Emily Johnson, Maggie's Best Friend
I chose the image above because it illustrates the type of relationship Maggie and Emily have. They are there for each other, no matter where they are or what is happening. They take turns helping each other up and helping each other out.
Emily was born to Katy Rice, an enslaved woman, in 1825. Her mother escaped and brought her baby daughter out of Maryland. During her self-emancipation, Katy managed to encounter people sympathetic to the Underground Railroad and was able to make the rest of their journey traveling from station to station until she reached Blaineton, New Jersey.
I can guess at part of the reason Katy decided to run. As Maggie puts it in SAINT MAGGIE: “She [Emily] bears the imprint of the wickedness of slavery: her skin is lighter than Nate’s, and her eyes are amber, rather than deep brown.” This is Maggie’s polite way of saying that Katy had been raped by the man who owned her.
Emily was raised in New Jersey and in 1845, at the age of 20, married Nate Johnson, a carpenter. I don’t know what Emily did during those early years. She hasn’t revealed that to me yet, but I’m sure she will at some point.
I do know, though, that in September of 1852, a widow named Maggie Blaine realized she no longer could run a boarding house all by herself, so she went in search of a cook. She ended up hiring Emily.
The two women did not become fast friends right away. The short story, “The Dundee Cake,” describes the early weeks of their association:
“Emily was shy at first, keeping her eyes down and doing her work with nary a word. But every day after the dinner dishes were done, Maggie would sit down and have a cup of tea for a brief rest. And every day she would invite Emily to join her. And every day Emily would sit quietly and sip her tea, while Maggie talked and asked questions which Emily answered with one or two words. Eventually, though the darker woman’s shyness melted, and she began to speak in full sentences.”
Maggie soon saw that Emily was practical, possessed of a wry sense of humor, and, once she learned to trust Maggie, a stalwart friend. They began bonding when they discovered they had both suffered miscarriages, Emily’s most recent having occurred shortly before she started working for Maggie. “We lost three others over the years,” she said. “I never seem to be able to bring them to term.” And, so, the two wept together over their lost children and the harsh realities of life.
Later, Maggie took Emily and Nate in after a fire ravages their shack but continues to pay Emily a salary and gave them room and board for free, provided Nate would help with repairs around the boarding house. The arrangement was a happy one and the couple became part of the boarding house family – much to the horror of the town. It seemed “colored people” living on the square as equals with their employer was a major faux pas. And yet, because Maggie loves the Johnsons as she loves her boarders and her daughters, she does her best to ignore the comments and the slights.
Over the years, Emily and Maggie create a sisterhood. The two women’s friendship becomes so close that Emily acts as a surrogate mother to Lydia and Frankie. Later, when Maggie and Eli have children of their own and Emily and Nate welcome their precious son, the two women share mothering duties.
Their support of for each other is admirable. During the battle of Gettysburg, Capt. Morrison and his CSA soldiers take over Maggie’s home. Although Emily attempts to hide, the soldiers find her. One of them asks their Captain, “Should we take her with the others, sir?” (Meaning Emily will be sent south to be enslaved again.) A horrified Maggie is forced to think and respond quickly:
“You cannot do that! You see, my husband is away. My son-in-law died recently at Salem Church. And my youngest daughter has not come home all day. I do not know where she is. My eldest daughter should be home soon but surely you cannot expect a woman in my delicate condition,” here she laid a hand over her belly so that the Captain could clearly see that she was pregnant, “to cook and care for all these men without some kind of help. If you took Emily these men surely would suffer more than they already have.”
Captain Morrison bit his lower lip in thought. He looked from Maggie’s imploring eyes to Emily’s tense face. “She isn’t an escaped slave is she?” he asked slowly.
“Why, sir!” Maggie lied. “She was born and raised in New Jersey. My family knew hers.” (From WALK BY FAITH)
Maggie’s plea works and Emily receives permission to stay as well as Capt. Morrison’s protection.
After the battle, a misunderstanding over an act of compassion leads to Eli’s arrest. He is put in jail, and Maggie and Emily are told they must plead his case before the District Provost Marshall. Both women reflect that during the battle they had been forced to fight an old during the battle of Gettysburg. A fearful Maggie says to Emily:
“And now we must fight with words. And that is what worries me. Words are fleeting things.”
The two walked slowly toward the bedroom door. Emily said, “We’ve got to have faith, honey. God’ll give us the words.”
“I want to believe that.”
“Then believe it.” Emily stopped before they got to the stairs. “Jesus promised that the Holy Ghost would give us the right words. We’ve got to hold Jesus to that promise. He knows what we’re going through. He’s been there. He died. But, praise God, he rose. That means God wins, Maggie, sometimes even if it seems otherwise.” (From A TIME TO HEAL)
Emily’s words of faith strengthen Maggie’s resolve, giving her power to speak at the hearing. In fact, my favorite word-images from A TIME TO HEAL is the two women walking arm in arm through the courthouse toward the room where the proceedings will be held. Sisterhood is powerful.
Of course, no friend is worth her salt unless she can tell you the truth. Emily does this with Maggie, and often with a bit of humor. An early example of this occurs after Maggie and Eli’s wedding ceremony, which had been held at the boarding house. They have a little party to celebrate, during which Maggie notices the men are disappearing one by one.
Maggie’s eyes grew round. “Oh, no. Tell me that they aren’t...”
Emily: “I’m afraid that they are.”
She felt her face flush. “He can’t! Eli knows I’m temperance!”
“Honey,” Emily reminded her, “you’re temperance, not tee-total. I’ve seen you sip a little dandelion wine and such. And we had alcohol in the cake.”
“But that cooks off,” Maggie protested.
“Makes no never mind. Besides, let them be men. A little whiskey isn’t going to hurt them. You know they don’t do this regular. This is a wedding party. They’ve got to get together and do some back-slapping, that’s all. You know they’ve just got to make their jokes about the wedding night.”
Emily Johnson: a good friend and the voice of reason. No wonder I like her so much.
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Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder