Sharon Watts Writes

when pictures fail me…


Martha Ocean

Learning that Martha was dead came as a jolt from the blue–not just because the evening air was so perfectly laden with the scent of lilac, or because the news was so unexpected. More likely it’s that the cloak of optimism I wear in the company of struggling loved ones had become as comfortable and well-worn as the Levis she and I both favored. I was “acting as if” Martha were beating the odds…and as if I were, too. I am the one always waiting for the other shoe to drop. But my money had been on Martha.

Do we ever master our demons? Or merely, if we are lucky, keep them at bay as they alternately snarl and snooze by the door, one day at a time?

Martha’s were on a very short leash, muzzled and quiet, when I met her. We first exchanged smiles at an AA meeting in the early 90s, recognizing each other from the karate school where we both trained. I felt a bit guilty, misrepresenting myself in that room of struggling, recovering alcoholics on Perry Street. I was dating one, and wanted to see what a meeting was like. Feeling a bit like a snoop, I told her the truth which she took in perfect stride.

We slowly became friends, mostly from taking classes together as we advanced from green to brown belt, levels where things really get down to business. Having started earlier, I earned my black belt before she did. But Martha seemed to have more of the “right stuff.” A natural fighter, she also assisted the hearing-impaired students in special classes, even learning sign language (which I am pretty sure was not required), all the while juggling school, a part-time job, and AA meetings.

I caught on quickly that Martha was intense about everything she embarked upon. Karate, painting and studying art, working as a sous chef. Not in a frowny, sobering way, but upbeat and energy-charged. And sober. Freckled, tan, blonde Martha had grown up golden in San Diego and ended up dead from alcoholism in Minneapolis. I wonder if, besides her disease, being so far from an ocean was also a kind of slow death for her. She had landed there for rehab, years after our early friendship, and entered grad school for art education. There were mishaps. A car accident and painful therapy. News from her was detailed yet sketchy, but very “Martha”: a boyfriend was in the picture, a dog. Maybe a couple of each. A part-time job in a video store. Visits to see her sisters, other travels. Personal art, always. School was difficult, but she was almost finished. I applauded her discipline and perseverance. Martha was a natural teacher, aiming for a coastal inner-city where she was most needed and where her heart yearned to make a difference in young lives. Not too far from an ocean.

At the beginning of our friendship, she had wielded her tomboyish appeal–no make-up, Dennis the Menace hair, and a lack of typical girl-vanity–in my polar opposite direction, while her androgynous GAP wardrobe camouflaged a gymnast’s body that bicycled everywhere, even the icy, wintry streets of Manhattan. (Even Minneapolis). Initially I thought she might be gay, but an ongoing roster of boyfriends red-flagged, instead, a certain vulnerability that would eventually manifest itself in a heartbreaking way. Just like that string of guys, I entered into her gravitational pull.

Martha sketched in her background with swift, colorful strokes and no self-pity. She and her three sisters were left orphans very early in their lives, when their parents died in a plane crash. Raised by her aunt and uncle in a casual, comfortable (and probably quite affluent) southern California lifestyle in the early 1960s, she had the most dramatic bio of anyone I knew. Throw in some frequent jaunts to Acapulco, and I was almost retroactively coveting this (albeit off to a tragic start) Gidget-like childhood. More hedonistic later years were hinted at, but she and I mostly talked about Now as opposed to Then.

Making art was Martha’s terra firma, even as both natural and metaphorical waves lured her out to seas of tranquility and depths that dared her to plunge ever deeper. Those I didn’t know about until later. What I remember is being in the ocean with Martha in tony Southampton, while she worked as a personal chef for a music mogul. And the far grittier Far Rockaways for Seido Karate’s annual August day of beach training. The dichotomy of class and geography perfectly suited her.

We took a camping trip to Nova Scotia, to hike the Cabot Trail. I knew nothing about camping, except that the few times I went as a kid the experience was met with extreme indifference. Martha had camped solo across Canada. I was with a glowing lighthouse beacon of what a single, adventurous woman could be. She taught me how to pitch the two-person pup tent, and how to make a perfect pot of coffee at daybreak, while she took off running down the ribbon of white sand. (She then smoked a cigarette, and again at sunset). We spent the days driving, talking, painting, hiking, swimming, and pitching our tent in remote campgrounds. We laughed at the synchronicity of our bladders during the drive, always needing to pee at exactly the same time. We shared a similar dream of having an old house with a porch, to sit and watch life go by. In the car trunk was her extensive spice rack, so that every evening she could turn basic local fare into five-star meals. Most memorably, I discovered what a night sky really was, and vowed I would do all this again and again. Martha was my Peace Corps volunteer, and I was the parched recipient of all these gifts.

I don’t believe she ever intended to stay in New York. There was always a trek to take, a journey to make. A boyfriend-turned-stalker caused her to quit karate and move to Chicago. “C’mon out!” she invited. My first trip to the Windy City, and while I was there Martha ran the marathon. An exemplar tour guide, she took me around to all the must-sees, from the Art Institute to the funky, artsy neighborhoods where we always felt most comfortable. Then I saw something I had never seen before: Martha with a glass of wine at dinner. She was now a chef, along with her current boyfriend, and fine dining and wine tastings came with the territory. But I wondered.

There were more moves, eventually back to California, but here is where my memory  gets spotty. Our lives were on different tracks, but occasional hand-written notes, phone calls, and hand-crafted gifts still flowed between us as we navigated the new millennium. The years were interrupted by long gaps that I later would learn were stints in rehab. Rehab. My friend had a problem.

She told me that she started drinking again when she woke up one night to find a stranger who had broken into her Chicago apartment taking the diamond earrings right out of her ears. Violated, shaken, she turned to the enabling support that would never fail to step in with liquid ease and drown her fears. I wondered about how childhood events can trigger this, or whether it was genetic. Or both. I knew the answer really didn’t matter. Not picking up a drink was the only thing necessary for her survival. Each time she emerged from rehab clean and sober, I was relieved. Hopeful. Eager to reconnect with the Martha I had first met, so vibrant and full-steam-ahead. Wanting to share that energy again.

A few years after 9/11 I had moved to a town just up the Hudson River. Martha was visiting New York and wanted to stay with me for a few days to see my new home.
I stood in the parking lot under the noon day sun, ready to wave. When I finally saw her exit the commuter train my heart sank. She was happy to see me, but she was drunk. I was happy to see her, but she was drunk. We spent a mutually perilous time together, punctuated by my phoning her aunt in San Diego for help, and a crash–she had stumbled into my glass coffee table. I found and emptied a full bottle of vodka from her tote bag, and the next day made enough coffee for an army. She agreed to the plan: getting Martha back home. We took the train into Grand Central (managing to have a somewhat normal conversation), then I put her on the bus to the airport. I waved through the dark glass and turned away, very much torn about how far I needed to go to make sure she got on that plane. Heading south down Park Avenue, I was flooded by the warmth of the sun and a feeling of relief I had rarely ever known.

My address book was scratched out with her ever-changing addresses, but eventually all roads of this kind lead to Hazleden. Next thing I knew, Martha was back in school and living on a street called Pleasant Avenue. She came to New York just four years ago and it seemed like old times–funny, wise, Lou Reed-loving, sober Martha. She was almost fifty and wearing glasses. I had seven years on her there. We visited the High Line and the Fire Museum, and reminisced a bit about people who had died.

The other day, I was on Facebook. There was her silly profile picture–a self-portrait painted with typical Martha wit and abandon, all blue, her tongue sticking out at the world. Wondering what’s up with Martha, I clicked on her page.

Hey Martha. You were really something, girl.

Martha Hartley May 2013

top photo: Martha 1993/property of Sharon Watts

bottom photo copyright Martha Hartley

29 comments on “Martha

  1. Candace Mann
    May 14, 2013

    how very sad, sharon, that she is gone. i was going to say ‘especially after it seems she had conquered her demons,’ but that would imply it would be less sad if she died without doing so, and that isn’t true. lovely writing, as always, my friend.

      May 15, 2013

      Candace, thank you so much. I know you understand how the passing of someone we love yanks the words out of us onto the page in attempt to pay some kind of tribute to such technicolor lives, and how they touched ours.

  2. VariousArtists
    May 15, 2013

    As someone who has known (and dated) plenty of incredible people struggling with decimating addictions or demons of many kinds, your eloquent and heartfelt personal remembrance of your friend resonated with me. As for the questions in the second paragraph, some make it work, some sadly can’t and don’t.

      May 15, 2013

      V.A. ~ and it seems to be the most sensitive, creative ones who are most susceptible, isn’t it? Thanks for taking the time to share your empathy.

  3. Dean Atkinson
    May 26, 2013

    Thank you for the wonderful story of our mutual friend Martha. My wife Carrie has been her friend since grade school. I loved Martha very much and will miss hearing Her and Carrie talking on the phone.thanks again, Dean

      May 26, 2013

      I know she left friends behind that I would never know or meet, but it’s good to hear from one here. Thank you, Dean.

  4. John Moore
    May 26, 2013

    I remember the Lou Reed years and Martha. A close of mine friend back in the 70’s, Martha had that wild Dylanesque quality about her.

    I remember my parents telling me the story of the plane crash, (they were good friends with Martha’s mom and dad), a memory that still to this day leaves me feeling cold and uncomfortable inside.

    Martha and I loved to slow dance in high school and even though we weren’t in a relationship her body would cling tightly to mine, I knew this was a comfort to her, It was a way for her to push back some of the pain, some of the uncertainty in her world, if only for the lapse of a slow song.

    Wonderful memories Sharon.

      May 26, 2013

      Your comment is so poetic and beautiful, John. A perfect, personal eulogy.

  5. Anonymous
    May 27, 2013

    Hi Sharon. Thank you for the lovely story about Martha. She was on of my best friends since kindergarten. She actually had 3 sisters and it was her aunt and uncle who raised the four girls. Thank you again for your thoughts. She was something else, mi amiga.

      May 27, 2013

      Four girls~ I can’t even begin to imagine…but thank you and I have now edited the story to reflect the biographical changes, for accuracy. “Something else”–you bet.

  6. Anonymous
    May 28, 2013

    Dear Sharon, Thank you so much for your loving, honest, full-frontal testament to my sister. You have conjured her perfectly. I want to write my love and my loss too, but the knife in my chest paralyzes my pen…at least for the moment. I’m so lonely. I want to call her right now and tell her how amazing her friend Sharon is, and how much I want to write like her. Thank you for the words and pictures…they are what we have now. All the best, Liz Hartley

      May 30, 2013

      Liz, I am so so sorry for your/our loss. In a strange way, I feel she guided me to this. Just like she guided me to click on her Facebook picture. I knew she rarely used it, but still, it beckoned. I’ll quote Martha from my book Miss You, Pat: “Only in the words of Patti Smith can I express: ‘Paths that cross will cross again.’ See ya Pat.” See ya, Martha.

  7. Geoff Biehl
    May 31, 2013

    Sharon, thank you for writing such a beautiful eulogy for Martha, she deserved it. Her passing came as a shock to me and saddens me. She deserved to beat alcoholism. She was a tough fighter but soft. Tough but funny. Tough like Lou Reed but very smart like Reed. She was in my circle of friends in high school and although hard with others she was always nice to me. I liked her. She had style and grace and gumption at an age when I just had anxiety. I admired her. We are all losing something special by not being able to be around her.

    June 1, 2013

    Geoff~ I almost didn’t post this on Facebook but I’m glad I did now, because I am hearing back from so many friends of Martha that go way back, like you. It’s a bit comforting, knowing that she is a golden thread weaving us together with our shared memories. Thank you.

  9. Catherine Hartley Frost
    June 4, 2013

    Thank you for sharing your lovely memories of my sister, Martha. The last seventeen years have been so difficult, in and out of sobriety. I have been trying to remember the good times, and you have sparked some of them !! Thanks x0x0 cathy

      June 5, 2013

      Cathy~ I hope the good times are what come to the surface for all of us. What I remember is the sound of her voice on the phone saying “Hey Sharon, this is Martha Hartley”–always with the last name, as if there could be any other Martha in the world. Thank you–it means a lot to me that her family and old friends have welcomed my memories.

  10. Maureen A. Meyer
    June 16, 2013

    Martha died of heart failure, not alcoholism. One coronary artery was 100 percent closed, the other 95 percent closed. The toxicology report showed only therapeutic amounts of drugs; she did have some alcohol in her system, but not an excessive amount, and she wasn’t driving that night.

      June 16, 2013

      Thank you for the clarification. In the broader sense, is what I was referring to. With no disrespect, but also no denial.

  11. Steve Ashley
    June 16, 2013

    I spent the last five years with Martha. She was a tortured soul but had a heart as big as any. In many ways she was the love of my life. She was my biggest booster and most severe critic. I really tried to give her a life and family here in Minnesota. She passed knowing that she was greatly loved. I will miss her forever.

      June 16, 2013

      Steve, Martha spoke and wrote of you every time we corresponded in these last 5 years. I thought of you immediately with concern and empathy, and yes, I know that you must have given her a safe haven. My sincere condolences to you, and thank you for writing here.

  12. Suzanne Gilman
    July 30, 2013

    Sharon, thanks so much for this post. It’s the end of July and I last spoke to Martha in April, what looks like the week before she died. I just tried to reach her last week not knowing what had happened, so it’s been a very sad and painful day for me. I had just clicked on the FB page to see what was up with M and found my way here. Reading your post and ones from all those who loved M, up to Steve who I had been hearing about so warmly for the last few years. I fill a great grief right now, and a great joy at all who knew her and appreciated her as I do.

      July 31, 2013

      Suzanne~ I am sorry that you are one who just found out…and appreciate you contacting me here. You are lucky in that you got to speak with her before her parting. I think it had been over a year since I had, tho we wrote. She really was a gift to us all. Take good care~

  13. Steve Ashley
    August 6, 2013

    I just returned from California. I tookmy20 year old daughter who also loves Martha. It was an incredible, healing journey. Martha’s family is so wonderful. They really treated me like a member of the family. Martha’s Greatest legacy to me is all of the wonderful people I met through her. I will miss her until my dieing day but each day is maybe a little easier. Next trip is Canada and she will be missed in a big way.We had so much fun last year. Life will truly never be the same.

    August 6, 2013

    Steve, I am so glad to hear this! A wonderful legacy is to connect those left behind, and Martha is doing that. Peace to you and your daughter.

  15. sandyman9
    September 20, 2013

    Hi Sharon, lovely piece of writing. I also found out here a few days ago. On her birthday . Felt very sad by turns that day . Martha was quite a girl. Forgot all about deaf karate. We went out 89 and 90. Some of her Horatio St. years. Wouldn’t run into her much after, though I still made many of the same meetings . Saw her Seido karate school’s exhibition at Hunter College ; memorable for the skills shown and her sensei’ resolve in striking the ice block with his leg a second time, we hiked to and up into the fire tower at Mt. Tremper , she cooked me my 1st tuna steak. Don’t think I knew there was such a thing. How it is when you grow up in the Bronx. We had dinner together on her trip east 5 years or so ago. Saddened by the stories. Took out a Christmas card she sent . She asks me about some recent injuries suffered and , goes on to list a few of her own. “I haven’t been out of pain for months. However , I’m trying to keep my sense of humor and not get too down. I’m cooking Christmas Eve dinner with one hand . The dog and cat have been very understanding.” Later and Love , to you Martha.

      September 20, 2013

      Sandy, thank you for sharing your memories here. Our time nearly overlaps, so much sounds familiar. Her cooking with one hand runs circles around my own efforts with two. I have the Greens Cookbook she gave me as a gift–it was her own, and the little food stains in it were like little guides to what I should try. I find I seek now them out. We both saw her the same final trip back to NY.

  16. Anonymous
    April 5, 2014

    Thinking of you Martha. Hugs

    • Steve
      April 5, 2014

      I too think of Martha constantly. I can’t believe it’s almost a year. In spite of our ups and down I had such a wonderful relationship with her. She was the love of my life.

  17. Steve
    April 23, 2014

    It’s been one year.Martha was not easy to be in a relationship with. She liked to keep people at arms length. It took her two years to tell me she loved me. Today, I will remember the good times. The pain is still fresh, the scars unhealed but I choose to remember the happy Martha and the incredible person she was. Martha was so tough on the outside and so soft and vulnerable once I broke through her shell. We had so much joy in our life together.Sailing, motorcycles,travel, theatre, food…
    I thought Martha would be the last love of my life. I never wanted anybody else…

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This entry was posted on May 14, 2013 by in Essay, Losing People and tagged , , , .
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