Martha looked at her belly button.
That is not the result I expected when I held a creative writing workshop in my home.
Martha joined my workshop late in the game?four years after writers began gathering in my living room, and only weeks before my husband, David, and I would move more than a thousand miles away. It was late in the game for Martha as well. She was 78 years old and on oxygen.
David and I lived on the eighth floor of a 12-story building in Massachusetts; Martha lived three floors below us. Every evening a klatch of ?mature? women gathered in the lobby to gossip about the rest of the tenants and to gripe about the management. Martha was one of them. She must have watched the writers arrive for months, or even years, before she decided to approach me.
?Are you the one who does the writing classes?? she asked as I struggled through the lobby with grocery bags one day. She grasped the small rolling cart with her metal canister of oxygen, adjusted the tube entering her nose to quiet the whistle, and wobbled toward me.
?Yes,? I said.
?Boy, do I have some stories to tell,? she wheezed, coming closer. Actually, too close. ?When I was born, my mother threw me away.?
I gasped. ?You mean in a trash can?? Every once in a while something like that comes across the news.
?No, no, no.? She chomped her jaws the way people do when they have ill-fitting false teeth. ?Not literally. I mean she sent me out to be adopted, and I?m still not over it.? She stared at me, her eyes a little bulgy.
From behind Martha, I heard a few cackles from the other mature women. They would probably rehash this conversation for weeks to come.
?I?ve never looked at my belly button,? Martha said earnestly, looking up at me from her four-foot-eleven stature. Her eyes reddened from the burden she?d been carrying for 78 years. She pushed up her glasses with an arthritic hand. ?My mother didn?t want me. That?s why I can?t look at my belly button . . .? Her voice cracked. ?It?s the cord . . . you know . . . that attached me to her.?
I wasn?t sure what to say to fill the silence. The mature women watched. One of them covered her mouth with her hand, eyes twinkling. Another hitched herself halfway around in her chair to get a better look. A third leaned forward, elbows on knees.
Finally Martha spoke. ?Do you charge for the classes??
?Yes,? I said, and told her the amount.
Her body visibly drooped. ?I don?t have that kind of money,? she said, her eyes focused on mine, pleading.
?Just come, Martha. Don?t worry about the money.?
She reached into her pocket, withdrew two crumpled dollar bills, and forced them into my hand.
Part of me hoped she wouldn?t show up. The five women in the workshop were serious about their writing. They trusted me to come up with prompts each week to stimulate their creativity, and when they read aloud, they trusted one another to hold their work sacred. Martha was not an experienced writer, and I didn?t know if she would understand the guidelines that kept the group running smoothly: only positive feedback; all work is treated as fiction; silence after I state the prompt. And I wondered how the others would receive her.
On Monday evening I heard the telltale wheeze of the oxygen tank in the hall. ?Am I too early?? Martha called into the open door of my apartment.
?Not at all,? I called back. ?Come on in and sit anywhere you?d like.?
She chose a folding chair by the card table. As the others entered, I introduced Martha. They all greeted her warmly.
For my first prompt I set out a figurine. She had wings and a fluted skirt, stood on a mushroom, and held an open book. ?You can write about the entire figurine,? I said, ?or interpret any part of her that you?d like?for instance, the book, the mushroom, the wings.?
I set the timer for 15 minutes. Silence followed, except for the scratching of pens and the oxygen tank pumping life into Martha. After five minutes Martha reached into a plastic bag and rustled around loudly. She stood, walked around, stretched. Distracted from my own writing, I looked up. She whispered loudly, ?My back hurts.?
The buzzer announced the end of the writing period, and I wished for a few more minutes to complete what I?d started. I asked for a volunteer to read what they?d written, and Martha shot her hand into the air. She picked up her paper, and her eyes lit up.
?Do you believe in angels?? she read. She looked at each of us, one by one, before continuing to read. ?I do. She was in the hospital and wouldn?t eat. ?What?s the use?? she said. ?I?m going to die anyway.? But God sent her an angel.?
Having read all that was on the paper, Martha set it down on the table in front of her and continued to speak in the same reading tone, gazing from one of us to the next. ?It was the nurse. He was a big Black man, straight from Africa. And he says to her?? Her voice deepened and took on an accent???Miz Matha, you?s got to eat. God?He don?t want you to die.? Every day that nurse came in and took care of her, and every day she listened to what he said. She got better. That?s why I believe in angels.?
In my training as a creative writing workshop leader, I was taught many things; however, we never discussed a writer who told a story rather than writing it. Fortunately, Martha finished speaking in a reasonable time frame.
The others commented with honest, positive feedback, and Martha?s face glowed.
Several weeks later David and I decided to move to Florida. As I proceeded to pack, the apartment became unsuitable for workshops. I moved the group downstairs to the large community room. The women in the lobby directed the writers to the hallway to the left of the elevator. ?They aren?t meeting upstairs,? they told each writer.
On the last night everyone was emotional?some of the writers had been with me since my first weekend retreat four years earlier. When the workshop was over, Martha waited as the others hugged me. Together we pushed our carts slowly down the hall toward the lobby, mine filled with books and prompts, hers with the oxygen tank.
?I want to tell you something,? she said, stopping before we entered the lobby with the listening women.
My heart skipped a beat. I knew what she meant.
?It?s all because of you,? she said. ?You gave me courage.? She blinked to keep back the tears and fingered her belly button through her blue sweater.
?I was in the shower, and I looked. And you know what I saw??
I shook my head slowly, my eyes locked on hers.
?There are two lines . . . two lines coming off it.? She looked up at me, her eyes watery and large behind her glasses. ?I have two mothers. One gave me birth, and one loved me my whole life.?
I nodded slowly. Martha stepped closer to me, buried her head in my shoulder, and wept.
Dale Slongwhite facilitates creative writing workshops online and in person. She is the founder/director of WriteLines, available at www.writelines.net. Her home is in Altamonte Springs, Florida.