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Writer Wednesday: How My Piano Teacher Unwittingly Helped Launch My Career

February 18, 2015

MarthaKrabillMartha Elizabeth Hiestand Krabill (1919-2014)
Photos provided by Mary Ann Hollinger

Today I pay tribute to a woman who, without realizing it, helped to launch and encourage my career as a writer.

Martha Krabill was our pastor’s wife and also my piano teacher. She patiently sat as I stumbled through three or four years of Schaum Piano books (remember those?). Perhaps she knew I’d never make it as a musician and so it was a blessing that an idea of hers, shared with her son, James, led to my very first regular column in print. Martha died this past November at the rich age of 95.

James was searching for staff members as editor of our high school paper at Bethany Christian High School, The Reflector. He wanted to profile selected members of the senior class throughout the year, and he needed someone to interview them and write a short, interesting sketch of what made them tick and what they hoped to do in life, as I remember it. Martha suggested he ask me, on the basis of short features for our church newsletter at North Goshen Mennonite on youth group activities where I tried to be more creative than just a straight up report like “The MYF (Mennonite Youth Fellowship) enjoyed the hayride and Halloween party at the Miller barn the other week…” (how boring).

I understand that on the basis of Martha’s idea and recommendation, James asked me about writing the column; we also shared a creative writing class together my sophomore year, so it wasn’t that the idea was completely foreign. (Miss Hoover, our teacher, frequently read some of my writings aloud to the class, which was always an occasion for red cheeks and squirming to have my private thoughts shared out loud, while secretly enjoying the fact she had picked something I wrote so she must have thought it was good.)

As a pastor’s wife, Martha was ever the gracious and outstanding hostess. We loved going to their home for a meal, and it was there I learned the art of setting a beautiful table. The dishes she prepared were, in my memory, always delicious and frequently from her Pennsylvania Mennonite background, artfully presented, and perfect in every way. My father would tease her that like Martha, Jesus’ beloved friend in the Bible, she’d spent too much time on the meal, but I personally drank it all in. It was fun to be pampered and sit at a table that looked like something from my mother’s beloved Good Housekeeping magazines.

MarthaAndMaryAnnKrabillMartha and daughter Mary Ann

But it was a recent comment by Martha’s daughter and oldest child, Mary Ann Hollinger, that helped me see more of Martha’s deeper spirit and attitude that created a home and family atmosphere where a teenage son would actually take his mother’s advice or idea to heart and go with it.

In the tribute Mary Ann wrote for her mother’s “celebration of life” service, she noted that Martha gave them as children a wonderful gift that carried them far—“a trusting belief that we could take care of ourselves and that we were in God’s hands. I’m so thankful that she not only gave us roots, but wings.” Mary Ann and James have both lived and traveled in a variety of settings around the world as they’ve followed God’s leading for work and witness to Christ’s love and example.

Mary Ann also sent me a Facebook message noting that Martha “was always so affirming of us children. Not making us feel so much that she was proud of us, as that she just believed in us and believed we could do whatever we set our minds and hearts to.”

In her tribute, Mary Ann recalled that as a youngster, “By age 4, I was sent down the street selling my first wagon full of vegetables from our garden; for years after, James and I sold vegetables door-to-door across North Goshen.”

Of course those were different times. We can’t imagine or recommend that today. But the principle of apron strings and love that stretch far can still apply: “Somehow mother just believed we could handle whatever situation we encountered—be they mangy dogs or inebriated residents,” noted Mary Ann.

Without knowing it or intending to, Martha gave me some wings, too, that set me on a path I’ve written about before, here.

Her husband Russell had a deep influence on my Christian faith as well, as my first pastor who worked closely with my father as deacon. But I have to wonder in how many other pastorates does a congregation often get a great two-for-one deal: a spouse, male or female, who has their own informal or formal ministry walking alongside the ordained one. That was true for my own children who benefited in so many ways from our pastor Ann Held’s spouse, John, and his love and dedication to music and children, which I also wrote about, here. The appreciation I gleaned from Martha for music—especially piano, in spite of my awkward ways and infrequent practicing—benefited my own children in our willingness to pay for music lessons in their instruments of choice, and for one, a career choice.

Call me twice or thrice blessed, and so very thankful for all the gifts of those who’ve gone before us.


Who influenced you or your life, who may not even know they did?


I’m excited to share that the Harrisonburg District of United Methodist Women invited me to address their “Women Evening Together” program this Thursday night, Feb. 19 at Bridgewater United Methodist Church at 7 p.m. The United Methodist Women’s national 2015 reading program selected my most recent book, Whatever Happened to Dinner: Recipes and Reflections on Family Mealtime, which I’ll talk about at the event. Open to all. Door prizes. Snow/inclement weather date for this is Feb. 26. I’d love to speak to your group, too. See here for more info.


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  1. You’ve provided more evidence that God uses Martha’s of every pedigree (one similar to mine) to accomplish his work. I especially liked the line: “the principle of apron strings and love that stretch far can still apply.”

    Yes, I remember the Schaum piano books. My Aunt Ruthie was my first piano teacher and influenced my life in many other ways as my blog posts reveal. Lovely tribute, Melodie.

  2. I had to look up the name of the piano books–I was thinking Schwinn, Shultz–thank goodness for Google that figured out if I was wanting piano books, they must have been Schaum. 🙂 I somehow thought of you as I wrote this post–Mary Ann has many more lovely lovely photos on her Facebook page that illustrate how she carries on the same gift of beautiful hospitality. Which I think you have, too! Thanks for picking out a line for me to tweet later …

  3. Melodie, Mary Ann was the pastor’s wife for my children at Washington Community Fellowship, who set a beautiful table. Thank you for sharing this tribute to your pastor’s wife and piano teacher.

    • I thought of your association with the Hollingers at Washington Community; she learned the art and the proclivity to enjoy beauty in homelife from her mother, for sure. Yet I was blown away by her remembering how she and James peddled vegetables up and down their street.

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