Seventy-five years ago today, it was a cold and snowy Sunday morning in Cincinnati, Ohio when Mary Martha Griley first appeared on the world’s stage. My grandmother, Martha Griley, an inveterate Sunday School teacher, never made it to church that morning. Since it was so snowy, my mother was born at home—confirming for all time that the Griley family must claim that baby as the right baby!
We don’t think of our parents as children and adolescents all that often—we see them as taskmasters, heroes, guides or models. But in the case of my mother, I know a great deal about her childhood. I know of the children’s play where she played a Queen and uttered the line, “The festival will not begin until I arrive.” As she grew up and her winning personality emerged, that line set a tone for much of her life!
I know that Mary Martha loved school—in my childhood she made sure I met many of her teachers, always thanking them for stoking the fires of her curiosity. I know that my father, once he came into the picture when she was a senior in high school, never failed to be moved and awed by her intelligence and work ethic in terms of her intellectual pursuits.
Along about the same time as she began dating my father in February, 1957 (her senior year, and by the way, the picture up above is from her Senior graduation in 1957. Here the couple stand and smile 1600 days before they would wed.) Mary Martha also began planning to become an education missionary to Burma. I guess she chose Burma as her mission field because the very first American Baptist (her family’s church affiliation) missionaries had been Americans Adoniram and Ann Judson, who had spent forty years in Burma in the 19th century. The Judsons’ work inspired many Americans to become or support missionaries; they translated the Bible into Burmese, and established a number of churches in Burma. Mary Martha wanted to use her love of drama and her public speaking skills and take the gospel to Burma where she could spread her love of Jesus Christ.
But God had other plans. Mary Martha became a “missionary” of sorts, just not in the way that she expected. Mary Martha developed some neurological problems and soon her mother received the news that MM was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, a disease that had afflicted both her father and an uncle. She was not told at that time because her doctor was fearful that it would speed up the progression of her disease. He did inform my father of MM’s condition so that he could anticipate what a future with her might hold. My mother attended Denison University in Granville, OH, a family alma mater going back to the late 19th century. She majored in Political Science and pledged the Chi Omega sorority. Due to her increasing health problems, however, she was advised to come closer to home. So she finished her BA at the University of Cincinnati where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1961. She was asked to be included in “Who’s Who in American Women” for the work she had done over the last five years.
In my childhood I heard the stories of her hopes and dreams to serve her Lord in Burma. And while that youthful aspiration to live and work in Burma vaporized as her physical limitations persisted, her passion and commitment to missionary work never wavered. She adored the scriptural mandate of Matthew, “Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel.” I don’t remember her quoting this verse in Proverbs, but it wouldn’t surprise me if she had memorized the directive, “A man’s heart plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps.” As I said, God had other plans. Mary Martha put her considerable interest and energy into “home missions.” If Burma was not to be her mission field, the counter at Frisch’s (our nearby ‘Big Boy’ diner) would make do. She parked herself there six mornings a week for years, eager to soothe and console and brighten a day for someone. Over the years she attended weddings and funerals of the patrons and wait staff from Frisch’s. She took that mission field seriously. Mary Martha felt that one of her callings was to make sure that no one felt alone or unloved. She would visit the sick and elderly and telephoned shut-ins. That was always a part of her weekly routine.
During her tenure at our family’s church as the Chair of the Board of Missions (and by the way, the position didn’t exist until she arrived—she insisted the church needed an entire Board to promote awareness of Missions) she planned many mission festivals. Her most memorable, albeit controversial, was the one she entitled “Hunger Hurts.” She advertised that there would be a free catered meal at church following a program. There would also be a world-premiere of a play (that she wrote, natch). Mary Martha convinced the “Rustler Steakhouse” to donate 15 steak dinners with all of the trimmings to help support the play she wrote. She then approached various members of the church to participate in her play that illuminated the excesses of American life. However, as the church family watched the actors enjoy their steak dinners in the play, the rest of us dined only on watery bouillon. Mary Martha wanted to demonstrate what it must be like for those starving in other countries while we appear oblivious to their situation. Although it certainly angered some, the message resonated.
Inevitably, when one thinks about my mother for awhile (and by the way, I have discussed her as “Mary Martha” throughout this blog entry, in the third person, simply because I love hearing her name. I don’t hear ‘Mary Martha’ nearly as much as I would like to hear her unusual name!) her association with MS creeps into one’s consciousness. She endured this disease for nearly a half-century, but it doesn’t define her or confine her in my memory. It shaped how we dealt with the physical side of life, but it never will become her most identifying feature.
Perhaps the quintessential Mary Martha story is when she wanted to introduce me to actress Carol Channing. Sometime around 1977 the family went downtown to Music Hall to see a touring production of Hello, Dolly! The production dazzled me, and Carol Channing seemed like a musical comedy goddess. My mother asked me if I wanted to meet the actress. I said, “Sure!” My father sighed, and said, “I’ll go and get the car.” My mother and I made our way to the stage door, she with her cane elegantly supporting her walking, and she just nodded as we sailed past the security. He nodded back, smiling at the confident woman. In her bold and cheery way, we joined a private backstage party for the family of one of the cast members. She smiled and took me straight up to La Channing, introduced me as a young chap who loved drama and one who had adored the show. Ms. Channing graciously made small talk, smiling all the while as she autographed my program, and then she turned to my mother and asked who she was. My mother replied, “Oh, I’m Aunt Mary Martha!” When we left the glamorous backstage party to find my father, my sister, and the car, I scolded her about that lie. She said simply, and truthfully: “No, I’m somebody’s Aunt Mary Martha”!
Eleven years later, Hello, Dolly! marked my directorial debut at my first teaching job in North Carolina. Somehow, my mother figured out how to call Carol Channing and asked her to call me and wish me luck with the show. That’s my mother.
One of the ways Mary Martha served God was as a patient. No matter how sick she was, the light of the Lord radiated from her. On more than one occasion a doctor cautioned my father that the end was certainly near. My father would smile and confidently disagree—we expect miracles in our family. During her last hospital stay, my father saw that the staff had put a picture of Mary Martha in her chart that was taken while she was heavily sedated and hooked up to machines. It saddened him that that was the way that she would be viewed by all who opened her chart. Ever the pragmatist and romantic, my father hung his favorite photograph of Mary Martha on the wall of her hospital room, the photo you see at the start of this blog entry. Look at her—vibrant, cheerful, radiant, healthy. He said to me, “I want them to know who they’re dealing with here,” for that is certainly who he saw each time he looked at her and he wanted others to see that person as well.
At her funeral the pastor compared her to two biblical people—of course, there had to be two—one just wouldn’t suffice! He talked of Job in the Old Testament, the sufferings and endurance of the patient and faithful Job, but also the work and energy and vision of New Testament Paul, the writer and urger of how to spread the gospel. Just like her birth names, there was always a duality and depth to this Mary Martha.
Yes, God had other plans for Mary Martha’s journey, but one of the lessons I have gleaned so powerfully from her life is that no matter where we are we can serve others. No matter the current situation, no matter the pain or despair, even if it’s not where we hoped we would be, we can bloom where we are planted. She wanted her life to be a statement and not an apology.
In Hello, Dolly! that spunky character Dolly Levi has an introspective moment when she sings “Before the Parade Passes By.” As much as that show is embedded deep in my consciousness (and even more than you think—my mother in my childhood used to clean the house as she played Broadway original cast recordings on the hi-fi! I have visions of her dancing and dusting to Jerry Herman’s bouncy Hello, Dolly! score!) that song does not best illustrate my mother’s legacy. No festival ever really began until she arrived. But there is a song, in another Broadway show, one that she never saw, that may indeed embody her essence. A decade ago composer William Finn wrote, Elegies: A Song Cycle, a gentle musical about love, life, and loss—a parade of songs and stories that stream by, stirring our own bittersweet memories about the deaths of various people, including some of Finn’s closest friends and family members. And although the show is all about death and dying, it’s no sad trip down memory lane. Never morbid, Elegies is touching, funny, and ultimately buoyant, floating on the spirits of those who inhabit its songs. One song is about a son losing his mother; but it was not about that loss, it was about how to live life fully. He sings:
The world is good, she said.
Enjoy its highs; the summer flies, she said.
So make a parade of every moment.
Now throw away your hate, and focus on what’s great…instead.
Cuz this is it, she said.
So make a parade of every moment.
Yes, that mandate, that directive, make a parade of every moment—that is the Mary Martha that I know and love and call my mother. You know, if I can steal from author Reynolds Price, about what he wrote about his grandmother: “She was God’s best work on God’s best day.”
Seventy-five years ago today…that was surely one of His best.