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Bittersweet Childhoods of Love and Loss

Grandmother Tries To Raise Young Girls As Daughter Wished

By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 21, 2004; Page A17

For reasons that many families marvel over, some babies are born with few physical problems in spite of violent attacks on their mothers. Victoria Martin was delivered that way after an emergency Caesarean section in Fayetteville, N.C., in 2002.

Her mother, Brandy Martin, had been severely beaten with a baseball bat when she was 29 weeks pregnant. Within hours, doctors delivered the baby -- 3 pounds 5 ounces and premature, but ultimately healthy.

Brandy Martin, shown with her daughter, Alyssa, was a law student who hoped to become a prosecutor. Her husband, Geoff Martin, who had been her high school sweetheart, is serving life. (Family Photos)

_____About This Series_____

The Toll: Researchers are just beginning to discover what has been a hidden risk of pregnancy: Pregnant women and new mothers are more likely to be victims of homicide than to die of any single natural cause, several statewide studies have shown.

The Victims: As public health experts focus new attention on homicide during pregnancy, the Washington region has become a focal point. Research rarely casts light on the lives of those who were slain or how violence entered their lives at such a pivotal time.

The Legacy: The tragedy of maternal homicide lingers in the lives of children left behind, some of them born as their mothers were dying. Older siblings sometimes witnessed the violence. The children often must be raised by their grandparents.

Video: Recovering at Ceeatta's House
Photo Gallery: The Missing Stories
Photo Gallery: Caring for a Lost Daughter's Son
Maternal Homicide in D.C. Area
_____From The Post_____
Mending Shattered Childhoods (The Washington Post, Dec 21, 2004)
Violence Intersects Lives of Promise (The Washington Post, Dec 20, 2004)
States Add Penalties For Death of Unborn (The Washington Post, Dec 20, 2004)
Many New or Expectant Mothers Die Violent Deaths (The Washington Post, Dec 19, 2004)
Researchers Stunned By Scope of Slayings (The Washington Post, Dec 19, 2004)
How the Series Was Reported (The Washington Post, Dec 19, 2004)
_____For Information or Help_____
National Domestic Violence Hotline, 1-800-799-SAFE
D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 202-299-1181
Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence, 301-352-4574
Virginians Against Domestic Violence, 804-377-0335

"Her mother had picked her name, and it was Victoria," said her grandmother Reba Skaggs, "and it's so appropriate because she's a little victory baby."

Brandy Martin was a second-year law student who married her high school sweetheart, started a family, became involved in her church and worked toward a career as a prosecutor. The summer before her death, she was an intern in the district attorney's office.

The Martins had been through some troubles in their marriage, including a suicide attempt by Geoff Martin. But relatives and police said nothing suggested the violence of May 4, 2002, when Geoff attacked Brandy while she was sleeping. Brandy lived for six days in the hospital.

With their mother dead and their father in prison, Victoria, now 2 1/2, and her sister, Alyssa, 6, are being raised by Skaggs, 52, who said the blessing of a healthy birth has been mingled with the most intense grief she has known.

"The worst time is at night, because everything is quiet and dark and your mind goes crazy," she said. One recent night, she recalled, Alyssa approached her grandmother tearfully and announced: "It's been so long since I heard my mommy's voice. I don't think I remember it."

Skaggs was devastated. She had kept photographs of Brandy in the house but had not thought to keep Alyssa connected to the sound of her voice. So Skaggs dug out videotapes of Brandy delivering legal arguments for class.

Alyssa watched with excitement, unbothered by the dry subject matter. "Now I remember," she exclaimed. She still asks, "Can I see Mommy at work?"

For a long time, Skaggs said, she had a hard time disciplining Alyssa. "I felt like she lost everything in her life, and I just couldn't," she recalled. "I didn't want her to feel any more sadness."

Skaggs said she still talks about Brandy in present tense, because she is a strong part of her granddaughters' lives. Before bed every night, Alyssa and Victoria kiss their mother's photograph. When they pray to God, they ask, "The next time you see Mommy, can you give her a kiss for us?"

When they have a free day, Skaggs takes the girls to their mother's grave site. Sometimes they bring a picnic lunch. The girls run from one dogwood to another, chase and play.

Their father, Geoff, is an ex-Marine who served as a deacon in his church, a likable man who worked for an industrial supply company and had just been promoted at work.

The evening before the killing, his wife made him a congratulatory cake, and the family went out to dinner to celebrate his promotion and the completion of Brandy's final exams at law school. Police said Geoff had no explanation for the beating and no apparent history of spousal abuse. He is in prison for life and declined to be interviewed.

Victoria is still too young to ask many questions about what happened. But Alyssa was 3 1/2 years old -- and in another bedroom -- the night of her mother's killing. She heard the police banging on the door, saw the tears and never saw either parent again.

What she knows, Skaggs said, is that "Mommy got hurt really bad, and the police had to help us. Daddy had to go away." Mommy, she believes, is in Heaven. She is unclear about Daddy, and Skaggs intends to keep it that way until she is older. "She thinks she has the best daddy in the whole world," she said.

Skaggs has struggled to pick up where Brandy left off with her daughters. She sends Alyssa to a private Christian school because Brandy wanted that, even though it costs more than Skaggs can afford. She has reveled in Victoria's first tooth, first step, first word.

But she constantly thinks of how Brandy should be enjoying her children. "The brain just won't shut off when you go through something like this," she said. "The first thing we do about everything is cry. . . . Absolutely everything is bittersweet."

Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company