But then grandchildren from Columbus and Milwaukee came to hug her. She saw friends from South Carolina and Cleveland, childhood friends from New Jersey, roommates from graduate school and family and friends from Chicago.
When she spotted daughter Kate from Los Angeles, Helen’s voice raised a notch, and soon the other co-conspirators of this surprise came into focus: son Peter and wife Heather from Nashville; son Chad and wife Liz from Milwaukee; daughter Stacy and husband Brad from Columbus.
As joy surged through her like a powerful drug, the woman I’ve known for decades began repeatedly saying “Oh, God,” “I can’t believe this” in a voice that, as it emoted deeply, seemed increasingly seasoned by a distinctive old-country flavor.
If “Fiddler on the Roof” had been a Serbian tale and the religion Serbian Orthodox, Helen – known in her childhood as Mischa — could have been the voice of the village grandmother whose stories were fireside legend.
More powerful – and infused with the kind of humor any Tony-worthy musical – was the story she was telling: The nearly disastrous tale of her own June 8, 1968, wedding.
First, though, some background.
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Before the reign of the House of Habsburg, Serbia was dominated by the Ottoman Empire. To break down Serbians’ sense of family ties and history, the Turks in the 14th century replaced all Serbian family names with a variation of each person’s first name. The son of a man named John would be named Johnson, Peter, Peterson, and so on. So even when Helen Martin’s grandfather immigrated to the United States with his wife and their 2-year-old daughter in 1906, he answered to the name Alexa Alexich or “son of Alexa (Alex).
Alexich was a typical poor immigrant, dressed in raggedy clothes and with his cap on sideways. But the man who had repaired saddles and other leather goods in the old country soon discovered his skilled hands also could, with the right materials, repair pneumatic automobile tires in the new country. He, in fact, developed the process that made it possible.
Ten years later, he had a Firestone and Goodyear store in the New York suburb of Far Rockaway and four children, including Helent Martin’s father, his first son.Despite material success, Alexa Alexich began to ache for the old country
So in 1919, with the war in Europe over – and no notion that another might so quickly follow – he moved his family back to Serbia.
Years later, when Helen’s father and uncle, both born in America, learned they could renew their citizenship by living here for nine months, they did.From day one, they got busy making enough money to gain them a foothold in the then middle of nowhere place called English Creek, N.J.
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Who’s this Tom Martin?
The senior physical education students of Trenton State University were laughing at Helen Alexis as they got ready to head to Florida for spring break of their senior year, 1967. Everyone – everyone – knew that you couldn’t apply for a fall graduate program anywhere.
But with 50 job offers on her desk and the thought that “I might actually have to go to work” in the fall, she mailed in her application, as a friend had suggested. After spring break, she was happy to tell her no longer laughing friends that she not only had been accepted to the program but had landed that teaching assistantship, her meal ticket.
Partway through the fall term, Alexis and her roommate Lillian Hasko had weathered the long days of graduate classes, followed by teaching hours, followed by studies. But they also were increasingly displeased that in a program in which men outnumbered women 50 to 10, neither had been asked on a date by a classmate.
The money they had scraped together for a party that would address that situation seemed wasted when all 50 men in the program showed up with their dates or their wives.
But they took some consolation in finding out who this Tom Martin guy was that their other two roommates had been going on about. Instead of coming in the front door, he knocked on the door of the second floor balcony, showing off the climbing skills he and his Paul Bunyanesque friend had honed during a 10,000 mile adventure that summer.
Days later young Miss Alexis ended up on a disastrous date with Paul Bunyan on which Tom Martin played the part of awkward third wheel – all the more awkward when the lunch of sardines and crackers sickened Martin. His illness left him unable to make the hours-long ride back to campus in the hatch between the two seats of the midget car. And because there was no way she was going to switch places with him, he rode in the passenger seat and she in his lap all the way back.
By Thanksgiving Helen and Tom, who had been dating, were on good enough terms that she invited him to come home with her to Jersey
By Christmas break, his letters from Chicago came close to popping the question. By June, the two were headed for the altar, innocently unaware of the story it would cause Helen to tell on their golden anniversary.
A too small opening
While going to the University of Maryland, the couple attended church services at the Franciscan Monastery in Washington, D.C., where they met and developed a deep friendship with a monk from Lebanon. Because she was Serbian Orthodox, she could not receive communion, a detail that would play a role in the events to come.
In the afterglow of presidential daughter Luci Bird Johnson’s 1966 wedding at D.C.’s Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the couple was excited to learn from the monk that a wedding could be in the outdoor grotto of the Franciscan monastery. That turned out not to be so.
“Really close to the wedding, he tells us we can’t get married there, because it’s not a parish,” Helen said.
The result was that on June 8, 1968, Saturday and a holy day of obligation that called for a full mass as part of the wedding, they were booked for the noon slot at Our Lady of Sorrows, one of four weddings that took place on that scorching Saturday when the air conditioning was broken.
Before the service, Helen’s mother did her best to stitch her daughter, who had lost weight, into a beautiful gown of heavily embroidered French fabric chosen for what had been planned as an outdoor wedding. (Helen’s daughter Stacy would later wear the same gown.) Helen’s mother’s stitching was accompanied by repeated pleas: “Mischa, you have to eat or you’ll be sick.” But the bride turned down, in order, offers of bread, cheese and, finally, an uncooked hotdog,
Minutes later the couple was inside the altar area, the priest was going on and on, and as the temperature rose, things started to go haywire. First, one of Tom’s high school age brothers locked his knees and passed out. He soon recovered and returned to duty as an usher.
Eventually the couple was served communion, during which the bride, who had never consumed any alcohol, in or out of church, wrongly concluded from an offhand remark that it was her obligation to polish off all the remaining wine in the commodious goblet.
“I start gulping,” Helen recalled, and all who know her history free of alcohol began to snicker. When Tom and Helen took their place on a kneeler, “all of a sudden, I’m looking green,” she said. Noticing her trouble, Tom’s eighth grade brother approached with the ceremonial vessel filled with water for Helen, who altered the prepared wedding script to say, “Patrick, I can’t throw up in that little hole.”
The resourceful usher responded by dragging a trash can to the altar area, and as laughter began to sound in the church, Helen’s mother broke what may have been centuries of religious tradition by joining her daughter within the altar gate. Helen’s father was on her heels.
The priest finally discerned the time had come to wrap things up, and Helen soon was thundering down the aisle with the best man on one arm and her husband on the other, the latter trying to a keep a safe distance from his bride because of the potential dry cleaning costs of his rented tuxedo.
Blessedly, the expected eruption didn’t occur until the new Mrs. Tom Martin reached the reception and threw her veil safely clear of the impact zone. There are other details of the event, including the mother of the bridegroom being left behind at the church with the priest because of a driving snafu, but, as Helen likes to end the story, “That’s the wedding.”
Financed by cash given in lieu of presents to help the newlyweds establish a home for themselves when they relocated to a new graduate school, the decorum of the honeymoon resembled that of the wedding.
Operating on information he’d read in a National Geographic magazine, the bridegroom had decided reservations were not necessary for the cabins and tents at Cinnamon Bay on St. John’s Island, particularly in the heat of summer.
That conclusion was wrong enough that the couple spent a memorable night beneath the roof over a picnic table during a season in which it rained every night.
A night to remember
It took a while, but the Martins returned to the Cinnamon Bay campgrounds for their 45th anniversary. Almost every year, they have done something special to celebrate their anniversary, most often with Tom preparing a surprise and Helen being informed of details only on a “need to know” basis.
The celebrations have ranged from a play at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C.; to bazaar shopping in Tehran before the revolution; to a Chubby Checker performance in Columbus; to a surprise trip to New York after 9/11, a visit to the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, a night at the Derr Road Inn, and last year, a getaway to the Grand Tetons.
Still, the 50th will remain appropriately golden, in large part because of all the effort of their children and Tom’s agility to squirrel away cards that arrived in the mail expressing regrets at not being able to attend.
And so much else was right.
The Martin children played John Denver’s Annie’s Song for their anniversary dance, a song Helen first heard when Tom mailed her a 45 record of it to her during a time when they were apart. When she first listened to it, she imaged him singing the passage “You fill up my senses” to her.
The cake was decorated with seven golden daffodils, the title of a song the family often sang on long road trips. Spring bouquets on every table represented their mother’s love of flowers and gardening.
And so that out-of-town guests dropping by for breakfast the next day would not go hungry, after getting home that night, Helen began pulling cakes out of the freezer and making stuffed cabbage for lunch. Then, unable to sleep, she got up at 4 a.m. to clear the dining room table and straighten the house they had been away from most of the year.
In the end, though, it was a homecoming. Set in modern times, their anniversary was tale of family, friends and food of the sort a Serbian woman named Mischa might spend hours telling at a campfire in the years to come.