This One's For Martha

Here's to Martha Stewart, whose bravery and foolishness in the face of adversity--and fifty-seven camera crews--helped me find my way when I needed one most.
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My father killed himself--with a gun.

I was 23 at the time, and lied about it for ten years straight, substituting gentler causes for the grisly scene on my childhood lawn.

"Heart attack," I told my best friend, Lia, when she asked me how he died. I would soon come to learn that people would ask "How?" of me before they said anything else, but this was the first time still. I'd only recently come back to New York from my decimated family in Vermont. Lia and I were sitting on a bench outside an exercise studio, waiting for one of those old-fashioned aerobics classes to begin. She looked back at me with trusting eyes.

My father had been a young man, only 54--much too young for dying. An unexpected coronary was probably the likeliest story I could have invented.

I didn't dream of telling the truth.

Soon I grew tired of heart disease, however, and graduated to various cancers: Lung, first. I can remember embroidering the embroideries with cruel little twists: "And he never smoked a day in his life."

I told a fat woman he died of stomach cancer.

If I didn't tell the truth about my father, I suppose--about the rifle and the bullet, the terrible crack in the night--no one could blame me for it.

Eventually, of course, I began to feel troubled by my inability to speak honestly about my father. Which is, perhaps, how to explain what happened next: I wrote a novel about a young man whose father kills himself.

Inventive, no?

And it was a good book too, if I say so myself: There was the suicide, of course, but also plenty of humor and sex, and a sweet young man, trying so hard to make sense of his guilt and his shame and his grief. It was published in the summer of 2004 to great expectation--on my part, at least; and it did about as well as literary novels tend to do, which is to say, not well at all. I was stricken all over again. Where was that tidal wave of love and understanding I'd been waiting for--that unequivocal statement that I wasn't to blame? That wave was breaking elsewhere, it seemed. So I fled to the country and nursed my wounds; now there were two: father and book.

Until one fine day in the middle of July, I looked up from my perch, and there she was: Martha Stewart, on my television set. It was the summer of her legal crisis. She'd been convicted, that spring, of lying to federal investigators about an ill-timed sale of stock.

I was riveted.

Before that year, I'd taken just a passing interest in Martha. Like the rest of the nation, I knew she aspired to perfection in domestic matters, and was only vaguely annoyed that she seemed to achieve it. As the case against her unfolded, I'd followed along intermittently, with something like pleasure--that cheerless satisfaction we sometimes feel when others fail. But by the height of summer, once the Court had spoken, declaring that Martha had, in fact, lied about her stock trade--that she'd be punished for it too--I was captivated. Her public humiliation fused perfectly with my own. She was going down because she deserved it; perhaps I deserved it too. Maybe my book was tanking because it wasn't any good--or worse, maybe my father killed himself because I wasn't.

Martha stood on the courthouse steps, her black suit wilted in the heat of July. A voiceover announced that she'd been sentenced to five months in prison. There was no trace of pleasure in it for me. She was my sister in defeat. A phalanx of television cameras surrounded her on three sides; it looked as if they'd never let her pass. I felt protective.

"There are many, many good people who have gone to prison," Martha said.

I agreed with all my heart. I could picture them almost--fine souls who'd been punished so unfairly. My book and I were just such casualties.

"Look at Nelson Mandela," she added.

And then I smiled--for the first time in months.

It was as if Martha had reached through the glassy screen of my television and lifted the blinders from my eyes. I'd been a self-important twit: It was just a book, after all; and as to my father, otherwise healthy men don't kill themselves in disappointment over their eldest sons. Nelson Mandela, indeed! And for a brilliant woman, Martha had been rather silly herself--a media mogul who'd been convicted of cutting corners. We may have been knocked on our asses--Martha and I--perhaps unfairly even, but neither of us would go down as the Nelson Mandelas of our day.

"I'll be back," she promised.

I didn't doubt her. If anyone could find a second act for herself, it would be she, the hardest working woman in town; and if Martha could find a second act--with a stint in federal prison under her belt--then surely I could too.

My mood began to rise like a batch of her perfect, yeasty dough.

The next morning, I woke with the kind of purpose I think Martha would have admired. I gathered up the drafts and letters and congratulatory notices I'd received on my novel and lugged them down to the basement, packing them away among high school term papers on The Scarlet Letter and warranties on electronic gadgets that had long since broken.

Then I climbed the stairs and walked to the phone. I dialed a breeder in New Hampshire, a woman whose fluffy red puppies I'd been admiring for months. I made an appointment for that very afternoon, and chose a dog without the least hesitation. "Needy," she told me--of the one I'd picked--as if to dissuade me, but his weakness only made me love him more.

The puppy vomited three times on the drive home--twice, in my lap.

Over the next several weeks, I threw myself into crate-training, and "sit," "stay," "come," with a feverish intensity. We never really got past the first two, but it hardly mattered. There were long walks on sandy beaches, and short drives with the windows rolled all the way down.

I won't say that I never thought of my book, but I thought of it less. Over time, my father came to seem more like a sad mystery to me than any kind of accusation.

By September--as Martha readied herself for her career as the preeminent crèche builder in the American penal system--I rolled up my sleeves again: On a novel about second chances, and a character--like Martha and me--who needed to find one. As I began writing, I found myself less interested in what had brought this woman low than in where she'd go to next. I was hungry for a fresh start.

I still am. My second novel, Emma's Table, just came out last week.

So here's to Martha Stewart, whose bravery and foolishness in the face of adversity--and fifty-seven camera crews--helped me find my way when I needed one most.