My friend Martha Thomas died last week at 60 after a short, vicious experience with cancer. A seizure in January led to the diagnosis of a glioblastoma tumor in a part of her brain that would not permit surgery and made treatment unlikely to have results. She was living in Easton, Maryland, and at the time she fell ill I had not seen her for a while, with geography, pandemic, and the ups and downs of our long, complicated friendship all playing a role.
Martha was an incredibly talented, competent, and knowledgeable person. She was a theater critic, a magazine editor (I wrote a column for her at a regional magazine called Her Mind), and a gifted food writer. A connoisseur of wine and spirits, Martha founded Maryland Sip and Savor, a journal of that industry. She was an excellent seamstress and also knitted, put up preserves, and gardened. She taught writing at College Park, she was a NIA instructor, and at the time of her death was working toward an MFA in fiction and planning a historical novel. She gave an annual party celebrating the birthday of the Scottish poet Robert Burns. She was a great mom: her only child, her pride and joy, Mary Kelly, graduates from Colgate this month.
Martha loved cars, loved driving, and had managed to become a reviewer for automobile manufacturers and publications. She would be given various brand-new, high-end models to test-drive and take on road trips. Though she never had the money to buy a fancy car off the lot, she never had anything less than a vintage Benz or Volvo parked in front of her house. She also loved architecture and real estate.
In fact, Martha had refined tastes in everything. One of her signal qualities in life was that she was so clear on what she liked and what she wanted. She believed she would get it, and she often did. When she sometimes didn’t, she fumed but did not lower her standards or expectations. In what turned out to be the last two years of her life, she really hit the jackpot.
She met an investor who wanted to open a bookstore on the Eastern Shore. Martha was exactly the type of person who would see no obstacle in the fact that she knew nothing about running a bookstore and had not even worked in retail. (During my last visit to her house, I admired a beautiful golden velvet couch. Martha designed it, I was told. When did Martha become a furniture designer, I asked. Oh, she looked it up on the internet.)
Martha connected with some of Baltimore’s independent booksellers, asked a bunch of questions, went to a few industry meetings, and opened the doors of Flying Clouds in Easton in early 2020. Around this time she also applied her incredible online dating skills — more on this later — and met a wonderful man named Chris who lived in Bethesda. He fell in love, moved to Easton and they bought a beautiful Craftsman bungalow -‑ Martha’s favorite type of house — on a sweet, shady street near the store. When Martha turned 60 in December of 2020, she had everything she wanted.
In January, I heard she had been hospitalized, and the more I found out, the worse it sounded. Not too long into her illness, Martha began to lose the ability to type, but I have two last texts from her. One was a wisecrack: Could spots on my brain be excuse for bad behavior in past? The other: Chris is a miracle.
The second-to-last the time I saw her in February, traveling out to Easton with our mutual friend and ex-boyfriend David Linden (in fact, Martha and I sat together at what was jokingly called the ex-girlfriends’ table at his wedding), she couldn’t speak clearly. We met Chris the miracle, learning of yet another layer of this terrible betrayal of fate. Chris is a widower who found Martha when he finally began dating after his first wife died of cancer.
The last time I saw Martha, visiting with another mutual friend, Roland Park realtor Ken Maher, she had already almost died a few days before. But she came back to open her eyes for her daughter, Mary, who shares those big, clear baby blues.
It broke my heart to see this twenty-one-year-old girl at her mother’s bedside, holding both her hands, tears pouring down her face. On the other side of the bed was Martha’s sister Julie, who also looks a lot like her. It was the first time I met Julie, but I could see that she will be a very good aunt in the very long time ahead.
This was a little more than a week ago. It is still impossible to believe.
Martha grew up in New Hampshire, went to Philips Exeter as a day student, got her BA from UNH. She was proud of her Exeter pedigree and kept in contact with famous classmates like the theater people Michael Cerveris and David Loud. She had lived in Minneapolis and New York City and was never 100 percent sure about landing in Baltimore, though she lived here for 20 years.
I met her in 2008 at an Urbanite party right before I moved to town — I drove down from Glen Rock, PA with my daughter Jane. The Urbanite, an erstwhile city magazine founded by Tracy Ward, hosted monthly happy hours at various locations to celebrate their advertisers and people involved in the current issue. Martha and I were both single moms at this time, and both eager to take advantage of the free food and booze while our daughters — Mary was just a year older than Jane — ran around together, often cadging money to go buy ice cream cones since they never liked the fancy hors-d’oeuvres.
At the time we met, I was a new divorcee and Martha mentored me in my early online dating experiences. She put together my first date outfit, gave me a list of first date restaurants, and a set of clear criteria to determine whether to advance to second date and beyond. She eventually set me up with a few potential suitors and even threw a potluck so I could spec out some options. They were not promising.
By 2012, I had retired from dating and our friendship had become a bit fraught. After we had been out of touch for a while, we made a plan to go together to the 13.5 Wine Bar in Hampden. Martha wanted to check out their new menu, possibly for an article, so I went along thinking at least I’d get some free food.
I was a little mad at her because I hadn’t heard from her when I was in treatment for hepatitis C and pretty sick for several months. She countered that she’d had no idea what was going on with me because I never even called her. I said it wasn’t my job to call her when I was sick. The discussion got so heated that our waiter no longer would come anywhere near the table. When he finally did, it turned out we were splitting the check. And I didn’t even order all that charcuterie!
We laughed at that story together a couple years later. Our connection never totally frayed and when she met my friend David Linden on OKCupid, the one whose wedding we eventually attended together (so Smalltimore), I was happy to sprinkle a little fairy dust on the connection by telling each of them how great the other was.
I didn’t meet Chris the miracle until the day I visited their beautiful home in February. I brought a stack of books, since in her pre-bookstore days, Martha was one of the passionate readers to whom I passed the best of the review copies I receive. When I returned last Saturday, it was Chris who had read them all. The more I saw of their life together, the more I was both glad and heartbroken. She had everything she wanted — for such a brief moment in time.
I could not find a picture of Martha and me together anywhere and perhaps there isn’t one. When you have a connection that is a bit tangled, as ours was, but also sturdy, as ours was, you have a lot to think about when that person leaves this earth.
I will be thinking about Martha for a long, long time.
A memorial service will be held at Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church on June 26, 2021, at 11 am. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in her honor to the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Everyman Theater. Friends who want to be involved in a memorial tribute to Martha should contact Carolyn Lynch at firstname.lastname@example.org.