Memories That Matter

Repairing the World

“How do you want to be remembered?”

A young man asked me that at the end of an interview about my work with the gay liberation movement. The question spurred me to these musings:

My father grew up during the Great Depression and was thankful to find a steady—though low paying—government job after World War II. When he lay dying, in an urgent almost-whisper he described to me how he had transferred the local Navy office’s accounts from paper to computer, when the technology was introduced. That achievement obviously meant a lot to him; perhaps that was how he wanted to be remembered.

What I remember, though, is his unfailing kindness to relatives in need. His willingness to take in a nephew whose single mother, my Mom’s sister, couldn’t care for him. His modesty—he once told me, his voice full of passion, that he hated braggarts. His strong protective arm, pushing me down to safety when the police drove roaring down our block after a stolen car, jumped out, and started shooting wildly. The bullets fortunately missed everyone, including the thieves.

My mother’s life was cut short by a massive stroke, so she never had a chance to say what accomplishments most mattered to her. What I saw during her life was that, like my father, she took care of less fortunate relatives—her sister, the nephew who became my brother, her own disabled parents.

It was only after her death that I also came to appreciate her courage. At age 16, during the depression, she left her family in Havana and boarded a small boat along with other desperate migrants, to travel across the open ocean to Miami, arriving as an indocumentada. Not even knowing the language, she made her way to New York and found work in a factory.

For the rest of her life she had the courage and determination to learn. Although she had no formal education past elementary school, I remember seeing Anna Karenina and other classics on her night table. Later I found out that she read my sister’s college texts after Sis was through with them.

I find myself thinking also about Constance Patti, a friend who died many years ago. Born with fingers and toes fused, she underwent multiple surgeries that enabled her to walk and use her hands. Her family put her in a Catholic boarding school, which she referred to as the “Convent of the Holy Terror.”

When Connie grew up she found work as a stripper. The customers were totally focused on her big boobs and didn’t even notice her hands and feet. Men didn’t interest her anyway, as she was a lesbian and feminist. Later in life, when her lover Alice developed MS and was in a wheelchair, Connie learned to drive and do all the chores.

How would Connie have liked to be remembered? I don’t know, but to me she was one of the innumerable women and men whose courage and steady work keep the world going.

And how did I reply to the young interviewer’s question?

“I really don’t care how people remember me. I’ll be dead and won’t know about it. All that matters is what I can do to make the world a better place for all of us here today. And to leave it in better shape for our children.”

5 Responses to Memories That Matter

  1. Connie O Byrne February 18, 2024 at 8:35 pm #

    oh Martha, a beautiful piece! I loved the graphics that start the conversation, reminding me of my own Dad bent over the side of the station wagon, fiddling with the carburetor, setting the points…and letting me, encouraging me to be right there with him. Knowing how to do all that saved me a bundle until the newer cars didn’t have spark plugs, rotor, etc. …that was a loss in my book…lol.

    the stories about your parents made them leap off the page right in front of my eyes… We helped take care of the two boys my uncle and his wife had adopted when she took off and left them all behind. They lived with us for about six months while Junie (short for Junior) got himself together, quit drinking, got his job back and a new place for them to live. They turned out pretty okay all in all.

    And my folks raised my nephew off and on from when he was about 8 or so when I sister decided it was more than she could deal with…she’d get divorced, take him back, start dating someone new, leave him with my folks while she got settled and they finally put their foot down and made her give them guardianship so he’d have some stability. Years later she tried to tell him how to raise his boys. He shut her down. Their relationship was never easy by any means…and when Father Jim called and left word that Sharon had died, he called me first and asked me to take over because he wanted nothing to do with making arrangements for her. He said he was just glad the phone wasn’t ringing anymore with her trying to bully him into giving her money. Martha, when my sister died and we were putting her ashes into the church memorial gardens, I cried. I cried for what we’d never had and never would have.

    I really liked your parting words…mine are the same.
    hugs as always lady
    Connie Byrne

  2. Martha Shelley February 18, 2024 at 11:20 pm #

    Connie, you need to write a memoir of your own, for no other reason than to leave all these stories to your kids.

  3. Namascar Shaktini February 19, 2024 at 9:10 am #

    Martha Shelley, I think you will be remembered for your early activism for lesbian liberation.

    • Martha Shelley February 19, 2024 at 9:55 am #

      Hi Namascar, good to hear from you! But the truth is, I really don’t care, ’cause I won’t be around to know about it. Meanwhile the important thing is what I’m doing today–and my plan is to make some cherry ice cream for dessert tonight.

  4. Connie O Byrne February 19, 2024 at 9:25 am #

    I know, people have been telling me that for a long time. I even have a few books on doing just that. Living keeps getting in the way…lol. in the meantime, I’m enjoying what you write and I’m eager for more. And seriously, the graphic you used to lead off this piece could have been my Dad and me!!
    take care…lots of hugs

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