Maggie Blaine Smith is not one to pivot. At least with regard to things she holds close to her heart. But apparently there is one thing that can make her change her stance on a subject.
In A Good Community, there is a scene between Eli and Maggie in their bedroom. While Maggie is in the process of fretting about the possibility of daughter Frankie moving far away after she marries Patrick, Eli inadvertently brings up a subject that seems to make things worse. We open with Maggie speaking.
“[Frankie is] going to fly away; I just know it. If she goes west, we might never see her again. That’s why I had that dream. She’s leaving! Our house is going to become empty!”
“Now, now,” he cooed. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Besides, when Frankie and Patrick get married, we’ll probably have grandchildren. And let’s not forget Liddy and Phil. They’re good and married now. A grandbaby might be on the way even as we speak.”
Maggie sat up, appalled. “A grandbaby? When we’ve got a six-year-old son?” She gestured at the crib near the fireplace. “And a babe in arms? I’m not ready for grandchildren! I am not old enough.”
He couldn’t help but chuckle. “Why, that’s the vainest thing I’ve ever heard come out of your mouth, Mrs. Smith. You certainly are old enough. We just got a late start on our own family.”
That’s right. Maggie is not ready to be a grandmother! The prospect of grandmother-hood is daunting. It signifies that time is marching on and she is moving into being an older woman.
A Good Community is set in the spring-summer of 1864. Maggie is 43, and Eli is 44. Now, I know that these days the Smiths would be considered early middle aged. But life expectancy in the United States in 1864 was 39.41 years. A year later, thanks to the Civil War, it dropped to 35. (https://www.statista.com/statistics/1040079/life-expectancy-united-states-all-time/)/
Of course, some people did live into what we consider to be old age. However, in general people tended to die earlier and in greater numbers than in the twentieth century. Infant and child mortality was also high. Our ancestors knew all too well what we in the current COVID-19 crisis are re-learning: that health and life are fleeting, and we never know when our time will come.
So, becoming grandparents is a clear reminder to Maggie and Eli that their youth is now behind them, even though they are only in their 40s. Despite having a deep faith, Maggie encounters mixed feelings about the changes she is facing.
Maggie believes she is going through menopause, as her “monthlies,” as she calls them, are now quite irregular. My research shows that women in the 19th century seem to have experienced menopause a bit earlier than we do now, and it would not be unreasonable that Maggie would be menopausal at her age. Despite that obvious reminder, Maggie also is a new mother and Faith, her “change of life” child, is still a baby. Bob, the little boy whom she and Eli have adopted, is six years old. Another good reason to ignore her age. But she cannot ignore the fact the daughters she had with John Blaine – Lydia (22) and Frankie (18) – are young women, becoming independent, and that she must renegotiate her relationship with them.
Ever since the novella, The Great Central Fair, I have known something that only is revealed in my new work-in-progress, tentatively called Epidemic. Lydia is pregnant. The first person she reveals this to is her mother, Maggie. Their conversation is a mix of joy and concern as well as Lydia’s very real concerns about balancing motherhood and a career as a physician. Maggie does the mother-thing and seeks to reassure her daughter.
Shortly after their encounter ends, this occurs:
They were interrupted by a knock on the door.
“Are you all right in there?” It was Eli’s voice.
Maggie grinned at her daughter for consent and received a happy nod. “We’re fine,” she called as she strode to the door.
As Maggie threw the door open, Eli was taken aback by her combination of a wide grin and teary eyes. He cocked a confused eyebrow at her. After an awkward pause, he ventured, “What’s wrong, sweetheart?”
“Oh, my love,” Maggie impulsively gushed, “you’ll never guess! We are going to become grandparents.”
Eli’s mouth dropped open. “Grandparents? How?”
She laughed. “How does one usually become a grandparent? In this case, it is our Lydia. Eli, she’s expecting!”
Eli craned his neck to see Lydia. Eyes also tear-stained, she nodded at him in confirmation. Then she blew her nose again.
“So you’re both crying,” Eli began. “And you’re crying because…?”
“Well, it's simple, Eli. We’re crying because we’re happy.”
This confused him further. “But a few months ago, told me you weren’t ready to be a grandmother.”
“I know!” Maggie could not stop grinning. “I was wrong.”
Eli did not know what to do with the news. If Maggie was going to be a grandmother, then… “But I…” he stammered, “I don’t think I’m ready to be a grandfather.”
Maggie laughed loudly. “Elijah! Neither you nor I have a choice in the matter.”
And there you have it. Life can and does thrust on us that for which we are not yet prepared. In Maggie’s case, she made an easy pivot. She loves babies. She loves her daughter. And so she will embrace the change.
But we shouldn't be surprised. Maggie has needed to negotiate many changes in her life. She was disowned by her family after she married John Blaine, she watched her first husband and child die from disease, and she learned how to make her own way in the world. Her mettle was tested when the pastor of her church sinned and was put on trial. She dealt with chaos and fear when war came to Gettysburg. She helped those injured in a riot, And she addressed angry town folk after Blaineton’s Great Fire of 1864. In the new book, Maggie is running for Town Council and becoming a grandmother. And yet, somehow, I think she’s got this.
The more I write, the more Maggie teaches me how a woman of faith walks through life. Sometimes she even dances, runs, or crawls through it. But she has faith, friends, and family, and thus never does it alone. I hope this is the same for me and for you. And that we know it, as well.
Stay safe and well, friends,
Janet R. Stafford
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder