August 1, 2015 § 12 Comments

Mary-and-MarthaThat’s Martha in the background of the painting, doing the drudge work while her slacker-sister, Mary sits at the feet of an exceptional guest. Jesus of Nazareth.

Still, he is company, and someone has to cook supper. That someone appears to be Martha, who wouldn’t mind a little help, but when she requests her sister lend a hand she is chastised for having her priorities wrong.

This is the take on the story I got from my mother, not the Catholic Church, which came down on the side of the listening sister, not the one doing the work.

My mother understood that what Martha saw when she looked at Jesus was not a soul aflame, but a gaunt man in need of a meal; my mother sympathized because the role of Martha had been thrust on her as well.

As the daughter in a traditional Italian family my mother was expected to care for her father and brother after her mother’s death. For Maria Gloria Bontempi, Martha had it hard enough doing the drudge work, but watching lazy-ass Mary get praised for not helping? That was too much.

My mother’s indignation rubbed off on me.

So this is a post in praise of every Martha who labors so that others may fly and dream and burn with passion, fixate, behave impractically, and then sit down to a hot supper they did nothing to prepare.

Bluebirds.The other day my husband, Ray, was flipping through John James Audubon’s The Birds of North America, Audubon’s magnum opus.

Like Jesus, Audubon was afflicted with an all-consuming passion. Speaking of birds he wrote:

“I felt an intimacy with them that bordered on frenzy that must accompany my steps through life.”

And so he set out to paint all the bird species of North America.

Although he tried his hand at an import-export business and did portraits on commission, the long tramp he went on painting those elusive birds consumed the time when he should have been earning money.

His love affair with birds was financed by his wife, Lucy. It was her income as a teacher that supported their family.

Smart, adaptable and strong-willed, she was the steady parent of their children. While her husband hunkered by fires with Shawnee hunters, slogged through swamps, mounted specimens for his growing collection, perfected his skills as a painter, it was her encouragement and income that sustained his effort and ultimately sent him to London to have engraving plates made which became his famous work.

The artist is long gone, but his work endures. The fact it exists at all is thanks to Lucy.

Passion requires a steady partner. For John James Audubon, Lucy Bakewell was that partner.

Theo.The sacrificing partner is often female, but not always.

With his money and his affection, good old stodgy Theo Van Gogh was the Martha who sustained his brother Vincent’s mad artistic vision.

These two portraits, long identified as self-portraits, are now thought to be portraits of Theo.

Although Vincent kept few of Theo’s letters, Theo faithfully preserved Vincent’s.

After Theo’s death, his wife spent five years organizing the letters Theo had received from his brother which she then had published.

Without Theo and his wife, Johanna, Vincent Van Gogh’s legacy, written in the sand, would have washed away in the tide.

Some sacrifices made by those walking Martha’s path yield lasting benefits. But what about those who give their lives to partners whose grand dreams flame out leaving nothing but ash?

The sacrifices will be made anyway–only time can decide who is Vincent Van Gogh, and who is just a guy who liked to apply paint thickly.

Faithful Martha will keep the bills paid, the children warm and dry, and dinner on the table.

See that incandescent mad genius?  Look carefully and you will see Martha in the background tending, perpetually tending, to the needs of that white-hot dreamer.

Note: Many who are cast in the role of Martha have dreams of their own. My mother cared for her father and brother, and then her husband and three children, but in every spare moment she wrote novels, always interrupted by the need to cook dinner or drive a kid to scouts.

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§ 12 Responses to Martha.

  • ammaponders says:

    I’ve been Martha–stay at home mom with a husband who traveled a lot for work. And now, at 63, more Mary, with time to sit and listen to friends who need that. Mary is easier. And more immediately rewarding.


  • Pat Skene says:

    I have been a Martha and a Mary…I prefer being a Mary, lazy ass that I am. Great post! Very thought-provoking!

    Liked by 1 person

  • Pat Skene says:

    PS…I’d like to “like” your post, because I really like your post- – but can’t find the like button to show you how much I like it. ☺️


  • April D Penton says:

    Great insight to a problem for so many artists. Who pays the bills , does the grunt work and is later forgotten?


  • KM Huber says:

    I knew the role of Martha only once. Although I was not any good at it–I resented it most of the time–I did recognize that it had to be done for my partner and for the children. There was no one else to do it; it still amazes me that I did it with little complaint. Yet, I yearned for a life of solitude, much like the one I have now, for ultimately, my dreams prevailed it seems. Lovely post, Adrian, another to add to my re-read often list.


  • Thank you Pat–I got those like buttons turned on!

    Liked by 1 person

  • Paul of Flowerland Mountains says:

    Ms Andrea:
    Great post, gets us all where we live- past or present or future ….
    compared to my two active working siblings;
    I have been a Mary,
    as have had no children,
    and the ties that bind were dissolved by factors beyond my control;
    but have always admired the Marthas and have strived to support the artists often to the extent of — based on available resources – supporting them;
    however I am not a Martha or a Mary, exclusively anymore,
    but find myself in one role or the other often in the same day …
    (could be why I feel kinda dizzy and confused by the end of the day rght not — and have to sit down — though the tomato sauce on the pizza did taste pretty wierd…
    … (and he slumps over the keyboard in a confused, or possibly mildly food-poisoned kind of state, with just enuf awaress to click …


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