The Right 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 not afraid to do the right thing.
Maggie is not perfect. Her daughter Frankie can try her patience. Her husband Eli’s behavior can frustrate her. The foibles of other folks might confound her. Nevertheless, she presses on toward the goals of love and respect.
Maggie is notorious for opening her home to others – so much so that, in Seeing the Elephant, She is taken by surprise when Eli sends people from the hospital to their house without consulting her. When she confronts him, Eli replies, “Unavoidable. The hospital kicked them out. But I knew you’d take them in.” And 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.” Obviously, she felt he was taking her kindness for granted. Also, hey, hubby forgot they were partners.
But Maggie does have a propensity for taking in those in need. 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 shack, and it is smoky, makeshift, and cold. Maggie could opt to give them food, supplies, or money as she is able. But she goes one step further and invites the couple to live in her boarding house, regardless of the ramifications that might have (the Johnsons are black). When they move in, Maggie pleads with her boarders to donate their rent money to help provide the Johnsons with new clothes and Nate with new tools. Normally, the money would have gone to purchase the necessary items for the traditional Christmas dinner, but Maggie forgoes tradition to help someone else.
Years later, in Walk by Faith, Maggie’s family moves from Blaineton to Gettysburg. It is 1863 and the town is invaded by Confederate soldiers. Maggie fears this enemy and daughter Frankie is building up a head of hate against them. So, Frankie is aghast when she finds a group of Rebel infantrymen sitting on their porch enjoying a hot meal and cold water. An angry Frankie asks her mother why she is doing such a thing. 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?” History records that Maggie was not alone in offering hospitality to the military. Many women of Gettysburg responded in a similar fashion for both Confederate and Union soldiers.
Even in the first novel, Saint Maggie, we find that our heroine considers the men who rent her rooms to be 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 among her earliest boarders. They pay what they can afford (and sometimes don't pay her at all) yet she treats them like beloved relatives. In fact, O’Reilly is given the title “Grandpa,” and Patrick and Edgar become sweet on her daughters and Maggie approves. Her generosity even extends to Eli Smith, who asks to rent her outbuilding so he can start a print shop. Maggie lets him use the building even though he can’t (and doesn’t) pay the rent for months. And it is her warm, gracious heart that causes Eli to fall in love with her.
Other people have experienced Maggie’s hospitality, too: self-emanicipator Matilda Strong and her daughter Chloe; Union and Confederate soldiers; a mysterious little peddler by the name of Ira Strauss; Edward Caldwell, a young African American reporter; Irish immigrant maids Birgit and Moira Brennan; and people from the town's insane asylum.
Maggie’s tendency to do the right thing even rubs off on Eli. In Seeing the Elephant, friend Chester Carson tells 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.” Yes. Carson is gay. He comes out to Eli in Walk by Faith. Eli accepts him and the two remain close, happily-bantering friends
Maggie exemplifies the kind of person I want to be: a kind one. I hope to be someone gentle enough to coo over and cuddle children and strong enough to confront the arrogance and abuses of the powerful and to do it with love, rather than harsh words and violence. (I am still working on that last part, but I've got the kids part down pretty well, as I'm well into the "granny stage" of life.)
But I also want the impossible: for people to live in love, understanding, and peace. It sounds impossible, right? But, doggone it, a character like Maggie has taught me that “impossible” is only a perception. Doing the right thing is not just a theory, it is a possibility.
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Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder