The Things She Couldn’t Carry: Touching the Hem of My Grandmother’s Garment

Wearing Anna Mary’s fur and muff — 100 years after she wore them

After we die, who is left to tell our story? And what is left of who we were?

My maternal grandmother Anna Mary Herr Hess died at the age of 56 when I was not quite three years old; hence, I do not consciously remember her living presence. Almost everything I know about my grandmother has come to me in the form of stories my mother has told me. And in the form of things left behind.

Yesterday I decided to put on some of the things Anna Mary left behind. These are things I bought at my Grandpa Hess’s sale or were given to me by my mother.

The inventory goes like this:

1.  The fur muff and stole in the picture above.

2. Two black Mennonite bonnets

3. Several dresses worn during WWI when Anna Mary was a teenager

4. some undershirts and children’s clothing

5. Anna Mary’s black “plain” dress which was “made over” by my other Grandma (Hershey) so that my mother could wear it and feel closer to her absent mother. And a plain brown cotton dress probably worn in the 1930’s. As Grandma Hess sold poultry, vegetables, and baked goods at the Central Market in Lancaster, Penna., she might have worn a dress like this one.

Yesterday I put on some of Anna Mary Herr Hess’s things — the furs she wore in her fancy youth and two of her plain dresses  worn after she joined the Mennonite Church. I spent the day and the night trying to touch her through these objects.  I thought about little changes in my own path that might have led me either to the furs or to the bonnet and cape dresses. There’s nothing like wearing a dress on the outside to help imagine another life on the inside.

Wearing Grandma Anna Mary’ Herr Hess’s black dress, cut down to fit my mother in 1951. Fits me in 2012.

Wearing Grandma’s plain brown cotton dress. A great contrast to the fine details and ornamentation on the dresses of her youth.

Here’s what I have learned so far in my quest for my childhood self as I write memoir:

  • I am the beneficiary of three generations of maternal love energy focused on single daughters.
  • Each generation of these mothers suffered deep grief before the age of 30.
  • Each one loved beauty and fine clothing, and each one gave up these loves for the sake of Mennonite Church teaching. See the contrasts in the gallery of photos below.

Anna Mary Herr Hess and John Garber Hess, probably taken in the late 1940’s. Grandma’s wardrobe had become severe after her wedding in 1918.

Anna Mary Herr, about 1916, note lace, tassels, crimped hair

Mother’s high school graduation picture, 1945. She was a graduation speaker and had starred in several plays.

1951. Six years later, my plain Mennonite mother has just lost her mother at the time of this picture. Her hair is long and pulled into a bun under a prayer covering.

By putting on the dresses and furs my grandmother left behind and my mother preserved, I touched two threads: one is the love of the visible, material, lovely physical world and the other is an equally beautiful world that can only be appreciated as beautiful from the inside. A deliberately simple, outwardly humble, Mennonite world.

When I look in the mirror of my life, I see both threads, the hems of all these garments. They are the warp and woof of my life.

Do you have any clothing heirlooms from ancestors? Are these tangible symbols powerful for you also? Help us count the ways!

I interviewed my mother for this essay and then cut out the interview because it took me too far from the theme of the post which is about the power of material culture, in this case, dress culture. But if you show interest, I will continue the story in the next post. What would you like to know, and what do you already know, about the daughter, grief, beauty connections? Please leave a comment or question below.


Shirley Showalter


  1. Arlene Steffen on November 19, 2012 at 12:12 pm

    My grandmother had a beautiful rocking chair in her living room for as long as I can remember. She was the only one who sat it in it because the seat was so low to the ground and suited her short stature. It had goose neck arms and a wonderful tapestry upholstery. Somehow, my mother must have known how much I loved that chair and she saved it for me. I think of the many happy memories of time spent with my grandmother every time I look at it in my home. I got off the school bus at my grandmother’s house every day for first and second grade, so I had lots of time with her that I don’t think the other grandchildren got.

    • shirleyhs on November 19, 2012 at 12:28 pm

      Arlene, thanks for sharing this wonderful story of another way a material object has the power to evoke a memory, a spirit, a presence. You inspire me to pour love into my own grandchildren.

      Also, the story I cut out of this post has a rocking chair as one of its central characters. Maybe I’ll have to write about that chair next week. If you see it, consider it a post dedicated to your grandma. And have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

  2. Shirley on November 19, 2012 at 12:44 pm

    I was given my Great Grandmother Custer’s black buggy shawl when I was in my 20s. It is four yards of heavy wool with a fringe around the edge. It is warmest thing I own and I still wrap myself with it on very cold occasions. But it almost disappeared for good.

    It was lost for about ten years, and I was heartbroken over it. When I recounted the story to someone from EMC/EMU, this person remembered a similar sounding item that was in storage in the basement of the library at the university. There we found it in the theater props at EMU!!! It had survived with no damage and I still feel Great Grandma’s spirit when I use it.

    • shirleyhs on November 19, 2012 at 1:00 pm

      Wow, Shirley. That’s a great story! Your great grandmother must have a very strong spirit to be able to reconnect with you against those odds!

      You remind me that another item in my stash of grandma items is a black knit shawl. I think I’ll go wrap myself in it, inspired by your story. Thanks.

  3. Patricia on November 19, 2012 at 1:18 pm

    I’m curious, Shirley, about the clothing. It looks like your grandmother in 1916 was not wearing plain clothes with all that lace. But then the clothes you put on were very plain. What changed? (Not being Mennonite, I don’t really know anything about what is customary.)

  4. shirleyhs on November 19, 2012 at 1:36 pm

    Hi Patricia. Yes. You got it right. My mother, my grandmother, and my great grandmother all grew up in Mennonite homes, so in a sense, they were Mennonite all their lives.

    However, joining the church by adult confession of faith is a very important step. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the common practice was to join the church after marriage, which meant that during teenage years and early ’20’s, there was less supervision over external symbols. Hence some very fancy dress — until marriage or even as late as one turned 30 or 35 sometimes.

    By the time I was entering my teen years, however, the expectations had changed. “Adult” confessions of faith were taking place at ages 10-15, and a lot of pressure was extended to young people to join the church earlier. I joined at age 12.

    I therefore looked much more “plain” at age 17 than the three generations of Mennonite women who preceded me. It’s something I was only partly aware of before I started writing my memoir. Stay tuned. I’ll tell more. Keep asking questions. They help me!

    Thanks much for returning.

  5. Donna Heatwole on November 19, 2012 at 1:42 pm

    I have the silk bedjacket my mother wore in the hospital when I was born. Someone must have given it to her because it must have cost more than she could afford – one of the nicest things she ever had. Several years ago I had it framed along with three pictures of the two of us when I was born. I treasure it greatly.

    • shirleyhs on November 19, 2012 at 5:47 pm

      Ooh, I love even the elegant sound of that word: silk bed jacket. And framing a special item of clothing is one of the ways to touch the departed also. I’ll bet you wore the jacket itself before you framed it. 🙂

  6. Tina Barbour on November 19, 2012 at 2:21 pm

    My maternal grandmother died when I was 4 years old, so I have only vague memories of her, if I can even call them memories. But I have her wedding ring and wear it from time to time. It’s a plain gold band and has my grandfather’s initials on the inside–CWF. It’s worn smooth from the 60 years my grandmother wore it. They married in 1907, so I feel the years when I wear it, and I feel a connection to a woman who I really only know from others’ stories.

    Thank you for sharing your stories and photos.

    • shirleyhs on November 19, 2012 at 5:49 pm

      Jewelry, especially a wedding band worn thin by use, carries special meaning also. Do you have anyone to tell you stories about your grandmother?

  7. Arlene Steffen on November 19, 2012 at 4:49 pm

    When our first son was born, my sister presented me with a beautiful yellow crocheted blanket. She remembered wrapping me in it as a baby. I wrapped my own sons in it and one day, perhaps, my grandchildren will be wrapped in it. She also has an adorable two-piece knit outfit that every boy in our family has worn, starting with my oldest nephew. My sister is good about starting traditions.

    • shirleyhs on November 19, 2012 at 5:43 pm

      Love this idea of ritual blankets and of having a ritual keeper/maker in the family.

      I kept a blanket bag full of special items like this one for each child. Now that I am a grandmother myself, I share the bags again with my son the father.

  8. Gloria holub on November 19, 2012 at 8:13 pm

    What a lovely tribute to your grandmother! Wouldn’t it be great if she could see you in her clothes? this gave me the idea of trying on my mother’s wedding dress, which is a gray cape dress as she was conservative Mennonite when she married. I also have a bonnet, glasses,etc. Maybe a project for me in a few months when I retire!

  9. shirleyhs on November 19, 2012 at 8:28 pm

    Hi Gloria. Retirement is a wonderful time of life. And it’s perfect for exploring the heirlooms in your attic or closet or cedar chest. I hope you will play with these items and that they stimulate your imagination for the purpose of this stage of life.

  10. Richard Gilbert on November 19, 2012 at 9:28 pm

    i have some of my father’s ties and wear them occasionally, have had them for years, some since high school, because when he or mom would cull his closet I’d get ties to wear to my job bagging groceries at Winn Dixie. I like wearing them and think of him. I regret letting some other things go along the way . . .

    • Shirley on November 19, 2012 at 9:34 pm

      I have one of my father’s ties also. He died in 1980. I have the tie we gave him for Christmas in 1974 or 75. Wide blue tie with burnt orange Longhorn cows. For his dairy farm and our UT-Austin connections.

  11. ShirleyK on November 20, 2012 at 8:51 am

    More story. The interview.

  12. shirleyhs on November 20, 2012 at 8:55 am

    Thanks for the vote, Shirley K. Stay tuned for next Monday’s episode of “As the Covering Turns.”

    • Shirley on November 20, 2012 at 11:43 am

      Can you remember the last “size” of your last covering? Mine was TC!

  13. Kathleen on November 20, 2012 at 9:04 am

    I have been thinking about the first two comments with the rocking chair for a day now. I have my grandmother’s rocking chair. I remember her sitting there after a long day in the kitchen quilting and cooking. Her Bible and prayer covering lay on a table next to the chair. Now, I sit in it in my “away space,” rocking, reading, meditating. It is a powerful connection.

    As an oldest daughter of an oldest daughter of an oldest daughter of an oldest daughter, I have many questions for her, which will not be answered in this lifetime.

    Please consider sharing the rocking chair story.

    • shirleyhs on November 20, 2012 at 9:37 am

      Thank you for the encouragement, Kathleen. I will think of you and Arlene as I visit my mother and the painted green chair that means so much to her because of her mother. I’ll include a picture in the next post.

      And the oldest daughter of oldest (and only) daughters connects with you also. Thanks for reading so deeply.

  14. DazyDayWriter on November 20, 2012 at 9:09 am

    What a wonderful post and thread, Shirley. I don’t have any of my grandmother’s clothing, but I do gaze at her attire in various pictures … she was a pioneer, a prairie woman, so everything is quite simple and functional. I wrote a poem once, my first published poem, in fact, about the top of her bedroom dresser … as a young girl, I was fascinated by all the little things she kept there. Generational influences are real, without a doubt. Take care and thanks for sharing this.

    • shirleyhs on November 20, 2012 at 9:39 am

      Oh yes, Daisy. The magic of the drawers in the grandparents’ house. Can you smell them as they open?

      Would you be willing to come back and bring your poem to the comment section? I’m sure I’m not the only one who would like to read it here.

  15. Sharon Lippincott on November 20, 2012 at 9:31 am

    Your thought-provoking questions reminded me that although I have no clothing items from my grandmothers and never thought of their love of beauty, I do have portraits my paternal grandmother tinted — she did this professionally in the studio she and my grandfather owned. The set of Franciscan Ivy dishes from my other grandmother is one of my most treasured possessions. I have several paintings and two “artsy” kimono-type robes my artist-mother made. I realize now that I received a double gift from these female forebears: both a love of beauty and the creativity to produce it. My ivy dishes grandmother always had sewing or craft projects underway, usually from recycled materials — although through her lifetime she accrued a considerable estate, she came from an era of tough times and making do!

  16. shirleyhs on November 20, 2012 at 9:42 am

    Your grandmother and mine must have been cut from the same cloth, Sharon. My mother describes Anna Mary as “full of get up and go.” She worked so hard! And her table was always the place to be for the holidays. Those domestic arts have formed the platform for a lot of women creative artists today. Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party comes to mind. Have you seen it?

  17. Kathleen Pooler on November 20, 2012 at 10:04 am

    Dear Shirley,
    What treasures you hold in being able to wear your maternal grandmother’s clothes! I love the story behind the story an how from it all you connected to the themes in your life. Beautiful!
    I don’t have any clothes from my ancestors but I do have my maternal grandmother’s hand-sewn silk bed covering from her wedding, her rocking chair and many afghans she knit. I have a set of plastic reindeer for Santa’s sleigh and a handmade Mr & Mrs Santa. Suffice it to say, every time I touch or look at any of these items, I am instantly transported back to my childhood memories and connected with my own life themes of love and hardships.
    Thanks for the trip down memory lane!

    • shirleyhs on November 20, 2012 at 11:05 am

      Kathy, you remind me of another treasure trove for material culture — Christmas decorations. I’ll have to remember this idea for another post around Christmas time. I’ve saved handmade ornaments from the children and remember the little brass candle holder that made the angel go round and round on the table.

      The fact that objects can call up hardship as well as love shows they have power beyond just nostalgia. Thanks for adding your voice and perspective. Always wise.

  18. Darrelyn Saloom on November 20, 2012 at 10:11 am

    I never knew any of my grandparents, even though my maternal ones died when I was a teenager. My mother left home at an early age. I have letters her mother wrote to her, but their correspondence ended along with their relationship. Any heirlooms in my house belonged to my husband’s family.

    What touched me about your piece is the wearing of your grandmother’s clothes. As you know, my mother has been quite ill, and I’ve spent a lot of time sleeping at her house of late. While staring into her closet one night, I knew I’d keep a few of her clothes to wear around my farm. I can’t imagine anything other than her handwritten notes that would make me feel closer to her once she has gone (a long time from now, I hope).

    • shirleyhs on November 20, 2012 at 11:14 am

      Ah, Darrelyn. This kind of post must come at a time of deep reflection and caregiving for you. My heart is with you. And is also hoping that the parting will come a long time from now.

      Do you remember the scene in Brokeback Mountain where Ennis visits Jack’s parents house and discovers the double shirts in his closet? Here’s the clip. It always makes me cry.

      You put me in touch with one of my motivations for writing a childhood memoir now. My mother is still living. Someday, I know I will be sifting through her things. But I too hope that day won’t come soon. And I feel an urgent need to ask her the questions and to hold her fast, to gather more rosebuds and lay them at her feet.

      Blessings to you, your mother, and all your family on this Thanksgiving week.

  19. Gerry on November 20, 2012 at 11:18 am

    I am a Mennonite, with both threads in my history–the modern world and the Mennonite thread. I have one of my Grandmother’s cape dresses, which I love having. I wore it for some photos of myself in it and was glad it fit me well enough to wear. I wish we had some of her things before she joined the church too. That was an interesting way to do things in her lifetime–being a part of the worldly dress and then changing so drastically. I am thankful for my heritage. I still am a member of a Mennonite church, although outwardly, no one would know I am a Mennonite. There was a time I called myself Protestant to a friend who asked me my religion. But now, I am happy to say Mennonite. I appreciate your writing.

  20. shirleyhs on November 20, 2012 at 11:23 am

    Gerry, welcome! Sounds like we have a lot in common. The church has changed and we have changed, and yet there is so much richness in the tension between plain and fancy, sweet and sour, ego and humility. Knowing that readers like you have had similar struggles helps me tell my story. Thank you so much for sharing.

  21. shirleyhs on November 20, 2012 at 1:30 pm

    Shirley Yoder, I laughed when I saw your question. I have the last two coverings I wore and may put them into the next post. Is TC tea cup??

    • Shirley on November 20, 2012 at 8:42 pm


  22. Linda Hoye on November 20, 2012 at 8:41 pm

    Oh Shirley, I loved this post on so many levels. My own mom died when she was only fifty-five. In my attic I have her wedding dress and her seal-skin fur coat and I now have the urge to snuggle into that fur coat.

    • shirleyhs on November 20, 2012 at 8:59 pm

      Thanks, Linda. My dad died at age 55 too. So I know how traumatic it can be to lose a parent long before you expect to. Seal-skin fur sounds really warm. I hope you do snuggle into that coat sometime soon. I hope it gives you some quality that your mother had that you need now. Happy Thanksgiving!

  23. Karen S. Elliott on November 20, 2012 at 9:18 pm

    What a wonderful blog!

    I have no memory of any of my grandparents. The last one died when I was 5 y.o. I remember the funeral, but I don’t remember her. I do have memories in objects – an engagement ring, a Bible, diaries written by others during her lifetime, genealogical charts and research documents, a few pictures. And I have the stories my own mother told me. I’m writing parts of these memories into short stories.

    • shirleyhs on November 20, 2012 at 9:43 pm

      Your grandparents must seem almost like ghosts, or angels. I’m so glad you have some things to hold and read and search. And it’s wonderful that you are writing the stories. We all need someone to do this for us — and you are the one. Thanks for coming by. Next week I will tell some of the stories my mother has told me about my grandma.

  24. Shirley on November 23, 2012 at 3:06 pm

    Hello Shirley;
    I loved reading some of your story.
    We all have a story to tell…and who better to tell our story, then ourselves.
    I love reading about others. Learning where they came from…and why they believe what they believe.
    It causes me to reflect on my own relatives who have passed this way and since moved on.
    I know nothing about the “Mennonite” life style, so I will be following you through your story, to see where you take me.

  25. shirleyhs on November 24, 2012 at 4:15 pm

    Another Shirley! We almost have a club here. Four Shirleys commenting on one post. Any chance you were born before 1950? That’s when the name was most popular.

    I would be very honored to be your guide into the world of Lancaster County Mennonite life in the 1950’s and ’60’s — at least as I experience it. Please do come back again.

  26. Laura Weaver on November 24, 2012 at 9:13 pm

    I enjoyed your comments and photos, Shirley! Amazing to see you wearing those plain clothes. Yes, please continue with the material from the interview of your mother!

  27. […] week, Mother told me the story again after seeing the picture of me wearing Grandma’s bonnet in my last post. Grandma was wearing that same bonnet in the vision Mother saw. Mother and me, […]

  28. shirleyhs on November 26, 2012 at 1:41 pm

    Here’s the reply to your request for more from the interview with my mother:

  29. John J. Smith on March 25, 2013 at 11:47 am

    Hi Shirley,

    I response to your inquiry about my covering collection, I must say I was never a serious collector! In 1959, while a junior at Goshen College, as a joke, my room mates and I begin picking up coverings that were laying around campus and pinning them up on the wall in our Coffman Hall room, with typical Mennonite women’s names written on tape below them. Then word got out about our wall decorations and people started giving us different styles of coverings from different communities, so our collection grew and I became the de facto “curator” of the so-called collection. In the 50’s & early 60’s the majority of GC women wore coverings for chapel each a.m., and a minority wore them at other times too.

    I came to Goshen from the relatively liberal Metamora, IL Mennonnite congregation, where women almost never wore coverings at home. They wore coverings in church on Sunday mornings, but not to and from church; they wore hats at funerals and weddings. So when our family went out to Goshen or Little Eden Camp (Mennonite) in Michigan or other more conservative Mennonite communities, we rather irreverent children were amused with more conservative practices, e.g., wearing coverings throughout the week. Around 1949 when a young women wore ear rings along with her head covering to our Metamora church, we thought that was hilarious.

    When I graduated from college in 1961 I stored my so-called covering collection in a box in my Uncle Bill and Aunt Verna’s attic at 1617 S. Eighth St., Goshen. When I helped move Uncle Bill & Aunt Verna to Greencroft in the mid-80’s, I looked all over the attic for that box of coverings, but never found them. No great loss.

  30. John J. Smith on March 25, 2013 at 11:56 am

    Sorry I sent my comment before I edited it. First line should read “In response…” Fourth line should read “…my room mates and I began…”

  31. shirleyhs on March 25, 2013 at 1:13 pm

    Thanks, John, for bringing me up-to-date on your “collection.” I’ll look elsewhere for archival evidence.

    But what a great story. To think, the collection might have been right next door to me all those years on 8th Street.

    Have you seen Rachel Hartzler’s new book? It covers the covering controversies of the ’20’s and thereafter in the In-Mich Conference in a wonderful way.

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