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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
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder