I met Martha on my 2nd evening on the Camino. I had heard about her earlier that day from Meghan, an engineer from South Africa who I ended up walking the later half of the day’s route with. She had asked me if I’d met Martha from Georgia yet, and explained that she was an older woman carrying her husbands ashes with her to Santiago. She ensured me that I would meet Martha soon because “Martha met everyone.” Meghan wasn’t wrong- that evening as I walked down my albergue’s staircase, I heard a woman at the front desk explaining (in English) to the owner of the establishment (who only spoke Spanish) that she wanted a stamp on both her own and her dead husband’s credentials. It took awhile to get him to understand, but with resolute perseverance Martha got the stamps she desired, and for the next 2 weeks I watched as she used that same resolve everyday to walk across a country in her husband’s honor.
Martha was remarkable and funny and full of so much love for every person she met. She became my Camino Grandma, and though we did not walk together too often, I ran into her at various points throughout the days and would often start or end a day with her at a cafe bar. Every time I ran into Martha she would take a picture of me or with me, and would often send them back to her children and grandchildren in the States who expected to hear from her daily to know she was alive and well.
The last time I saw Martha before I headed back to Santiago was on a very rainy day. . . it was on her anniversary. A couple other friends and I had spent the evening before talking with her and we knew that day was going to be difficult. As we were leaving one village where we had stopped for a snack that day we ran into Martha and walked with her for a few minutes and wished her well before she told us to go ahead and move on up the mountain that she planned on taking slowly. I gave her my love and said I would see her at the end of the day, not knowing we would actually end up in different towns that night and that 2 days later I would be headed back to Santiago without getting to see her again.
Two weeks later I received an email from her telling me she was getting into Santiago the next day and asking if I could find time to see her. I jumped at the chance, and spent as much time with her as I could during her two days in town. Martha bought me dinner one night and lunch the next day and even left me with a couple tokens to remember her by: one of her nice water bottles she didn’t want to carry back home and a corkscrew she had bought and couldn’t take on the plane. They were odd gifts that i’ll surely cherish― water and wine.
Over dinner the first night, Martha told me how she and Joe had fallen in love against all odds, about how they blended their families, got their PhDs together in their 60s, drove a camper van across New Zealand a few years back, and camped around Portugal 10 years ago. Now she was here in Spain, on her own, 3 months after losing him.
At one point she asked me if I remembered the last time I had seen her on the Camino. It took me a moment to recall, but then I remembered leaving her as we left that village and ascended the mountain. She told me that just as we had left her, a man who was singing in his garden (I recall this man) came out onto the trail and pulled her into his yard! He danced with her a little and showed her around (speaking only in Spanish). Then his wife came out and gave Martha a hug and a Spanish greeting of kisses on the cheeks. Martha said the garden was lovely and she began to take pictures of it, the whole time thinking about showing the pictures to Joe so they could make their yard look like this. As she explained this scene I giggled and we both noted how odd, lovely, and very Spanish it was. After taking some pictures, she said she proceeded on her way through that sad rainy day across the mountain pass thinking of her lost love. At the end of her walk she came to the monastery she was staying at that evening to find that her kids had sent flowers there to be a part of the evening mass in Joe’s honor. After a long day, Martha went to the cafe bar next to the monastery and sat in a booth by herself and cried for 4 hours straight.
Martha then told me about the next two weeks of her journey, carefully noting the most random, fun, hard, and beautiful parts of it, then said, “and now its finished, and in a day I’ll head home and live in the reality of him being gone.”
The next day she spent lunch in a very excited manner. She kept encouraging me to live and love boldly and blindly. She made me laugh as she encouraged me to just “let yourself fall in love without overthinking things,” (she must have been able to read me like a book, cause I definitely overthink things). After lunch we met a random Spanish family and she doted on the newborn baby and took pictures with them all, and of course got their email to send them pictures (10 minutes after meeting them!). That evening we met for drinks with some others we met on the Camino and she told us all about her plans to see her kids and grandkids when she returned home the next day, and told me to make sure to invite her to my wedding someday!
We said our goodbyes that evening, and as I watched Martha walk out of Cafe Casino I wondered at all I had just learned from a woman I barely knew and would possibly never see again. Martha helped me realize that is what I’m in Spain for: to meet people, to listen to them, to spend time with them, to love them. . . and to learn from them.
Being on the Camino for a couple weeks showed me how vastly diverse this community I have stepped into really is. There are people from all walks of life here. Tons of world-views, religions, personality types, and histories are represented― and the nature of the Camino seems to break down many of the walls that these identifiers usually create. When everyone has this one thing in common (spending everyday walking across countries), the barriers seem to fade and the opportunities to really see and hear people become abundant.
So for the next 21 months, I look forward to just being with all these people I get to meet. I look forward to listening to their stories. . . like how she sold everything she owns and walked every single step here from her front door in Switzerland at the age of 65 and has no idea what she’ll do next. And about how he was kicked out of Morocco for protesting. And about how for her, walking this camino was harder than her job that takes her through the war zones in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
These are the people I am meeting and the stories I am humbled to get to hear each day. We are situated at a unique place in people’s lives here at the end of the Camino, and I hope that in my time here I am able to love these people well in the brief moments I get with them. My hope isn’t that they will remember me, but that they will remember being heard and loved.
And my prayer for them is the same as my prayer for me: to have ears to hear and eyes to see. May I hear and see THEM & may they hear and see HIM.
I’m learning so much from these strangers I get to meet everyday.
Martha was complete joy even in a time of complete sorrow. She was passionate and brave and thankful and kind, even as she was broken. She went on a walk to mourn the loss of her husband, and along the way she knitted a bunch of strangers together into family. She reminded me that Christ transforms, not only water into wine, but also our grief into hope.
I have two tokens to remember that lesson by :)