Editor’s note: Long-time Cuenca expat Martha Mays died last week of pancreatic cancer at the age of 61. She returned briefly to the U.S. for treatments but, when they failed, decided to return to Cuenca to spend her final days. Her son Daniel Palimeri and expat friend Robert Bradley share their memories and thoughts about her.
Some thoughts on Martha Mays from her son, Daniel Palimeri
Dear friends of Martha Mays,
Martha Louisa Fink was the fifth child of Charles Fink and Elizabeth Fink. (Oldest to youngest: Peter, Betsy, Susan, Chris, Martha, Meredith). Her father Charles (Chick to those close to him) was a dive bomber pilot in the Pacific theater of WWII. After the war, he became a design engineer for defense contractor Raytheon. Her mother, Elizabeth, was a school teacher for 1st-grade students. They lived in the quiet coastal town of Cohasset, Massachusetts.
Martha was an avid swimmer and diver; she would haunt local bridges with friends and wow them with her diving prowess. Her love of swimming and diving would be a lifelong passion.
She completed a Bachelor of Liberal Arts Degree at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She spent her junior year studying in Barcelona, Spain, where her love for the Spanish culture and language became entrenched in her personality, and gives a real insight into Martha’s quiet genius — especially if you consider the fact that Martha was dyslexic.
After college Martha married her high school sweetheart, Michael Palimeri, who joined the Navy after high school and worked as an engineer. Martha worked as a waitress. When Michael’s service was completed the young couple moved to Duxbury, Massachusetts to be close to their families and to raise a family of their own. Daughter Katherine (Kate) was born in the fall of 1982 and their son Daniel was born in the spring of 1984. By 1989, Martha and Michael’s marriage had fallen apart and they divorced.
Martha moved with her two young children (and her new boyfriend, a software engineer named David Croll) to the picturesque mountain town of Evergreen, Colorado in the summer of 1990; it was a drastic change of scenery and culture. Martha found work at the town recreation center as a swimming instructor and lifeguard. I was there at the pool the day Martha saved a drowned boy from the bottom of the pool.
The house we lived in was a mountain cottage built by the owner of a farm league baseball team. In the fall, Martha and David would fell trees while my sister Kate and I gathered kindling so we could keep the house warm during the long Rocky Mountain winter. We loved it.
Martha and Michael exchanged custody in 1995. Kate and I lived with Michael and his new wife, Nancy, in Massachusetts. Martha’s relationship with David had fizzled and Martha desired a warmer climate, so she moved to Durango, Colorado. There, Martha wore many hats. She walked dogs, waitressed, landscaped, was a telephone operator. She bought a few acres on the outskirts of Durango where she placed a prefab tool shed to live in while she acquired the necessary permits and hired the contractors to build a house.
Martha moved in great big bold steps always.
She was a lover of the arts and music scene in Durango. She even moonlighted as a DJ for the college radio station.
My sister and I would visit her in the summer. Down the road from her house was a bar where Martha worked, cooking pizzas and serving beer. I think the place was called the Blue Spruce. It was here, in a dusty biker bar I learned to shoot pool. I was maybe 11 years old. My teacher Martha, was an awesome player, and expected her children to hold their own on the table. In fact, it was not until I was 26 years old that I beat her in a game of pool.
Martha met her second husband, Ed Mays, in Durango. Eventually, she sold the house and the couple moved south through Arizona. Ed established a base in Phoenix while Martha lived in the quieter town of Clarkdale. She stayed there a while but her heart longed for her college experience of living abroad. So in 2009 she moved to Ecuador and started her life as an English-as-a-second language (ESL) teacher online and as a kind of ambassador for expats also seeking to move.
Martha lived a rich life by the seat of her pants. It was a life I think defined by an insatiable wanderlust and curiosity. Martha wanted to see and experience everything, which as she succeeded gave rise to her worldly demeanor and wry sense of humor. She was a funny person who lived by her own rules, she made the most of her 61 years on this earth and I will miss her dearly.
An expat’s memories of Martha
Martha Mays, at the age of 51, packed a couple of suitcases and moved to Cuenca. The year was 2009 and Cuenca was booming. Travel magazines were giddy in their praise, some going so far as to say that Cuenca was the best city in the world to retire. None of that interested Martha, retirement was the last thing on her mind. Instead, she took the city by storm.
Martha’s college studies in Spain left an indelible mark on her heart. She loved the earthy romanticism and the Spanish language — two areas in which she excelled. When she arrived in Cuenca, she brought with her a well-oiled curriculum that served her well in the U.S., teaching Spanish to gringos. Later, her classes on Ecuador and Cuenca history were also popular, as was her winning personality. She was the talk of the town.
In 2010 she purchased a restaurant, Di Baccos, in El Centro, noted for its Tuesday Gringo Night. Not only did she expand the entertainment the earlier restaurant provided, but she also became an active participant, occasionally taking the stage and singing a ditty or two that she enjoyed. Within weeks her place was the place to see and be seen. Although it lasted for a single year, those who remember Gringo Night consider it to be instrumental in pulling the community together.
Martha’s commitment to her new homeland expanded beyond providing a home for gringos. From her earliest months she assumed responsibility to assist the orphanage in Olon by having fundraisers, collecting used clothing, and providing toys for tots at Christmas. Her effort was roundly applauded and will be remembered as one of her crowning achievements.
Martha was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in May of 2019. The best efforts of the local medical community could not help her so she returned to the U.S. for an experimental treatment that seemed to have put her cancer, temporarily, into remission. When it was determined that her illness was fatal, she returned to Cuenca to live out her last days.
Martha Mays died at 4:05 p.m. on Sunday, December 20, 2020. She was surrounded by a family that loved her and will miss her for a very long time.
A soft wind blows
between the islands
of Sadness and Eternity.
The astonished refugee
carrying in her pale white hands
The strange, unshackle gift