He was a tiny baby who grew into a tiny little boy who needed to be protected from his abusive father. He was the youngest in the family; his older sisters tell painful stories about hiding him in the closet to avoid what seemed to be my grandfather’s favorite past time.
That tiny baby grew into a tiny boy, then into an adult man, still hiding from the pain. Instead of closets, he hid by using alcohol and drugs. Substance abuse became his favorite past time.
For the next 50+ years, his struggle with substance abuse was well documented. A few beers before, during and after family gatherings; harder drugs at night. He paid for his habit by panhandling on the street, working odd jobs at the local barbershop, painting, cleaning yards and pretending to know how to fix shit around the house—sorta. In reality, he broke more items at my brother’s house than he fixed.
He was also my favorite uncle. Brilliant, patient, funny, witty, charismatic, and kind. When he got his check on the 1st of the month, he freely shared his fortunes with everyone.
A simple conversation on the porch, where he sat with a beer in his hand, ranged from powerful political commentary on the State of Black folks, to what happened last night at the local club, to prophetic biblical masterclasses that would put most religious scholars to shame. He listened to your troubles and laughed at your jokes. Most importantly, he made me feel special.
He was my favorite uncle.
In May 2013, I graduated from the University of Cincinnati with a doctoral degree in Education Leadership. As a full-time student and the Associate Provost, my life was hectic, so I decided to plan a small celebration at my house with my mother, father and a few close friends. It was all the energy I could muster. And besides, I had gotten my Masters and BA already. To me, this was just another ceremony. No invitations, no balloons, banners or photographer; just some pizza and pasta from LaRosa’s, and wine.
That was until my uncle got wind of my pending graduation.
A few weeks before graduation, he began calling me more than usual-- sometimes multiple times a day. He was an effective stalker, especially when he wanted something. I finally answered the phone after work one day.
He immediately started asking me questions about the graduation: date, time, dress code, travel arrangements, etc. He was persistent. Hesitantly, I gave him the information, not expecting him to come, although I appreciated his excitement. Then, three days before the big day, he started calling again. He had written the date down and was spending every waking moment trying to figure out how to get from Knoxville, TN to Cincinnati, OH. He called other family members to see who was driving to Cincinnati in hopes of catching a ride. He floated the idea of walking to Cincinnati. While some might find that strange, I took him seriously because he once hitchhiked to California. He was relentless.
Two days before the graduation, he called again. This time, I heard the desperation in his voice. He wanted to attend the graduation. He wanted to be part of this big day. He wanted to celebrate me. His simple act of persistence and love renewed my spirit. He made me stop and really appreciate the hard work it took to get to this day and what it meant to my family, my friends and to others around me. His persistence changed my perception, then my actions about graduation.
The next day, I brought him a bus ticket to Ohio, reserved a hotel room for him, and my brother went shopping to buy him a new outfit. The above picture is from that day.
He was my favorite uncle.
So, when my favorite uncle, Willie Marshal Martin, passed away in 2020, I wrote:
Remembrance is an emotion we don’t often talk about. It’s not quite sadness--not quite contentment—it’s both emotions rolled into one. So today, in remembrance of Willie (Mash) Martin, my favorite uncle and “stepdaddy,” my car washer, my borrower of money, my shit-talking partner, my brilliant orator, my truth teller and shining star--I say “Thank You.” Thank you for loving me and celebrating my success. Thank you for telling everyone I was your niece. Thank you for believing that I would always be there for you. Thank you for truly caring about how I was doing. Thank you for always being fully present, no matter who was in the room. Thank you for listening. Most of all, thank you for having a heart of Gold—a heart of God. No matter the situation, you gave your last, offered a helping hand, and loved deeply; even when that love was not returned. Rest in Peace, my love. For God is pleased and I am forever changed because of you.
Here is what my favorite uncle taught me:
That tiny baby, that abused little boy, grew into a complex man who showered others with the kind of unconditional love he so richly deserved himself.
Despite his personal struggles with addiction, he found his way into the hearts and minds of thousands of people in the community. He was loved, and he returned that love to everyone he met.
On my graduation day, I learned that celebrations are not simply for the person or people being honored. They are about honoring those who loved, guided and protected you from this abusive world—those whose love and sacrifices allowed you to exceed your wildest dreams.
I shared this story with my dear friend Elissa Yancey, CEO of A Pictures Worth, and it is now featured as a highlight of the Cincinnati Blink exhibit, A Picture’s Worth of Light, which you can visit in person in Cincinnati on the corner of Main and 13th Streets or experience online.
Yours in Courage!