You would think I would have prepared for February 10, 2014, the day Shirley Temple Black died. A few years ago I had wanted to interview her but learned that she was in ill health and not responding to requests.
The news of her death broke while I was traveling back from Los Cabos, Mexico. I felt not only sad but a little shocked.
Shirley Temple had always been a part of my life, and it was easy to imagine she always would be.
When I heard the news, a face flashed in front of me, the face of my soon-to-be-eighty-seven-year-old mother, Barbara Ann Hess Hershey Becker. She, after all, is the one who named me for her alter-ego, the little girl just one year younger than herself, whose face appeared everywhere in the Depression years of the late 1930’s.
Today Mother called me and we talked about Shirley Temple. Both of us struggled to put into words what connected us to this woman we never met. Neither of us watched her movies until we were adults, yet she reached into our Mennonite worlds and pulled something out of us. What was it? I went back to Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World and opened the book to the introduction:
If you were called Shirley, you were probably born after 1938 and before 1955. Seventeen years is a relatively short shelf life for a name, even if Shirley was a wildly popular one for that brief shining era.
If you arrived into a plain-dressing, plain-speaking Mennonite farm family and were named for Shirley Temple—a movie star you would then be forbidden to watch—you might have been confused and perhaps embarrassed at times. As you grew up, old enough to sense the contradiction, you might have blushed.
Three years after the picture of Shirley Temple (above) was taken, I arrived in the world. Mother and I looked like this:
A week after mother named me Shirley, the preacher at Lititz Mennonite Church preached against naming your children after movie stars. Mother’s cheeks flushed. But I kept my name, and when I went to school, I looked a lot like a Mennonite Shirley Temple.
The pictures Mother took on my first days of school 1954-57 show that she wanted to replicate an image in me that had seared her own heart as a child. It was an image she saw on the cobalt blue pitchers and bowls she pulled out of Wheaties boxes. It was the rosy-cheeked, curly-haired Shirley Temple doll she spied on the top shelf of Hager’s Store and craved as a child — but was denied.
As the author of Blush, I thought the name Shirley was all about me. And about how I was the answer to the gifts mother wanted but never got: a doll and a sister.
Today, I see that the story is all about her, my mother. It’s a story about the gifts she had and then gave up in order to find other gifts.
As a teenager, mother was a Mennonite Shirley Temple herself. She had not yet joined the church, and my grandmother encouraged her to develop gifts of music (piano, violin, voice), elocution and public speaking, and even drama. None of these were gifts women could use in public in the Mennonite Church in the 1940’s through 1970’s in our part of the world.
So Mother waited until after graduating from high school to join the church. In the meantime, she took every public stage she could find.
In the meantime, she looked like this:
Today when I looked at this picture for the one thousandth time, and then looked at the picture of Shirley Temple above, taken in the same year, the resemblance leaped out at me, and I had an epiphany. It was Mother, not I, who was the Mennonite Shirley Temple.
She did exactly what Shirley Temple herself did. When the stage (movie) roles disappeared, Shirley Temple refocused her life around family and public service.
When Mother joined the church, she re-centered herself too around family, church, and community.
Her life changed dramatically. On the outside.
Inside, however, Mother continued loving the good, the true, and the beautiful in whatever avenues she could find. She followed Shirley Temple in another way: determination. Like all Americans, she saw hope in the midst of the bleak Depression through the eyes of this little girl who was nearly her twin. The key to transformation was through imagination. Over and over again, she imagined. Over and over again, she made her dreams come true, even after experiencing loss after loss.
Today as I say good-bye to my namesake Shirley Temple, I find one more reason to love my mother.
She told me today that, “I don’t know why Shirley Temple has always meant so much to me. But she has. And she always will.”
I see Shirley Temple in my mother’s face, which shows her every thought and feeling.
I see it in her love of family, the love that replaced her love of entertaining on a bigger stage.
I see it in the way she became a public speaker and leader among her era of Mennonite women.
I see it in the way she she has plowed through hard times to get to good times.
If the best legacy any of us leaves behind is an image, a voice, and values that never disappear, then Shirley Temple will always be with us.
My mother will see to it!
Do you have any Shirley Temple memories to share? Some mother memories? Please leave them below.
Mother will see them on her 2013 Christmas present. An iPad!