Mary and Martha

“Preachers or scientists may generalise, but we know that no generality is possible about those whom we love.”
E.M. Forster, Howard’s End

I grew up going to church, but I never learned the story of Mary and Martha. More specifically, I never knew there was a Martha at all. I knew there was a Mary, but I never knew she had a sister Jesus didn’t like. In the story, Jesus visits their house and Mary walks over to Jesus and sits at his feet. Martha continues to cook and clean. When Martha asks for her sister’s help, Jesus tells her: “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

 Say “Martha.” Martha forces your tongue between your teeth. You need to get the air just right, too—it requires a minor strain. To say Mary, you only move your lips; your mouth need not deal with the muscle trapped inside it.

Growing up, I did know that I had two older sisters and a younger brother. They were bodies with flesh and bone. And yet, they were also constructions of my own making—people connected to me whose formation formed my own. One of my sisters was eighteen years ahead of me, and so it was my immediate older sister whose construction I had at the ready—an older sister is not just an older sister but a person to follow, to see which parts of oneself measure up or don’t. Growing up, I wanted to be my sister because she was older. And I wanted to be my sister because she had blonde hair and light eyes and an athletic body. I had dark hair, a stomach I could never “suck in,” and a bottom lip my sister often told me was “too big.”

 My sister was not just good at sports, she was good at performing in school plays, and both things brought her confidence. I wanted confidence. I didn’t know how to get it without her build and her looks. I only knew how to be overwhelmed by what I did not know. I remember being in sixth grade, and not being able to stay in the room when the class had to dissect a frog. I did not know how anyone could move their tiny hearts to see what was below. I often found my head separated from the rest of my body; at a dance or on a sports field, I’d feel like I was floating above the crowd. I hated reading out loud, and would often mumble—not because I didn’t know the words but because I wanted to get to each one too quickly, without knowing exactly what they meant.

In Joan Didion’s essay about Georgia O’Keefe, the essay closes with an image of O’keefe and her sister, Claudia, walking into the Texas sunset, “away from town and toward the horizon.” As they walk, her sister throws bottles into the air and then shoots them. Didion is right when she says “in a way one’s interest is compelled as much by the sister Claudia with the gun as by the painter Georgia” because it’s true—I can’t stop thinking about Claudia. I watch her throw her bottles into the air, and I imagine them shattering. I see the glass shards flying in the big pink and orange sky.

It’s too easy to say that all sisters are Martha and Mary, and it’s too simple to say that Martha had no Mary and Mary had no Martha. And yet: I wonder if every woman, sister or not, has to at least reckon with Mary and Martha because they do seem to be everywhere within me: Martha tells me to clean the house when guests come. Mary tells me to let it be. Then, they wrestle, and distract me with their intertwined legs, as they pull at one another’s hair. I wonder which one is hurting me.  


Hebrew meaning: bitter.

American meaning: bitter.

Aramaic meaning: lady.

Biblical meaning: one who becomes bitter; provoking.

How, then, to become a lady?

Before I knew about Mary and Martha, I thought of my two grandmothers as Mary and Martha, even though I didn’t yet know roots of those archetypes. My father’s mother was the Mary, and my mother’s mother, the Martha. My father’s mother would dote on us, and smother us with kisses. She always seemed impressed with our accomplishments, trivial as they were, and we called her Granmére because she loved to sing French lullabies to us as we fell asleep. My mother’s mother was called Nonnie, and even though that name is derived from the Italian, Nonna, she was not Italian, nor particularly interested in Italy. She hated garlic, and was interested in using one’s hands as much as possible—to sew, to knit, to cook, to change sheets, to pick the towels up from the floor.

 And yet, there were crossovers. For one thing, they both married people they weren’t “supposed” to; Granmére, a Presbyterian, married a Catholic before graduating from college, and Nonnie, a twenty-eight-year-old nanny, married her employer’s older brother, sixteen years her senior. And so, looking back, I can see that it wasn’t so simple after all. One time, Nonnie danced to the trumpet in a barn in Switzerland; Granmére raised seven children.  

Susan Fenimore Cooper was an environmentalist and a writer during the 1800’s when there weren’t many women who were environmentalists and writers, and she wrote about what she saw in nature as a way to justify women’s subordination. When it came to sap trees, she saw them give and give and give, and remain “perfectly healthy,” saying “one would think that the loss of so much sap would necessarily injure the trees; but it is not so, they remain perfectly healthy, after yielding every spring, gallons of the fluid.”

 In some ways, Susan Fenimore Cooper was right: the sap does arrive again, the trees are able to give year after year. At the start of spring, sugary water drips out of their centers, and into cans, making a pinging sound as its droplets hit the bottom. But I wonder: what did she make of the tapping—the sharp object needed to puncture the bark, to rip at the skin? Does every tree recover?

My friend is a teacher and he says that when he sees girls being mean to one another, he gives them the same speech. He tells them that their fighting is what “the man” wants. He tells them about the pervasive patriarchy. He warns them against fighting one another because then they will have not have each other as allies. He tells them that their bitterness will keep them down.

 No one wants a bitter woman at all.

What Mary’s name gets that Martha doesn’t is the “sea”—it means “sea of bitterness, sea of sorrow.” Some say, it means  a “drop of the sea,” a “star of the sea,” “the wished-for-child,” the “mistress of the sea.”  Her bitterness is washed away in the sea; her sorrow is full of deep blues and greens. There are creatures within her that live and breathe underwater, full of feeling.

“How’d she do it?” People often ask, when they talk about Granmére, and her seven children—“How’d she manage to do it all, and with such grace?” Grace seems to be code for beauty or something like beauty—the kind you can only achieve if, along with a small frame and high cheekbones, you can also smile, laugh, and be generous with others. “How’d she do it?”

No one wonders how Nonnie did it. No one wonders how she “did it” because, in a way, she didn’t “do it.” Yes, she raised her children, took care of the members of the town, cooked, travelled, cleaned, read the newspaper, and went to church every Sunday, but she did not “do it” because she wore her grievances on her sleeve, and she did not hide her discontent. She was also slightly overweight, and never seemed to care.

 Nonnie wanted all her granddaughters to become teachers. My sister became an actress and comedian, and I became a teacher. I invested all my creative energy into lesson plans, class activities, and feedback forms. I decided the part of myself that enjoyed writing was the same part of myself that enjoyed teaching, and so I stopped writing. I was a practical woman, with a practical life, and practical work. I was not frivolous. I was fraught.

In Vermeer’s “Christ in the House of Martha and Mary,” Mary sits at the foreground, in a blue-grey skirt and red, long-sleeved shirt. Her feet are exposed, and her legs cover Jesus’s shins. Jesus’s legs are spread, and he is tilting back. A royal blue blanket covers his lap, and part of his left shoulder. His right hand points toward Mary, as his face turns toward Martha, who stands behind him, setting down a basket of bread, her face turned away from the light. If you didn’t know the story of Mary and Martha, it would look like an image of two women waiting on Jesus, ready and glad to meet his every need. He looks so satisfied, as if he’s just won a match. If you know the story, you know that part of what is bringing Jesus satisfaction is actually what he is saying to Martha as he points to Mary, saying: “this, this Martha, this is the right way to be.” And yet: the bread looks so warm and sturdy, and Martha’s white sleeves are radiant. Even just to look at the placement of Jesus’s body, the way it is almost split in half between the two women, tells a different version of the story. Both are needed. Both are good. At least in the eyes of a man. He has a wife and a mistress.

When my sister got her first boyfriend, I wrote him a letter, telling him to stay away. I wanted to be like my sister, but I also wanted her attention—I didn’t appreciate his infiltration, and how he took her from me. It made me sick to watch her flirt with him, and even more uncomfortable to see how she enjoyed it. I wrote it in a fury. They were sitting in her room, chatting, and I was sitting in mine, crying and writing. I couldn’t figure out if I was jealous of him or of her and, of course, it was both. I never gave him the letter, and I never showed it to my sister. I tucked it away in a notebook in my desk.

A family friend asked, “How are you doing?” and I said, “Good.” “Then your sister,” she said with a look of concern, “cannot be doing well.” She was a social worker, and she said, in her experience, “sisters are always cancelling one another out. Both are rarely happy at the same time.”

Some sap trees take longer to recover than others.

In Howard’s End, the sisters, Margaret and Helen, are rarely happy at the same time. The book starts with Helen announcing a hasty engagement, and Margaret’s attempts to be sympathetic through worry and concern. She sends her aunt to suss out the situation, and by the time her aunt gets there, the engagement is off. Margaret is relieved, and Helen, too, for a time. After Helen returns, they host dinner parties full of heated conversations about the suffrage movement, inequality, and politics, and then, Margaret decides to marry Henry—the older, richer neighbor, who embodies all of the stereotypes of the old guard, with his stodgy, stuck-up ways. The sisters become estranged; they don’t seem to understand one another anymore. In the film version, Helen receives a letter from Margaret, and says: “This isn’t Margaret.” A few scenes later, Margaret receives a postcard from Helen and says, “The postcards don’t seem to have come from her, that’s not her.” It’s as if the sisters believe they know one another better than they know themselves.

When Jesus came over, did Martha look at Mary, and think, “Oh stop it, that’s not you.” Did Mary look at Martha and wonder, “Why this show? Just relax a little bit.” Or did they let it go, knowingly understanding their roles, and who one another might play.

 In the film version of Howard’s End,  Margaret is played by Emma Thompson, and Helen is played by Helena Bonham Carter. A few years after making the movie, Emma Thompson’s husband, Kenneth Branagh, left Emma Thompson for Helena Bonham Carter, and I know they are playing sisters in the film, I know they are not really sisters, and yet, it feels like a different kind of betrayal when you know they acted as sisters, and that they played those sisters in particular.

Martha doesn’t want to be Mary. Even after Jesus tells her that Mary’s way is right, Martha does not change. She doesn’t become doting and docile. In fact, she challenges him, after her brother, Lazarus, dies and Jesus arrives to help. She steps out of the house and says, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” It isn’t that she doesn’t believe in Jesus, or doubts he will be able to perform a miracle, it’s simply that she’s angry, and she needs him to know. Even when he goes to resurrect the body, she cannot hide her frustration—she says, “but Lord, by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.” It’s the kind of thing you say when you want to say something else— “well, now the food is cold,” you say, even though you know you can warm it up again, even though you know what you want to say is: “I’m annoyed you’ve come to dinner so late.”

On my recent birthday, my father told me, “you saved the family.” On each birthday, he has said something similar: “you really made us want to have another,” “you were just such a bright light, a real joy.” There is a part of me that feels badly for my sister when I hear that, and another part of me that is proud I was such a “joy.” My sister, who came two and a half years before me, was not a “happy baby.” She is often described as a “grumpy baby” and a “stubborn baby” and a baby who took the energy out of my mother. Her first word was “more.” My first words were “ball” and “duck,” and I was often happy to sit in a chair and observe the world around me.

Susan Fenimore Cooper used the environment to justify her feelings that women had a natural place in the world. As such, she didn’t believe in women’s suffrage. She wrote, in her “Letter to the Christian Women of America,” that the natural position of woman is clearly, to a limited degree, a subordinate one.” She believed this because she believed that both physically and intellectually women were weaker than men. Beyond the physical and intellectual, she thought it was a religious duty to maintain the subordinate role. She wrote that Christianity “protects her far more effectually than any other system,” and that “precious rewards are promised to every faithful discharge of duty, even the most humble.” And yet, Jesus scolded Martha. She was not “rewarded” for feeding her family. Nor was she protected. She was told her subordination wasn’t right—it wasn’t exactly what was being called for. He wanted: a little less demanding, a little more humble, just a little more fawning.

 Just a little more sap. Give from the tap a little more.

The worst thing one Mary did was to bring her pet lamb to school, and of course she wasn’t punished, really—the lamb simply had to wait (“patiently, patiently”) for her to return. The song tells us the lamb was the diversion only a Mary could create: an innocent, lighthearted one. The kind that no one really gets mad about, but simply shakes their head while holding back a smile. Oh Mary, you’re so silly—oh little lamb, you’re so sweet, your fleece is white as snow.

 There aren’t any children’s songs about Martha.

My family makes maple syrup, and the time for collecting sap can be as short as two days or as long as three weeks, and when we were kids, we felt lucky if we could join the men on the truck. It only happened once or twice, but I remember being encouraged to put my mouth under the spigot and drink the cold, sweet water. It was better than the syrup, I thought, better than the gooey, thick, warm liquid they put into tiny plastic cups for sampling. I wanted to stay there, with my head turned toward the tree and my shoulder pressing into the bark; I wanted to stay and taste the source.

 What I didn’t know then is that there are other species of maple trees that make sap, and there are other textures of sap, in other trees, too. And recently, scientists discovered something new about maple trees—it turns out saplings can produce as much sap as mature trees. It turns out age makes no difference. What came before is as good as what comes after—it’s the same stuff.

I got engaged before my sister, and a few people told me they were so pleased I did. They said it in a tongue-and-cheek way, with a nudge and a wink, but I always felt strange when they said that, not just because I knew my sister wanted to be engaged to her partner, but because I had no control in the matter. I did not choose when this would happen. And she, too, felt as if, in some ways, she had no control. She got engaged soon after, and our weddings were months apart. We got married in different countries, but we both wore short dresses, and refused to have sit-down dinners. Both weddings ended in a circle, with flowing beer, and a singalong.

Martha could not replace Mary, nor could Mary replace Martha. Both are needed, and yet: we know about Mary, and we do not know as much about Martha. We seem incapable of being able to see both, or to keep both in our collective narrative. Is that because Jesus was right, or is it because we are desperate for order and order looks like rungs on the ladder, one above the other? Perhaps it’s not just a need for order, but an assumption of order, or a decision to be ordered.

The more I wonder about Martha, the less I feel that she was robbed of something. I feel simply that she was denied something, which is not to say she needed Jesus’s praise, but that she could have used it, or at least a different form of it.  What I mean by that is: what would it have looked like if Nonnie’s type of beauty was acknowledged, as much as her knitting, cooking, and demanding nature was? What if Granmere was praised for her recklessness at times, as well as what appeared to be her calm, cool demeanor in the face of chaos? What if I wasn’t just a “happy baby,” but an oblivious one; what if my sister wasn’t just a demanding baby, but one who knew her needs and asserted them? Most of us know there’s much more to each of us than appears in the narratives we tell, so why do I care?

 I care because there are many ways to praise, and so rarely do we embrace the multitude. I care because it’s rare to be in a women’s restroom without hearing the word, “sorry.” I’m sorry for opening the door too fast, for being in the way of the mirror when you need to check your eyebrows. I’m sorry for caring about my eyebrows more than my clean hands. I’m sorry for cleaning my hands too long. I care because I am sorry for being scared; I’m sorry for not being more bold. I care because my aunt was sorry when she wrote in her journal about a huge blizzard in 1888, and though her account is full of glorious details, she apologizes for writing about it at all. She writes: “there must have been great suffering… I can’t remember anything only as it affected me & family,” and then she signed it, “Selfish Aunt Emma.”

I’m not sure a woman could have written Howard’s End, and by that I mean—perhaps a woman could have written Howard’s End, but I would venture to guess it would end differently. In the book, the sisters choose one another over their other lives. Margaret does stay in her marriage, but only because her husband has a change of heart about Helen, only because he grows to accept her sister into their life. The film ends with a shot of Helen in the field, with her baby attached to her chest. She looks happy, and we are meant to believe that happiness is connected with Margaret’s. It’s true that many sisters choose one another, but it’s also true that we are raised to think of that as perhaps an unhappy ending, one we might not choose if we had the choice.

I don’t love maple syrup, but my sister does, and when my family moved back to Connecticut from Los Angeles, she was excited not just to be able to make maple syrup and taste it as it came out of the boiler, but to also embrace everything our family had in abundance: land, cousins, fresh air. I, on the other hand, was devastated, and eschewed what we had at the ready, every chance I got.

When a friend of mine had her second child, she asked her husband why her first was angry at the baby. She understood why he might be upset about change, and therefore upset at them, but she didn’t understand why he actually hated his new brother, and her husband said: “all of life is a fight for resources, and now he has half of what he had before.” It occurs to me now that it’s not simply a fight for resources, but also whether or not we can accept and appreciate the resources we have available to us, the ones we have at the ready.

When I first tried maple syrup from the boiler, I took it down in one gulp, just as my sister had. I hated the feeling and the taste, but I said it was delicious and smiled. Then, I threw the plastic cup away.

Laura Gill is a writer, photographer, and editor. Her essays have appeared in Agni, Electric Literature, The Carolina Quarter, and Entropy, among others. She contributes book reviews to Barrelhouse and edits nonfiction for Hobart.