My grandmother met the man she would marry when she was 16, a young and precocious flapper, already finished with high school and hard to keep at home. Greenwich Village hosted too many parties with expatriate countesses, gin soaked revolutionaries on the run from their dorms at Princeton, socialists with fingers ink stained from handing out their bulletins in the squares and of course, young women on the move with just a ferry ride between them and home. Arm in arm with her friend Coralie, 4 years her senior who had already convinced her to ride in Lindbergh’s plane, she danced all night at a rent party and one man followed them home to Staten Island and the Stuyvesant hotel. Her mother owned it and made her own living. She had to make up for her husband’s infrequent paychecks. (He was spending them in China, the Philippines, wherever the early 20th century sent the US Navy. She knew he was supporting other women, and other daughters.)
Martha was sent to Canada to spend some time with the aunts and to get her away from him. Two years later they married. The flapper became the wife of a traveling salesman and semipro golfer and she set up house at the hotel. She had three kids, suffered through the illness and death of her only son from leukemia, and patched the family back together with her kindness, hospitality and cooking. For 35 years she also nursed and buried her mother, her aunts, her grandmother, her husband and then her youngest child who was only 33 and who left 3 kids of her own. As a 16 year old on the run I spent as much time as I wanted at her house. She was a master of getting a teenager to talk and work at the same time. We had two stations at the kitchen table: on one side I was polishing all of her silver: spoons, candy dishes, bud vases; on the other she made pies, apple or strawberry rhubarb and Parker House rolls. I boasted about riding my bike to the Village and talked endlessly about who lived at the Chelsea Hotel, the Café Wha? and the poets at Wilentz’s 8th St. Bookshop. I was oblivious to how I might have been a pest at any of these places. Saturday after Saturday, I travelled farther, deeper into the neighborhoods bursting at the seams with beatniks crossing worn paths with hippies and the next decade’s intellectuals. She listened, bemused and absorbed and I’m sure now I was a tonic for her. What love she had for me. She never competed and let me run with my own discoveries and thrills. I never knew about her own Village adventures until much later. I’m her grateful namesake.