Last week, my friend died.
Martha Stolztfus was a character. To me, at least, she felt like a person you could lift from life and set in a book and people would want to read it. Or maybe it was the other way around—she stepped out of a book to become a real-life character.
With Martha, I kept seeing different sides and wanting to know more. The demure side, for example. She was a great-grandma, after all, and a preacher’s wife. Sitting in a church pew with her hair tucked neatly under her prayer cap, a Bible in her hands, and her face carefully composed, she was the model of piety.
But she also had a tongue with some spice, spice that flavored up a conversation and made it something to remember. Once at a writers’ retreat, she took on a bunch of young’uns, as she called us since we were all a generation or more below her. We were sitting around coffee, using big words to talk about abstract concepts.
Martha, who probably had a greater readership than any of the rest of us, hadn’t said a word, just kept moving her eyes from one speaker to the next.
“What do you think, Martha?” someone asked.
“Only this,” she said, “that if you all knew what you were talking about, you could say it plain out.”
And she had us there.
Seeing Martha, as quick and light and diminutive as the birds she fed outside her window, you might not guess that she had forded rivers and waddled across a swinging bridge on her way to give birth, that she had fought coal soot and mud and copperheads, once taking a .22 rifle after a snake in her martin box.
Martha crossed cultures, leaving Pennsylvania’s Amish country to live in an Appalachian hollow, a deep chasm with high, close-in hills. She learned to love this hollow, where the sun shone late and left early, where each spring, she counted off the cold snaps—Redbud Winter, Dogwood Winter, and then Blackberry Winter, one after the other as they first dotted the dark, bare hills with their blooms and then turned impish, and blasted them with polar air.
Impish, that was Martha. Anyone could see her sincere faith, but running through it was a saucy sense of humor that kept me curious. What would she say next?