For now, though, let’s start with her hands.
Son Doug Stacker says he found himself staring at them in the intensive care unit, not long before his mother died, wondering how many times those fingers had played the piano or coaxed along the voices and hands of the hundreds of young musicians she taught for more than half a century.
“Her talent, it was like an extension of herself,” Stacker said with an undertone of awe running through his words. “And when she was playing, she was making so many friends. She was bridging generations.”
Martha Beam Stacker died on Mother’s Day. She was 93.
Her parents, Merton and Lena Beam, both worked at The Charlotte Observer. As a teenager attending Central High, Martha sometimes filled in for her mother on one of her proof-reading shifts. For a time during World War II, the Beams ran a boarding house near College Street. In another home, they insulated the attic with crumpled-up copies of the newspaper.
Martha Beam was the youngest of four children. She liked relationships that stuck. After her 1949 marriage, she lived in the same small home in the Merry Oaks neighborhood in east Charlotte for more than seven decades.
She was a founding member of Memorial United Methodist at Central and Eastway. There, she directed the children’s choir for more than 50 years and taught preschool for another 35.
She never learned to drive. She never left Charlotte.
Music ran through all of it. As a girl, she auditioned for The Briarhoppers, still billed as the country’s longest-running Bluegrass band. She sang in the volunteer choir for the Graham crusades. During the polio outbreak in the late 1940s when she was still in her teens, she performed the morning hymn on WAYS radio for special family programming aimed toward the children sequestered at home.
A year later, she married Earl Stacker, a Charlotte firefighter. They bought their first and only home on Arnold Drive. Earl died in 1993. Martha didn’t leave their house until a fall last year forced a move to assisted living.
The Stackers had a piano in the living room. Gail Litaker, the couple’s first born, remembers how all noise in the house had to stop while she practiced. Her younger sister, Melodie, recalls falling to sleep at night while her parents tried playing something on the piano as softly as they could.
Melodie also remembers her mother’s hands — their strength and warmth, how they hovered over the piano keys for a second or two before she began to play, how they held the hands of generations of children. Melodie was holding her mother’s hands at the moment of her death.
At Martha’s service Tuesday morning at Memorial United, 200 people showed up. Doug, a veteran television photojournalist in Charlotte, arranged to have a recording played from his mother’s 1948 performance of “Breathe on Me,” on the WAYS morning show, and Martha Beam’s teenage voice and piano lilted through the sanctuary, her music bridging generations one last time.
In her eulogy, one of the ministers spoke of Martha Stacker’s time as both director of the church’s children’s choir and a teacher in its preschool. She asked for a show of hands from all those present who had learned music or the alphabet under the same woman’s care.
Melodie, who sat in the very front of the church with the rest of her family, turned and looked over her shoulder to see the response:
Hands, dozens and dozens of them, from one era of Charlotte to the next, jutting up in the air.