NORTH EAST — By day, Margaret Ruth Essig laid out her canvas and brushes on her kitchen table, recreating a country scene with each brushstroke.
At night, the North East resident would hold a sewing needle in her hands with her constant companion Ernie, the opera singing parrot, by her side. Her fingers, ending in long fingernails, turning threads of fabric into flowers and other works of art.
“It’s easy for people to walk by someone like Margaret, she was quiet and did not know how to say ‘how are you today.’ It took effort on your part to get her into a conversation and bring her out,” said her caregiver Doris Andersen.
Essig would never start conversations, but the people who made the effort to reach out to the artist found someone who in many ways, was stuck in time, with dark red lipstick to match a formal, old-fashioned way of speaking.
“She would talk about how you shouldn’t wear white after Labor Day,” Andersen said. “When I bought her white tennis shoes that was a big deal because she didn’t know how she was going to wear them after Labor Day.”
Essig died on Sept. 18 at the age of 73. At her funeral service, Essig gave one final gift to her friends, a basket full of homemade crosses. Andersen said many people at the service didn’t know about Essig’s artistic talents.
“Margaret was very quiet, so a lot of people didn’t know much about Margaret,” Andersen, whose family cared for Essig for over 20 years, said. “If she was in a group she didn’t talk much.”
While Essig was quiet, her gray parrot Ernie was never hesitant to speak. The bird, Essig’s companion for around 30 years, even sang operatic warm ups before Essig left her apartment to sing at the North East United Methodist Church Choir.
“She would say, ‘Ernie, don’t you want to sing?’ And he would go AHHHHH,” Andersen said. “The neighbors at Victoria Park were wondering who she was living with, because she was always talking to him and he was making noise, so I had to explain to them that it was a parrot.”
A friend from the church took over Ernie’s care when Essig’s health began to decline after she got sick with COVID-19.
“In the nursing home that’s what she asked me most about: ‘where’s my parrot?’ ‘I wish my parrot Ernie was here.’” Andersen said.
Essig lost her ability to stand after contracting the illness in December of 2020, and was taken to a hospital and then a nursing home.
“She never came home again,” Andersen said.
There was one desire, however, Andersen couldn’t grant for Essig.
“Margaret wanted to be buried with Ernie,” Andersen said. “I tried explaining to her what that meant if Ernie was not dead. She still wanted to, but I explained that I wasn’t going to do that.”
As a compromise, Essig was buried with a stuffed Ernie look-alike, standing on her hand at her open casket. Even in her casket, Essig still had on dark-pink lipstick.
Essig was a self-taught folk artist, painting scenes of nature along with more whimsical scenes, such as a set of flowers – made with needlepoint – in the colors of the French flag.
Andersen said Essig’s apartment was full of artwork, and Essig won many ribbons for her art at the Cecil County Fair.
Andersen described Essig’s work as child-like, with simple colorful designs and figures.
“Adults lose that child-like ability to just capture something,” Andersen said. “I loved that about Margaret so much that she didn’t lose that.”
Essig, who had a learning disability, worked on paintings a little bit at a time and would work on needle pieces while watching T.V. shows, such as “The Twilight Zone.”
“Her painting was very methodical,” Sally Krapf, a friend from the Cecil County YMCA said. “She measured everything.”
Krapf drove Essig to water aerobics classes at the Elkton YMCA, as Essig became part of an informal group nicknamed “The Mermaids.”
“Margaret knew the whole routine,” Krapf said. “If we just watched her, she knew the movements that went with each song. We’d follow her with a little help from somebody else.”
The Mermaids would also go out for monthly birthday luncheons, where Essig would indulge her sweet tooth.
Andersen said Essig would send out Christmas cards to all of her friends, from her Church and water aerobics group.
“I think because she was so quiet, and then so compassionate, people tended to become friends with her,” Andersen said.
At Essig’s funeral service, three women from her high school class arrived, reminiscing about her job wrapping the silverware and filling the salt and pepper shakers at the Ladies Auxiliary of the North East Fire Company.
Andersen mentioned one church friend who went out of his way to talk to Essig, complimenting her lipstick.
“He was treating her just like he would other people and she enjoyed that,” Andersen said.
Around 15 years ago, Essig got a job at Wendy’s cleaning tables, a position she was proud of as she never had a job before.
“It’s a good example of how it takes a village,” said Ellis Andersen, Doris Anderson’s husband, referring to the many people who helped Essig.
Essig’s favorite phrase was “look at the clouds.” Andersen gave Essig the chance to look at the clouds from a new angle when she took Essig to Disney World in Florida, giving Essig the chance to look at the presidential robots and other pop culture icons.
“She adamantly said, ‘I am never flying again,’” said Rev. Drew M. Christian at Essig’s eulogy. “She is flying again, but I don’t think she’ll mind or be afraid this time.”