The magic of ‘Marjorie’

William Shakespeare had it wrong about names. Maybe a Rose by any other name would smell as sweet but some names claim themselves with their very own brand of distinction. The magic of ‘Marjorie’ comes to mind.

Four generations of Marjories grace our family. My mother, about whom I will speak in a minute; her niece, my cousin, who was a renegade bohemian who ran off with and eventually married her UC-Berkeley professor in the extremely Ozzie and Harriet 50s; my own niece and my mother’s granddaughter  whose praises I am about to sing; and the youngest, a soon-to-matriculate freshman at Kalamazoo College who won the coveted Heyl Scholarship there in math and science awarded to students with tops scores and a desire to pursue “chemistry-related disciplines at Yale” as a post-grad.

Last Friday, my niece Marjorie McAfee was nominated for an Emmy for co-producing an MSNBC documentary in 2015 called ‘On the Brink,’ about the future for autistic young adults about to transition from graduation to whatever society holds for them. She spent three years following families with autistic children about to age out of the system, each confronting the abyss their children face thereafter. It was a labor of love. It was also a labor of pure professionalism.

The fact that NBC let her go just before she completed that project and that she fought her way back as a freelancer to finish it shows both her grit and her commitment to her work. The fact that UC-Berekeley School of Journalism turned her down twice before she was finally accepted and that she kept her eye on that prize until, on  the third application, she got in, is indicative of a Marjorie-ism: Marjories don’t take no for an answer. She completed ‘On the Brink’ before taking the job she holds now at ABC’s Nightline. She’s covering the Republican and Democratic conventions this week and last. My big brother’s baby girl.

Only recently did this Marjorie become aware of the fact that journalism runs, not just in the family, but straight down the female line. The first Marjorie, my mother, graduated from Bethany College in 1933 with a pre-med degree. She also had the greatest grasp of the English language of anyone, laymen or college prof, I’ve ever encountered. But she was a woman of a certain class and condition that did not encourage working outside the home unless she was widowed or a spinster. When she married my father, a gentleman of some means, any dream she may have had of a professional life evaporated before the social conventions of her day. Instead, she became a mother of four, a role for which she was not naturally suited, and eventually did acceptable volunteer work once her children were grown, working in a United Nations gift shop, for the Welcome Wagon or in a thrift shop owned by a friend.

But she also had a secret aspiration. She loved to write. I would not learn this until after her death when I read through the 1,300 letters she left behind. Among them were the occasional essay and short story but I also discovered there a nugget of news which rang with poignancy when I came across it. At the time of my birth, nearly eight years after my closest sibling, she was writing not one, but two, different newspaper columns in Pittsburgh, where they lived. She thought with all her children of school age, she could get some of her life back; that she could re-invent herself in the image of her earlier dreams. Finding herself pregnant again ended all that. She confided in her letters to her sister that she felt compelled to give the columns up, to devote herself once again strictly to the duties of motherhood.

She was the first of the women journalists in our family. As the next wanna-be writer in our line, I was the last to know her secret. Not once in all the conversations about me wanting to grow up to be a writer did she ever let on that she had once shared that selfsame dream. That she had had to abdicate her budding foray into the profession because I was on the way. Not a drop of resentment, not a hint of envy, nothing but a mother’s encouragement to be whatever I wanted to be. She lived to see my ambition become by-lines in countless newspapers and magazines and to see me receive a regional Sigma Delta Chi award for best magazine feature writing presented to me by a personal hero, NBC’s then-anchor David Brinkley. That story, by the way, was on teenaged suicide. But she did not live to see the newspaper I founded and published on Nantucket for the best part of 20 years, the Nantucket Map and Legend.

This Marjorie, Marjorie the First, spawned both the aptitude in science Marjorie the Fourth is getting ready to explore in college as well as the bug for journalism that goaded me and Marjorie the Third into the professions we now dedicate ourselves to. I think of my mother now, and how proud she would be of her Emmy-nominated granddaughter who is also every bit as proficient as a mother of two. I think, too, what a phenom she would have been in the working world of women had she lived today. And a happier mother, no doubt, too.

— Belle Songer