BERNE — By nature, Martha Salzer was more of a helper than a leader, sewing clothes and baking pies, but through her constant nurturing she was the grand matriarch of her family.
She sewed by hand intricate outfits for flower girls and christenings and dressed her children using pieces of second-hand clothes from family and neighbors.
In her eighties, after her husband, Joseph Salzer Sr., died, she taught herself to crochet by reading and studying patterns. She committed herself to making afghans for everyone, including babies, in her large family. She made more than 30 within four years.
Mrs. Salzer died on Monday, Feb. 17, 2014 in the Community Hospice Inn at St. Peter’s Hospital of congestive heart failure. She was 95.
She was a housewife all of her life and wanted to be a teacher after her Aunt Phoebe Sisson, whom she admired. She ended up teaching about life and had a big influence on her family, said her daughter, Lucinda McCarthy.
“All the basic things you need: how to take care of a home, how to take care of your children — we were always clean and neat and had the clothes she could make for us, for me in particular, being a girl,” said Mrs. McCarthy.
She also taught that making mistakes is OK. McCarthy said her daughter, an English teacher, wasn’t able to sleep the night of Mrs. Salzer’s death. She stayed awake and wrote about the lessons she learned from her grandmother.
“If you make a mistake when you’re sewing, you’ve got to rip it out and do it over again,” said McCarthy, describing her daughter’s parable.
“And, if you turn the cloth over and look at it, the good thing is, lots of times you can’t see you made a mistake,” she added. “It’s OK to make mistakes, but you need to fix them. I guess you didn’t let them destroy” your work, she said.
Born in Berne on Sept. 22, 1918, Mrs. Salzer was one of nine children of the late Edwin and May Dietz Sisson.
Mrs. Salzer helped to care for her younger brother when she was still a girl. Her father worked on a farm and her mother died, so they lived with their older sister when Mrs. Salzer was 6 years old.
A generation later, Mrs. Salzer and her husband didn’t want their grandchildren to be separated from their family.
“She was just always there,” Mrs. McCarthy said. “She helped raise some of my brothers’ children, after their mom died.” Mrs. Salzer was in her fifties and her daughter was 13 years old when they began living with six of her grandchildren, aged 18 months to 12 years.
A lifelong resident of Berne, Mrs. Salzer graduated with the first class from Berne High School, her family wrote. If the new school hadn’t offered high school classes then, she wouldn’t have been able to continue her education, her daughter said, and she loved to learn. Mrs. Salzer won a gold piece for her performance in math one year, and she played basketball at the school.
“She always said she wasn’t good at shooting but she was a great guard,” said Mrs. McCarthy.
After graduation, Mrs. Salzer went to work as a housemaid for a family in Slingerlands before she met her husband, Joseph Salzer, at a neighbor’s house. Their marriage lasted more than 50 years, ending only with his death in 1996.
“My mom definitely took care of my dad,” said Mrs. McCarthy, describing her mother as deferential. “He was quite a strong personality.”
Mrs. Salzer was a member of Helderberg Lutheran Church in Berne, and was involved in Girl Scout troops and helping with Memorial Day floats.
“She was a worker bee,” said her daughter, Lucinda McCarthy, who noticed more of her mother’s qualities as she aged.
She had a sense of humor — sticking her tongue out at a nurse who insisted she keep her oxygen tube in place — and a sense of conviction — unconvinced that Lake Onderdonk was as shallow as her grandson had claimed.
“Times change and she accepted that and it didn’t seem to fase her,” said Mrs. McCarthy. “She didn’t judge anybody.”
Her first commitment was to her family. She was a self-taught craftswoman, of quilting, hooking rugs, crocheting afghans, and making Christmas ornaments. She cut and dyed her own wool and used discarded pieces. Mrs. McCarthy said her mother made her clothes until she was in college.
She made a set of international dolls with yarn for hair and detailed costumes, like an Indian doll with a sari and a dot on its forehead, or a Hawaiian doll with a grass skirt.
She was a patient seamstress and gardener into her eighties. She opened the curtains to her front picture window each day for a row of six to eight geraniums with bright-red flowers admired by her neighbor during winter.
“Martha nourished her family and friends with her pies, soups, and homemade meals,” her family wrote in a tribute. “She was the grand matriarch of the family, and nurtured all in body and soul.” Mrs. Salzer made her pies with thin crusts and made sure to slice her apples very finely.
“You could pick it up in your hand and eat it,” said Mrs. McCarthy, whose husband now will not order apple pie in a restaurant.
Mrs. Salzer wanted to feed her children’s brains, too, reading to them books, like To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, taking on the voices of the characters. She told her two youngest it kept them from fighting. Mrs. McCarthy noticed other children she knew didn’t have literature read to them by their parents, she said.
“She wanted me to go to college,” said Mrs. McCarthy. “Nobody else in our family had been to college yet. She wanted me to go, and she got me there.”
Martha Salzer is survived by her three children, Joseph Salzer Jr. and his significant other, Judy Lewis, Thomas K. Salzer and his wife, Marilyn J., and Lucinda S. McCarthy and her husband, John J.; and her 18 grandchildren, 25 great-grandchildren, one great-great-granddaughter, and numerous nieces and nephews.
Her parents and husband died before her, as did her daughter, Martha Keller, and all of her siblings, Claude, Florence, Harriet, DeWitt, Milton, Leland, Charles, and Clyde.
Calling hours will be Thursday, Feb. 20, from 4 to 9 p.m. at A.J. Cunningham Funeral Home, 4898 State Route 81 in Greenville. The funeral will be Friday, Feb. 21, at 11 a.m. at Helderberg Lutheran Church, 1728 Helderberg Trail in Berne. Spring burial will be in Woodlawn Cemetery. Mourners may go online to ajcunninghamfh.com.
Memorial contributions may be made to the Community Hospice Inn at St. Peter’s Hospital, 315 South Manning Blvd., Albany, NY 12208.
— Marcello Iaia