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Hello Kitty, Martha and Me

And the shattering fragility of life

By Cynthia Adams

My friend Martha “Mac” was a formidable woman; unceremonious, fiercely smart, irreverent. Standing 6 feet tall in her bare feet, she was what some might call “substantial” — think Julia Child in her later years. (That is, if Julia had never picked up a whisk and had become a business professor.)

Martha loved good design, but didn’t give a happy hoot for clothing.

Chief among her passions were American glassware, jewelry, antiquities, Mid-Century Modern furniture, British mysteries and biographies, travel, Kinky Friedman, Cook Out burgers, Duke U. and . . . Hello Kitty.

As the Sesame Street song goes, “one of these things is not like the others.” That unlikely thing was Hello Kitty.

Hello Kitty celebrated her 45th anniversary last year, bookending my friend’s final exit.  Martha, who died last May, would have hated missing the Hello Kitty Friends Around the World Tour, which kicked off last fall in L.A. I believe she would have been there.

She was a die-hard Pepper. As Martha’s health failed, she pivoted from Pepsi and Dr Pepper to diet Dr Pepper, but remained faithful as ever to the big plush feline with the pink hair bow.

Martha lived in stark contrast to Kitty, never one-dimensional, with the sort of intense presence that no one could miss. She did not suffer fools gladly. Martha’s academic achievements were serious but she adored understatement and devastatingly dry wit.

Also unlike Kitty, she was unpredictable. Martha once declared she would visit all the locales of books she enjoyed, including Franklin, Tennessee, where a Confederate widow buried nearly 1,500 dead soldiers. She sent me a postcard from the setting of Widow of the South. Typically acerbic, Martha scrawled on the back, “Lots of graves.”

She meandered on to the west coast of Florida, then wound up in Austin, Texas, where she earned her doctorate.

Another such junket led her to glass-making sites across the United States, stopping off in Weston, West Virginia, where she was a longtime board member of The Museum of American Glass.

At one time, she drove a two-seater Honda CRX, which required her to imitate a contortionist to get behind the wheel. Martha’s mind, formidably quick, far outpaced a body that slowed to a lumber.

Still, she traveled alone. “Intrepid” is the inadequate word that comes to mind.  The word “carapace” also fits. Martha had a protective shell.

An initiation preceded friendship. She allowed you into her world once you proved you were unafraid of her. My hubby succeeded by offering his delicious mashed potatoes in a pot straight off the stove. Delightedly, Martha plunged the spoon into the pot, declaring them the “best mashed potatoes ever.” They remained lifelong friends.

When Amazon evolved from bookseller to behemoth, Martha was an early adopter, and eBay became an obsession.

Both allowed her to indulge her Hello Kitty passion full on.

One Christmas, Martha gave me one of the most memorable gifts I have ever received: a padded Hello Kitty toilet seat. She kept a Hello Kitty toaster for herself.

The following birthday, Martha gave me a Hello Kitty notepad and a bag of assorted chocolates. Also, Keith Richard’s excellent autobiography, Life, which she had just hoovered down, as she did with books. The Hello Kitty gifts perplexed me given that I am a dog person.

She indulged a love of turquoise to the point she once bought a necklace — bigger than the coveted Squash Blossom design — and large enough to hoist a car engine with — but glassware was the thing that eclipsed all other passions.

The crematorium where her funeral was held last spring was beside a strip joint. As in strippers, not furniture refinishing. I smiled to myself as I parked, thinking how Martha would have appreciated the irony.

Friends and family gathered later at Martha’s townhouse, where she had slowly rid herself of the Mid-century Modern furniture, making room for more fragile collectibles. Now steel shelves and racks held hundreds of pieces of exquisite glass: antique, American, European, rare and some less so. Much of it was donated to the Weston museum where she had traveled often to pay homage to great glass design.

Sitting on lawn furniture among the glassware, we mourners sipped wine as a storm rumbled. Despite the gathering of folk with doctorates and high IQs, words failed. None of us was equal to the wit Martha’s remarkable originality demanded.

So, we shifted awkwardly on our webbed seats, swallowing down the bitter realization that there was no collectible so rare as our fine and fiercely original friend. 

Months later, invited to choose a piece of glass, I strained to admire an unfamiliar piece from a shelf top; it toppled and crashed as if pushed by an invisible finger.  “Oh, shit!” I exclaimed, stricken.

“Exactly what Martha would have said,” came the dry reply from Jim, her executor. 

Of course, I thought bitterly. 

Hemingway was wrong about the lucky growing strong at the broken places. I swept up the shards and took what remained of the piece home. PS

Cynthia Adams is a contributing editor to PineStraw and O.Henry

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