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Friday, January 30, 2015

Remembering Aunt Audrey: A Nephew's Reflections

Audrey Shank 1932-2014
I had the privilege of being Audrey Shank's pastor during most of the years she served as a missionary to Jamaica and the Caribbean. Prior to that she had become known as a soloist in some of the most popular recordings ever done by Mennonite Hour choral groups in the 60's and 70's. In her retirement here in her home area she was a much sought after mentor and Bible teacher. 

Her oldest nephew, Rowland Shank, Jr., a local psychologist, offered the following reflections at her memorial service January 24.

I feel as if—in some ways—I knew Aunt Audrey very well, and—in other ways—not as well.  This was due in large part to long periods of geographic separation, with minimal contact or connection.  However, for approximately the last two years of her life—either by providence or by happy coincidence—my wife Donna and I  rented a house in the Park View area at the same time that Audrey was moving into the basement apartment in that  same house.  This proximity gave me an opportunity to get to know Audrey much better.

[Parenthetically,  I’m sure that if Aunt Audrey was present and heard me say that this living in close proximity was perhaps by “happy coincidence”, she would let me know in no uncertain terms that coincidence had nothing to do with it, and that it was most certainly providential!  Or, this is probably better-stated in the words of my wise and wonderful 101 year old Great Aunt, Martha Whissen Shank, who,  in a very recent conversation with my wife Donna about Aunt Audrey stated, “Well, that would be Audrey; she had definite ideas!”].  To get the full effect of that sentence, you would have to know my dear Great-Aunt Martha, and hear it in her voice, not mine.  I hasten to add that Aunt Martha was not criticizing Aunt Audrey; they were in fact, very close, with Aunt Audrey calling Aunt Martha every day, and visiting frequently.

My affectionate name for Audrey was Aunt Aubrey….her nickname for me, from the time I was a young boy, was “Fedder”—that’s F-E-D-D-E-R.  I never learned the derivation of that name, and I never asked—I imagine that it spontaneously emerged out of her love of words and language—including made-up words, and I definitely experienced it as a name that bespoke fondness and affection, which meant a great deal to me.

One of my early memories is spending weeks and weekends during  summers, at Grandfather Shank’s house in Broadway, during a time when Aunt Audrey was either still living there, or was coming home for visits.  Aunt Audrey loved to sing, and would sometimes practice her singing outdoors, her voice reverberating off the side of the steep hill on the South side of the house.  She had a beautiful and distinctive alto voice, which became well known when she sang with The Mennonite Hour.  Recently, when we lived in the same house, we would also hear her singing, downstairs.

Audrey grew up in a dog-loving family and was a “dog-person”…I don’t think there was ever a cat in Grandmother and Grandfather Shank’s house, at least to my memory or knowledge.  However, in the time that she lived in the basement apartment of our rented home, she underwent a radical conversion.  A tiny, black, rather mangy, and quite feral cat started frequenting the back of our house.  We began putting out food and water.  In a very—very—short period of time Audrey became captivated by the cat that she later named Sweetie—“Sweetie Shank”.  Only Aunt Audrey could name a cat “Sweetie”!  I’ve rarely seen anyone become so rapidly and intensely attached to an adopted pet.  Aunt Audrey and Sweetie became “attached at the hip”.  Audrey would worry about her, love on her, fuss over—and at—her, and talk to her as if she were a baby or a toddler.   Many an evening, if we were quiet upstairs, my wife and I listened with wonder and amusement as Aunt Audrey crooned over, and cuddled with, Sweetie.

A single-minded person…throughout her entire life, Audrey focused like a laser beam, on being a follower of Jesus.  When I think of Audrey, I think of the Pauline passage “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel…”  Aunt was most assuredly not ashamed of the Gospel…to the contrary, she was ready, able, and willing to proclaim the Gospel pretty much anytime, anywhere, and to—virtually—anyone.

Like her father, J. Ward Shank, and her mother, Stella Brunk Shank, she loved words, writing, and reading—and most of all, she loved The Word, and she studied it in-depth and tirelessly.  In fact, she studied the Bible more assiduously than anyone I’ve ever known.  If you don’t believe me, pause on your way out after this service and thumb through one of her many Bibles, which is on the table of memorabilia in the foyer.

Audrey also loved words and language in general.  She majored in English at what was then EMC, and later taught English Composition.  She also had the reputation of being a formidable opponent in Scrabble.  Audrey and her cousin, Emily Grace Shenk, who is by profession an “editor of editors”, were known for their epic Scrabble tournaments—not just single games, but tournaments that stretched over lengthy periods of time.  I personally chose not to play Scrabble with Aunt Audrey, in the interest of avoiding continuous humiliating defeats and repeated blows to my self-esteem.  Life is difficult enough, without constantly being beaten at a table game with your elderly Aunt.

Audrey was witty, and had no trouble thinking on her feet.  Here’s one example.  Many years ago, at a Shank family reunion at Highland Retreat Camp, there was a detailed family genealogy stretched across three picnic tables.  While studying the genealogy, I gently teased Aunt Audrey about the fact that—having never married and therefore having no children—the line with her name came to an end, and that she therefore had not followed the admonition to “be fruitful and multiply”.    Audrey didn’t miss a beat—she instantly quoted Isaiah 54:1(b), which reads, “…more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband, says the Lord.”  I had no comeback…and I decided that the better part of wisdom was to give up on this particular line of teasing.

Although it sounds very cliché-like, Audrey will be missed—missed by many, many people whose lives she touched, who she loved, and who loved her.  However, I trust and believe that we will see and know her again, in that place where, as the book of Revelation says, “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
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