“Doris, I’m okay.” Those were the first words out of the mouth of my dear friend, Martha Elson, as my son and I walked up on her front porch and entered her living room, for what would turn out to be our last visit with her. To my son, Liam, Martha Elson was “Aunt Martha.” For me, Martha Elson was my Louisville sister. As our conversation, that evening, meandered deeper and deeper into topics of current concern, it became apparent that Martha was not okay. For the nearly 20 years that I had known her, Martha rarely talked about herself for very long. Due to her long tenure as a reporter for the Courier-Journal, she was a master at interviewing others and taking an interest in what was important to them. This time, it was a little different. A large part of the conversation, ultimately, settled upon Liam’s interest in obtaining his driver’s license. But pretty early on in the conversation, “Aunt Martha” shared with us that she had rather recently begun to lose her appetite. She couldn’t eat, because food tasted bad.
I first met Martha Elson at Crescent Hill United Methodist Church. At her memorial service on July 10, 2017, my tears flowed profusely during the opening hymn, as the all-too-familiar notes sounded mightily from the organ. It was in the sanctuary of Crescent Hill United Methodist Church that Martha and I first started getting to know each other as close friends. Martha had invited me to play an organ and piano duet with her. At one of our practices, prior to playing for a worship service, I recall Martha sitting beside me on the piano bench. Somehow, I ended up telling her that I was pregnant. It was a big deal to share that news with her. My husband and I had grieved the loss of 3 prior pregnancies, so we were hesitant to share our news too early. I shall never forget, Martha was so jubilant when I told her!
At her memorial service, the pastor commented that courage and bravery described Martha Elson. Indeed, that was the case when Liam was born. Martha and Sandy Burnett, another member of Crescent Hill United Methodist, were the only 2 people who dared to venture across the river, over icy roads, to visit us at Clark Memorial Hospital.
Martha was an angel for us, long before she received her angel wings on July 6, 2017. After we returned home from Clark Memorial Hospital, Martha brought us home cooked meals every Friday night, for at least a couple of months. That was the beginning of the fond title of “Aunt” as Martha cuddled and cooed over little Liam. Friday nights eventually evolved into date nights for Bill and me. Martha came every Friday night, for years, to give Bill and me a break and to enjoy Liam. We would often return to find her joyously dancing to classical music, baby Liam in her arms. In Liam’s case, the Mozart effect, from Martha’s musical influence, didn’t lead to a propensity for playing the piano. But perhaps the love and joy she showered on him has something to do with his many successes and confidence as he has grown from a child to a man.
During the 12 years I was a Creative Memories Consultant, Martha held the record for completing more Creative Memories albums and attending more workshops than any of my other customers. Though she was initially skeptical and reluctant to get involved, Martha became my most dedicated Creative Memories customer. Though she was a journalist by profession, the interesting thing was, Martha did very little journaling in her albums. Her albums were about the images. Many, if not most, of her albums were gifts for family members. During the time that we scrapbooked together, Martha and I came to know each other very well. Just as her twin sister, Mary, spoke fondly of their brother, Mark, at Martha’s memorial service, so did Martha fondly share with me her memories of her older brother, Mark. She told me about their annual dining-room picture at her parent’s home on New York Avenue, a tradition that I tried to adopt for Liam and me, as a record of how we changed as the years rolled by.
As the staff at the Courier decreased and Martha’s responsibilities increased, she eventually had to give up her Friday nights with Liam. We saw each other less over the last few years, but we still saw each other from time to time. We often celebrated Liam’s birthday with Martha. January 3rd, Liam’s birthday, was also Martha’s dad’s birthday, so it was a special date for dual reasons. Martha would send thoughtful old-fashioned greeting cards, via U.S. mail, for my birthday and Liam’s. While recently perusing my library of digital photos, I was reminded that Martha came over, in September of 2012, to celebrate her 60th birthday with us. The cake she requested was a caramel cake.
When I called Martha at the end of December of last year, to make plans to celebrate Liam’s 18th birthday, the last thing I expected to hear was that she had been in the hospital and had been diagnosed with Stage 4 abdominal cancer. Martha had always said, “Don’t worry about me getting sick, Doris. I never get sick.” In the early years of knowing Martha, she was an avid bicyclist. Her parents lived to be in their 90s. Martha shared with me that giving birth to Garret was very easy. I never expected Martha to die before her 65th birthday.
What could Martha have meant when she said to me in that last visit, “Doris, I’m okay.”? It was as if she was trying to comfort me. She knew she was dying and she was accepting of her approaching death. She questioned when the time might be right to call Hosparus. She went through her final days with courage. Just as she crossed that bridge after Liam’s birth, in the dead of winter, Martha now has crossed another bridge.
As was the observation of the people who spoke at Martha’s memorial service, Martha Elson was a multi-talented person. In addition to being an artful and personable journalist and historian, an accomplished musician and a good photographer, Martha was also a skilled seamstress. Martha created many a banner to hang on the walls of the sanctuary at Crescent Hill United Methodist Church. Martha once sewed for us a banner that has hung in our home for many years. Now, when I look at this banner, it reminds me of the Walt Whitman poem that Martha chose to have read at her memorial service. On the banner is a Gaelic blessing and a blessing that I share, now, with you; from my sister, my friend, Martha Elson, an angel who now officially has her wings and plays organ and piano for a heavenly choir.