Author Archives: Martha Woodroof

I’m not going to sit here in my late sixties and pretend that November and December are the safe, magical months that they were when I was a child. On that subject I’ll stand with Brenda Lee – too many rivers have been crossed . . .

a-childs-christmas-in-walesWhen I was a child and at home, the hours of Christmas were completely full-up with tradition. My thoroughly agnostic family went into a kind of rigid, 24-hour dance on Christmas Eve that went something like this: Oyster Stew at 5 pm, caroling with friends at 7, home to listen to a scratchy recording of Dylan Thomas reading “A Child’s Christmas in Wales;” everyone to their previously staked-out corners of the house for final present preparation; the burning of the note to Santa Claus (even after my sister was in college and I was in boarding school, both of us a thousand miles from home for nine months of the year); the hanging of the stockings (my sister’s had more jingle bells because she was older, and I’m still mad about it): and then, to bed. Christmas morning: the emptying of the stockings; breakfast of stollen and bacon; parade to the tree (I did get to go first because I was the youngest); the opening of presents, and then, the walk.

The walk. My sister and I would set off around the neighborhood, stepping out briskly because we wanted to be able to eat tremendous amounts of rich food throughout the day. Christmas Day in North Carolina was almost always grey. There would be an occasional child about in the neighborhood, wobbling along on a new bicycle or pushing a sled around on a snow-less front lawn, but mainly, it would just be quiet. There would be two cars in every driveway and smoke rising from every chimney. It was always very, very peaceful. As though everybody, everywhere was cutting everyone else some slack.

As I’ve grown older, I believe more and more in the devil — a formless creature who yaps at my heels and tempts me to indulge in fear – the great limiting, dark side of experience. For me — even as a non-religious person — Christmas is still the best defense I know against the devil. Christmas always bids me to find the Light and face it.

There’s a line in “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” that says “the holy tide of Christmas doth bring redeeming grace.” Growing up, I had my Beach Boy records stacked right alongside old Dylan Thomas. When I sing that line, to this day I always have the same vision, and this is what I see:

We are all out there together , on the vast Ocean of Life, sitting on our surfboards and scared out of our minds – which is, don’t you think, the general human condition. Then, someone yells, “Surf’s up!” We turn toward the horizon and there it is: the holy tide of Christmas.

Suddenly, we’re up on our boards, catching that giant wave and riding it, full of joy, all the way to the beach.


I found this note in my website email ( a couple of days ago.

horizon booksI made Small Blessings my November staff pick at the large indie bookstore where I work.  It is a bit of a competition as we are rewarded with gift certificates for impact on sales and the largest seller gets in our newsletter (2500 circulation) two months later (a lagging statistic). 

With no hand selling on my part Small Blessings sold 18 copies, the next title only 11 copies.If you are ever in northern Michigan (Traverse City), be sure to call ahead so we can properly adore you.

Marla Van Hook
Horizon Books

I like to write fiction about nice people with faults rather than edgy, dark people on a mission. This is because my own higgledy-piggledy life experience has taught me that, given a chance or a choice, people prefer to treat each other kindly.

MarlaTake Marla Van Hook. She’s extra busy, I’m sure, with work, life, and the holidays, but still she took the time to ferret out my e-mail address and write me a note that gladdens my heart. I mean, think about it: A person in her late sixties (me) publishes her first novel , and a year later,  an indie bookseller takes the trouble to write that she loves the novel enough to make it her monthly pick. If that isn’t a deliberate act of kindness, I don’t know what is.

Yes, the headlines in The Washington Post this morning again trumpet the world’s current contentiousness. But it’s been my experience that all mean-speak comes and goes, while Marla Van Hook’s quiet kindness endures.

All you and I have to do is pass it on.





When I was a kid, Woolworth’s was by far my favorite store. Shopping in other places tended to be hampered by formality and by clerks hovering around waiting to tell me what they thought I should buy. At Woolworth’s, however, the clerks all stayed put behind the counters, and I could relax and go at things in my own way and at my own speed. My fellow shoppers always reminded me of sheep, grazing away in the aisles, taking their lazy fill of looking and touching, and then looking and touching some more. Nobody cared that I was just a kid.

woolworthWoolworth’s, also, was the one store where I could do more than shop, because a high percentage of the merchandise was affordable to someone who earned a salary of thirty-five cents a week for taking out the trash, drying the dishes every-other night and doing yard work in the summer. It gave me my first taste of economic independence, let me experience the satisfaction of buying stuff with my own money. In other stores, everything had to be bought with my parent’s  money.

Today, I’m writing about a family heirloom that came from Woolworth’s. It came to me when my parents decamped to a retirement home, and I recently passed it on to my daughter, spinner/weaver/writer Liz Gipson, who was raised to value  treasure when she receives it.

I remember my mother buying the heirloom. She was standing at a counter in Woolworth’s, picking through a jumble of tiny, white china bells, hand-painted by some enterprising Japanese artisan. Some said “Merry Christmas;” others, “Season’s Greetings.”

And one said neither…

I have a vivid image of my mother turning to my sister and I, holding up one of the tiny bells and smiling hugely. “Look!” she said. “Whoever painted it didn’t speak English, and so they created this!”

season's christmas

That tiny bell has always seemed a direct gift from that Japanese person to me; one person’s attempt to wish me holiday good cheer across the great cultural gap between us.

WMRA, the public radio station where I work, is in Harrisonburg, Virginia. And thanks to the community’s welcoming spirit , Harrisonburg is astonishingly multi-cultural. I’m often the only English speaker at the gym where I go to work out. I speak a little pidgin French, but no Spanish or Russian or anything else. But still, we all muddle along together, getting by on mutual respect; wishing each other well as best we are able with our make-shift means of communication.

So, in the spirit of America’s increasing multiculturalism, I would like to wish Season’s Christmas to us, one and all!


In celebration of Thanksgiving, I have permission to bring you a couple of my Charlottesville friend Val Matthews’ verses. She is much like her verses, in that she is kind, sprightly, and generally celebratory of life, vicissitudes et al


In the peaceful silence

Broken only by the rustle

Of people, who

Feeling moved to speak –

Rose to their feet.

A father held his little sonval-- quaker wedding

Firmly on his lap.

But wiggling free,

The boy, whose parents

Lived apart, stood bravely,

And speaking clearly, said

“I’m happy you are in love.

I hope it lasts

A long long time.



Another New Year’s Day,

And suddenly a memory

Of far away South Africa

Returns… Very early

One New Year’s morning,

Coming down a steep

City hill – through sleepingval belmont market

Apartment dwellers,

A cheerful African man,

Kicking a can and shouting

“HAPPY New Year!!

Kick – HAPPY New Year!”

Kick – undeterred

By sleepy shouts of protest from all around.

“HAPPY New Year?”

As he disappeared

Into the distance,

Kicking the can.


red frontI shop almost exclusively at Red Front Supermarket in Harrisonburg, Virginia – not just because it stocks everything I need and it’s on my way home, but because the staff and customers inevitably restore my faith in humanity.

Last week, I was in Red Front at a particularly busy time. The checkout lines were backed up. I picked one and unloaded my groceries. In front of me was an unkempt, cheerful, chatty woman whose cart was choc-a-block full of everything  not recommended for healthy eating. “I’m getting ready for Christmas,” she explained, offloading packs and packs and packs of candy.

The checker’s name was Carson. He’s a college student I’ve known since he was in high school.

Carson has always been high on my list of faith-in-humanity restorers. Once he finished ringing up my line neighbor’s many, many  items, he gently announced the total: $387 and some cents.

My line neighbor, who was what I think of as a Slow Mover, looked confused for a bit, then slowly got her wallet out of her purse, rummaged around, and pulled out thirty dollars. Carson took the money and waited politely — as did the five or six people in line behind me. I don’t know, but I’m willing to bet that each of us knew exactly what was coming.

“What else you need?” my line neighbor asked.

“Well,” Carson said. And he repeated the total.

“No!” my line neighbor yelled. “No way. No way it can be that much.”

Carson, I suspect, would rather have his hair set on fire than cause anyone pain. But he is also a good employee. “All I can go on is what rings up on my register,” he said gently, without a jot of impatience. “What I suggest is that, after I run through your payment, you check your receipt really carefully.”

“No way,” she said again. But she did pull out a plastic card and hand it to Carson.

He ran it twice. Both times it was declined for insufficient funds. Candy, the manager on duty, came over and tried several different ways to get the system to a accept the card. Neither Carson nor Candy gave the woman anything but kindness and respect. And I heard no muttering from the people in line behind me, as my line neighbor continued to yell sporadically, “No way it can be that much!”

Eventually we reached an impasse. My line neighbor really did have insufficient funds, but she wasn’t going anywhere, having gotten stuck on “no way can it be that much!”

And then, a young woman with several small children in tow was offering her card. “I’ll pay for the groceries,” she said quietly.

My line neighbor looked stunned. As, I’m sure, did I. “Thank-you,” my line neighbor said.

I’m a reporter. I’m nosy. I leaned over and asked my insuffienctly-funded  line neighbor if the young woman was a relative.

“Never saw her before in my life!”

It was  all over in a couple of seconds. The young woman left. My line neighbor left as well, continuing to proclaim loudly that no way could it be that much.

Carson and I looked at each other. “I’m certainly humbled, ” I said.

“Me too,” he said.

I paid for my own groceries and beetled out to the parking lot. The young woman was still there, loading her children into a minivan. I marched over and offered my hand. “You make me hopeful about the future,” I said.

She looked both pleased and abashed. “I just try to follow in the Lord’s footsteps,” she said.

And that was that. She finished loading her children and drove away.


A Red Front advertisement

A Red Front advertisement









Note: I’m teaching a class in short fiction, which is weird for a novelist and writer of essays. So, I’m doing the assignments along with the class. Our assignment is to write a short, short story. So, here’s the first draft of mine…

Zelda and the Smell of Fall

Zelda Small put down her half-eaten salami sandwich, unexpectedly feeling too fierce to eat. So some poor, depressed guy had shot himself. Life is untidy. Things happen. You cope and keep going had always been her mantra. She, of all people, should know this. And just in case the lesson hadn’t sunk in yet, she had this morning been presented with yet another opportunity to learn it.

Tilda was messing around with her vegetable soup, wearing her signature expression of confused innocence. “Everyone says he was such a lovely man, and then he goes and blows his brains out in his own driveway where his wife will mostly likely be the one to find him. And that just doesn’t seem nice.”

Surely even Tilda could not possibly believe that niceness existed in humans as some kind of pure state? If she did, she was living in la-la land. Zelda had figured out when she was ten-years-old that niceness was a matter of interpretation. People thought other people were nice when they didn’t make you uncomfortable. “Well, it was certainly a rather hostile thing to do,” she said. “Blowing your brains out where your family will have to find you screams ‘why the hell haven’t you morons done a better job of noticing I’m in really bad pain over here!’”

“Oh.” Tilda looked crestfallen. “Well.” Any kind of human messiness alarmed her, and this was human messiness on steroids. Tilda was obsessively neat. This frequently drove Zelda crazy, but also made Tilda a terrific office manager. She road herd over Zelda’s professional life like a drill sergeant.

Zelda took a deep breath. Not everyone in the world had lost both a husband and a daughter before their times the way she had. She really should keep this in mind when dealing with Tilda, who had led a pristine life as far as jagged loss went. “You do remember you never actually met the man?” she said, trying to be gentle.

Tilda poked at a large chunk of carrot with her spoon. “It’s just that I feel I did meet him. His brother’s written a book about the whole thing. I bought it last week at his signing, and I couldn’t put it down. He certainly seemed like a nice man in that.”

Zelda was ready to move on. “Well, he could still be a nice man, don’t you think, who did one mean thing because he simply couldn’t stand being so nice anymore?”

Tilda looked quite shocked. “I suppose,” she said. “Although that’s rather a harsh way to speak of the dead.”

Zelda stifled a little huff of impatience. “Eat up, Tilda” she said. “Everyone dies at some point, and I need to get back to work.”

Now Tilda looked concerned. She knew her boss well. Such a complete lack of empathy meant something was unsettling her. “Are you all right?” she asked.

Zelda could not bring herself to lie and say nothing, so she said “none of your business,” instead.

Tilda sighed. “You do realize, don’t you, that I’m the only person in the entire world who could have put up with you for twenty-seven years?”

Again, Zelda felt compelled to go with truth. “I do,” she said.

Tilda leaned forward, and fixed her boss with what Zelda thought of as the look. “And you do appreciate that, don’t you?”

Enough. Zelda stood up. “None of your business,” she said, again.


They’d driven Tilda’s car to lunch at the sandwich shop, but, as Tilda had some errands she needed to run, Zelda decided to walk back to her office.


While she still could.

Which, according to this morning’s chat with her doctor, would not be for long.

fall 3Fall, Zelda noted absently, had finally come in earnest. Golden sun and golden leaves rained down upon her as she trudged along the sidewalk determinedly trying to sort out how she felt about death. Not death in general, but her own death specifically. The tests had all been done. The results could not be more definitive. She was about to die. If she started treatment right now, the doctor said, she had maybe a year. If she didn’t, if she just went ahead and died, maybe five months.

You cope and you keep going

Except when it came to your own death. Then you coped until, abruptly, you weren’t anymore.

And it is the weirdness of not being anymore that gets to me, she thought.

Zelda had reached the small park that she cut through to reach her office. It wasn’t much of a park, just a couple of moldering benches plunked under half-dozen maple trees that were today glorious in red and gold. A young woman sat on one of the benches staring at her cell phone, keeping titular watch over two small boys who apparently saw their mission as kicking every fallen leaf to kingdom come.


Not being anymore.

How do you get ready for that?

The question stopped Zelda in her tracks. She’d always found religions’ various claims to have penetrated the curtain between life and after-life rather unnecessary, tied up with humanity’s knee-jerk fear of change. And death certainly did mean change. Perhaps the biggest of life.

You cope and then….and then… you what?

You nothing.

It was at that moment the smell hit Zelda, tangy with an underlay of mustiness and something else that was all its own. It was, she knew, the remembered smell of fall, coming at her from her own childhood. Zelda had been eight when they’d moved into a neighborhood where there were only three other girls and a zillion boys. The girls played dumb games like dolls and dress-up. The boys, however, played football.

Zelda was the youngest of four sisters, her father’s last chance for a sports buddy, and so she had become his sports buddy. As a result, she could throw a spiral and dodge a tackle. She still remembered being at the edge of the vacant lot watching the neighborhood boys getting their after-school game organized. They’d ignored her as a lesser being. But never-the-less, there she stood, not having a clue how to get herself into their game, yet absolutely, entirely positive that she could pull it off. Already, at eight, she’d grasped that a person didn’t need to see clear through to the finish line, just where to start.

Which she had. Going home afterwards with a black eye from falling on the pointy end of a football.

Just then one of the little boys up in the park aimed a particularly successful kick and booted a geyser of red-gold leaves into the air. The fall smell intensified. Zelda felt the dull ache of that long-healed black eye. I’ll pull this death thing off just fine, she thought.

fall leaves

I love writing. I write every morning. Every morning. Until breakfast, that is. During breakfast I stop writing and watch the streamed video of my choice. I see this as an act of pure self-indulgence, right up there with really expensive bubble bath or a really good massage.

Currently, I am watching HBO’s The Newsroom. Not, I know, an au courant choice. In fact, it’s not even within spitting distance of the current. But ask me if I care about being au courant, and I will tell you not since the eighth grade. Which is also the last time I cared deeply about how my hair looks.

In my opinion The Newsroom is brilliant everything: writing, acting, directing. But brilliance alone does not make for happy breakfast viewing, and The Newsroom may be the happiest breakfast viewing I’ve ever experience.

Why? you ask.

sam waterston openheimerI can tell you in two words: Sam Waterston.

I’ve adored Mr. Waterston since the 1980 BBC biopic Oppenheimer.

My infatuation strengthened through the Jack McCoy years.

sam waterston law and order







But youza, with one line, drunken Charlie Skinner earned my undying adoration.

the newsroom sam waterston character poster season 2

Yes, it’s a brilliant line.  But Waterston’s delivering of itjust might be my favorite on-screen moment ever. I sat right there, eating my waffle, and cheered when I saw it. And thought, right on, man!

Little Kitty 2 from CLittle Kitty’s official name is Seven, as we found her beside an Amherst County road on our seventh wedding anniversary. As we just celebrated our twenty-third, Seven is now sixteen. A venerable age for a cat who was, we surmise, thrown out of a moving car when only a few weeks old. She came to us with several things broken and quite the attitude.

We had two other cats at the time, all rescues. One came from a barn, the other was found at the county dump standing over the body of a dead dot of a sibling. Both of these had long, happy (I really do think) lives. But Little Kitty is the last Woodroof cat standing.

Little Kitty 1 from CIt’s always seemed to me that we succeed with raising our children when they grow-up secure and confident enough in themselves to leave us. While we get to raise our pets to stay put – they go where we go. We feed them, take them to the vet occasionally, teach them a few manners, give them cuddles and pats, and in return we get unconditional love and loyalty. Our relationships with our pets are the only uncomplicated,  unambivalent emotional relationships we get to have.

Little Kitty was recently diagnosed with kidney disease which is untreatable and inevitably terminal. She’s feisty – so not the type to put up IVs. So at some point – sooner, I suspect, rather than later, as she’s not all that interested in eating – I will be calling our lovely house-call vet to come visit us with her needle of death.

I want you to understand that Little Kitty makes my heart happy. She keeps me company when I write in the morning. In the evening she totters over to my chair while I’m watching baseball to get a head scratch, and she stretches out next to me while I do my nightly yoga/stretching routine. I really cannot stand the thought of her not being here.

The thing I must remember, however, is that the decision is not about how I feel, but about how Little Kitty feels. I’ve always been able to see pain in her eyes. And when that pain becomes unremitting and she is miserable, I have to make that call and let her go.

I took the picture of LK this morning while she was sunning on our front porch. There is, I think, pain there. But not enough. Yet.

Or am I being selfish?

Little Kitty getting a chin scratch



treasure of sierra madreOkay, remember the line about stinkin’ badges delivered by “Gold Hat” in the 1948 Humphrey Bogart Movie  The Treasure of the Sierra Madre? Well, if you don’t, please – for the happiness of your own heart – click this link and watch. It is, after all, #36 on the  AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movie Quotes.

TreasuremadreI was a baby when the movie came out, so the first time I saw it was on the CBS Late Movie, back in the days when I used to stay up past ten o’clock. But it was Bill Magee  – now a Tibetan Buddhism scholar – who really brought “stinkin’ badges” to my attention. He used to stomp around the Elliewood Avenue restaurant I co-owned in Charlottesville, shouting such verbal fantasticals as,  “Romaine! We don’t need no stinkin’ romaine!”

Enter Charlie, who brought “stinking badges” into the mainstream of our shared household’s vocabulary. So much so that when I order a burger (upon which I do not like any white, oily stuff), I hear myself saying to my college student server, “And, please, I don’t need no stinkin’ mayonnaise!” Most of these servers, accustomed to the vagaries of the elderly, smile politely. But a few get it. And they get an extra-large tip. Not as much for their service as for their cultural literacy.

Billy_the_Kid_corrected Charlie and I have been together for a long, long time. While many things about our relationship give me great pleasure, somewhere close to the top is the private language we’ve crafted. There’s something profoundly intimate about shared nonsense.

English! We don’t need no stinkin’ English.

This summer, Charlie and I were in Socorro, New Mexico, visiting my daughter Liz Gipson – (yes, I have inserted a shamelessly proud maternal link)  – and her husband, Kip Carrico, who teaches at New Mexico Tech. While there, we took a field trip Lincoln, New Mexico, where Billy the Kid escaped from jail to keep his rendezvous with Pat Garrett.

And while in Lincoln, we went into The Arrowsmith Store. Where, Charlie  informed me later, he’d bought me a present that I wasn’t going to get. Yet. He was, he said, going to bide his time until the time was right.

As far as I can tell, Charlie carried my present around in his shirt pocket for the next four months. During which time I grew a good-sized lump in my throat that required scans and biopsies. These, however, were all negative. As I expected them to be.

Cancer! We don’t need no stinkin’ cancer.

Fist knock, please, Mr. Charlie!

That night, during our celebratory dinner, Charlie patted his pocket and brought up my mysterious present again. I am not a patient person. Three months of hearing about a present was enough. “Give it to me now! Please!” I said, holding my hand out.

And so he did.

stinking badge 3 resize

The Stinkin’ Badge



We people randomly bump up against each other, and then usually just go about our business. But sometimes we get lucky and bump thoroughly enough to discover something wonderful about each other.

I had a particularly satisfying collision recently with physical therapist assistant K.C. Werner who works at The Center for Hand & Physical Therapy. Yes, she and her colleagues make my neck feel much better, but K.C. made my heart feel better as well when she let me know — quite shyly, I felt  — that she is an artist.

River Study (oil on canvas panel)

morning light (oil on canvas)

Morning Light (oil on canvas)

no title (pastel)

no title (pastel)



I’m a word person and so pretty garrulous as a rule — both in person and on the page. But I do have enough sense to know when words are superfluous. And one of those times is right now.

K.C. Werner’s website

Visit Us On TwitterVisit Us On FacebookVisit Us On PinterestVisit Us On Linkedin