The Cast of Characters in my Memoir: Aunt Bertha Jane Marshall

Sunday, March 07, 2010

The Cast of Characters in my Memoir: Aunt Bertha Jane Marshall
Namesake and Role Model

I was eight days old and still didn't have a name. Mother's younger sister, Bertha Jane, sixteen at that time, came into the hospital with a plan in mind. So painfully shy she couldn't lift her head to look even her sister in the eye, she stared at her feet and asked, "Could I please name her?"

So it was that I became Brenda Jane. The Jane portion had a long history of aunt to niece in our family and came with one of the only treasures in the family---two stunning hand-cut diamond cluster rings. The Brenda portion was from her pen pal in England. I was always grateful that I escaped the Bertha part of her name, not knowing until years later that she hated it herself. It wasn't until Grandma, the original Bertha, died that Aunt BJ acknowledged she hated the name Bertha too and requested to be called BJ.

This act of naming created a tether that would never be broken. Aunt BJ lived elsewhere much of my childhood---away at college, graduate school, seminary and then the twenty years as a Baptist missionary---but she provided the only model on Mother's side of the family for pursuing a college education. I claimed this inspiration for better or worse. I was twenty-one years old before I thought I had permission to be anything except a Southern Baptist missionary. However, I wasn't called by Aunt BJ into this service; I was called by God and the Southern Baptist Convention early in my childhood---but it stuck. Missionaries at that time in the Baptist church were revered. They were actually billed when they came to speak in local congregations as a "real live missionary." I don't know whether the assumption was that dead ones could talk also or that most 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. This service in Israel was during the Six Day War and when she returned home, she looked like a prisoner of war. She was a heroine and role model for me that I craved and needed desperately.

My selection of Georgetown College, Georgetown, KY ranks as most significant influence Aunt BJ had on my life. While I graduated tenth in a class of 438 students from a progressive California high school, I applied only to Baptist schools. My best friend went to Berkeley. Many high school friends and teachers would ask with shock, "You're going where?" But Baptist missionaries are best formed by Baptist colleges. For reasons having nothing to do with becoming a missionary, Georgetown proved to be an excellent choice for me.

One formative experience while attending Georgetown was a visit to see Aunt BJ on the Gaza Strip in Israel in 1968. The speech choir, Wordmasters, performed at the Baptist World Youth Congress in Berne, Switzerland. Our professors and college administrators expanded the trip to include nine countries---most importantly for me, Israel and Aunt BJ made the list. I left the group and spent three days with her in Gaza while my colleagues toured Israel. Guards searched my bags and my person more that night than any time since September 11 in the US. The braying of donkeys awakened me each morning in Gaza. My heart burst with pride upon seeing the healthcare and education Aunt BJ and her colleagues provided to Arab students in their school and all Arab people in the hospital.      

In spite of my changes of plans about becoming a Baptist missionary, Aunt BJ's influence on my life cannot be underestimated.

updated: 7 years ago