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The past week has been hard for me, not to mention my nation. It breaks my heart that the Black community is still struggling for equal treatment and recognition, but too often receive abuse and death. I have cried because there are people that I know and love who do not feel safe simply because their skin is brown.
I need a catharsis. And so, this blog and the one or two that follow it will focus on how the themes in the Saint Maggie series have emerged out of my life experiences and my interactions with people of different opinions, races, sexual identity, ethnicity, and nationality. Those who have crossed my paths, those whom I sought out, and those who sought me out all feed into why the Saint Maggie series contains the thematic material it does. Most of those themes have to do with struggles for dignity, freedom, and acceptance – for African Americans, women, immigrants, the poor, and those who are considered as “less than” by those who are better off. Other thematic material appears in the form of faith, love, mercy, and justice.
To begin with, I turned 68 years old in April. Yes. I’m now an “elder” or a “senior.” Here’s what that’s like. In my mind I’m still 30 years old, but my body tends to remind me that I’m not. I also have had the experience of my son-in-law barking at our grandson, “Aidan! Take your Mimi’s arm so she doesn’t trip on the curb!” If that isn’t a sign that you’re getting old, I don’t know what is.
Anyway, I was born in 1952. I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, graduating from high school in 1970. My parents were middle-middle class, meaning they occasionally had to inform my sister and I that we couldn’t ask them to buy what we today call "non-essential items" because we “needed to tighten our belts” for a while. But somehow we always had enough food and a roof over our heads. So in that we were fortunate.
My dad worked as an engineer for various pharmaceutical companies back in the day when this country actually made the drugs we took. I remember that he helped design a sterile room. Dad also created a valve that was patented by the company he worked for. He was a loving, supportive father and genuinely seemed to like all people.
As was the case with many women of the time, my mother worked as a homemaker. However, she also was a feminist, and told me stories about how after World War II, women were told to give up their jobs so returning veterans could have them. “Women were angry,” Mom said. "Nobody talks about that." It was obvious that men leaving the armed forces needed their jobs, but to toss women aside with little to no thanks for the work they had put in was insulting. When I was around 12 or 13 years old, Mom returned to working part-time outside the home to help save money so my sister and I could have a college education.
We lived in suburban America, specifically Parsippany, New Jersey, in a development called Glacier Hills. My sister and I were “free range” kids. That is, we were allowed to go play where we wished, as long as we didn’t talk to strangers. And there was plenty to do for an adventurous kid! The area was wooded and offered great locations for imaginary play. There were paved streets on which to bike, play ball, and sled, provided we kept an eye out for oncoming traffic. We were careful to respond to the shout of “Car! Car!” by hopping to the side of the road. We also were within walking distance to the elementary school, where there were swings and other playground equipment. And when we were older, we’d walk to a nearby golf course to toboggan in winter. Come summer vacation, we’d hike over to a bowling alley.
The Parsippany in which I grew up was almost completely white. And everyone who attended my schools were white.
This does not mean that I was unaware of the struggle African Americans were having for equal right. And it doesn’t mean that I had never heard of the Holocaust or of the horrific treatment of Native Americans. My teachers saw to that.
But for all their good work at educating me, I never really got to know a Black person, although I did know students who were Jewish, Italian, Irish, Catholic, and later in my high school career, from India.
There was only one Black family in the church we attended. I think their kids were grown or perhaps they never had children. But one Sunday, the woman of the couple stepped up to the pulpit and began to read Sunday’s Bible lesson. I remember being thrilled by the way she read. She did it with such dignity and authority. Furthermore, she was a woman, she was Black, and she was leading worship! As I listened, I wished could hear the Bible read like that every week. A few years later, when I was in college, I read a Bible passage from that same pulpit on Student Sunday. That woman of color, whose name was Barbara, was my role model – and if I don’t miss my guess, she also embodies the first whispers of a call that eventually would lead me into vocational ministry.
But the person who made the biggest impact on my young life at that point was one of my 10th grade teachers. We had a class called “Block of Time,” which was a mash-up of English, Social Studies, and History. (Gotta love those experimental late 60s.) I cannot say that I am “woke,” but the man who taught that class opened my mind and my heart. And he will be the focus of my end-of-week blog.
Meanwhile, stay well and love others, friends.
Janet R. Stafford
Image from https://pxhere.com/en/photo/695127
Changes in the new book are not all negative for Eli. (And it’s a good thing. This guy has seen enough trouble!)
The most notable positive change happens when Maggie and crew welcome Shelby Garrison, a traveling guitar player, to Greybeal House. During a party to celebrate the near completion of the houses damaged by fire, Eli discovers that he and Shelby get along. This might be due to the fact that, like Shelby, Eli once arrived in Blaineton with the intention of “passing on through” on his way to somewhere else. As we all know, Eli ended up putting down roots in Blaineton, and it just may be Eli sees that Shelby is headed down the same road.
When the band took a break, Shelby wandered over to where Eli was sitting and dropped onto the chair beside him. In his hand, Shelby held a glass containing an amber liquid. Lifting it up, he asked Eli, “Would you care for one? I’d be happy to fetch it for you.”
Eli smiled and shook his head. “No, thanks. I’ve had plenty. But, please, go right ahead and enjoy your antifogmatic.”
Shelby chuckled. “I fully intend to.” He took a sip. “Ahh! I tell you, making music is thirsty business!”
“So I’ve heard.” Suddenly, Eli lifted an eyebrow. “Well, well, well… here comes that lady fiddler.”
Shelby immediately and politely stood up. But it did not escape Eli’s notice that he also rather happy to see her. “Miss Turner! Come sit with us. Have you met Mr. Smith?”
Eli shoved himself to his feet and aimed an abbreviated bow at her. “Pleased to meet you, Miss Turner.”
Millie curtsied. “And I you, Mr. Smith. I do so enjoy your editorials in The Register.”
Eli grinned. “Thanks. It’s nice to know someone enjoys them. I tend to nettle most folks.”
“But isn’t nettling people what editorials are for?” she teased. “If you do that, then I believe you’re doing your job. May I join you gentlemen for a bit?”
The two men readily agreed, and Millie took the seat on the other side of Shelby. “Mr. Garrison, I suspect if we approach Mr. Norton at the hotel, he just might be convinced to let us play for his guests.”
Shelby was delighted. “Is that so? That would be perfect!” Now that they were sitting down and chatting, he was taken in by her dark brown hair, black eyes, and upturned nose.
Eli took note of Shelby’s attentiveness, and smiled to himself.
“Well,” Millie continued, “nothing is for certain, of course, but I sense he might be interested in providing music, perhaps in the restaurant or perhaps elsewhere.”
“That’s a fine idea,” Eli told her, a gleam in his eye. “And well-timed, too, as Mr. Garrison is in want of a job.”
Mille glanced curiously at Shelby. “Is that so?”
“Well…” the other man stammered. “I…yes… yes, I am.”
“Well, then, tell me, Mr. Garrison, have you ever washed dishes?”
“Here and there. It supplements what I earn as a musician.”
“In that case, we could use you in the kitchen! The man who washes our dishes will be leaving us.” She leaned over and laid a hand on his arm. “Would you be able to stop by tomorrow afternoon? Perhaps at 2 o’clock? I could meet you in reception.”
Shelby glanced briefly at her hand, and then looked up and into her eyes. “Y-yes…” he stuttered. “I will. I mean, I shall. I mean, I’ll be there.””
“Excellent!” Millie removed her hand from his arm. “Now, I’ll let you two get on with your chatting. I want to talk to young Mr. Hancock, too. He’s a terribly good drummer, don’t you think?” Before they could respond, she rose and was walking across the porch toward the steps.
Once she was out of earshot, Eli cleared his throat. “Don’t that beat all? Looks like the lady fiddler is forming a band.”
“And you might have a new job at the Norton Arms.”
“Yeah. Seems that way.”
“Pretty woman, isn’t she?” Eli mused.
“How old do you think she is? Somewhere in her 30s, maybe?”
“Seems like a good woman. Interested in helping other musicians.”
Eli sat back in his chair and sighed nostalgically. “Yep…”
“Yep?” Shelby squinted at him. “Yep, what?”
“Yep, that’s how it started for me, too.”
Shelby frowned, a confused look on his face. “Beg pardon?”
“Like you, I came into town, found a place to stay, got a couple jobs, and met a good woman. Not necessarily in that order, of course.” Eli threw a grin at Shelby. “The plan was to raise enough money so I could continue my journey to New York City and get a job at a big newspaper. Five years later, I was publishing a penny weekly of my own, had a place to live, and was married to the good woman. I tell you, Garrison, women have a way of making a man change his plans.”
Shelby laughed. “I see what you mean. Miss Turner is awful nice. Talented and pretty to boot.” He shrugged. “I dunno, Smith. You just might be right.”
“Might be?” Eli hooted. “No ‘might’ about it. Mark my word, friend. You’re a goner!”
 Slang for “whiskey.”
Will Carson disappear from the story? No, of course not. He simply has moved into town to start a new business. He’ll still be part of the story and will remain Eli’s friend.
However, Shelby’s arrival gives Eli a new chum at Greybeal House. Exactly how that friendship will play out and what Shelby’s “job” as Eli’s friend will look like, I’m not quite sure. But since both Carson and Nate manage to keep Eli grounded (but in different ways). perhaps Shelby will bring out Eli’s creative side. I mean, after all, our Mr. Smith has a nice baritone voice. Or at least Maggie thinks so and has told him as much, which I believe is her way of massaging his ego and encouraging him to continue singing congregational hymns at church. Who knows, though? Maybe Eli will provide some vocals for the band.
Anyway, I need to have levity and to have my characters do bits of “business” in this book since the main plot line has to do serious subject matter: an epidemic of typhoid fever. Next week, I’ll have more on how I’m working all that out. Believe me, it isn’t as easy as I thought!
In the meantime, please be kind and loving this week, friends. So many are hurting right now and need the git of understanding and patience
Image from https://www.freeimages.com/search/change
Change involves loss and gain. You may leave your old apartment but move into a new house. You get married but things don’t work out the way either of you thought, and you get divorced. You find a pet whom you grow to love and one day it dies.
In my WIP (work-in-progress), Eli experiences loss and gain, as he does in all the novels. This blog will look at a change in the new book that produces dark clouds for Eli. (Hence the blog image.)
One of his two close friends, Chester Carson, will be moving out of Greybeal House. These two characters have developed a bromance of sorts. They love each other like brothers and at the same time bicker as if they were an old married couple.
They always have each other's back, though. And are close enough that Carson feels comfortable to share his greatest a secret with Eli.
In this scene from Walk by Faith, Eli starts a conversation by being his usual chatty self while the two men travel in his news wagon. He tells Carson about his days living out west with the Sioux and describes how some of their customs and beliefs differ from people of European descent.
“For instance, say a man prefers other men. For the Sioux, that’s all right because they have those other spheres. He doesn’t have to be a warrior, a husband, or a father to be valuable to the village. Everyone is welcome to contribute regardless. They would never beat up a man just because he wasn’t like other men.”
He [was] completely taken aback when Carson heaved a sigh. “Ah. Then perhaps I should have been born a Sioux.”
After an awkward pause, Eli found the courage to say, “Does that mean you like men?”
“I should have remained silent. I fear you will feel uncomfortable around me henceforth.”
Eli had blinked, thought for a moment and then sputtered, “No. Hell, no! I don’t care if you like men.”
Carson smiled knowingly. “I see. Just so long as I do not like you, I presume?”
“Well, yeah. Damn it, man, I like women. I’m married to one.”
Carson chuckled, “Have no fear, my friend. I do not find you at all appealing,” which left Eli wondering whether he should be insulted or relieved.
As I mentioned, the friendship between the men also involves a fair amount of bickering. In this scene from Walk by Faith, it is winter and the two have built a cabin near the Union army encampment. Their home away from home is less than comfortable and both men can get cranky, especially when they need to share a bed.
“Wonder if it snowed again.” Eli scratched at his beard and then put his hand back under the quilts where things were at least marginally warmer. He wrinkled his nose. “Phew. It’s starting to stink in here. One of us needs a bath.”
“Yes, you do.”
“How do you know it’s not you?”
“Because I had one three days ago. You, my dear fellow, are way overdue. Go into town and visit the baths today or you shall sleep on the floor tonight.”
“You’re not my wife, Carson.”
“Nor do I wish to be. Our delightful Maggie is a saint.”
“She’s not your Maggie, she’s mine.” Irritably pulling a quilt around him, Eli got out of bed and limped toward the door. “I’ve got to see a man about a dog.”
“Take your cane. We can’t have you falling over.”
The words nettled Eli. “You know, I think I will sleep on the floor tonight. You’re starting to nag.”
“Sleep where you wish. I wouldn’t touch you with a stick regardless.”
Their friendship has continued throughout the series. Carson returns to Blaineton with the Smiths and extended family and lives very happily in Greybeal House. That is, until he reveals to Eli and Maggie that he has purchased a place on Main Street and plans to start a photography gallery and business there. Eli takes the news in stride. And then...
“Well!” Eli pushed himself to his feet. “I’m glad you’re going to open a gallery. Now, let’s get to The Register –”
Carson cut him off with a raised hand. “Not quite yet.”
Eli narrowed his eyes. Then he said slowly, “Don’t tell me you’re gonna…”
“Yes,” Carson replied. “I am.”
Maggie looked from one man to the other. “I’m afraid I can’t read your minds, gentlemen. What are you talking about?”
Eli growled, “He’s gonna quit The Register, Maggie!”
“I also will be moving out of Greybeal House. I plan to live on Main Street.”
“Oh, my.” Maggie repeated, tears coming unbidden to her eyes.
“There!” Eli gestured at his wife. “See what you’ve done? You’ve made her cry!”
Carson rolled his eyes. “I did not do this to make either of you unhappy.”
“Well, you’ve done it!” Bombarded by a sense of betrayal and abandonment, Eli grumbled, “Now what am I supposed to do?”
“Promote Edward Caldwell to senior reporter, of course.”
“What? Caldwell? That pup?”
“He’s not a pup, Elijah. He’s a capable young man. And a brilliant writer, to boot. You could not do better.”
“And who’ll I get to replace him?”
Once again, Caldwell rolled his eyes. Eli was like a younger brother – well-loved, but also when the occasion arose (as it had now) completely annoying. “Honestly, Elijah! Place an ad in your own paper. How do you think you’ll find a replacement? Must I tell you everything?”
So, Eli has lost one of his best friends. Well, not really. They just won’t be residing in the same building or working in the same place. But it's still a loss, and Eli is taking the news hard. Will he pine for his lost pal, stop eating, and lose weight? (I hope not. His portly physique is what makes him the perfect antidote to the handsome, ripped male leads populating historical fiction.)
But, never fear, friends. Eli is about to experience a non-weight-related gain, Check this blog at the end of the week.
Until then, stay well!
Janet R. Stafford
Change is a normal state of affairs. I’m sure you’ve noticed this, especially these days. Nothing stays the same. So, in keeping with that idea, this blog is about two changes. One has to do with Squeaking Pips and the other is about how change moves throughout the Saint Maggie series.
Here’s the big one: I decided to close down Squeaking Pips Press, Inc. It was an S-Corp, which seemed like a good idea at the time I started the company. But the company brought in a limited income and the requirements to keep an S-Corp running were a financial strain. So, I decided it would be wiser to close the S-Corp down and open a Sole Proprietorship. Now, a Sole Proprietorship means that all the money goes to me, the owner, and I must include that income, as well as deductions, as part of my personal taxes. Making the change also meant a slight change in the company’s name. We’re now Squeaking Pips Books, rather than Squeaking Pips Press, Inc.
When I floated the idea with Dan (my partner in life), he said, “But what if a film company takes out an option on Saint Maggie? Selling the rights to film production can bring in $350,000. The taxes would kill you!”
After I finished laughing, I told him that the chances of such a thing happening are slim. And if by chance it does happen, I’ll change Squeaking :Pips Books into an LLC, probably not without a lot of stress. But I’ll do it.
So, farewell Squeaking Pips Press, Inc.! You served me well as I began my journey as a published author. And hello Squeaking Pips Books! Go forth and kick butt. Or at least be a moderately pleasing little entity.
The concept of change holds true for the Saint Maggie series, as well. Maggie and her boarding house have seen a number of people move in and move out. Among the boarders with whom we are most familiar are Jim “Grandpa” O’Reilly, Maggie’s “fictive grandfather”; Chester Carson, a writer who had fallen on hard times, but now is the senior reporter at The Blaineton Register; and Patrick McCoy, a young man who started as the undertaker’s apprentice, but now is a sergeant in the Union Army and serves as a steward (physician’s assistant) at Mower US General Hospital in Philadelphia.
Other regular occupants of the old boarding house are an African American couple, Nate and Emily Johnson. Emily originally was hired by Maggie as a cook, but over time the two women have become as close as sisters.
Another boarding house denizen is Eli Smith, who becomes Maggie’s husband in the first book. He has lived in the Second Street Boarding House proper and later in the small outbuilding where he also established his little weekly newspaper, The Gazette.
Things constantly change in the stories. Babies are born. People die. And there is a flow of people in an out of Maggie’s life and dwelling.
In 1863, Maggie and her extended family were forced to leave Blaineton and move to Gettysburg. Now, we know that was a big mistake, but they had no idea what was heading their way in the form of the battle between Confederate and Union forces. Afterward, Maggie, Eli, Nate, and Emily move 12 miles north to a house in Middletown (modern-day Biglerville).
In 1864, some good news arrives, along with more change. Tryphena Moore, the grande dame of Blaineton, hires Eli as editor-in-chief for her newspaper, The Blaineton Register, and everyone relocates back to New Jersey.
This time, though, they make their home at Greybeal House, a large residence. Maggie proceeds to fill it with people. Because she sees that she and Emily need help with the cooking and cleaning, she hires two Irish immigrants in their teens: Moira to help with the cooking and Birgit to clean and later help care for Maggie and Emily’s children.
Eli’s new reporter, a young man of color by the name of Edward Caldwell, moves into Greybeal House. Then come two African American girls, Addie and Mary Brooks, who are orphaned and adopted by Nate and Emily. Following on their heels is Rosa Hamilton, a black woman of eighteen years, who had befriended Frankie in The Enlistment.
In the most recent book, A Good Community, a school originally created to give an education to children of color is expanded when the Brennan’s mother shows up with their siblings, and board at Greybeal House. And after the Great Fire of 1864, Maggie opens her doors to shelter temporarily homeless black families.
Why does Maggie do this? It’s simple. She believes that she should treat others the way she would like to be treated. And so, she befriends people unlike herself and happily gives shelter to those labeled as “other” by the larger community.
At the beginning of my new work-in-progress, Maggie’s home is stuffed to the gills with African Americans, the Irish as well as people with ancestors from the England, Scotland, and Germany. The situation is not permanent, and after two months, most of the families from the black community on Water Street will move into new homes soon and the permanent members of Greybeal House will get a bit of breathing space.
But the change continues as Maggie decides to throw her hat into the ring and run for Town Council. It is not an easy decision for her. In fact, it frightens her, but she feels called to do it.
Change is the one constant in life not only for Maggie, for us, too. If she is strong enough to turn and, as the late David Bowie sang, “face the strange,” perhaps we should as well during these unsettled and disturbing times.
I’ll leave you with a link to Bowie’s song. The video is lyrics, not photos or motion. But just look at them as you listen to the song. See if it makes sense to you the way it does to me.
Janet R. Stafford
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder