The Other Marty
The other night, as a part of Juneau’s Social Justice Movie Club, which is organized by the incomparable Catherine Hatch, I watched the 2018 RBG documentary. For those unaware, RBG stands for Ruth Bader Ginsburg, feminist legal icon and long-serving associate justice on the US Supreme Court, who passed away last week.
I’ll be honest, I didn’t know much about Ginsburg’s pre-SCOTUS history before watching this film, and I’d recommend it to anyone. But it started with a tale that felt very familiar to me. Maybe not in its exact details, but certainly in its narrative. I think a lot of Jews who trace part of their family history through the American Northeast can relate to the story of a child of Ukrainian immigrants, who was brought up in the era between the two World Wars.
So I’m already looking for places of familiarity, when we get to the point where a young Ruth first meets her husband in law school, and we learn his name: Marty.
Now Marty, presumably short for Martin, is not an uncommon name. Whether you’re more familiar with a Van Buren or a McFly, you’ve heard the name before. But I’ve heard this name more often than most. It comes to me, as if by instinct, in an aged, melodic voice, still tinged with a Boston accent that is mostly faded when she says just about any other word, as though this word, uniquely, links her back to her Bostonian youth.
Marty was my grandfather’s name. And it’s oddly appropriate that I associate my grandfather’s name with my grandmother’s voice more than I associate it with him. As far as I’m concerned, his actual name was Grandpa. Marty is just what Grandma calls him.
When he’s on the other side of the house and she wants to know where he left the arts and culture inset from the newspaper: “Maaarty!” When he’s re-staining the patio and has entirely lost track of time and lunch was supposed to be an hour ago: “Maaarty!” When he questions a plan one too many times, even though everyone else is entirely confident in it: “Maaarty!”
With only minor changes in inflection, the word could be extremely versatile. And it’s hard for me to hear it and not think about the relationship my grandparents had.
So I’ll be honest, I kind of missed Martin Ginsburg’s story while the documentary told it. I had steeped myself in the story of Martin Kalikow. Only the familiar parts stuck. Successful lawyer in New York who was married to an intelligent, headstrong woman, and loved her for her intelligence. That made sense to me. That was a story I already knew.
And from that point, while I was listening to Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life story, while I was learning about the cases she argued before the Supreme Court in the decades ahead of her own appointment to that body, I was also wondering: what if?
What if there had been fewer hurdles between my grandmother and a college education? There’s no doubt in my mind that she would have had as successful a career as she would have desired. There’s no doubt in my mind that she would have found support in her husband and children, even as she continued to support them as well.
But at the same time, I don’t think she had any regrets about how she did end up living her life. It’s a bouncing ping pong ball. A spinning roulette wheel. If you’re floating down a river and it forks (a relatively rare phenomenon in real life, but a common one in the land of metaphor), you can only go down one of them. You can’t swim back against the current. You just make the most of where you are, and enjoy the scenery that you happen to be floating past.
Sometimes that means changing the very way that law perceives gender, and rising to the absolute pinnacle of your field. Sometimes it means helping to shepherd patent law into a new age of international trade. And sometimes it just means being a good person for those closest to you.
Marty Ginsburg passed away in 2010, and Marty Kalikow passed away in 2011. Bea Kalikow passed away in 2019, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away in 2020. Their lives weren’t connected in any meaningful way. But they somehow feel like echoes of one another to me. Different spins of the same roulette wheel. Different forks of the same river.