Janet R Stafford

THE REAL THING

 

I love working with a character like Maggie. She tries her best to treat others with love and respect. She is gentle, attentive, and kind. And she often does the unthinkable – she makes sacrifices in the name of those qualities. She is real. And she has the real thing.
 
Let me emphasize this, though: Maggie is not perfect. Her daughter Frankie sometimes tries her patience. Her husband Eli’s behavior can frustrate her. The foibles of other folks sometimes confound her. Nonetheless she presses on toward the goals of love and respect for all she meets.
 
Maggie is notorious for opening her home to others – so much so that when Maggie confronts Eli about sending people from the hospital to their house without consulting her, Eli replies, “Unavoidable. The hospital kicked them out. But I knew you’d take them in.” To which Maggie tartly replies, “Yes, well, it’s a good thing we have the guest rooms and the resources. Otherwise, we’d be sleeping in the same bed and sharing a potato among us.” [1]
 
However, Eli knows that Maggie has a propensity for taking in those in need, and so do we. In the prequel short story, “The Dundee Cake,” Maggie learns that Nate and Emily Johnson have been the victims of a hate crime: someone has torched their home and Nate’s carpentry business. The couple is living in the surviving part of the building – which is smoky, makeshift, and cold. Logic dictates that Maggie might give them food, supplies, or money such as she is able. But she goes one step further, she invites the couple to live in her boarding house – despite the ramifications that might have, since the Johnsons are African American. And then she pleads with her boarders to give the rent money to help the Johnsons get new clothes and Nate new tools. The money would have gone to purchase the necessary items for the traditional Christmas dinner, but she forgoes tradition to help a family burned out of their home.
 
Years later, after Maggie’s family has moved from Blaineton to Gettysburg, the town is invaded by Confederate soldiers. It is clear that Maggie fears this enemy (and Frankie is building up a head of hate against them). But when Frankie returns to her home, she is aghast to find a group of Rebel infantrymen sitting on their porch and receiving a hot meal and cold water from Maggie, Emily, and Maggie’s oldest daughter Lydia. When Frankie confronts her mother, Maggie replies, “Those poor men are starving, Frankie. What if that was Patrick in Virginia? Wouldn’t you want a Southern woman feeding him and giving him water?”[2] (Reports are that many of the women of Gettysburg felt the same way and responded in a similar fashion.)
 
When Maggie takes people in they become part of her family. Chester Carson (a failed writer), James O’Reilly (an old, indigent immigrant from Ireland), Patrick McCoy (a young undertaker’s apprentice), and Edgar Lape (a struggling young lawyer) are the earliest examples of this. They pay her what they can afford and she treats them like beloved relatives. In fact, O’Reilly is given the title “Grandpa,” and Patrick and Edgar become sweet on her daughters.[3] As for Carson, well, it is clear in later books that he loves Maggie like a sister. Even Eli, who arrives in town and asks Maggie if she would rent her outbuilding to him so he can start a print shop and newspaper, gets a warm welcome. She lets him use the building even though he can’t (and doesn’t) pay the rent for months. Over time Eli falls in love with this good-hearted woman.
 
I’ve tried to ascertain how many other people have experienced Maggie’s hospitality. Here are a few: escaped slave Matilda Strong and her daughter Chloe; Union and Confederate soldiers during the Battle of Gettysburg; a mysterious little peddler by the name of Ira Green (whose last name used to Glickberg, but we decided that’s way too comedic for him); Edward Caldwell, a young African American reporter; immigrant maids Birgit and Moira Brennan; and people from the local insane asylum.
 
From all indications, Eli is absorbing Maggie’s generosity and hospitality. As Carson says to him, “My dear chap, have you ever looked closely at your employees? We have an old Irishman setting type; a fellow operating the press whose Norwegian accent is thicker than a Christmas pudding; two new employees one step away from imprisonment; a reporter and telegrapher who is an accomplished young colored man; and a senior reporter who happens to be an old homosexual.”[4]
 
Today is Christmas Eve. As such, I want to add one last thing: in 2017, I hope to become more like Maggie. To me, she exemplifies the kind of person Jesus wants as a follower: one who loves extravagantly, who heals illnesses and wounds and casts out demons, who feeds, who teaches, who raises the dead in body and spirit; and one who is gentle enough to cuddle children and strong enough to confront the arrogance and abuses of the powerful and do it with love, rather than violence.
 
What I want for Christmas is for love and respect and kindness and generosity to grow until they overcome evil, greed, and hatred. I want the impossible. But, doggone it, writing a character like Maggie has taught me that “impossible” is only a perception. The reality, the real thing is love.
 
______________________________

[1] SEEING THE ELEPHANT.
[2] WALK BY FAITH.
[3] SAINT MAGGIE.
[4] SEEING THE ELEPHANT.

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