Third grade was Martha’s first hard year of school. It wasn’t academically hard—academics was never hard for her. She almost always got Es, occasionally Gs, never anything less. We didn’t push her to excel; she pushed herself. But third grade was emotionally difficult. She had had an existential crisis during Christmas vacation in second grade, but third grade was rocky all the way through.
Martha at nine, getting off the school bus from third grade, 2003
Her teacher, Mrs. Simpson, was the first one about whom she had ever had any complaints. Mrs. Simpson didn’t know how to control the class, letting bad kids run amok. She even repeatedly allowed the class gerbil, Chips, to escape his cage. She didn’t keep her promises. And there were other problems in the class. Martha disliked her table mates—Stacy was the teacher’s pet; Robert was messy; Penny always wanted the spotlight.
Sadie, who had been Martha’s best friend, became less and less of a friend, in that passively cruel way in which children move on from each other. Martha deliberately cultivated friendships with other girls, such as Susanna, Natasha, and Sara. She saw meanness at school and hated it, even when it wasn’t directed to her—Tiffany, a bossy girl, being mean to Penny, for example.
Martha had discovered the principles of popularity and the pecking order. She ranked herself in the middle of popularity, but was concerned about not falling lower, and even wanted to rise some. Worse, for the first time she had a real bully in her class, a tough boy named Scott, who often threw things and was sent to the principal’s office. He forced her a couple of times to let him copy her homework, and she was terrified she would get penalized for that. So we went and talked to her teacher, Mrs. Simpson, who assured us Martha would not get penalized and that something would be done about Scott. Indeed, he was soon transferred to another class. Maybe he kept making trouble there, but Martha was protected from him.
Physically, Martha’s formerly childish body was gradually starting to take on female contours. At nine, she developed her first crush on a classmate, Timothy, noting in her diary on April 21, 2003, “Timothy talked to me!” Her pipe dream at the time was to marry and have two kids with him. She also planned her career. On Mondays she would act, Tuesdays dance (at ballet, she learned to stand on pointe without support that year), Wednesdays sing, Thursdays play violin (she began studying it at home and at school that year), Fridays write, and Saturdays work as a volunteer teacher. On Sundays she would relax, go to church, and win awards for all her weekday careers.
Martha seemed to get along better with adults than children. She enjoyed an overnight visit from her mother’s close friend Helen, whom Martha had called Aunt Helen from toddlerhood. She liked talking to our friends Brian and Julie from church. At her ninth birthday party in 2003, she talked indoors to our friend Maureen , the mother of the boys, while her child guests played outside in the mud.
Martha felt good about many things. For Saint Patrick’s Day 2003, she listed on a shamrock cutout at school the things she felt lucky for:
I feel lucky to have a home a very nice home with lots of room. I feel lucky to have many toys to play with all the time. I feel lucky to have many friends. I feel lucky to have nice parents. Sweet and funny and kind But most precious of all is LIFE!
Yet sometimes Martha was frustrated in ways I don’t even know about. In her diary on November 23, 2002, she wrote, “So much should be done and none of it’s happening!” In the spring of 2003, she seemed to have her first bout with the depression that would later dominate her life. Maybe it was juvenile depression, but it was depression nonetheless. She spoke with us about her fears of things that hardly ever happened—by which she seemed mainly to mean the death of her parents. She had headaches and prolonged periods of sadness. She had entered the dark place I had feared for her since before she was born—the tangle of thorns in which I had lived my life. She never said she thought of suicide then, but depression often leads to suicidal thoughts, and for all I know she had them.
The episode passed, and she seemed to become happier. Throughout, teachers loved her for how bright and good she was. Mrs. Simpson said she was not only bright but gifted. Her music teacher said he would get a lot done if he had a whole class of Marthas. Another teacher, Ms. Wang, wrote in her autograph book at year’s end, “You have the talent to become great.”
At home, Martha continued to have a rich life of play and learning. She had a new stuffed animal, a white cat she named after , the Chinese Siamese Cat, a kids’ TV show she had never seen but that her friend Joshua liked. (Based on his habit of substituting w for r, she thought he was saying when he said .) She developed the concept of the Pet of the Day—a stuffed animal who got special attention each day. One day it was Baby Bill the frog (named for Bill Clinton); another day Baby Jenna the bear (named for one of George W. Bush’s daughters).
She started playing Monopoly, which would become a favorite game of hers to the end of her life. She also played computer games like Hearts, Hoyle Kids Games, Spy Fox, and . After watching the movie The Poseidon Adventure with me, we invented our own home game of the movie by turning her playsets upside down—Polly Pocket, Robin Hood—and having the characters struggle to climb to the bottom from what had been the top.
Martha was putting on a little weight from not exercising enough, so I invented a game called Animal Feeding Time that would require us to walk the length of the house over and over to carry her bed characters two by two from her bedroom to the playroom, where toy food awaited. When the weather was good, Martha and I took walks outside, making up stories as we walked about a teacher named Miss and her class. Miss like cool air (hence her name), so her class put on a show to raise money to buy her an air conditioner. In notebooks, Martha was also writing fiction, mostly about her stuffed animals.
She learned about the countries of the world by spinning my globe and randomly picking a country whose name she would write in her diary that day—Botswana one day, Poland another. She built her moral sense by picking out what she called the Trinity of the Most Important Morals:
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Actions speak louder than words.
The last shall be first.
She picked up from me the habit of reading a consecutive page of the Bible each day. By December she had gotten up to Leviticus, by May to First Samuel.
She visited the Intrepid battleship museum on a class trip and was terrified walking up a ladder. Her fear of heights was still intense. “I’m never going back,” she wrote in her diary.
She kept reading avidly, including American Girls books, The Princess Bride, and abridged versions of classics like Anne of Green Gables. She learned to type in Word. She made paper cranes.
At her own request, Martha watched an entire movie with both of us at home—The Quiet Man, in celebration of Saint Patrick’s Day. This was a rarity; she usually watched movies in installments. She was by now a real movie buff, and for the first time watched the entire Academy Awards ceremony with us. She watched The Age of Innocence on home video and Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle in the theater. She liked going to theaters not only for the movies but for the concession treats. She loved to make use of a Pick-N-Pay installation where you could choose from a variety of candies and fill a white paper bag with your choices.
On Thanksgiving, she saw It’s a Wonderful Life for the first time. She cried when George Bailey yells at his kids, then says he’s sorry. It became one of her favorite movies. Her five favorite movies at the time were all classics from before she was born:
Gone with the Wind
It’s a Wonderful Life
West Side Story
How Green Was My Valley
My Fair Lady
She changed the list several times over the course of her life. At the end The Godfather topped her list, as it did mine at that time.
In the summer of 2003, Martha acted in her second production of The Wizard of Oz, this time winning the part of Aunt Em, as well as a munchkin. Sometimes after rehearsals, Martha and I went to a donut place in Ardsley she called the smoothie shop, because she always got fruit smoothies there.
All three of us saw Bernadette Peters in a revival of Gypsy on Broadway. Martha got Gypsy-conscious, playing the score on her violin, having her stuffed animals stage their own production, and listening to records of earlier productions with Ethel Merman and Tyne Daly.
In August, we traveled to Denver for the wedding of a friend of mine. It was Martha’s first trip that far west, her first case of jet lag, and her first wedding. But it was important in another respect—for her and me.
Copyright 2020 George Ochoa.