By SHEILA SELMAN
THE GOSHEN NEWS
GOSHEN — Shirley Hershey Showalter has been out of the Goshen spotlight for a few years. Following her retirement from the presidency of Goshen College in 2004, Showalter moved to Kalamazoo, Mich., where she worked for the Fetzer Institute. She left there in 2010 and moved to the Harrisonburg, Va., area where she is a part-time professor, coach and now author.
Which brings her back to Goshen.
Showalter will return to the city she called home for 28 years to sign copies of her new memoir, “Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World” and speak at Goshen College for Homecoming Weekend and an Afternoon Sabbatical program.
The book focuses on a young Shirley and her life of growing up in a Mennonite household in Lancaster County, Pa. Her mother, father and grandmother are all central to the young girl’s life — a life much different than the previous generations and later generations.
Showalter was coming of age in the early 1960s, a time of cultural change not only in America at large but in the subculture of the Mennonite church. Whereas her mother and grandmother had experienced rumspringa and were allowed to live in the world as youths, Showalter was brought up “plain.”
And as she weaves the story of her childhood, Showalter said she learned a lot about her family and herself.
Photos of those times were especially revealing for Showalter. And she put a few of those in her book.
“Often times in the captions, they’re telling you something new I discovered,” Showalter said.
She described one set of photos on page 46. They are two pictures side by side. Each one of her parents took turns with the camera. Her mother posed for a photo with baby Shirley and then her father.
“The way my father holds me is so funny,” Showalter said. “He has these huge hands.” Showalter fits into one hand and he’s holding her like a sack of feed. “Father is obviously proud and happy but in a different way.”
Her mother, on the other hand, held her like a mother does, Showalter said.
It’s this type of descriptive introspection that laces the book.
“Just telling people facts about your life is boring,” Showalter said, adding there has to be an authentic voice, where the writer opens up.
“All of us can write kind of mechanically out of instruction,” she said. “But to find what we in literature call a voice almost requires an author/writer to go deep into self. And when you do that, you’re just drawn to the telling of personal story.”
Showalter is also an avid memoir reader — a genre that has exploded in the last 20 years, along with all things reality, including TV, Facebook and Twitter. People are sharing very personal accounts of their lives.
“I don’t know if I can explain that phenomenon, but I’m part of it,” Showalter said.
Showalter’s journey into a memoir started first with some essay contests at the Kalamazoo Gazette and then with a blog. She blogged about hundreds of books, including “Angela’s Ashes” and works by Annie Dillard. Showalter was teaching herself as she wrote about and reviewed other people’s books.
“That’s how it all began,” she said.
In 2011, she proposed the book to Herald Press. And then she began researching and writing.
“I wanted to dedicate this book to my Mother and I wanted to write this book as a way to honor her,” Showalter said. “That was a high degree of motivation for me.”
Showalter shared an early draft with her mother, who she gave permission to say how she felt about her daughter’s recollections and to see if there were any errors. But, Showalter did not give her mother veto power.
“She didn’t want that anyhow,” she said.
“To her credit, I couldn’t have done it if I didn’t think she would be able to handle it,” Showalter said of her mom.
But her mother, as the book reveals, was supportive and even allowed Showalter to put a photo in of her in a two-piece bathing suit from the 1940s.
Any concerns expressed, Showalter said, were “based on her unconditional love of me. That’s where she pressed me and my motives.”
But in the end, Showalter had her mother’s support even though “I’m not sure she’s completely comfortable with everything in the book.”
Regardless, she not only has her mother’s support but also that of her family, community and church.
“I can tell you one of the highlights of my life to date was last Thursday when my entire family helped to produce the launch of the book,” Showalter said.
The family spent the day making sugar cookies made from an old family recipe that dates back to the 19th century. Her grandmother used to sell them in Lancaster. They then packaged the cookies and everyone at Lititz Mennonite Church, which is the church Showalter grew up in, was invited to take away a pack of two cookies.
“Everybody contributed the thing they were good at,” she said. Some baked, some put up posters or picked up things around town. The whole family was there, including her children and grandchildren.
And then everyone who had been in her life in elementary school, high school, college friends and students now living in Lancaster County, to teachers and fellow board members, and even online writer friends who traveled from Philadelphia and Seattle joined Showalter in the church.
“The church was packed,” she said. “We sang three old hymns, led by the son of the song leader when I was a child.”
“The family support has become so enormous. That means a great deal to me,” she said, adding, “It shows you can write a memoir that doesn’t distance you from your family — allows you to celebrate.”