Monday, May 20, 2013

Aunt BJ and Sonja

It's Book Club Day. Our inspiration for posts this month is Anthony Marra's new novel A Constellation of Vital Phenomenon. The character of Sonja, a strong woman who returns to her native Chechnya to serve a physician in a shell of a hospital reminded me of my Aunt BJ Marshall who served as a missionary and nurse on the Gaza Strip for ten years.

I was eight days old and Mom still had not named me. Mother’s younger sister Bertha Jane, sixteen at the time, came into the hospital with a plan. So shy she couldn’t lift her head to talk to her own sister, she stared at her feet and asked, “Could I please name her?”
            Thus, I became Brenda Jane. The Jane portion carried a long history from aunt to niece in our family and came with a spectacular hand-cut diamond cluster ring which originated with my Great-aunt Jane, who worked for her sister, who was a professional madam. The Brenda portion came from Aunt BJ’s pen pal in England. Always grateful I escaped the Bertha part of her name; I learned years later she hated “Bertha” herself. So after the original Bertha’s death (my grandma/her mother), she changed Bertha Jane to BJ.
This act of naming created a tether reaching across continents in our later lives. Aunt BJ lived elsewhere much of my childhood—away at college, graduate school, seminary and then twenty years as a Baptist missionary—but she provided the only model on Mother’s side of the family for how to pursue a college education. I claimed this inspiration for better or worse. When she came home for visits, I knew she represented a world beyond what I experienced with my mom and stepdad and I wanted to know such a world. While on furlough from Japan, Aunt BJ stopped to visit us in California. Two memories left etchings in my brain from that visit. She had a suitcase full of Japanese silk for souvenirs and to exhibit at the many speeches she would give. As Aunt BJ searched through the suitcase for something, she screamed as though frightened. A big black crusty cockroach dared to cross the boundary between our pitiful existence and Aunt BJ’s world-beyond-our-family, that Maginot Line between my family of origin and the future I saw for myself. On the same visit she declared, “I don’t know why I go halfway around the world to teach the English language when my own family doesn’t speak it.” These memories were etched with a quill of shame.
During my senior year of high school, I applied only to three Baptist colleges, was admitted to all and chose Georgetown College in Georgetown, Kentucky because of its proximity to Evansville, Indiana and the heritage of Aunt BJ attending there.
Southern Baptists had called me to mission work, and I didn’t think I had permission to consider other careers. I never acknowledged the possibility of a link between my call to mission work and my adoration of Aunt BJ—but she was the only college educated member of my family and she was in mission work. I was twenty-one years old before I had psychic permission to be anything except a Southern Baptist missionary. The Baptist church revered missionaries in those days. When any missionary came to speak in a local congregation, the church introduced her as a “real live missionary.” I don’t know whether the assumption was dead ones could talk or missionaries didn’t return home alive.
Aunt BJ served ten years in Japan (1957-1967) and ten years on the Gaza Strip in Israel (1967-1977). Her service in Israel coincided with the Six Day War and upon her return she looked like a prisoner of war—sallow complexion, glazed over eyes and a constant hyper-vigilance. This heroine and role model satisfied my childhood yearning to believe in life beyond the disarray of my family. In spite of my change of plans about becoming a Baptist missionary, Aunt BJ’s influence on my life laid a foundation with bricks called education, faith and service. One role model in the family, even if extended family, spoke volumes when I searched for how someone from our blood line could flourish. While Aunt BJ’s childhood varied from mine, she modeled for me that a member of our family could get a college education and live a purposeful life. It could be done. It had been done. Aunt BJ was solid proof.