THE MERCY OF MARGARINE
March 1, 2013
by Caitlin Michelle Desjardins
When I was twelve, my life was changed forever by a half-used tub of margarine. Our family had a habit of saving margarine tubs to reuse as disposable soup containers. When my mom heard about a family down the street struggling through a painful divorce, out came a margarine tub to be filled with soup and left on their doorstep. That night, when I went to the refrigerator to get a knife-full of butter, to my mother’s horror, I had a knife covered in soup. She’d mixed up the bowls and anonymously left a gently-used tub of margarine on a grieving stranger’s doorstep (complete with Bible verse attached)!
The “Margarine Incident,” as we fondly refer to it now, was little more than an amusing mix up, something that could happen to anyone, but as I look back, I see other patterns of disconnection that were emerging in my family at that time.
A few months before the Margarine Incident, my parents moved from my childhood home to the suburbs—a move which involved a change of schools and a change of churches. My parents decided to leave our small, involved, family-oriented church of eleven years because they felt burnt out. They subsequently joined a rapidly-growing church and, soon, our involvement was reduced to Sunday attendance.
My parents’ motives for moving don’t seem all that unique in a world and a church, tainted with materialism. We are all enchanted by the American Dream, by the desire to ‘focus on our families,’ by the hope of comfort and ease with faithfulness somehow mixed in. We are captivated by the hope of independence. As a young adult I am so deeply mired in this narrative, it’s hard to know if there even is an alternative. At the time we moved, no one in our congregation or community questioned my parents’ motives or whether this move would help them live the Gospel more fully. In all honesty: I only questioned them until I saw how big my new room was.
Still, I struggled being so thoroughly and quickly disconnected from my childhood congregation and neighborhood relationships. My parents, on the other hand, were happy with their choices; free from the pressures they felt in the small congregation and tight knit neighborhood. The phone rang less often. For my parents that translated to more “family time”. “Family time,” to me, didn’t feel so meaningful, since we now had three rooms with three televisions and much of our evenings were spread out watching our personal favorite shows. My mother retained her trademark kindness to others, but now, she mastered the art of being kind without getting involved: notes, e-mails, and anonymous soup; minimizing personal contact.
As ideal as our life seemed to outsiders, somewhere deep down we all knew something was wrong. Only now can I put my finger on it. While none of my family’s choices during those years were choices that hurt others, nearly every single choice we made was, in reality, about self-fulfillment, self-preservation, and a Christianized American Dream. Yes, we continued to minister where and how we could, but only when it was convenient. By circumventing any deep involvement, we assured our ministry would always be tailored to our own utility.
After we discovered the soup/margarine mix-up, Mom called the woman with a thousand apologies. She saw that what Melodi and her children really needed was not soup, but friendship. Melodi and her two children (Hannah and Josh) came over for dinner soon after.
Hannah was small, talkative, and had an affinity for Barbies and showing me her ballet moves. I had begged my parents for a sister since I was old enough to talk. Yet over the next two years as Hannah and her brother became veritable features in our home, I still didn’t call her my sister, and I ignored when she used the term for me. She was a family friend, and an oft-annoying one at that!
At seven, Hannah started falling. Her classic line, after we heard the crash became “I’m O.K., nothing’s broken.” One day she called, “I’m O.K., nothing’s broken, but…I can’t get up.” A sick feeling came over me. I ran upstairs to find her floundering as she tried to lift herself up from the ground.
Too long afterward, we were given the term Central Core Disease, a rare disorder on the muscular dystrophy spectrum, characterized by a spurt of muscle loss in childhood and chronic skin, heart, and diaphragm problems. Hannah took the changes in her body with great grace. Her illness opened up a whole new world of questions for me however: who was this little girl that practically lived with me? What responsibility did I have to her?
My mother, father, brother and I all felt sad, confused and unsure about Hannah’s future, but she was still a family friend, and her pain was not meant to be ours. One day, however, I realized that it wasn’t that Hannah was pretending to be my sister. We were pretending. We acted as though we were still disconnected, independent— when long ago we’d broken open and become something more. We were a family of two moms, a dad, two brothers and, indeed, two sisters. Slowly and gracefully, God had been showing us that family comes in all shapes with both pain and indescribable mercy.
I used to believe that Hannah wouldn’t make it through her parent’s divorce and later her fight with Central Core Disease without me. I look at us now and I can say without hesitation that I wouldn’t have made it through adolescence with any semblance of compassion, kindness, and faith had it not been for my sister, Hannah. We needed her. All too often, I doubt God’s timing and purposes, but here is one instance I cannot doubt God’s perfection.
This is the beauty of God working through relationship. When we open ourselves to God’s work in a full and honest way, the ministry God calls us to is never insular. This is why, ultimately, I believe God’s design for the church, whether through an assembly of believers or even among our families, is profoundly beautiful. Beyond all the theology and wrestling, there is something uniquely simple and good about the way God works through us, our families and even manages to infuse grace into our pain. I will never understand why God chose a weak little girl to help open my family’s eyes to the blessings of connection and involvement we’d nearly forgotten. I will never understand, but I will forever be grateful.
Caitlin Michelle Desjardins loves all things colorful. She is a student at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary where she is particularly interested in children’s spirituality, grief and dying, and sexual Ethics. She drinks copious amounts of tea.