Things I Learned from Mary Emma Showalter Eby — by Rob Eby

A Tribute to His Mother

May 11, 2003

Robert Eby is the son of Ira Eby, who married Mary Emma Showalter after his first wife, (Rob’s mother), died. Mary Emma courageously stepped up to nurturing her instant family, and Robert, who was 11 years old at the time of the marriage, shares some fond and some less fond memories in this tribute he delivered at Mary Emma’s memorial service on Mother’s Day, May 11, 2003.

Before I give my formal presentation of my reflection and tribute to Mother, I’d like to add my anecdote to the many stories about the Mennonite Community Cookbook. When I traveled throughout the country and had occasion to visit in Mennonite homes I often saw a copy of the Mennonite Community Cookbook in the kitchen somewhere on the shelf or on a counter. On one occasion when the hostess realized that I was the son of Mary Emma Showalter Eby, the editor of the Mennonite Community Cookbook, she brought out her cookbook and had me autograph her copy. So somewhere in the United States there’s a copy of the Mennonite Community Cookbook with my signature in it.MennoniteCommunityCookbook_2015cover

When Dad announced to me, his 11-year old son, his intention to marry Mary Emma Showalter, I responded enthusiastically. It appeared that there were at least two personal benefits: Number one, she drove a 1959 Chevrolet Impala stick-shift, a Chevy Impala—I was impressed with that. And secondly, she was a teacher and I thought, “Oh good, she can help me with my homework.” So the first benefit, while seemingly important to a youngster, held only temporary significance. Shortly after I had learned to drive that stick-shift, my parents sold it and bought a Buick automatic shift. The second benefit proved to be more enduring. Beyond assistance with school-related homework, Mother contributed to my educational experience in multiple aspects.

One appropriate title for this reflection / tribute could be, “Things I learned from Mary Emma Showalter Eby.”

Mother may, unintentionally, have learned some things from me as well, particularly in the area of child rearing. During the initial phase of our relationship it appeared that, besides teaching by the textbook, preparing meals by the cookbook, and living by the Good Book, she also attempted conducting child behavior management by the parenting book. Occasionally when I dared to protest her disciplinary actions, she would reply, “The books say . . .” and then proceed to relate what she had extracted from one of those books. And I don’t remember if I ever stated it aloud, but I thought to myself, “Well, whoever wrote those books never met me!” As far as I was concerned those books were long overdue for wholesale revision!

But as we became better adjusted to one another, however, I heard nothing more about the books. Perhaps Mother gradually recognized a place for latitude in her approach to parenting.

Along with Dad, Mother endeavored to instill in me a strong work ethic. Mother believed in starting one’s work early in the morning, or early in the day at least, to allow sufficient time for relaxation afterward. However, in order to reach that point of completion, it was necessary to execute each task with, as Mother phrased it, “with dispatch.”

While I do not consistently adhere to that philosophy, I certainly aspire to it.

Mother also believed in the quality of a task well performed. In my adolescence, one of my warm weather assignments was weeding and edging flower beds—a job I detested! More than once when Mother observed my mediocre work she stated, “What is worth doing, is worth doing well.” To that I retorted, “Well, this isn’t worth doing!”

I must have taken at least a decade to apply that principle of doing well, for it certainly did not reflect in my academic work. From grade school through college, I held minimal concern for academic achievement. I often remarked that I did not allow my studies to interfere with my education.

Mother coaxed, pleaded, scolded, and challenged me, and also reminded me that I was performing below my potential. Only during graduate school did I begin to prove the potential that Mother knew I possessed all along. The former reprimands gave way to encouragement and support.

Mother generously gave of herself and of her goods, as Catherine [Mumaw, who also gave a tribute] has already related. Mother also expressed her generosity through hosting and entertaining. As I assisted her with meal preparation I learned proper table setting and food service. One of various ways that Mother helped her guests feel at ease was her conversational skills. She seemed able to engage nearly everyone in conversation regardless of topic or field of interest. Mother utilized the art of strategically placed questions to lubricate interpersonal interaction. Her anecdotes and stories seasoned the verbal exchange, which seemed to complement her well-seasoned food.

Mother often hosted people from other countries and those who were in church-affiliated service abroad. From my exposure to those persons I gained a deeper appreciation for the richness of cultural diversity.

Mother and Dad’s souvenirs, photos, and accounts of their international travels also contributed to the expansion of my worldview. In a sense, I received a mini cross-cultural experience without leaving home. Mother’s affinity for nature and the arts seemed to further expand my horizons and heighten my awareness of beauty. Simply by being in her presence I learned to identify the variety of flowers, trees, and shrubs as well as the birds that either lingered or passed through the area. I gained greater appreciation for artists and the unique characteristics of their works.

It is possible that I may have been instrumental in the expansion of some of Mother’s horizons—most likely beyond what she would have anticipated. With the British invasion of the U.S. rock music scene in the 1960s, Mother received an initiation to the advent of the counter-culture revolution in which I participated.

Rob-singingSummertime-Rebirth-1972
Rob Eby, singing “Summertime” as a member of Rebirth band, 1972.

At first she resisted the longer hair, the alternative attire, and hard-driving, screaming electric guitars. I doubt that she ever learned to embrace that kind of music that I loved to play. However, it seemed that Mother came to accept my passion for performing. She and Dad eventually attended some concerts that my musical groups presented.

Rebirth-James-Rob-Dean-circa1972
James Krabill, Rob Eby and Dean Clemmer, circa 1972, in Rebirth

 

As Mother and I grew older and I became a more responsible adult, most of our overt conflicts dissipated. Our relationship evolved into more of a friendship. During the eight years prior to my moving out of state, I enjoyed my frequent visits with my parents on Sundays and occasional evenings. As I entered their home, Mother usually greeted me with a smile and a cheery, “Hello!” And following our visit as I took my leave she would say, “I’m glad you could come.”

MaryEmma-IraEby-wedding-family-Dec1960Edited
Phyllis, Ira, Rob, Mary Emma, and Eleanor, on the day of Ira and Mary Emma’s wedding, 1960.

 

When Mother consented to marry Dad, I wonder how aware she was of the implications of taking virtual strangers into her home. It must have been a high stress transition from single professional to married professional with the additional responsibilities of an instant family of four.

At that time I was oblivious to what difficulties Mother may have been experiencing. In retrospect I acknowledge and admire her for her courage, fortitude, and love.

And so on this occasion, and on this Mother’s Day, I make this tribute with gratitude to you, Mother, teacher, friend. You must have considered what you did worth doing. And you must have considered what you did for me and others worth doing. For you did it well!

I thank you, Mother, teacher, friend, and I wish you safe passage.

***

The 65th anniversary edition of Mennonite Community Cookbook is available from the MennoMedia store, Amazon, and many other bookstores and websites.

6 thoughts on “Things I Learned from Mary Emma Showalter Eby — by Rob Eby”

  1. Nice tribute, with honesty. My experience with my mom was similar. After my natural mother died, Roxie married into a family with 6 young children. I was 5 at the time. Like you, I resisted, argued, reasoned and was disciplined with little understanding on my part of the challenges mom had stepped into. Over the years the nature of our relationship changed from (what I perceived as) antagonism to mutual respect, forgiveness and friendship. Naturally with age and experience I was able to appreciate what she had done for our family, and her challenges, as well as her personality. I too joined bands. Anything with drums and louder than 45 decibels was evil “jazz music.” However my parents and relatives also came a long way and even came to a club to see me play. My mom witnessed me making terrible decisions as an adult and had much grace toward me even after. Sounds a lot like your mom.

    1. Thanks, Dave, for taking time to resonate with my tribute. It sounds like you and I have been through some similar experiences.

      On another note: My spouse Gwen worked with your dad at Mennonite Publishing House, and knew you during her Hesston College days when you played in one of your early bands.

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