Today family and friends of Josephine Sheeshia Martin mourn her peaceful passing on May 9, 2020 at the age of 95. Josephine was born in Arsoun, Lebanon in July of 1925, to Nassef Sheeshia and Tamame Yasbek. Arsoun is a small village in the mountains north of Beirut. Josephine’s father, Nassef, had come to the United States in the late 1800’s and had business interests in Lawrence, Mass. where a large Lebanese community group had immigrated. Nassef returned to Lebanon, married for the 2nd time after his first wife died. Josephine’s birth was followed by that of her brother Illyes two years later. When Josephine was about five years old, both of her parents died; first Nassef, then less than six months later, Tamame. The children became wards of their maternal grandmother and aunt, and Josephine would grow up with them in Bikfaya Lebanon. When Josephine told stories about growing up in Lebanon, she often spoke about how sweet and loving her grandmother was, how difficult her aunt was and how tough the nuns at her school were.
Upon leaving the Catholic school at sixteen, Josephine was employed by a wealthy Syrian Moslem family to be a governess to their children in Damascus. She mentioned that her employer had once been a Miss Universe contestant. She talked about how she had traveled on the Orient Express with the family. It was in Damascus in 1943 that she met Charles Saadoun, a young man from Sfax, Tunisia who was a soldier in the French medical corps stationed on the Golan Heights (still part of Syria, prior to the establishment of the nation of Israel). Seeing Charles in a French soldier’s uniform on the street, Josephine assumed that he did not speak any Arabic, and so gossiped about him openly to the friend she was with. Charles joined in their conversation about himself in his native Arabic, and a wartime romance was born. We can still hear her strong laugh recalling this incidence. Not long after their first meeting Josephine, a French-speaking Maronite Catholic, was forced to flee Damascus as religious tensions flared up into a war for Syrian independence from the French colonial government. Josephine found herself fleeing with other French and Christian refugees to the mountains that would soon become Lebanese/Syrian border, and was able to make it safely back to her grandmother’s home in Bikfaya. Charles, through contacts with the nuns who provided support to the French soldiers, was able to get a letter to Josephine’s priest, and was eventually able to reunite with her in Lebanon. They married on September 29, 1945.
Charles, as a French citizen, was no longer welcome in Lebanon after the war, and so first he, then Josephine, moved to Paris, France. They owned and operated a small candy shop. All four of their children, Jean Claude, Alain, William and Nadia were born in Paris. Life in post-war France was difficult. After losing their business Josephine and Charles, with help and support from her half-brother Fredy, moved the family to Danbury, Connecticut. In November of 1959 the entire family became nationalized American citizens.
Despite a language barrier that would remain an obstacle to constantly overcome, Josephine worked tirelessly to support and raise all four of her children and saw them all go on to earn post-graduate degrees and have successful careers. Josephine’s pride in the achievements of her children was obvious to everyone who knew her; she valued their education and professional successes above any other accomplishment. She lived the classic tale of being an immigrant; working hard and seeing her children succeed.
Danbury had a robust Lebanese-American community; Josephine’s family grew to include friends, neighbors, her coworkers from Danbury Hospital, and as her children grew older, many of their friends took seats at her dinner table. Josephine enjoyed hosting large gatherings of family and friends on the weekends and holidays. She was known for her huge bowls of tabbouleh, hummus, and baba ghanoush, stacks of manousheh and spinach pies, and platters of kibbeh and stuffed grape leaves. No matter how many people came over there were always leftovers sent home by the bagful with her children when they left. Josephine was never happier than when her kitchen was overflowing with friends and family
Though she was only able to return to Lebanon once after moving to America, Josephine’s connection to her brothers and extended family remained strong. Her nephew, Sami, came to live with Josephine in America during the Lebanese Civil War to finish his schooling and take a degree in engineering, becoming in every way a fifth child in her heart.
Years later, after her children left Connecticut to start their families and follow their careers wherever they took them, Josephine retired from Danbury Hospital and joined Nadia, her husband Ray and their children in Peterborough, New Hampshire. After visiting Peterborough for years and taking walks down Old Street Road, a blue gambrel house she had always admired had come on the market, and the timing was right. The big kitchen in that Old Street Road home became the new stage for cooking and entertaining, and no grapevine in east Peterborough was safe when it was time to harvest leaves for cooking all year long. Many friends in Peterborough were thrilled to share in the enjoyment of eating and learning about Lebanese cooking.
Josephine’s devotion to her children, their education and their wellbeing extended undiminished to her grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren. Known to them as Situ, the Lebanese equivalent to ‘Nana’, Josephine never missed a graduation or a wedding until recent years when she was unable to travel. She was intensely proud of her family, never afraid to tell them when she thought they could do better, and the first one to cheer them when they achieved their goals. They were hers, she loved them all, and they all knew it.
Josephine Sheeshia Martin was sadly pre-deceased by her oldest son, Jean Claude Martin. Two sons, William and Alain live in Stroudsburg, Pa. and Flemington, NJ. Her daughter Nadia MacStay and her husband Raymond live in Peterborough, NH. Josephine had five grandchildren: Nicole MacStay, Lara Shea, Megan Somero, Amy and Todd Martin of Chicago. Six great-grandchildren, Victoria Prince, Waylon Somero, Lillian Ojala, Jack, Amelie and Zoe Gosselin. Josephine also lived to see three great-great grandchildren. They are joined in mourning by Nadia O’Dell, Sami Sheeshia and all her extended family in Lebanon, Connecticut, Kentucky and California, too many to name.
Josephine was a woman of great strength, caring and determination. Near the end of her life she was determined to keep going, walking down and then up, four times a day in the field on Cheney Ave. She wore a trail that was visible on Google Earth.
To send flowers to the family or plant a tree in memory of Josephine S. Martin, please visit our floral store.