A tribute to our Elderly Aunt

Martha Woodroof signs copies of her 2014 novel “Small Blessings.” (Photo from Woodroof’s Facebook page)

Editor’s note: Author and journalist Martha Woodroof died early Sunday, as her daughter Lizzie confirmed on Facebook. She was 74. She had been battling a rare cancer her in salivary glands and lungs. Woodroof retired from WMRA in 2016, where she had created the interview program “The Spark.” She wrote two books, the novel “Small Blessings” in 2014 and a self-help book “How to Stop Screwing Up” in 2007. She also contributed to The Citizen in multiple ways, and co-founders Ryan Alessi and Andrew Jenner published tributes to what she did for journalism, storytelling and the Valley.

By Ryan Alessi, publisher

Dear Readers, 

Martha Woodroof was our Elderly Aunt. But she will always be so much more. 

Martha died early Sunday. Although she had been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, she refused over the last three years to let it keep her from living or from writing. Instead, driven by her indominable curiosity, she focused more on exploring the human spirit through her writing, and, in the process, shared what she learned with rest of us. Her approach was to soak up everything and take you fully apart so she could reconstruct you in her head. She did that with the subjects of her stories, with acquaintances and with her editors. Everyone has stories, and Martha could extract them from anyone.

That Martha would create an alter-ego aimed at helping people by drawing from her own lessons, experiences and observations was a perfectly Martha thing to do. She proposed the idea a few weeks after The Citizen launched in fall 2018. Wouldn’t it be great, she suggested, to have a column where people in our community could ask anything and get unvarnished advice? (Except financial questions — she was clear from the outset she wanted nothing to do with those.) 

She went full-speed all-in, which was the Martha way. For her first few columns, she ambitiously created audio versions with designs on turning it into a regular feature to pitch to WMRA, where she has spent years as an enthusiastic interviewer and storyteller. 

The Elderly Aunt name was her idea. We (the three publishers, plus Martha) decided as a group not to reveal her identity publicly. But from the moment we published the first column, I was sure the distinct voice — Martha’s voice — would give her away to anyone who had ever heard her on WMRA or at the various community events at which she appeared or emceed. 

She delivered her biweekly prescriptions for living with equal parts toughness and compassion and seasoned with humor and some random J.J. Cale or Etta James references. She carefully measured every word. And even though most requests for help came to her anonymously, she genuinely felt for those who were writing in. 

“I found it difficult to advise someone I just wanted to bake cookies for and hug,” she told me after sending in her draft response to a reader being ghosted by a friend who moved away at the start of the pandemic. 

In person, she often spoke with exclamation points, so naturally, her writing was chockablock with them. During a debate over email about what constituted too many, she replied to me with 118 of them. No letters, just those lines and dots repeated across the screen. A good-humored taunt. And the final word, sans words. 

But coming from Martha, exclamation points were more philosophy than punctuation. 

They conveyed both passion and empathy with a cheerleader-like enthusiasm. 

“Don’t you dare tell yourself that your strengths don’t amount to a hill of beans simply because they’re your strengths. Embrace them as the glory of you!” she wrote in response to a reader who suffered from ruminating over each day’s missteps and mistakes. 

Along the way, she provided guidance to people concerned about friends and family members pushing misinformation or sucked in by QAnon conspiracies and those struggling to talk politics with them. She offered comfort amid myriad pandemic-related problems, like navigating dating or confronting maskless shoppers or what to do during the early daysof the stay-at-home order.  

As thoughtful and firm as all that advice was, Martha particularly shined with relationship advice: parents relating to children or vice versaintra-generational tensions; helping significant others finding common ground or guiding estranged significant others to move on or even how to navigate a dying friendship.

She often pulled from her experiences to reassure us that it’s OK. It’s OK to feel what we feel. It’s OK to disagree (respectfully). It’s OK to evolve. 

“It has been the Elderly Aunt’s experience that change is the only constant in relationships as well as life in general,” she wrote. “And to expect anything else of a relationship is to diminish its chance of survival.” 

And she seemingly had so many lifetimes of experiences from which she could draw. Not long after I started editing the Elderly Aunt column, Martha and I went to lunch where, over Indian food, we traded questions about how we each ended up where we were. She hailed from Greensboro, North Carolina, but really began developing her storytelling after dropping out of college, moving to Texas, then arriving in Charlottesville. She ran three restaurants, got involved in community theater and talked her way into grad school at the University of Virginia, even without a bachelor’s degree. 

She left the restaurant business and worked as a DJ in Winchester, then used her curiosity and persistence to freelance for National Public Radio. She described how she lived out of a pick-up truck with a camper top as she drove around looking for good stories to explore and tell, which she might offer to NPR. Ultimately, she landed in Rockingham County and reported for WMRA, where she created “The Spark,” which was like the Valley’s version of “Fresh Air.” 

And when she told her own story, she did so with gusto about the beauty of life without glossing over the challenges that come with living. It was all part of the ride. So whether she was talking about the thrill of a publisher picking up her book “Small Blessings” in 2014 or her struggles dealing with substance abuse and depression, she was careful not to linger on any one high or low point.

Last year, about a month into the pandemic and coping with the effects of cancer and its treatments, Martha wrote a piece about happiness for a collection of essays. She started it by explaining how her view of happiness shifted from, as she called it being “serious business,” to the act of being. She described how her change of perspective began when her husband Charlie bought a “derelict house trailer” for $750 and 11 acres of land (but no electric hook-up, well or septic tank to start). 

“It took spending a winter in a derelict trailer for me to get it that happiness is a habit of being, not an achievement,” she wrote. And that is one of many of Martha’s sentences that, after reading it once, stuck for good — this notion of being and being in this whole life thing with others, with ones we love, with ones we respect, with others we like being around. If it’s not the secret of life, it’s at least an insightful and perfectly Martha way to put it all into perspective.  

Around the same time in April 2020, Martha wrote a poem for the heck of it. It was less than a month after the world seemed to have shut down because of COVID-19, and most everyone was locked inside wondering if we’d ever return to normal, whatever that was. Inspired by her cat, Martha distilled all the angst and reprocessed it as centered calmness. 

My cat sits quite still
Beside me on the windowsill
Too lazy or too wise
To lick a paw or blink an eye.

My cat and I, we wait 
For epiphany or fate,
For whatever comes or doesn’t,
Whatever is we might wish wasn’t.

My cat and I are pleased,
To sit here at our proximate ease.
Serene amidst the bother;
We’re in this being thing together.

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