Staring Death in the Face: How I Became a Gutsy Mennonite Memoirist
Are Mennonites “gutsy”?
How about memoirists?
My guess is that you may have had more problem answering “yes” to the first question than to the second.
So here’s a Mennonite confession. I’ve always admired gutsy-ness. If you read to the very end of this post, you’ll understand why.
First, let me introduce you to a memoirist who has cornered the market on “gutsy.”
Sonia Marsh can pack her carry-on and move to another country in one day. She inspires her audiences to get out of their comfort zone and take a risk. She says everyone has a “My Gutsy Story®” — some just need a little help to uncover theirs.
Her story, told in her travel memoir Freeways to Flip-Flops: A Family’s Year of Gutsy Living on a Tropical Island, is about chucking it all and uprooting her family—with teenagers— to reconnect on an island in Belize. Her memoir has received seven awards, including 1st Place, in the “Autobiography/Memoir E-Lit Awards 2012/13.
Sonia is the founder of the “My Gutsy Story®” series and has published the first Anthology: My Gutsy Story Anthology: True Stories of Love, Courage and Adventure from Around the World (Volume 1) which has been named a 2013 Benjamin Franklin Award Silver Honoree Winner.
She has lived in many countries – Denmark, Nigeria, France, England, the U.S. and Belize – and considers herself a citizen of the world.
Sonia now offers “gutsy” book marketing and coaching to indie authors. Contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her website: http://soniamarsh.com
How We Connected
We both attended the Santa Barbara Writers Conference in 2008 — six years ago! I told more of that story in this 2012 interview when Sonia’s memoir came out. When we both began blogging, soon after that conference, we stayed in touch. We also wrote and published our memoirs.
Sonia recognized the universal theme of her memoir was courage. Uprooting a family and moving to Belize from Orange County, California, took moxie, guts. As she searched for the right word, the idea of creating a website to help other people tell their gutsy stories occurred to her. I cheered her on!
Sonia invited me to contribute a story to her new website and enticed me (and others) with prizes and a contest. Maybe she already knew that Rosy Cheeks (my high school nickname) loved contests. Yet I didn’t offer a story or enter the contest.
Why Did It Take Me So Long to “Tell My Gutsy Story ©”?
My childhood memoir doesn’t contain the kind of drama we normally think of as being gutsy. I suffered no abuse. I did nothing heroic. Heck, it took me two years to get myself promoted from Blue Bird to Red Bird in elementary school! Who would call such small stories courageous? I had to re-frame my stories to fit Sonia’s lens. Then, when I was reflecting on my life, looking at my photos, this one punched me — right in the gut.
The Fear of Death
“My Gutsy Story®” Shirley Showalter
Behind all our fears, often hidden even to ourselves, lies one big fear.
Yes, you got it. The fear of death.
We can’t become truly gutsy, courageous, until we accept the reality of death and consciously seek to live deeply and fully in its presence.
I first stared death in the face at the age of six.
It happened this way:
On the evening of Dec. 20, 1954, my younger brother Henry and I were playing in a little stack of hay in our barn, making tunnels out of bales and talking about what we hoped for in our Christmas stockings. Cows chewed contentedly next to us. The DeLaval milkers sounded almost like heartbeats—lub-dub, lub-dub, lub-dub—as they extracted warm milk from each udder.
And then we heard it: a horrible, penetrating, animal-like scream, piercing that night and my life to this day. The terrible sound grew louder as Mother came toward the barn. She ran to Daddy and, still screaming, started pounding him on his chest.
“My baby is dead. Our baby is dead. My baby is dead.” That was all she could say, over and over again. Then she would throw back her head and wail.
I learned a lesson that night that I would have to learn again when my father died at age 55 and when several close friends died in sudden, untimely ways.
We all die.
From then on, life became even more precious. I decided to live twice, once for myself and once for the little sister who lived only 39 days.
Read the rest here on the Gutsy Living page.
I hope you voted in the contest. If not, please click here. It’s easy!
AND, you may have been thinking, “I wonder if I have the guts to write a story?” The answer is “yes!” Sonia has agreed to answer any questions you have about her story and her website. If she accepts your story, it may be included in My Gutsy Story Anthology: Volume II!
Of course, I am here to listen to any responses you may have to the idea in my story also. How have you connected the reality of death and the need for courage in your life?
Shirley – No stranger to Sonia’s “My Gutsy Story” contest over on her “Gutsy Living” website, my hat is off to you for contributing this specific gutsy story that I remember reading — with goosebumps on my arms — in your memoir, that I absolutely savored.
The reality of death crushed me like a ton of bricks when my mother died from breast cancer at the young age of 53. Taken directly from my book (and you’ll see it again in a February blog post), here’s what I learned from that experience:
“My heroes include people from all walks of life who exude hope—a belief in a positive outcome. Their lives reflect their heart’s desire, combined with active expectation.
My mother, Delle Hunter, was a physically small woman, yet she was the biggest person I’ve ever known. She had total focus, an attribute that deeply impressed me. She taught me by example that how we live impacts how we die. She lived a life of courage, beauty, and integrity; she died in the same manner.”
Laurie, I am going to have to read your memoir! We have so much in common. My father died the night of his 55th birthday.
I will also look for your February blog post with anticipation.
Thanks for comments on both blog posts. You do amaze me with your myriad connections. I hope finding you here means that your wireless connections have been restored. Yea!
“How we live impacts how we die.” Yes.
I just realized that all 3 of us, had a parent die in their 50’s, Shirley. My mother died at 57, when I was 25. I’m an only child, and was very close to my mother. Her death made me decide to never postpone my dreams. My parents were looking forward to traveling to the U.S., Australia, and many other parts of the world when they retired. This never happened, so I now see how her death made me decide to live (her and my own) dream of moving to the U.S. I can’t believe this just clicked after re-reading your wonderful story. I am so glad we met in Santa Barbara, and have stayed in touch. Thank you for opening my eyes.
I already voted in the contest–for you, of course.
It is interesting how you linked the profound effect of your sister’s death with your own current view of our mortality, a sort of prose adaptation of Wordsworth’s Ode “Intimations . . . .”
I’m glad you told the back story of your relationship with prize-wining author Sonia Marsh, having met her at a writer’s conference in Santa Barbara 6 years ago. Also, I’m glad you decided to live twice, your little sister’s life subsumed into your own vitality.
I love Wordsworth, as you can imagine. I was actually tramping through the Lake District right before I got the call asking me to meet with the presidential search committee for Goshen College’s presidency.
The back story of my friendship with Sonia fascinates me too, now that six years have unfurled. I love the fact that we can stay connected over time and space through this amazing gift we call the Internet.
Thanks, as always, Marian, for your comment — and for your vote!
Shirley, I am in the midst of reading your memoir, and the story of Mary Louise touched me. Reading your post on Sonia’ s site showed me more about how your sister’s death affected your life. I admire how you decided to live twice.
My father had a major stroke when he was 54 years old that changed him. It also changed me, just 12 years old at the time. But I never thought he would die. My brother was born with some disabilities and so sickness was always near, but it seemed that death was not. Does that make sense? It was as if I knew people could get very sick, but I never accepted that death could take them.
But when my father died, just after he turned 76, it turned me inside out. I became very bitter and angry. I eventually resolved those feelings.
His death also changed my view of death. I had to face that we would all die. I fear it sometimes. Sometimes, I accept it as something that we all have to go through. And if my father could go through it, then surely I can too. And my belief in the eternal soul, the eternal nature of love, is a comfort and a strength.
Thank you, as always, for sharing your stories and your wisdom.
Tina, we all fear death sometimes and to some extent always. I do too.
I had never thought about the fact that chronic illness could “immunize” a family from expecting death, or even thinking about it. I can understand how that could happen, especially after more than 20 years of the “new normal.”
So glad you believe in eternal love. May you, and all of us, come to rest in that belief, even before the final rest.
The tragedy of those events decades ago was a sort of catalyst that sparked a lifetime of effort and searching. What a beautiful story, filled with courage and hope. When my older brother died at 37, my parents had to figure out how to carry on, and I have often marvelled at her courage. These journeys through death and back to life make no sense at all when you stare at the event unadorned, but when you discover them in your story, they make perfect sense.
Since this article and comment thread have turned into a love fest for Sonia, I want to add my voice to the chorus. I think by asking us to frame our lives in terms of “Gutsy Stories” she has inspired us to see the best in ourselves.
Join the Memoir Revolution
Yes, searching for the gutsy story does bring out the best in us. Sonia has helped so many writers, not only with publication, but with the inward journey also.
Thanks for your comment and for staying in touch, Jerry. You have been a good friend along the way, even if we haven’t stayed in constant touch.
I commend your Memoir Revolution book to all who are trying to understand what is happening with story in our time.
I had no idea your brother died so young. What a tragedy for your parents and your family. One thing Shirley has done for all of us, is made us speak about death more openly. I remember reading an article about how death is not a topic people discuss in the U.S., compared to other parts of the world. What a great community we have managed to create online.
Shirley – You got me caught as your remembered Mary Louise. With lots on today’s agenda I stop to write for tomorrow is February 1 Valentine’s Day is coming soon. February 14, 1958 is as clear in my mind as this day. I just enjoyed a great party at Maytown Elementary School. Grade 6 had the best party for we were the oldest kids in that school. Yes, but soon those good times were followed my numbing hour as I arrived to my home to find it filled with uncle and aunts. My daddy died. Just days before I saw him at Lancaster General Hospital with an oxygen tent all around his head. Now at 36 years old he left us fine children and our grieving mother. Grandpa Hess, father of nine children, said, “I didn’t just look my oldest son, I lost my best friend.” So much grief, so much loss… and every February 14 tears flow for many of us who still clearly remember that painful loss of David Leaman Hess, Jr, – his death memories from February 14, 1958-2014.
Thank you for squeezing time today to write this “gutsy Mennonite” story of your own. Losing a sister was hard, but your loss was harder. Your father’s memory, however, has been cherished and commemorated every Valentine’s Day of your life.
And you have made a living memorial out of your work in recording family history, documenting, and encouraging others to do the same. You have rescued life from the jaws of death. Your unwavering faith in love’s triumph over fear comes through in everything you do.
Dominica Ruta in her memoir With or Without You writes, “The Buddhists believe that every human life is like an ornament made of glass, something precious, beautiful, and bound to be destroyed. The trick is to see the world as a glass ALREADY shattered, freeing yourself from a life exhausted in dread of the moment of breaking.” Which of course doesn’t take care of the pain and shock, but then, what does?
Dear Shirley, I have read this heartrending story of the death of your baby sister and it touches me every time. I am fascinated by the backstory of how you and Sonia met. I am also struck by your admission that you didn’t think you had a gutsy story to tell. Sonia’s call to find our own gutsy stories has inspired many of us. At the time, we don’t think we’ve been gutsy but in retrospect, we begin to see it differently. Gutsiness begets gutsiness. When we share our stories, we inspire each other to get in touch with our own gutsiness. I’m so happy you shared your story. Now, I’m on my way over to Sonia’s blog to vote!
Thank you so much, Kathleen, for your comment and insight. Yes, I needed Sonia’s suggestion, her belief that everyone has a gutsy story in order to find the gutsiness in my story. You are helping so many other writers do the same. Thank you.