A Mother's Journey

For Martha Spice, motherhood has been a mysterious odyssey of genius, sacrifice and fulfillment. Now it's just a matter of letting go.

Cover Story

May 13, 2001|By Story by Gary Dorsey

The boys know every dip and twist of this route. Their mother, who is blind in one eye, knows it even better.

"C'mon, Mom, you're driving so slow," says Ben. "I could drive this in my sleep!"

But Martha Spice just keeps singing with the radio and lightly pulsing the accelerator.

"Look, Ben," she says, "there's a hawk on that telephone line."

She tells them about the day she recovered a lost goat on this road, then points to a line of geese disappearing on the horizon. The boys don't notice how easily she diverts them from her dallying. Mom knows lots of tricks.

At 48, Martha is a thin, thin woman with chestnut eyes and a Joan-of-Arc haircut. She's logged enough mothering miles to have earned the well-worn manner of the domestic sage. She wears blue jeans, cusses and drives a Dodge Neon.

These two boys of hers, 15-year-old Ben and 13-year-old Adam, are geniuses. The route Martha drives from their home in Madonna to Harford Community College is one she mapped 60,000 miles ago when their brother, Loren, became the youngest person ever to enter the college as a freshman. He was 12 at the time. Today, at 19, he attends the University of Chicago on a full scholarship, pursuing a Ph.D. in mathematics. Professors predict Loren will become a luminary in the field some day.

The story of the Spice boys is one of those oddities local newspapers feature from time to time. Editors call them "Hey, Martha" stories because they like to think a man sitting down at breakfast will pick up the newspaper and yell to his wife, "Hey, Martha, didja see this story about the brainiacs?"

But what if the real "Hey, Martha" story was Martha herself? What if the man at the breakfast table actually put down his newspaper and looked up at the woman who drives the kids to school, tends house, teaches, cooks, eats and breathes the mystically selfless process of motherhood? What if he could see what she sees? What if he suddenly understood her sacrifice?

Hey, Martha?

At 8:53, she pulls up to a curb at the college and commands: "Go to school!" (Mom knows how to squeeze another drop of juice out of the clock.) "What time do you want to be picked up?"

"Eight post meridian," Adam replies.

"OK," she sighs, dodging his little word game. "Well, be careful crossing the road."

"And if I'm not?" he says.

She cocks a finger and points it unambiguously at his head -- quite the motherly gesture. He scrambles off to class.

At one time, Martha felt like a greyhound stretched at full pace: belly to the ground, rounding the track. For 29 years she had been maestro of adolescence, driver on a mission, teacher, baker, nurse, good wife. She had promised to nurture an extraordinary gift.

But those days have nearly ended.

Martha turns the car around and clicks off the radio. Even though the 16-mile return trip home is a familiar comfort, she winces at the ache under her ribs where the catheter has slipped. Her kidneys have given way almost completely now. She doesn't let the boys know, but today silence makes good company.

She never expected to be a mother. She never expected geniuses. She never expected to get sick. For some women, life just unfolds in odd moments of grace and revelation. Then, at the heart of middle age, they realize their complicated, rambling lives have been a great saga all along.

Martha's saga began in 1970, when she flunked out her freshman year at Messiah College in Pennsylvania. Wild and bookish, smart but always out of sync, she had to leave her life to make sense of it. She escaped her Harford County roots, a miniskirted teen-ager, and headed for Paris and untold adventures at the Sorbonne. A year later, she found herself married to a poor English sculptor, lying on a bed surrounded by Greek midwives on the Mediterranean island of Paros, gasping, "Baby!"

Her first moment of revelation came in that gasp. "Baby!" she cried during the delivery. "Baby!" Within weeks, she was washing daughter Taz's diapers in well water and hanging them to dry from the roof. Suddenly, everything seemed just right.

By 1981, she was back in Harford County, remarried, this time to an American computer systems designer, and mother of two. One day, while she was loading the dishwasher, their 2-year-old boy, Loren, brought her a book and asked her to read.

"I can't now, honey," she said.

"Do you want me to read it to you?" he asked, then blazed through the pages. Mom came undone. How had he learned to do that?

"At night when there's light from the hallway," he said. "I figured out how to turn letters into words."

Which is more remarkable: to realize in the instant of childbirth that the one thing you never anticipated or desired -- motherhood -- would become your life's true mission, or that your toddler has taught himself to read? And now, beyond the moments of revelation and grace, how do you come to understand the rest of your life without children to rear and the promise of another miracle?

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