To Create Your Own Legacy

What is a legacy? Now that you’ve read my story, you know that the word “inheritance” sometimes caused problems for Mennonite farm families such as mine. Being fair to all the children and at the same time passing along their most precious asset, the farm, often proved difficult for parents to structure and for siblings to accept peacefully.

But we inherit more than money, land, heirlooms, or any material thing from our ancestors. And we leave more than these behind when we die. The most precious gift we can bestow is a true record of who we were, told in our stories, and lived out in our lives.

One of my strongest beliefs, and the reason I wrote this memoir, is that each of us has an opportunity, and obligation, to leave gifts to the next generation. Wise and generous distribution of property is very important, and it behooves us all to do thoughtful estate planning. However, that is not our subject here.

You may remember hearing the term “last will and testament.” In years gone by, a will contained a set of values, a message penned by the parent to the children or other inheritors of the estate. This message was called a “testament,” and its purpose was to keep a torch alive that had been passed from one generation to another over many centuries of time.

A memoir is a testament. And it is within the power of every human being to create such a testament. Here are a few tips to get you started and a few stories from my own experience to inspire you.

1. Make a family tree that extends to at least three generations on both sides of your family. Find birth, death, wedding, and other essential facts. This alone will be a great gift to the next generation, especially if you are the first to do it.

  • I decided to place a family tree at the beginning of the book (p. 17) as a handy reference. This way, readers can flip back to the chart if they get confused about which person was my father’s mother or my mother’s father. Having names as well as relationship names (Mother, Daddy, Grandma, Great-grandpa, etc.) helps the reader keep track of the cast of characters.

2. Revisit the place where you were born and the place(s) where you lived as a child and adolescent, including schools and churches when relevant.

The Home Place: Now Forgotten Seasons Bed & Breakfast

The Home Place in my story is now Forgotten Seasons Bed & Breakfast. 301 E. Newport Rd., Lititz, Pennsylvania 17543

  • The more time I spent writing my story, the more I wanted to go back to visit the land and touch the artifacts of the Home Place. I’m fortunate that Kathy and Jay Wenger, the owners of the Bed & Breakfast that used to be our family home, flung open all the doors when I visited and gave me access to the special places in my memory: the arch cellar, Dutch doors, my bedroom, and those wide window sills. (See pp. 13, 147).

3. Interview all living relatives who played an important role in your life. For me, the most important was my mother, whose photos and stories made this book possible. I spent weeks with her on the one hand and with my children and grandchildren on the other, feeling the connection to both past and future while I sat with them, ate with them, prayed with them, and played with them.

My mother holding my grandaughter

My mother, Barbara Ann Hess Hershey Becker, holding my youngest grandchild, Julia Jane Showalter, Christmas, 2012

  • If I had not been able to talk with my mother, I could not have verified many of the details. Her story of her own wedding, for example, on p.38, is one I had heard before only with regard to the bishop making Mother promise not to wear white shoes in the future. The trip to Philadelphia and the floral profusion were facets of the story I would never have gathered from Mother had I not interviewed her and continued to ask questions.

4. Eat, drink, and be merry! As I was writing about my sweet and sour memories of both food and the church, I spent time with the two cookbooks we used most often when I was a girl. I also located another book, below, that I used for background on Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine in general.

William Woys Weaver, Sauerkraut Yankees

  • I also cooked and baked! I took Great Grandma Herr’s Sugar Cakes with me to my Manhattan Memoir Posse meeting one night, enjoying the smiles from from my writer’s group members when they bit into them. (See recipe, p. 261). These two sentences about food, from p. 98, came to me only after having made a batch of Sugar Cakes: “All those years of bustling and baking when Grandmother was queen of the kitchen and Mother was the princess exist only as residue – little carbon markings on the page. But the alchemy – the energy of earth converted to the energy of the body through the energy of love – remains.”

5. Interview mentors, teachers, friends from your past. Enjoy long lunches and phone calls. “Chew the fat,” to use a Pennsylvania Dutch expression.

Miss Riehl still calls me "Rosy Cheeks." We met after 45 years at the Tomato Pie Cafe

Miss Joan Riehl and I enjoyed coffee and reminiscences at the Tomato Pie Café, in Lititz in the fall of 2012. The first thing she said when she saw me? “Rosy Cheeks!” See Chapter 13, pp. 141-146.

  • Each of the people who enter our lives leaves an imprint, some small, some large. Taking a few minutes to relocate, reach out to, and thank or apologize to an old friend or mentor leaves a legacy of joy in our hearts. We pass along that joy to those who come after us.

6. Gather with other writers and learn from them. I attended the Santa Barbara Writers Workshop, the Bear River (Michigan) Writers Workshop, Mennonite(s) Writing, IV; two book festivals, one in Brooklyn, New York, and one in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Bear River Writers Conference, Michigan, 2010

Writers Jen Louden, Kurtis Lamkin, and Jack Ridl at the Fetzer Institute Writers Retreat, April, 2010.

  • I read early portions of this memoir in settings like these, where more experienced writers guided me with honest criticism and encouraged me to continue. Their questions helped me to imagine a wider readership when revising. I actually saw the puzzled faces of my writer friends in my mind as I tried to explain ideas like “company meals” p. 98 or the Blue Gate symbol in Mennonite courtship p. 218.

7. Don’t just write. Speak! As more people became aware of my interest in memoir, I was asked to speak at family gatherings, friend gatherings, and even at conferences.

The Purpose of Memory

Here I am delivering a speech called “The Purpose of Memory” at the annual banquet of the Lancaster County Mennonite Historical Society April, 2011. From there I was asked to speak at the Encore! Event at the Garden Spot Retirement Community.

Leading a workshop at Mennonite Health Assembly, 2012.

  • Speaking, even in informal settings, like around the table at mealtime, helps us clarify our thoughts and share our passions. Some people prefer to only speak their stories. That’s another way to leave a legacy. Today it’s so easy to talk into a tape recorder or ask someone to make a video of you speaking (you can use this technique for interviews of other people also).

I hope you have found these ideas helpful. This website www.shirleyshowalter.com contains many other resources, including a free booklet called “How to Write a Memoir” and many lists of good memoirs and writing books to take you on a deeper journey.

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