The 11 a.m. Christmas service at the First United Methodist Church of Hudson featured soloist Martha Beneduci singing O Holy Night from the balcony. She loves it up there, gazing down on the congregation she joined more than 20 years ago.
After she finished the hymn, she made her way downstairs. "Martha,'' one of the ushers said with a fair amount of urgency, "the toilet in the ladies room is overflowing!''
The operatic soprano didn't hesitate. She removed her robe, fixed the leak, cleaned up the mess. Then she rejoined the choir.
"It's my job,'' she said.
Martha Beneduci, 58, is a study in contrast. She can play complex music on her sleek black C. Bechstein grand piano and then go downstairs to work on a diesel boat engine or the 1936 Chevy she's helping to restore. She once handled expensive jewelry and linens for Saks Fifth Avenue in New York, then spent 18 years cleaning fish and ramrodding the roughnecks running shrimp boats in and out of Hudson.
Her house is full of antiques and rare opalescent glass. She once photographed weddings and sewed wedding gowns in the big city. Now she seals the leaky steeple at the church. She maintains five buildings on 13 acres, distributes food for poor people and furniture for the church's thrift shop. She also runs off prostitutes and other shady characters that drift along an ugly strip of U.S. 19 because when she needs to be, Martha Beneduci is tough.
She had to be at the Hudson Shrimp Docks, which she ran with husband, Al, from 1986 until his death in 2005. The men who worked the Gulf of Mexico for grouper, snapper, shark and shrimp often drank hard and looked dangerous and dirty. But just as Martha would defy you to place her in any particular category, she defends her "boys.''
"You can't judge a book by its cover,'' she said. "Those fishermen treated me with respect.''
Plus, she said, nobody messed with Al. He had grown up in Naples, Italy. The boys on the boats thought he had "connections'' in the Old World. He let them think what they would.
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How in the world did a Saks Fifth Avenue, piano-playing, opera-singing, photographer-seamstress wind up chopping off fish heads and breathing diesel fumes in Hudson?
Martha Smith grew up on a farm in southeastern Michigan her great-grandfather bought in 1895. She was the last of four children. Her big brother still runs the farm, which has grown from 75 acres to 1,800 and produces, among other crops, a type of small potato called Barbara Ann.
Martha's mom played organ at church. Martha took piano lessons for 10 years and also learned guitar and other instruments. She played first-chair clarinet in the high school band. She attended the University of Michigan but at 19 married a medical student and reluctantly moved to New York City for his residency. She excelled with Saks but not in marriage. She left the doctor after four years for the mechanic who worked on her Datsun 240Z.
Al Beneduci, 18 years older, owned a garage in the Bronx. He taught Martha how to diagnose mechanical problems. On weekends, they headed over to Montauk and out to sea with Al's brother, who owned a commercial fishing boat. Here's the main recollection of the woman who would later make a living off the sea: "I got sick every time we went out.''
The hospital across the street wanted to expand and bought Al's garage. It seemed like a good time to follow relatives to Florida. They found the stilt house on a canal in Hudson and stopped by the docks one day for shrimp. "I'm going to own this place someday,'' Al said.
Over the next several years, they owned eight boats and provided dock space for several more. Their flagship: the Capt. Al, a twin-engine fiberglass workhorse that Al bought in Cape May, N.J., and piloted to Hudson.
Al enjoyed spending days at sea while Martha ran the marina and a wholesale seafood house that attracted loyal customers from three counties. Everything was going along fine until March 13, 1993 when the biggest squall anyone around here can remember pushed the Gulf of Mexico into most every home west of U.S. 19. Martha and Al rode out the "No Name Storm'' aboard the Capt. Al. She donned a wet suit and jumped into the water to keep the boat away from pilings. They saved the boat but virtually everything else associated with the business was ruined — and the Beneducis had no insurance.
"We loaded up our credit cards to stay in business,'' Martha recalled. "But it was never the same again. We were always in debt.''
Six months later, Al's health began to fail. Each year he grew weaker, angered by new laws that restricted fishing and drove families from the business. Imports and fish farms cut further into business, and by the time Al died in 2005 at age 68, the Hudson Shrimp Docks was done.
Martha signed on fulltime with the church and immersed herself in the work. "I had been so used to running things,'' she said. "You know, my way or the highway. The fishermen were like family, and my church family is very different. I use everything I learned at the docks, though. You had to be innovative and creative — make things work. I can do that.''
She misses Al but keeps the Capt. Al going with a small crew that sails 80 miles to the middle grounds twice a month, casting vertical lines for fresh catch they ice and market to Whitney's in Hudson and Pelican Point in Tarpon Springs. A good trip will yield about 3,000 pounds, a far cry from the old days but just enough to keep Martha Beneduci in the business she grew to love.
She occasionally works aboard the Capt. Al, which has been remarkably sturdy. But she never leaves port.
"I still get seasick,'' she said. "I've never gotten over that.''