There were thirty of us gathered for the occasion. At one end of the room sat Martha, who was her calm, alert and smiling self. Next to her on a small table was a greetings card. It was from the Queen. Next day Martha would be one hundred. Three parties had been arranged for her: one with her family, one with her neighbours and this one with some older friends – our average age was probably in the late 70s. The speeches began and suddenly the moment was magical. For all of us Martha is much more than a loving and generous friend. Her wisdom and comportment make her a wonderful role model. Her clear recollections over nearly a century make her a unique raconteur and historian.
There was plenty for our two speakers to talk about and while most of what they said was familiar, some was new and added depth to our affection. We heard that she was born in Germany into a well to-do Jewish family; that she went to Geneva as a teenager to learn French and opera; that in 1933, on hearing Hitler’s anti-Semitic ranting in the main square of Karlsruhe, she decided that she would have to emigrate; that in the late 1940s she arrived in England after several years in Palestine; that in 1948 she married her beloved companion Roy, a British serviceman whom she had met in Jerusalem; that once in England she successfully integrated into her third home (with her third language) where she and Roy supported the local community at every level.
Particularly moving in all this was a letter from the mayor of Ulm in Swabia and another from the German Ambassador in London. They knew all about her in Ulm as she had been a guest of honour there in 1988 and had addressed in German several hundred dignitaries on the topic of ‘Reconciliation’. Both letters congratulated her on reaching one hundred, unreservedly apologised for the awful treatment she and her family had been subjected to under the Nazis, and thanked her for remaining faithful to Germany and its people and for not bearing grudges.
Added to all this, each of us had our own personal ‘best’ stories of Martha. In our case it was our first meeting that marked her out as special. It was a warm spring evening in 1991. On that day my wife and I, and our three children, had moved into our new family home in Richmond. We knew nobody in the neighbourhood. The house was large and echoey, and most of our possessions were still in their cardboard boxes. We were lost and exhausted. Then the front door bell rang, and there was Martha with her warm smile and twinkling eyes offering us a dish containing a warm casserole. It was a house warming present. She lived ten doors down the road and knowing how weary we would be had brought something along to make us feel at home. Then, without more ado, she left.
At that moment our friendship was sealed and we have been close ever since, and particularly so in the few years since Roy died. Most weekends we have had tea together, and when that has not been possible we catch up over the phone. Whenever we chatted or ‘debated’, her special qualities soon surfaced. I am thinking particularly of her kindness, courage, cunning and foresight, her capacity to adapt and to forgive, her realism (I wanted say optimism but she corrected me) and her sense of fun and mischief. And in discussion she has always been most thoughtful, embarking on topics such as abortion or marital disharmony as and when. In almost all spheres she has remained au courant – the exception being men’s style – thus whenever I wear pink socks she has told me firmly that this is “not what real men do”.
Back to the party. Each of us in turn sat on one of the chairs next to her for a moment’s private exchange. Then the cake appeared. She blew out the candles and it was her turn to speak. We fell silent and after a few seconds of careful deliberation and then with some majesty, she thanked her hosts for arranging the party and the many guests for coming along and being so warm. Next she added how she knew that Roy would have been pleased that she was being so well looked after. Finally, she said how deeply she valued all our friendships and how she hoped that these would continue.
As I see it, all birthdays are worth celebrating, but there is something about the 100th that is especially momentous. It is probably the idea of taking stock and for me this was personified in what was said. Powerful stuff.
After further toasts, Martha set off down two flights of stairs and home for her customary afternoon nap. And typically she had chosen this occasion to make a concession, at least to me. I wore pink socks to the party and, for the first time, she made no comment.