Author Shirley Hershey Showalter crossed my radar one day on Read the Spirit. In her own words she’s “a farmer’s daughter who became a college professor, college president, and foundation executive.” Her memoir, Blush, A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World, was published in September, and I finally got down to reading it last month.
Showalter grew up in a close-knit (is there another kind?) Mennonite community in Pennsylvania. Her memoir traces her childhood years up until the fall she enters college. Showalter was the first in her family to head to college, making a choice that was definitely not mainstream within her Mennonite community. She describes a life few of us have lived and yet one that continually intrigues—a life pared down to what matters, a community that stands firmly against the dregs of our culture. A community rooted in its faith and history, and guided by shared values.
Twerk? Never. Work? Yes—with pride.
As you might surmise from the title, this is no Mommy Dearest memoir, but a recounting of a childhood and family life that seems nearly too good to be true. It’s not that the Hershey family was free of conflict and grief; they experienced it aplenty. But I found myself wanting more, as if even the conflicts were painted with such a light touch that, were I a dog I might have taken the book in my teeth and begun shaking my head back and forth just to get a rise out of the pages.
Yet time and again, I identified deeply with the author’s stories about going to school and feeling keenly that it was a testing ground, a place where she recognized “the ways [she] fit and the ways [she] didn’t.” I couldn’t help but think back to my own early days in first grade, the lone Jewish kid in a class of 28 gap-toothed kids all of whom knew the words to a song called Jesus Loves Me that followed the Pledge of Allegiance each morning. She wrote of her fourth grade teacher, Miss Gibble, “the most notorious teacher of them all.” But Miss Gibble was also plain, “an anomaly,” wrote Showalter, “in front of my own classroom… she would understand me in ways my first three teachers could not.” My own Miss Gibble was my eighth grade teacher, Mrs. Hirsch. That eighth grade fall was the only time in 12 years of public school that I didn’t have to feel awkward being absent on random days in September, because my teacher had been absent, too.
It was not only on the school front that Showalter’s experiences echo in the Jewish community. She wrote of the day neighbor women came to help out after her mother suffered a miscarriage and recalled hearing their judgmental whispers to one another about her mother’s housekeeping as being “not very redd up [cleaned up or put away.]” Reading that I remembered a conversation I had with a young Orthodox mother who lives in a Jewish community nearby. “Oh, they are all ready to help in a minute, but they’re always peeking in your cholent (stew) pot, too.” Petty judgment knows no religious or spiritual bounds.
Now retired from university life, Showalter is pursuing memoir not only as a personal endeavor, but as a teacher of the genre as well. Not everyone could write a memoir titled Blush. For some of us it might have to be titled Scarlet, or perhaps Marooned. But we’ve all got a story to tell. Showalter’s memoir serves as inspiration that whatever the story, whatever our community of origin, so very many life experiences are universal, and as such they have the power to resonate quite neatly across every seeming divide.