Sweet life beyond the sparkleBy Melanie Springer Mock
Readers picking up Shirley Showalter’s new memoir might naturally assume the author will focus on her public life as a Mennonite leader. After all, Showalter has assumed important roles: a faculty member at Goshen College for many years before becoming its president from 1996 to 2004; later, a vice president for programs at The Fetzer Institute. She has received awards for her leadership.
Generally, public leaders write about their public lives, detailing their journey in becoming Who They Are, as well as the challenges they’ve faced — and overcome — in their ascendancy. Showalter wisely chooses not to do this, instead focusing her memoir on her childhood and her experiences growing up a conservative Mennonite in Lancaster County, Pa.
The result is Blush — an excellent memoir, fun to read, by turns funny, poignant and challenging, a book that clearly manifests Showalter’s understanding of the memoir craft and her ability to tell a good story.
Showalter begins her own narrative with her parents, Barbara Hess and Richard Hershey. Showalter creates rich characters in her parents, allowing us to see, though narrative, who they were, what their dreams entailed, the times when they struggled.
We learn that Showalter’s mother was intrigued by Shirley Temple (hence her daughter’s name) but would never see a Shirley Temple movie in a theater; that she wanted to become a writer, which became a dream deferred; that she was attracted to “the glittery worlds of pretty clothes and acting on stage and being popular” but instead became a plain Mennonite, “wearing both a prayer covering and the cape dress, but only as long as the church commanded it.”
The details Showalter lovingly provides about her mom — and then her dad, and then their marriage — create a foundation for everything that will follow in her memoir, which itself focuses on Showalter’s family life. Like her mother, Showalter felt the tension between wanting to be part of the glittering world and remaining in the conservative Mennonite world — a tension that thematically unifies her memoir to its very last page.
Showalter narrates a mostly happily childhood in Lititz, Pa., relying on the effective writer’s dictum to show us, rather than tell us, about her experiences. Through her careful detail, we can know what it must have been like growing up the oldest child in a large family, living in a centuries-old farmhouse, attending public schools and longing to be recognized by adored teachers.
We also learn what it must feel like to have a sister die weeks after her birth and watch a mother overcome by grief; or to witness a father struggle for acceptance in his own family; or even, more broadly, to negotiate what it means as a Mennonite teenager to be in the world but not of it. Showalter acknowledges that even in a sweet life there is some sour, which she says is part of everyone’s childhood.
For Showalter, “childhood was sweetest when surrounded by family, including the 40 families in our church who called me by name and knew where I lived, what grade I was in and what part I sang when we opened the hymnals together.” Her stories about this community — even its darker parts — are seasoned with grace, reflecting Showalter’s love for her people and her Mennonite upbringing.
Those with similar pasts will especially appreciate Blush as Showalter recalls cultural phenomena particular to traditional ethnic Mennonites. She narrates her experiences with walk-a-mile, which she calls a Mennonite form of speed dating, and with Mennonite meals and box socials. She alludes to hymns prized by Mennonite traditions and to the rituals of worship.
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