Virginia was terribly chagrined that she forgot to bring flowers, her intended house warming present, the day we went to lunch together.

I laughed and told her to surprise one of her new neighbors, since she lives 20 minutes away and she is even newer to Lancaster County retirement community living than we are.

But, wouldn’t you know it. The next morning we were drinking coffee in the living room when we spotted a white-haired woman exiting a car outside our door. Of course, it was Virginia, facing into the wind with the determination of a figurehead at the bow of a boat, she climbed the front steps, beaming, flowers in hand. She tendered the vase, explaining that she had found the blazing red leaves in her new backyard.

The gorgeous color, shape, and lines of this leaf delighted the giver. And receiver.

The gorgeous color, shape, and lines of this leaf delighted the giver. And receiver.

Together we admired all the colors, so full of end-of-summer, falling.

The purple dahlia.

The purple dahlia.

The pink dahlia.

And finally, the whole bouquet as it claimed its rightful place in the middle of the dining room table.

I should have known it would be fruitless to try to dissuade Virginia Spicher from bringing the flowers she had especially selected and arranged as her gift. When we were neighbors in Harrisonburg, Stuart and I sometimes invited Virginia and John to our deck to enjoy the sunset over the mountains, and she would always bring flowers. When we were about to leave the Shenandoah Valley, she gave me a very special blue lustre vase from her collection.

I have given that vase to my daughter because it matches her decor beautifully.

Today, however, I know what I really want to give her. A poem.  I’ll write it out by hand and take it to her. Then I’ll tape it to the base of the vase.

The poem in question was written by Virginia’s daughter. If you want to hear Garrison Keillor read it, you can do it here.

I loved this poem before I ever met Virginia. I met her daughter, the poet Julia Kasdorf, soon after she published her first book of poetry and returned to read from it at one of her alma maters, Goshen College. For years, I’ve had the pleasure of observing Julia observing her mother, on the page and in person, naming the profound connective tissue that underlies all of us. Julia the mature woman has selectively internalized what she first saw from the outside as a young girl.

What I Learned From My Mother

I learned from my mother how to love
the living, to have plenty of vases on hand
in case you have to rush to the hospital
with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants
still stuck to the buds. I learned to save jars
large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole
grieving household, to cube home-canned pears
and peaches, to slice through maroon grape skins
and flick out the sexual seeds with a knife point.
I learned to attend viewings even if I didn’t know
the deceased, to press the moist hands
of the living, to look in their eyes and offer
sympathy, as though I understood loss even then.
I learned that whatever we say means nothing,
what anyone will remember is that we came.
I learned to believe I had the power to ease
awful pains materially like an angel.
Like a doctor, I learned to create
from another’s suffering my own usefulness, and once
you know how to do this, you can never refuse.
To every house you enter, you must offer
healing: a chocolate cake you baked yourself,
the blessing of your voice, your chaste touch.

I’ve learned so much from both Julia and Virginia.

Now I want to know. What have you learned from YOUR mother? Does the poem name something you understand? If so, or if not, please name it below.

Shirley Showalter


  1. Dolores Nice-Siegenthaler on November 2, 2021 at 5:47 pm

    I am so happy to be privy to this generational learning that includes a poem, and I am intrigued by your questions.

    First thing I think of is that my mother was in my dream this morning, and I was especially aware of how her eyes were sparkling as she enjoyed the gathering of people in my dream.

    I hear the line “To every house you enter, you must offer healing” as a role assigned to women and, yes, my mother did this.

    I look forward to reading what others write.

    • Dolores Nice-Siegenthaler on November 2, 2021 at 6:04 pm

      Here’s a quote about a smile that just came to me: “For what is a smile but a coruscation of the joy of the soul, like the outward shining of an inward light?” ~Dante Alighieri, Convivio iii.8

      • Shirley Showalter on November 2, 2021 at 6:13 pm

        You taught me a new word today, Dolores. I had to look up “coruscation.” Glitter. Sparkle. Flash of wit. Beautiful. I am glad that you were visited again by your mother in your dream this very day. My mother had an actual daytime vision of her mother after she died of a heart attack at age 55. She never forgot either the shocking death or the comforting visitation.

        Thanks for starting the conversation. Like you, I am eager to see what others write.

  2. Marlena Fiol on November 2, 2021 at 6:07 pm

    From my mother, I learned what a powerful force can lie within a sweet, unassuming woman! Clara Schmidt was her name.

    • Shirley Showalter on November 2, 2021 at 6:18 pm

      Marlena, your new book Called describes this hidden strength beautifully. I had the honor of reading and endorsing an advance copy. I invite other readers to check out the description of the book here: It is a major contribution to the stories of Mennonites making contributions and adjusting to new cultures in the 20th century.

  3. Elfrieda Neufeld Schroeder on November 2, 2021 at 6:59 pm

    I wrote about my Mother’s Hands in a blog post (May 29)
    Deftly, she shaped the bread into loaves, pushed it into the hot clay oven.
    I sat and watched until it turned golden brown.
    We ate it all, knowing that mother’s hands would make more bread, the next day and the next.
    In all our childhood years, strength from those hands, those cracked and work-worn hands
    flowed into making bread.

    • Shirley Showalter on November 2, 2021 at 8:58 pm

      I remember reading these moving words about your mother’s hands, Elfrieda. Thank you for sharing, and I know readers will enjoy the complete post.
      So many of our mothers have loved us by making things with their hands. I also sense that deep appreciation for her bread making came later. I think that is another theme in all our stories about what we learned from our mothers.

  4. Lois Kauffman on November 2, 2021 at 7:06 pm

    5 years ago, October 22, my Mother died at VMRC. After 21 days, sitting by her side with my sister, we prayed for her release from this life. 10 minutes before she died, a peregrine Falcon alighted in the tree at her window, and looked in. I knew what it was because I had been attending the hawk watch at Afton Mountain and had seen peregrines, identified by experts.
    The day after her death, a peregrine falcon flew low over our house, close enough to identify it without binoculars. I was sitting on my deck, grieving and thinking.

    During the pandemic, this past Spring/ summer, I visited my Sister in Harrisonburg, and a peregrine falcon swooped in her Park View tree, in view of both of us.
    This year, the day before the 5 th anniversary of her death, a peregrine falcon flew over our home, in view of my husband and I. We hollered out, “look at her fly!”
    What have I learned from my mother?
    Mystery, the mystery of love, the mystery of freedom, the mystery of God, and the mystery of things we don’t always understand.
    Oh yes, her homemade angel food cake, potato soup, cinnamon rolls, and chicken baked with crusty corn flakes, shared to the many visitors at our home. !!❤️

    • Shirley Showalter on November 2, 2021 at 9:03 pm

      Lois, I don’t think I have ever seen a peregrine falcon. I’m so glad you’ve been given this gift and that you have been visited at so many meaningful moments. I love that you have claimed mystery as a learning. I know that you are a painter. Have you ever painted a peregrine falcon? Those dishes are all very familiar to me. Also, the hospitality to many guests. You make me wish I had known your mother, but I am sure I have met her through many of those same gifts in you.

      • Lois Kauffman on November 2, 2021 at 9:41 pm

        Shirley, my Son, the artist, painted me a peregrine falcon. So I haven’t tried that one, but I have painted other birds. Thanks for your beautiful writing, too. What a gift you have!
        Yes, Mom had the gift of hospitality for sure. I wish you had known her. She was a wonderful speaker and writer. She was the Vice President of the WMSA, nationally, and I still have many of her writings.
        Interesting that peregrine falcons are Indigenous Americans symbol for freedom and for moving from this life to the next!! Isn’t that amazing!?

        • melodie davis on November 3, 2021 at 6:34 am

          Lois, what was your mother’s name??

          • Lois Kauffman on November 3, 2021 at 7:46 am

            Gladys Ropp

          • Lois Kauffman on November 3, 2021 at 7:48 am

            Was it WMSC or WMSA?

    • Melinda DiBernardo on November 3, 2021 at 7:49 am

      ‘Peregrinare’ is the Latin word meaning ‘to sojourn’. It can mean roam, wander, or stay for awhile. I first encountered it in Psalm 37:3. I’ve just had a good time reading it in several versions on Bible gateway, so I’ll leave you to it, if that interests you!

      • Shirley Showalter on November 3, 2021 at 8:51 am

        Thank you, Melinda. Great to see you here. I am heading to Psalm 37 now. Hope Lois sees your comment also.

      • Lois Kauffman on November 3, 2021 at 12:10 pm

        Thank you

      • Lois Kauffman on November 3, 2021 at 12:55 pm

        Thanks and that was interesting!

  5. Elfrieda Neufeld Schroeder on November 2, 2021 at 7:16 pm

    Shirley, just after I posted my comment I read these words from Henri Nouwen and thought I would share them with you and your readers:

    “To remember my mother does not mean telling her story over and over again to my friends, nor does it mean pictures on the wall or a stone on her grave; it does not even mean constantly thinking about her. No. It means making her a participant in God’s ongoing work of redemption by allowing her to dispel in me a little more of my darkness and lead me a little closer to the light. In these weeks of mourning she died in me more and more every day, making it impossible for me to cling to her as my mother. Yet by letting her go I did not lose her. Rather, I found that she is closer to me than ever. In and through the Spirit of Christ, she indeed is becoming a part of my very being.”

    • Shirley Showalter on November 2, 2021 at 9:08 pm

      What an incredible description of grief from a theological perspective. Thank you so much for finding and sharing this quote, Elfrieda. I tried to say something similar to Lois, above, but in a less profound way. I hope I can come back to this quote when I can no longer speak with my mother.

  6. Melanie Springer Mock on November 2, 2021 at 7:39 pm

    What a lovely poem, and lovely post. I teared up when reading it, because it reminds me so much of my mom’s hospitality. She bakes bread or cinnamon rolls for new neighbors, offering her own kind of healing. I spent so much of adolescence annoyed with her and her simple kindness, and now I cannot imagine a better role model of Jesus’ love. Thank you for sharing this, and also, it would be cool to have coffee with you and Julia’s mother. I’m sure the conversation is amazing.

    • Shirley Showalter on November 2, 2021 at 9:14 pm

      Oh Melanie, I have teared up reading this poem more than once, and I smiled knowingly as you described adolescent annoyance. We are so afraid, as young women, that we will grow up to be our mothers. Later, if we have been loved, we come to love the mother we carry in our bodies. Your comment about lunch is sweet, as is Virginia. You are welcome for coffee anytime at the retirement community of your choice here in Pa. 🙂

  7. June on November 2, 2021 at 10:56 pm

    What I have learned from my mother. I have two mothers, the one that gave me birth, the other that raised me.
    My Mom taught me to love walks on the seawall. She was such a strong woman, she had three kids to care for on her own when my Dad was out to sea.
    My Mum that birthed me gave me a love of music, my Mum that birthed me gave me the greatest gift of giving me to my family.
    As much as I fantasized about what my life would have been like if she kept me. Because she gave me to my parents who raised me, I have had a blessed life. I am grateful for the friendship I have with my Mum, and I am blessed that she is still here. And ear to hear, a shoulder to lean on. For our ever deepening friendship

    • Shirley Showalter on November 3, 2021 at 8:56 am

      What a rich array of images and emotions, June. Thank you for sharing them. Did it take a lot of spiritual wrestling to come to this place of acceptance and peace with your birth mother, or were you able to understand her gift to you at an early age? I am so glad that you have her in your life now and that you can be companions to each other. One of the gifts of older age?

      • June on November 6, 2021 at 12:57 am

        No I did not come to an understanding of my birth mum’s gift to me until much later in my life. I did have a time of wrestling, of anger, but I came to a place of understanding. In one word, gratitude.
        I am grateful for the maturity and wisdom that has come, still comes with advancing age.

  8. Maren C. Tirabassi on November 3, 2021 at 6:41 am

    I learned so much from my mother … how to love mostly, but also how to live with an alcoholic with courage, how to play with a child instead of doing housework or making a dinner more elaborate than scrambled eggs, how to read and read, how to face Alzheimers with joy undiminished, how to still be quoting “Peanuts” and “Winnie the Pooh” in her nineties, and so much more. She was born in October and died in October two days before her birthday ten years ago. I miss her terribly.

    • Shirley Showalter on November 3, 2021 at 9:02 am

      This description touched my spirit, Maren, as so many of your words do. Your mother’s life could so easily have led to misery rather than joy. Those things she read and read both sustained her and reached you through her attention and devotion. October will always mean mother to you. Hug.

  9. Melodie M Davis on November 3, 2021 at 6:45 am

    My siblings and I have been awash in thoughts and memories on this topic of what we learned and remember from our mother. I have learned to laugh, to love, and to learn/grow/and keep learning. I love your story about Virginia Spicher–she served on the board of Valley Living (which I edited) for a number of years and I know that friends here in the valley honored her many volunteer involvements before they moved to Pa. Tell her hi from me if you have coffee again!

    • Shirley Showalter on November 3, 2021 at 9:07 am

      Melodie, I sent a copy of this post to Virginia (and to Julia) before I shared it on social media. I hope she will come back to it and read your greetings herself. And I am sure we will meet up again.

      I don’t recall ever meeting your mother in person, but I have enjoyed seeing her beautiful lined face, almost always with a wide smile, laughing. What a treasure to be able to love her so long and with all your family. Blessings as you continue to honor her in grief, and as you yourself become the matriarch she showed you how to be.

  10. Marian Beaman on November 3, 2021 at 7:20 am

    Shirley, I read this poem first in Sleeping Preacher, the book a birthday gift from my sister Jean in 1995. Now I read it again. Julia’s mother is much like my own: baking chocolate cakes and putting peonies into a bucket on the porch for the neighbors to “just help themselves.” Much of my mother’s lessons to me are told in Mennonite Daughter, but your post and the comments here, evoked others. Beautiful!

    • Shirley Showalter on November 3, 2021 at 9:12 am

      So glad the post brought you more good memories, Marian. I know from your book Mennonite Daughter and even more from your blog posts about your mother in her last years that you embody so many gifts that you saw first enacted by her. We have chosen different paths from our mothers, and our daughters will remember different things, but we will be honored if they have stories to tell of our love of beauty and our generosity to others. It’s always about love.

  11. Laurie Buchanan on November 3, 2021 at 9:25 am

    Oh, what a lovely poem. Thank you for sharing it. I learned from my mother that our words matter. Every single one of them.

    • Shirley Showalter on November 3, 2021 at 10:17 am

      Yes, Laurie. You learned that lesson well. You never waste.

  12. Melinda DiBernardo on November 3, 2021 at 10:53 am

    My mother passed into Jesus’ keeping on October 10th, so this blog has somewhat detailed me this morning. I had a really great mom. I’ve loved reading all your comments and Ok stole the Henri Nouwen quote and posted it on Facebook. During visitation hours we have a sharing time and I told how when we were being tucked in bed, once in a while we could get our parents to sing to sing. Dad was a real singer and Mom… she loves to sing. Their go-to duet was ‘Count your blessings, name them one by one, and it will surprise you what the Lord has done.’ We never know how simple words will go down the line! Anyone who knew Mom knew they had a friend.

    • Shirley Showalter on November 3, 2021 at 1:15 pm

      Oh Melinda, I am so sorry for your loss. I am glad you have found sustenance here. I remember that song very well and when sung at nighttime duet-form by your parents, that song would sink down very deep. Your mom’s friendliness has been passed to you!

  13. Barbara Whitt on November 3, 2021 at 8:15 pm

    Shirley, you are blessed to have Virginia as a friend and she is blessed to have a poet as a daughter. The first verse of Julia’s “Mother” poem spoke to me as I thought of my own mother, deceased since 1985,who always loved flower gardening. Among the many things I learned from her was the advice she gave me when I, as the oldest of four daughters, was ready to leave as a freshman for Park College in Parkville, MO: “Don’t gain more than ten pounds,” and “Remember to write home once a week.”

    What I Learned From My Mother
    I learned from my mother how to love
    the living, to have plenty of vases on hand
    in case you have to rush to the hospital
    with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants
    still stuck to the buds.

    • Shirley Showalter on November 3, 2021 at 8:53 pm

      I chuckled when I read that advice from your mother, Barbara. I believe you have followed her admonition all your life. I’m sure you were a devoted daughter. You have memorialized your days at Park College through those letters. What a wonderful blessing letters are. I gave my own correspondence with my mother 1966-1970 to the Eastern Mennonite University archives.

      • Barbara Whitt on November 5, 2021 at 5:50 pm

        Shirley, what a wonderful gift to your alma mater’s archives. My mother’s letters to me and mine to her are filed in a bank file box in our condo in @KCMO.

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