The Departure of Margaret Shank

The Departure of Margaret Shank April 23, 2019


My mother used to tell us stories about the housekeeper who worked for her family when she was a child– an unholy terror named Margaret Shank.

This doesn’t sound like a story for Easter Week, but it is, because my mother would often talk about Margaret Shank during the Easter preparations. Easter was the only time Ms. Shank had eaten junk food, as a child– her parents visited her in the orphanage once a year, on Easter Sunday, bringing with them a small bag of chocolate. Other than that, she ate what the orphanage served, which was healthy and bland.

“See this?” Margaret Shank would bray, knocking on her incisors with her fingernails,  when my mother and aunts received their Easter baskets, “I’ve still got ALL my teeth. And I don’t have ANY cavities. Because I never ate no candy. You’re gonna get that sugar diabeetus.”

Margaret was a Townie– one of two separate and usually opposed cultures in the small town my mother grew up in in a different part of Appalachia. The Catholics were recently descended from immigrants and wore uniforms to the private day school. The Townies were white Protestants who believed themselves to be Real Americans; they liked to lean on the Catholic school fence and scream “CAT-LICKERS! FISH-EATERS!” at the beanie-clad students on their way into weekday Mass.

Margaret did the cooking for my mother’s family. She was not good at this. She liked to make “apple dumplings” by sprinkling an un-peeled, un-cored whole apple with far too much spice and no sugar whatsoever, rolling it in dough, and baking the dough for a few moments but not bothering to get it brown or crisp. My mother and aunts were not allowed to leave the table without finishing their dessert, so they’d wait until Margaret’s back was turned and then stuff the dumplings in their laps– these were later deposited in the garbage or, for an extreme emergency, down the laundry chute.

My siblings and I would howl with laughter at the story of the apple dumplings; we begged to hear it again and again. We also begged to hear about Margaret’s recipe for instant chocolate pudding, which was dispensed into individual Dixie cups where it immediately congealed in a gelatinous cylinder that held its shape when dumped on a plate.

We begged to hear about her unreasonableness, her name-calling and yelling, her refusing to give the children after school snacks, how she would chase my mother and aunts around the house wielding a spatula and screaming “I’ll hit you with a blivet!”

We begged to hear how the terrifying housekeeper was finally gotten rid of, though my mother wasn’t full of detail on that particular story. As I recall, Margaret had been berating my eldest aunt, and my mother, still a very little girl, stomped into the kitchen and berated her right back. I was never told exactly what she said to Margaret. Maybe she truly didn’t remember, or maybe she claimed not to remember because it was too nasty for little pitchers to hear. But somehow or other, my young mother triumphed over Margaret Shank in a battle of wits. She won the day. Her words were so insulting that the troubled woman didn’t break out the spatula. Instead, she walked out of the kitchen, never to return.

It was decades before I looked back at what I’d been told with the eyes of a grown-up, and realized that these stories actually aren’t very funny.

Ms. Shank was not a comical figure but a tragic one. She was abused in that strait-laced orphanage that only allowed treats and visits once a year. And she went on to be an abusive woman, who hurt children. And the children could only get rid of her by learning to hurt. And this all took place in a quaint small town so polarized between factions that it was normal for one group of Christians to lean on the fence and insult the other for being the wrong kind.

This doesn’t sound like a story for Easter, because we’re used to it. Everyone remembers a town like the one my mother grew up in, at some point in their family’s history; everyone tells stories of tragic and abusive people they have known, people who seem funny because tragedy and abuse are so banal.

But it is. Because when my daughter asks for leftover Easter candy for breakfast again on Easter Tuesday and I say “yes,” I am not just saying “yes” as my own decision on a whim; I’m saying “yes” in rebellion against someone I never knew, who lived a long time ago, because of the stories I was told. No one has ever parented her child or done anything else remotely important in a vacuum. We do it as a part of a culture, either in honor of or in reaction to the stories we’ve been told, about what happened to other people. Stories we’ve been told about what happened to other people influence everything. That’s why we Christians aren’t just supposed to hear the Good News ourselves, but to preach it to every creature through our lives.

This is a story for Easter, because when I look back at some of the things I myself went through growing up, it helps to remember what the people who raised me went through, the lessons they had to learn– and what the grown-ups who influenced them must have gone through to make them the way that they were, and so on all the way back to Adam and Eve. That cycle of pain and violence that is human history, with the Cross in the middle of it, drawing it all up into Paradise.

Christ is truly risen from the dead, but in a very real way, we on earth are still living a perpetual Holy Week, welcoming the Lord on Palm Sunday only to crucify Him by Friday, chucking Him into the ground and hoping He’ll find a way out and save us from what we’ve done, teaching others to do the same by our example again and again and again.  The message of Easter is that God has redeemed this terrible cycle, He has triumphed over it, and we will see the end of it someday. All of our iniquities, all of our foolishness, our pain and the way our reactions to pain hurt others– no matter how banal or how shockingly hideous, it doesn’t matter– these have been taken up into Christ, redeemed, and healed through the Cross.

This doesn’t seem like a story for Easter, but it is, because all stories are.

The Lord has visited us, bringing all sweetness, and we will never be what we were again.

(image via Pixabay) 



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