) became cancer free and went in to lead a very healthy life.
Martha and I were partners in the sports world as well. We are both avid Giants fans and we would talk after each Sunday game. I will truly miss our weekly calls about our team.
These past few months were torturous for her and I wish I could have done something to alleviate her suffering.
As always she went through this with dignity and a sense of humor. I will truly miss her.
How do you say good-bye to a friend who beat cancer and other health scourges so many times that we all thought she was invincible? Hey, having had several shoulder replacements (one twice) and a knee replacement, she was on her way to becoming bionic.
Rule to live by: Never forget to be funny.
We met in the 1970s, at Plenum (“the Language of Science”) Publishing; the job was tedious, but Martha’s presence was one of the things that made it more than bearable. Over the years, she and I evolved a running series of jokes, one of which included our Rules to Live By. Most of them were supremely silly. One, for example, was “Never stay at a place that rhymes.” This was based on an extremely small sample: Our experience at the Motel Caswell in Washington D.C., where our room smelled like stale cigars and had burn holes in the poop-brown rug. Still, the No-Tel Motel in Tucson, where I later moved, later confirmed that assessment. Martha loved hearing that.
We talked about everything, rapid fire, in no particular order, in the typical style of New York Jews, so we devised a conversational rule to live by: The non sequitur alert, which signaled a subject change. You can read several implied non sequitur alerts into this disjointed series of memories.
Martha wasn’t the earliest friend with whom I kept in touch, but she was the one I was in regular contact with most often over the years, even after I moved away from New York. By necessity, our communication was by phone, but I always saw her too when I came back to Manhattan. Naturally, she came to visit me in Tucson, land of cowboy memorabilia. I was always in awe of how she managed to keep all those Western tchotchkes dusted and neat in her small apartment. That apartment, where Martha — and often Judith and Charlie — and I shared many games of Scrabble and dishes of cold sesame noodles — will always be where I remember her. We shopped together for her nice looking but very uncomfortable for sleeping fold-out couch, in fact.
We also shopped together for luggage on the Lower East Side. That was another running joke between us, the quest to achieve the perfect luggage.
We used that (always imperfect) luggage on a number of trips: Maine, Washington, DC., Arizona and New Mexico, and Southern California. Returning from the Maine trip via Rhode Island, we followed an Entenmann’s truck from a shared ride in the back of a ferry to New York City. Not that we expected to catch it or rob it; it just seemed like the right thing to do.
My visits to Martha in the hospital last October, not long after her second surgery, were disheartening, to put it mildly. She was in a lot of pain, and very out of it. She came back to being herself a bit more but never to the point where she could be really Martha — the person who listened and helped make you laugh about your own problems. It’s that Martha I’m remembering now and missing immeasurably.
My life shifted radically in 1973. Among other events of that year I met Martha, part of a group of friends I made at my new job. Ah, Plenum. Boring underpaid work and a great good time.
Martha remained a close friend after all these years. We traveled across the country, in a trip (and a ’67 Valiant) which will be described by my now-spouse Charlie—and our friendship survived. We had a long-standing Sunday night ritual of helping each other with the NYTimes crossword puzzle.
We remained close even after Charlie & I went West. One memorable vacation was in celebration of her remission from ovarian and cervical cancer. We met in Las Vegas so she could shop for cowboy tchochtkes at a convention of such kitsch and I for Native American jewelry. We shared the Star Trek experience, and in the bar met a Ferengi and a Klingon. The Klingon admired her teal cowboy hat; she explained it was the color for ovarian cancer awareness. Without missing a beat, he replied “Those Ovarians. We must overcome them.” Also we bought teal M&Ms.
Martha kept that sense of silliness as long as she could through all the reversals she suffered. She’ll never leave my heart.
Some of my strongest memories of Martha involve the weird New York publishing house where she and Judith and Edie and I all met and hung out together quite a bit. The place, Plenum, was a haven for underachievers, young people with college degrees and, at the time, no particular direction in life. Martha was notable for her acerbic wit and her appreciation for the basic silliness of the place – a venue in which there were daily battles over who would get to the malomars first at coffee break, and an isolated one-holer restroom with a powerful exhaust fan that was a perfect spot to smoke a joint. Martha herself never did such a thing, of course, but she appreciated the concept. Between checking galleys of Russian technical journals, with their odd combination of science and fantasy political science, there were regular bouts of “Spill and Spell” and “Fictionary,” in both of which Martha distinguished herself. Martha also made significant contributions to various unofficial publications featuring silly stories or ads about members of the staff, written in the jargon of Russian science. “Bring tea, and I will tell you how it is with quartz.”
In, I believe, 1977, Judith and I and Martha and Steve Dyer decided to make a road trip tour of a few scenic western states. It turned out to be a rather tense trip: Martha and Steve weren’t very fond of each other, and Judith and I also didn’t like each other very much at that time (you may well ask why we contemplated such a trip); but there we were, the four of us, crammed into a 1967 Valiant with all our suitcases (but not enough of them to satisfy the police of Boulder, Colorado, who pulled us over for a talk, citing “lack of luggage.” The real problem was that we had a New York license plate, long hair [except for Martha] and looked like a bunch of hippies [except for Martha]). That was the beginning of the journey. One strong memory from that trip is driving through the Montana twilight toward Butte, all of us for some reason singing “Mendocino” along with the Sir Douglas Quintet. In Butte we all bought cowboy hats, and wore them for the remainder of the trip, which involved towns like Kalispell, Montana, and Belle Fourche, North Dakota. Martha was particularly taken with one of Butte’s main claims to fame, proudly billed as the world’s largest slag heap, just outside of town.
Martha drove a good part of the way on the trip, on those empty Western roads cranking the Valiant up to unprecedented velocities which, frankly, made me very nervous. I think we briefly left the ground more than once, but Martha, the brim of the cowboy hat pulled down menacingly over her eyes, never lost her nerve.
In Glacier National Park Steve and I camped out, with a silly hatchet by our side in case of visits from the grizzly bears we’d read about in a paperback helpfully featured in the park gift shop. Martha and Judith stayed in the motel on Lake MacDonald, and they got up early so Martha could take a sequence of photos of a spectacular sunrise over the lake, with her camera perched on the railing of the motel deck. They were joined there by a couple who were traveling with an ancient, creeping Siamese cat.
From Glacier we drove like four bats out of hell back across the country, stopping briefly in diners in which Martha struggled mightily, and often futilely, to find something kosher, or at least neutral, to eat. We over-nighted in Duluth in an unorthodox, slightly moldy motel room, grudgingly rented to us by a suspicious landlady. Outside, a driving rain. We didn’t bother to go looking for Lake Superior in the morning. By that evening we were in my family’s summer house in northern Michigan, which is where the picture of the four of us was taken. I stayed; the rest of them headed back to New York. I watched, somewhat anxiously, as the Valiant disappeared down the road, Martha at the wheel, pedal to the metal. Amazingly, they did all survive.
Hard to remember we were all young once.
Martha took Judith Hibbard and me on a trip from San Francisco to eastern Nevada. Martha did all the driving since Judith and I were non-drivers. No matter what went wrong, she kept in good spirits and kept the three of us laughing. We arrived in Reno late at night and Martha was exhausted. She drove out of a parking lot and right off the curb. We landed on the street with a huge thud. Her first reaction was laughter rather than concern about damage to the car. She was generous in every way. The first time I met her was at one of her all-you-can-eat latke parties she gave in New York.
It has been one week since my friend Martha passed away and I’m trying to wrap my head around the fact that she is gone. So many memories. I remember on September 11th I called Martha after hearing the news about what was going on downtown. We both stayed on the phone and talked, glued to our television screens, watching as the horror unfolded. After Hurricane Sandy, when my neighborhood was a ghost town with no electricity or heat, she offered me a place to stay until things had returned to normal. Just two of the many memories coming to mind.
I first met Martha when she came to the ovarian cancer support group at SHARE. We were diagnosed around the same time and became fast friends. She volunteered many hours of her time over the years as a patient advocate, sitting on FDA and DoD panels, lending her perspective to the researchers and doctors in hopes that progress would be made.
Martha’s wit, wry, biting and oh so funny, never failed to make me laugh, especially when sharing gallows humor. It was a way she found helpful in dealing with the difficulties in life as there was not a year that went by when she was not undergoing some sort or surgery or medical procedure, some cancer related, some not. That marvelous sense of humor really came in handy.
Her home was a marvel, decorated top to bottom with themes of the Wild West and cowboys. I always enjoyed visiting, seeing how she had added to her ongoing collection and was happy to donate a few items to it over the years. There was even a saddle perched in a corner and shelves filled with boots.
Spending the past several days going through the many photographs I’ve taken over the years, one in particular stood out. Of all the people in that particular photo, I am the only one left standing. A sobering thought.
The last several months found Martha at Sloan Kettering, dealing with yet another surgery followed by many complications and I am so sad about all that she had to endure. It was an awful and unhappy ending.
A lot of songs have been popping up in my thoughts, and this one in particular, “When I Go,” written by Dave Carter and sung on Judy Collin’s album Strangers Again accompanied by Willie Nelson.
Here is the last verse of this beautiful song.
And should you glimpse my wand’rin form out on the borderline
Between death and resurrection and the council of the pines
Do not worry for my comfort, do not sorrow for me so
All your diamond tears will rise up and adorn the sky beside me when I go