A hilarious and moving memoir—in the spirit of Anne Lamott and Nora Ephron—about a woman who returns home to her close-knit Mennonite family after a personal crisis
Not long after Rhoda Janzen turned forty, her world turned upside down. It was bad enough that her brilliant husband of fifteen years left her for Bob, a guy he met on Gay.com, but that same week a car accident left her with serious injuries. What was a gal to do? Rhoda packed her bags and went home. This wasn't just any home, though. This was a Mennonite home. While Rhoda had long ventured out on her own spiritual path, the conservative community welcomed her back with open arms and offbeat advice. (Rhoda's good-natured mother suggested she date her first cousin—he owned a tractor, see.) It is in this safe place that Rhoda can come to terms with her failed marriage; her desire, as a young woman, to leave her sheltered world behind; and the choices that both freed and entrapped her.
Written with wry humor and huge personality—and tackling faith, love, family, and aging—Mennonite in a Little Black Dress is an immensely moving memoir of healing, certain to touch anyone who has ever had to look homeward in order to move ahead.
|Publisher:||Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.|
|File size:||1 MB|
About the Author
Rhoda Janzen is the author of Babel's Stair, a collection of poems. Her poems have also appeared in Poetry, The Yale Review, The Gettysburg Review, and The Southern Review. She holds a PhD from the University of California, Los Angeles, where she was the University of California Poet Laureate in 1994 and 1997. She teaches English and creative writing at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.
Rhoda Janzen is the author of Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home, as well as Babel's Stair, a collection of poems. Her poems have also appeared in Poetry, The Yale Review, The Gettysburg Review, and The Southern Review. She holds a PhD from the University of California, Los Angeles, where she was the University of California Poet Laureate in 1994 and 1997. She teaches English and creative writing at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.
Read an Excerpt
MENNONITE IN A LITTLE BLACK DRESS (Chapter 1)
The year I turned forty-three was the year I realized I should have never taken my Mennonite genes for granted. I'd long assumed that I had been genetically scripted to robust physical health, like my mother, who never even catches a head cold. All of my relatives on her side, the Loewens, enjoy preternaturally good health, unless you count breast cancer and polio. The polio is pretty much a done deal, thanks to Jonas Salk and his talent for globally useful vaccinations. Yet in the days before Jonas Salk, when my mother was a girl, polio crippled her younger brother Abe and also withered the arm of her closest sister Gertrude. Trude bravely went on to raise two kids one-armed, and to name her withered arm Stinky.
_____ Yes, I think "Stinky" is a cute name for a withered arm!
_____ No, I'd prefer to name my withered arm something with a little more dignity, such as Reynaldo.
Although breast cancer also runs in my family, it hasn't played a significant role. It comes to us late in life, shriveling a tit or two, and then often subsiding under the composite resistance of chemo and buttermilk. That is, it would shrivel our tits if we had tits. Which we don't.
As adolescents, my sister Hannah and I were naturally anxious to see if we would turn out more like our mother or our father. There was a lot at stake. Having endured a painfully uncool childhood, we realized that our genetic heritage positioned us on a precarious cusp. Dad was handsome but grouchy; Mom was plain but cheerful. Would we be able to pass muster in normal society, or would our Mennonite history forever doom us to outsider status?
My father, once the head of the North American Mennonite Conference for Canada and the United States, is the Mennonite equivalent of the pope, but in plaid shorts and black dress socks pulled up snugly along the calf. In the complex moral universe that is Mennonite adulthood, a Mennonite can be good-looking and still have no sartorial taste whatsoever. My father may actually be unaware that he is good-looking. He is a theologian who believes in a loving God, a servant heart, and a senior discount. Would God be pleased if we spent an unnecessary thirty-one cents at McDonald's? I think not.
At six foot five and classically handsome, Dad has an imposing stature that codes charismatic elocution and a sobering, insightful air of authority. I've considered the possibility that his wisdom and general seriousness make him seem handsomer than he actually is, but whatever the reason, Dad is one of those people to whom everybody listens. No matter who you are, you do not snooze through this man's sermons. Even if you are an atheist, you find yourself nodding and thinking, Preach it, mister!
Well, not nodding. Maybe you imagine you're nodding. But in this scenario you are in a Mennonite church, which means you sit very still and worship Jesus with all your heart, mind, and soul, only as if a snake had bitten you, and you are now in the last stages of paralysis.
I may be the first person to mention my father's good looks in print. Good looks are considered a superfluous feature in a Mennonite world leader, because Mennonites are all about service. Theoretically, we do not even know what we look like, since a focus on our personal appearance is vainglorious. Our antipathy to vainglory explains the decision of many of us to wear those frumpy skirts and the little doilies on our heads, a decision we must have arrived at only by collectively determining not to notice what we had put on that morning.
My mother, unlike my father, is not classically handsome. But she does enjoy good health. She is as buoyant as a lark on a summer's morn. Nothing gets this woman down. She is the kind of mother who, when we were growing up, came singing into our bedrooms at 6:00 a.m., tunefully urging us to rise and shine and give God the glory, glory. And this was on Saturday, Saturday. Upbeat she is. Glamorous she is not. Once she bought Hannah a black T-shirt that said in glittery magenta cursive, NASTY!! She didn't know what it meant. When we told her, she said sunnily, "Oh well, then you can wear it to work in the garden!"
Besides being born Mennonite, which is usually its own beauty strike, my mother has no neck. When we were growing up, our mother's head, sprouting directly from her shoulders like a friendly lettuce, became something of a family focus. We'd take every opportunity to thrust hats and baseball caps upon her, which made us all shriek with unconscionable laughter. Mom would laugh good-naturedly, but if we got too out of hand, she'd predict that our Loewen genes would eventually assert themselves.
And they did. Although I personally have and appreciate a neck, I was, by my early forties, the very picture of blooming Loewen health: peasant-cheeked, impervious to germs, hearty as an ox. I rarely got sick. And the year before the main action of this memoir occurs, I had sustained a physical debilitation--I won't say illness--so severe that I thought I was statistically safe for years to come.
I was only forty-two at the time, but my doctor advised a radical salpingo-oopherectomy. For the premenopausal set, that translates to "Your uterus has got to go." A hushed seriousness hung in the air when the doctor first broached the subject of the hysterectomy.
I said, "You mean dump my whole uterus? Ovaries and everything?"
"Yes, I'm afraid so."
I considered a moment. I knew I should be feeling a kind of feminist outrage, but it wasn't happening. "Okay."
Dr. Mayler spoke some solemn words about a support group. From his tone I gathered that I also ought to be feeling a profound sense of loss, and a cosmic unfairness that this was happening to me at age forty-two, instead of at age--what?--fifty-six? I dutifully wrote down the contact information for the support group, thinking that maybe I was in denial again. Maybe the seriousness and the pathos of the salpingo-oopherectomy would register later. By age forty-two I had learned that denial was my special modus operandi. Big life lessons always kicked in tardily for me. I've always been a bit of a late bloomer, a slow learner. The postman has to ring twice, if you get my drift.
My husband, who got a vasectomy two weeks after we married, was all for the hysterectomy. "Do it," he urged. "Why do you need that thing? You don't use it, do you?"
In general, Nick's policy was, if you haven't used it in a year, throw it out. We lived in homes with spare, ultramodern decor. Once he convinced me to furnish a coach house with nothing but a midcentury dining table and three perfect floor cushions. You know the junk drawer next to the phone? Ours contained a single museum pen and a pad of artisan paper on a Herman Miller tray.
Nick therefore supported the hysterectomy, but only on the grounds of elegant understatement. To him the removal of unnecessary anatomical parts was like donating superfluous crap to Goodwill. Had the previous owners left a beer raft in the garage, as a thoughtful gift to you? No thanks! We weren't the type of people who would store a beer raft in our garage--not because we opposed beer rafts per se, but because we did not want to clutter an uncompromising vista of empty space. Nick led the charge to edit our belongings, but I willingly followed. Had you secretly been wearing the same bra since 1989? Begone, old friend! Were you clinging to a sentimental old wedding dress? Heave ho! Nick's enthusiasm for the hysterectomy made me a little nervous. I kept taking my internal temperature, checking for melancholy. The medical literature I was reading told me I should be feeling really, really sad.
But in the weeks before the surgery my depression mechanism continued to fail me. I remained in a state of suspicious good cheer, like my mother, who had also sustained the trial of early menopause. I called her up. "Hey, Mom," I said. "How did you feel about having to lose your uterus when you were my age?"
"Fabulous," she said. "Why?"
"Did it make you sad?"
"No, I got to take the day off."
"But did you mourn the passing of your youth?" I pressed.
She laughed. "No, I was too busy celebrating the fact that I wouldn't have to have my period anymore. Why, sometimes I used to have to change my pad once an hour! The flow was so thick--"
"Okay, gotcha!" I interrupted. My mother was a nurse, and she had a soft spot in her heart for lost clots, used pads, yellowed bandages, and collapsed veins. If I didn't cut her off, she'd make a quick transition to yeast infections and all would be lost.
After I had talked to my mother, a friend told me gently that I needed to prepare myself for the upcoming shock of not having a uterus. My fifty-four-year-old friend was troubled, she said, by my cavalier attitude to this major rite of passage. I thanked her. Ah, in my heart I had known that my mother's cheery zeitgeist was not the norm! I got good and nervous. I called the doctor's office. "Does a salpingo-oopherectomy come with any weird side effects?" I asked. "For instance, a rash?"
"No rash," said the physician's assistant. "You'll be sore for a couple of weeks, though. No sex for two months."
"Will it decrease my libido?"
"Will it make me fat?"
"Not unless you stop taking care of yourself."
"Then why do I need a support group?" I asked.
"Many women appreciate a community to support them during this transition," she said earnestly. "Many women find that it is hard to adjust to a new phase in which their childbearing years are over."
I decided to compromise between a posture of pleasant indifference, which was what I actually felt, and a posture of gentle, sensitive loss, which was what I tried to feel over a journal and several pots of soothing elderberry tea. Because I was sensitively writing in a journal, trying honestly to face and feel my emotions, I figured I could give myself permission to dispense with the support group. I'd never been much attached to my uterus to begin with, since I had elected not to bear children. So boo to the support group. What I mean is, God grant those supportive gals abundant sisterly blessings!
But God knew that the journal was a fake, and he ended up punishing my callous insensitivity. (Have I mentioned that the Mennonite God is a guy? Could anyone have doubted it?) During the surgery, Dr. Mayler, who is in most cases quite competent, accidentally punched a hole in two of my organs. He didn't notice. Oops. When I came to, I was piddling like a startled puppy.
So I who had always been the picture of vigorous health was returned to my husband two weeks later in a wheelchair, thin as a spider and clutching a pee bag that connected to my body via a long transparent tube. The first couple of days I was too ill to care, but then my mother's disposition began to assert itself. The truth started to sink in: Pee bag. Tube. I kept watching bubbles drift down the tube, thinking: I am peeing. Right now. At this very moment. Or: I am eating and peeing at the same time. I am woman, hear me pee! That is, hear me empty the pee bag into a plastic basin that is too heavy for me to lift!
I lay there doing nothing, unless you count peeing, which was an ongoing activity. But instead of mourning my lost uterus, I took naps and read the New York Times, which in my regular life I never have enough time to finish. Reading the paper at my leisure smack in the middle of the day was not unlike being on vacation--deluxe! said my Loewen genes. The new doctors had told me there was a chance that I would be permanently incontinent, a possibility that would seriously mess with my love life, not to mention my gym schedule. But like my mother, I immediately began telling myself that permanent incontinence wasn't the end of the world. It was better, for instance, than quadriplegia. I had great friends, a husband, and a cat. Large-sized diaper products, although hazardous to the environment and destined for decades in the landfill, were cheap. Why, just the other day, I had seen a coupon for Depends.
Because of Nick's rough childhood, we were both worried about how he would handle a much more difficult convalescence than either of us had bargained for. Nick's mother, who had a long history of mental illness, had subjected her children to what nineteenth-century doctors called "a tyranny of vapors"--meaning that she used her many aches and complaints to control folks. No matter what was going on in the lives of her children, it was all about Regina. As an adult, Nick had distanced himself from her, loathing the trope of the Invalid Woman, and he had often told me that he wouldn't be with me if I were one of those clinging, hysterical types.
During our infrequent visits with Regina, I tried to distract her by getting her to talk about her extreme beauty. This wasn't a stretch. Even at eighty-one, Regina had that vavavoom Italian wow factor. She really was physically beautiful--Nick had to get it from somewhere--and she looked twenty-five years younger than she was. She usually wore a tremendous glam wig and stretch pants. I didn't mind asking pressing questions about how many men had asked to marry her. All in a day's work.
I have a story that sums up the essential Regina. Twelve years ago, Nick and I were poor grad students when we got the call that his father had had a severe stroke and was dying in a West Virginia hospital. We couldn't afford to fly, so we hopped in the car and drove nonstop from Chicago to Fairfax, about a twelve-hour drive. We drank gallons of coffee, driving as fast as we dared, willing Nick's father to stay alive until we got there. When we finally pulled up to the hospital, we didn't even stop for the restroom; we ran upstairs as fast as we could, chuffing down the critical-care corridor. There they were, Nick's dad at death's door but still in the game, and Regina, looking every bit the lovely and distraught wife. She jumped up and stretched out her arms to me. "Dear!" she exclaimed intensely. "What do you think of my hair!"
Having Regina for a mother would have freaked anybody out. Would Nick be so repelled by the sight of a feeble female that he would be unable to take care of me?
The lion's share of the gross-out work would fall on him--changing dressings, cathing me, emptying my pee bag into a basin, disposing of my urine like a good old-fashioned chambermaid. "I'll do my best," he said gamely. "But that pee bag's fucked up."
Then Nick surprised us both. He turned out to be a natural in the sickroom. Crisp, competent, almost jovial, he sailed into my sickroom opening windows, fluffing pillows, and lubricating tubes. He appeared with cups of coffee and odd sandwiches. I'd wake to a tray of peanuts, a new maroon nail polish, and a literary journal. "Here," he'd say briskly, handing me a midmorning gin-and-tonic. "Time to take your pills!"
My best friend, Lola, happened to be in the States that summer, and she flew in to hang out with me. Lola was kind of like a support group, and her timing was perfect. I didn't want Nick to have to bathe and toilet me too; it was bad enough that he had to swish my pee. We were the type of married couple who prefers not just separate bathrooms but bathrooms separated by two thousand square feet. I had been intermittently sharing bathrooms with Lola, however, for upwards of thirty-five years, so during her visit, she helped me into and out of the shower. I had gotten so weak that I couldn't even wash my own hair. But Lola and I hardly ever got to spend time together now that she had married an Italian, so, pee bag notwithstanding, what we really wanted to do was maximize our two weeks together. We were on fire to go shopping.
In Italy, most expat Americans find the shopping scene challenging. One, things are hugely overpriced. Two, Italy has a sale only twice a year. Three, Italy does not offer clothing sizes for women with generous opera-singer bottoms. So Lola has to wait to go shopping until she comes stateside, and that summer, in spite of my postsurgery frailty, we were itching to go to Nordstrom Rack. We were trying to find a way to make an afternoon at Nordstrom Rack a reality. "Let's just tuck your pee bag into a colorful tote, and then you can carry it like a purse," said Lola.
"But you'll be able to see the cord coming out of the bottom of my skirt," I objected. "And what about the fact that I can't walk yet?"
"You can lean on a shopping cart," Lola said. "It will be like one of those walkers with a built-in basket. And I don't think anybody will really notice your pee tube, since it's transparent."
"Yes, but bubbles of urine are passing through it all the time," I said, worried. "Look, here's one now, this very second." As it drifted by, my cat Roscoe tried to attack it. "Hey, dumbass," I said to him, "that's not a toy. That's URINE. I don't know, Lola. Am I ready to pee in public?"
"You know what?" said Lola. "Just put it out there. Like a disability you've come to accept. Love me, love my pee tube. People diddle around in public with their gross psoriasis, scratching and brushing. Or think of that guy at the diner who showed up for breakfast with an open wound on his head. Waffles and pork links and a big tender scab with the blood barely clotted. Or think of new mothers who whip out their nipple and breast-feed in public, in front of God and everybody!"
"That's true," I said, much struck. "None of the local diners appreciated the head wound, but everybody thinks it's just fine to breast-feed in public! If women can whip out a big milky nipple, maybe I can flaunt my pee tube."
"If you got it, flaunt it!" Lola urged.
And so it was that I sallied forth into public carrying my pee bag in an aqua patent tote, shopping with urinous enthusiasm. The excursion was extremely successful, too, except for the part when I accidentally stepped on the pee bag's clamp and flooded the passenger side of my car with my own urine. Lola stoically hosed out the VW, reasoning that urine duty was a small price to pay for all of the excellent deals we had found. And less than a week later my doctors upgraded me to the kind of pee bag you strap on with Velcro around your leg, under your skirt, like a nasty secret. I taught for half the semester like that. And dang, I'm here to tell you that when it's ninety degrees outside, nothing reminds you of your own mortality like a steaming hot bag of urine hugging your thigh.
I'm happy to report that I made a full recovery from the netherworld of tube and clamp. Six months after the fix-it surgery I was back at the gym, pounding the treadmill with a new sense of gratitude for my interior plumbing. Whereas before I had taken for granted my miraculous ability to run without wetting my leg, I now silently praised my bladder. "Good show! You're holding up great in there, honey! Four more miles! You can do it!" I'd sneeze and think, Brava! You have achieved true excellence, my friendly little sphincter! It took about a year before I stopped intoning St. Francis of Assisi's prayer every time I sat down on a toilet.
Which is all to say that given the surprising events of the Year of the Pee Bag, I assumed I was safe from ill health and trauma for decades. But no.
Nick and I had recently moved to a small rural community about forty-five minutes from where I worked. Although the move dramatically increased my commute, Nick had a new job running the psych ward at the local hospital, and he needed to be close enough to troubleshoot at any hour. With his job had come a big promotion. We therefore bought a charming lake house that I wouldn't have been able to afford on my own. This was the first time in our fifteen-year marriage when I was dependent on Nick's financial contribution. Until we moved to the lake house, we had been living in a midcentury rancho close to my college. The rancho had been a fixer, but I had been able to afford the entire mortgage and all our living expenses on my modest academic salary. Nick, an artist by preference and calling, had never held a job long, and when he was employed, he prioritized his art. Painting in oils is expensive.
Two months after the move to the expensive lakefront property, Nick left me for a guy he'd met on Gay.com.
I don't know why it made it worse that the man's name was Bob, but it did. Bob the Guy. From Gay.com. It's funny how when your husband leaves you for a guy named Bob, you begin to revisit memories from the summer before, when hindsight sheds new light on your husband's role during the highs and lows of your convalescence. What you once thought of as evidence of your husband's tenderness you begin to imagine as guilt for dating guys with big wangs. What you once thought of as "Giving You Space to Hang Out with Your Girlfriend from Italy" strikes your imagination as "Threesomes with Ryan and Daren from the Gym." The truth hurts, especially when you're slow to see it.
And also: will somebody please tell me why husbands never seem to ditch their wives until the wives develop a varicose vein the size of a Roman aqueduct? It's like they're waiting for the vein. If our husbands must leave us for guys named Bob, why can't they do it pre-vein, while we are young and gorgeous? Why can't they do it pre-pee bag? Look, I know I'm not the ambassador of all women who have worn a pee bag while their husbands commence illicit relationships with guys named Bob, and so I wouldn't dream of speaking for all of us. But I do know that I would have much preferred to have been ditched before the pee bag. That whole pee bag summer I cherished Nick's brisk yet dear postoperative care. I adored how he'd come into the room chatting about a book, a friend, current events, whatever, and how he'd go down on one knee to empty the pee bag into a basin, talking the whole time of things unrelated to urine, as if squirting his wife's urine were no big deal--too insignificant to mention!
Well, here the Loewen genes must do the cosmic shrug. Life does not allow us the luxury of filling out our own questionnaires.
_____ Yes, I want my husband to leave me pre-pee bag.
_____ No, I'd rather he left me post-pee bag.
Okay, so. The same week that my husband left me, I was driving home on a two-lane road from a board meeting to the house I could no longer afford. It was the first snow of the season, around nine o'clock at night. Although it had been snowing for a mere twenty minutes, almost everybody had slowed way down, giving the first snow of the season the respect that it deserves. Suddenly a partially inebriated youth lost control of his vehicle, skidded into my lane, and smacked my little VW Beetle head-on. As his headlights bore down on me, I had time to exclaim aloud, "Oh my god, I'm gonna die."
I heard the crunch, and I remember thinking it sounded hissier and more protracted than the big bangs of the movies. The whole collision was slower than it ought to have been. Gradually I became aware that the windshield was in my mouth. I began spitting, and I sat there for what seemed a long time, tonguing chunks of glass.
Somebody was saying, "Don't move, ma'am. Don't move."
Snow was drifting in. "Ma'am, you've been in an accident!"
I meant to say, with crisp acerbity, "Duh!" What I actually said came out in a feeble whisper. "Nick."
"Who's Nick?" They were strapping me to something.
"My husband." Snow was melting in my eyes. Melted snow was running down my cheeks in rivulets.
"Ma'am, we'll get Nick for you just as soon as we get you to the hospital."
Ah, that was one service the paramedics could not perform.
The nineteen-year-old who had hit me was being strapped into an ambulance. The good fellow confessed to the paramedics that the accident had been his fault. He even looked at me and said, "Sorry, Lady," before he passed out--heartbreaking, poor thing! He was covered in blood and his shirt was gone.
The accident left me with assorted broken bones and Franken-bruises the size of my head. I spat compulsively for two days. When the doctors let me go home, my body looked just as it felt: hips, thighs, and breasts mottled the same steely blue of the lake. I'd cracked my patella, but I couldn't use crutches because I had two broken ribs and a fractured clavicle, so I wheeled myself around the house on my office chair, pushing off with my left arm.
In the days that followed I had plenty of time to wonder if I had somehow been complicit in my own accident. Curtis, the young man who had hit me, was still in Urgent Care; I couldn't talk to him about what had happened. And I couldn't trust my own memory, since I had sustained a granddaddy of a concussion. The doctors told me I had passed out on impact. This information directly contradicted my vague memory of consciousness throughout the experience. Had I had time to swerve and failed? Had my misery pulled Curtis's Jeep Cherokee down on me? Was I a magnet of self-pity? I rolled pensively around the house in my office chair, smelling the candles, lotions, and bouquets my girlfriends had promptly lobbed at me. "Do something for YOU, sweetie!" the cards urged in Oprah-like tones. And I was obedient. Never in all my years had I been so pedicured/exfoliated/fragrant/ditched for a guy named Bob.
Nick was gone. My marriage was over. Under circumstances like these, what was a forty-three-year-old gal to do?
I'll tell you what I did. I went home to the Mennonites. Oh, I had been back to California for the occasional holiday, and I had flown in for my father's enormous retirement bash five years earlier. But in twenty-five years I had not spent any real time in the Mennonite community in which I'd been raised. When Nick absconded with Bob, I could no longer afford the six-month sabbatical I had planned. To study away from home for six months, I would have had to rent an apartment and pay for living expenses, in addition to paying the mortgage and utilities at home. I was broke and broken. Clocked in the chops by a lead glove, I was out cold. What the hell--it was so bad it couldn't get any worse. Bring on the Borscht, I thought. So after mending in Michigan for two months, I went home for the holidays.
In the style of Mennonite autocrats, my father likes to exercise his right to bellow for my mother to drop whatever she's doing and come and see something in the study.
My mother was up to her elbows in flour, bunning out Zwiebach in the kitchen. "Mary!" came the stern shout. "Come see this!" My mom obediently scooted, holding her forearms upright in front of her, doctor-style. I knew what would be next, and I refused to set down the manuscript I was editing until I had to. A few minutes later my father's voice, full of preacherly gravitas, called once more: "Rhoda! Come see this!"
Dad was at his most dadlike when I was trying to work, and I needed to concentrate. I needed money. Fast. The waterfront house was now on the market, and my realtor had tranquilly assured me that it would sell when the time was right, but I was nervous. It was a beautiful house, but it had its drawbacks. I wondered what would happen if we all wrote truthful ads for our real estate.
Gorgeous lakefront property, just an icy commute away on deadly highway! This special house is so big you'll close all the vents and pray for a mild winter! Unimpaired views for peeping toms! Possums visit the deck! Finished walkout with carpet you wouldn't have picked! In fact, this carpet is downright unattractive! Current resident selfishly intends to take Bosch dishwasher and Lord of Refrigerators. Two sex offenders just blocks away! Schedule an appointment today!
Because of the house situation, I had agreed to ghost-edit a scholarly monograph on sacred dramatic literature of the late fifteenth century. I was working on the second chapter, which was about Feo Belcari's mechanical innovations in the staging of the sacre rappresenatzione. If you are one of the folks who have never heard of Feo Belcari, I can fix that right up for you. You know those Christmas Eve church plays in which your white-blonde niece gets to play the angel Gabriel year after year because she has a startling strange paleness that looks, and I mean this in a good way, a little like an albino? And remember the moment when she appears in a white sheet in the baptistery, maybe singing "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" in a threadlike soprano? Feo Belcari was the guy in the late 1400s who figured out a way to have your niece/Gabriel come down on metal wires at the front of the church. That about sums it up, but the chapter I was editing was fifty pages or so.
What I was doing was unusual--unusual, I mean, beyond the fact that there are maybe 16.2 people in the entire world who would like to know more about the sacred dramatic literature of the fifteenth century. (Okay, I admit it: I'm one of them.) Sometimes academics manage to wheedle their best friends into reading their manuscripts and making critical comments. It is not unreasonable that English professors are often targeted for this favor. If you also happen to be a grammarian who creepily knows how to diagram every sentence in the English language, there is an even more urgent demand for your services. I'm the sicko who can explain why a gerundive phrase must attach to a possessive adjective pronoun rather than an object pronoun. True, you wouldn't want me at a party, but if the survival of the human race depended upon the successful parsing of the Constitution, you'd be knockin' on my door, baby.
This time, though, I was doing more than tidying up the grammar as a favor to a colleague. I was being paid to read for logic, clarity, concision, and development. It was a tough gig for three reasons. One, the author was a better researcher than writer. Two, fifteenth-century Italy was four centuries and one continent away from my own area of academic training. Three, my Italian was a little rusty, and all those citations and footnotes were slowing me down a tad.
I wasn't working for glory. I was working for cash. Usually scholars take a less fixed, more interpretive approach to deadlines, preferring to think of them as suggestions, not firm commitments. But with this project I couldn't do that. I had a hard calendar deadline. Luckily my parents had assured me that if I came out to visit them, they would see to it that I had all the time and privacy in the world.
So I was curious to see what oddity or newsy Internet tidbit could justify my father's imperious summons, especially when the man knew I was working--nay, especially when my very presence in his home expressly rested on parental promises to leave me alone and let me work. When I entered my father's study, he was leaning back in his chair, looking highly pleased with himself. "Check this out!" he commanded.
On the computer screen was an e-card, a holiday greeting, themed on the Twelve Days of Christmas. The audio was playing the carol. Twelve drummers marched slowly across the screen. "How about THAT?" demanded my father.
"Hey," I said. "Wow."
"See that?" he said. "That would be your nine lords a-leaping!"
Now came the maids a-milking, along with frisky animated cows.
"Isn't that CUTE?" my mother asked. "They have udders."
"Here come the four birds a-calling. Watch this!" advised my dad.
"Twoooooo French Hens," sang my mother, making a motion that I should join in. She was still holding her arms cocked at the elbow, her hands covered with floury bits of dough. Since she couldn't make the hula motion dear to her heart, she swayed from the waist in happy 2-4 time.
"Good one," Dad said, apparently much satisfied, when the partridge and its fellows had finally scrolled offscreen.
This paternal summons had been occurring every twenty minutes or so. Every time the command sounded, I set aside my pen to go see pictures of raindrops or a snapshot of a baby squirrel nursing among a litter of puppies. And I can't forget Various Birds & Sayings. Would not the Western world get more work done if it took a break for Various Birds & Sayings? For instance, let's say you have a close-up of a mourning dove. The dove is doing nothing urgent, just sitting there on a branch. The photographer has captured the dove in all its splendid nullity. He has framed it in a font calculated to promote introspection: YOUR LIFE BEGINS WITH THIS MOMENT. Pure magic!
The next morning was the kicker, the piqûre, if you will. My very Mennonite mother and I were standing in line at Circuit City to return a pair of cell phones that were theoretically supposed to propel my parents into the twenty-first century. (My parents had grown up without cultural advantages such as electricity, toilets, coffee, fabric--I could go on here, but you get the gist. Me, aghast: "Do you mean to tell me that even your underwear was made out of flour sacks?" Mom: "Oh, some of the flour sacks had a very pretty floral print! Little bluets and pansies! I liked them!")
Unfortunately, my father had selected the cheapest of the cheap cell phones, a choice that had resulted in insurmountable programming difficulties. I'd taken a crack at setting up the phones myself, and even with a pencil eraser, a magnifying glass, and the directions of a chipper phone company employee named Monique, I had to admit defeat. For my mother, it looked as if the promise of long-distance chats with grandchildren was not going to materialize. But she had made her peace with this.
"That's okay," she told me. "Plus if I called Si on a cell phone, he wouldn't pick up anyway." She says these things as if they are perfectly reasonable.
"Would he just ignore a phone ringing in his pants?"
"Well, he doesn't really believe in cell phones," she apologized. For my father, belief in cell phones was somehow optional. It was a deeply subjective matter, like reincarnation. Inviting cell phones into your heart like Jesus was clearly something he was unprepared to do.
So there my mom and I were, in line four days before Christmas. Around us weary consumers clutched their disappointments, but my mother was in her usual cheerful spirits. The presence of strangers less than eight inches away notwithstanding, my mother suddenly said, "If there aren't any single men to date where you are, I know someone for you."
"Your cousin Waldemar. Waldemar is a professor in Nova Scotia," she said earnestly. "And he has a beach house."
I took a measured breath. "Wally is my first cousin," I said. "That's both incestuous and illegal."
My mother considered this thoughtfully. "Well," she said, "I think it should be fine since you can't have kids anyway. Maybe you can adopt."
The thought of my cousin Wally and me, two midlife scholars, sitting hand in hand and anxiously waiting to hear the news in an adoption office, was a little overwhelming.
"Waldemar would make a terrific father," pressed my mother. "You should see him with his nieces and nephews."
This was all so rich I had no idea how to reply. Should I go with the fact that as a postmenopausal forty-something, I had long acknowledged my deficiency in not wanting to become a mother? Or how about stressing my mother's charming distance from the law of the land that forbids first cousins to marry? Or how about demanding to know why my mother had zeroed in on Cousin Wally, an accounting professor, when there are so many cousins with whom I actually do have something in common? Or how about the fact that, all things considered, I preferred to find my own dates, thank you very much?
I decided to go with the latter. Now was as good a time as any to mention that although my husband had quite recently ditched me for Bob the Guy from Gay.com, I had already been out on a couple dates. I knew the new guy wasn't going to be the love of my life, but he was sweet.
One of my friends, Carla, who said I could use her real name in this memoir as long as I described her as a svelte redhead, offered to run my love life for five bucks. "What are you looking for in a guy?" she asked, whipping out a little notepad.
"Hmm," I said thoughtfully. "He has to be kind. And culturally literate. And on the path to consciousness . . . reflective, open. No cynics or angry atheists. He has to have a sense of humor. That's important. And he should be tall. And employed at work he loves. And--"
"Whoa, there, Nellie," Carla interrupted. "I'm gonna give you some free advice. You ready for this? How about we lower the bar? How about we look for someone who's straight, for starters?"
This guy I had been seeing occasionally might not have been Mr. Right, but he was Mr. Straight.
Mom was disappointed when I told her I had been on a couple of dates with someone, but she took it in stoic stride. "What's your fellow like?"
I was too emotionally battered to utter polite fibs. "Sort of a slacker, really. A relaxed pothead. He wears his pajamas to the grocery store."
"Oh," said my Mennonite mother. Then she nodded supportively. "A relaxed pothead sounds nice."
It made sense, I suppose, that a woman who would promote endogamous marriage would not blink at a pothead. I thought I would try to elicit more information along these lines.
"Maybe my cousin Wally smokes a little weed," I said speculatively (although I would bet my few remaining financial assets that he does not).
"Nooooooooo," said Mom. "Your cousin Waldemar would NEVER do weed! He drives a tractor! In his spare time!"
"How does driving a tractor prevent you from smoking weed?"
By now several people near us in line were obviously eavesdropping. The man standing in front of us was trying not to smile.
"If you drive a tractor in your spare time," my mother said firmly, "it means that you have a strong work ethic, which is probably why Waldemar has had the gumption to earn himself a nice beach house."
"Surely he doesn't drive his tractor on the beach?"
"No! He drives it at Orrin and Maria's, of course! He gives the nieces and nephews rides on the tractor."
"Oh! I thought you meant that he was working on the tractor, not entertaining!"
"Waldemar works very hard," Mom said proudly. "You know perfectly well that a tractor can be hard work and fun too. Like marriage."
One of the best things about my mother is that she will follow you anywhere, conversationally speaking. She will answer any question at all, the stranger the better. Naturally, I cannot resist asking her things that no normal person would accept. "Mom," I said, serious as a pulpit, "would you rather marry a pleasant pothead or your first cousin on a tractor? Both are associate professors," I hastened to add.
"You marry your pothead if you like," she said generously, "as long as you wait a while. Let's say two years. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord."
"Hey!" I said, indignant. "How do you know the pothead doesn't serve the Lord? As a matter of fact, this pothead does serve the Lord! He's more religious than I am!" (I felt safe in asserting this because I had once heard the pothead softly singing "Amazing Grace.")
"I think that the Lord appreciates a man on a tractor more than a man smoking marijuana in his pajamas," Mom said earnestly. "I know I do."
"Okay, okay," I said, as we neared the counter. "I give up. I will marry Cousin Wally. Just as soon as he asks me. You'll be our first houseguest at our beach house in Nova Scotia. But I'm warning you now, there's gonna be a little weed on your pillow. Instead of a mint."
She chuckled comfortably. "That's okay. I don't like mints."
MENNONITE IN A LITTLE BLACK DRESS Copyright 2009 by Rhoda Janzen
Table of Contents
1 The Bridegroom Cousin 9
2 Touch My Tooth 39
3 Fear of Mosquitoes 61
4 Wounding Words 86
5 A Lingering Finish 107
6 What the Soldier Made 139
7 The Big Job 157
8 Rippling Water 171
9 Wild Thing 193
10 The Trump Shall Sound 209
11 And That's Okay! 232
12 The Raisin Bombshell 259
13 The Therapeutic Value of Lavender 271
Appendix: A Mennonite History Primer 295
Reading Group Guide
1. Rhoda's parents are deeply religious. What are some of the more notable ways their faith manifests itself? What qualities do they possess that you admire? Were you surprised by anything you learned about the Mennonite community?
2. The lover named Bob pops up with an almost incantatory persistence, like a refrain. Do you think it would be harder to be left for a man or a woman? Given that Rhoda returns to the lover's gender again and again, what do you think Rhoda would say?
3. Consider the marriages portrayed in this book. Rhoda and Nick remain together fifteen years; Mary and Si, more than forty-four years; Hannah and Phil, eleven years. Does the book make any tacit suggestions about what makes a good marriage? Do you know of any marriages that make you say, " want what they have"?
4. Consider Rhodas family gatherings on Christmas Eve and Christmas. Would you describe this as a functional or a dysfunctional family dynamic? Rhoda and her siblings are very different from one another - do they get along better than you would expect, or not?
5. Rhoda does not explicitly state that her parents opposed her marriage to an intellectual atheist, but we may infer that with their deeply held religious convictions, they grieved for Rhoda's future. Do you think that Rhoda's parents would have opened their home to Nick, if he had wished to become a part of the family? What should loving parents do when their child chooses unwisely?
6. Rhoda announces early on in the memoir that her husband left her for a man he met on Gay.com; however, as the book progresses, she slowly reveals that her marriage had been troubled for some time, and that she knew Nick was bisexual before they were married. Does this revelation change your perspective? Can we sympathize with a woman who knowingly entered into a marriage with a bisexual man? Do you think Rhoda's piecemeal revelations mimic the way in which Rhoda comes to terms with the end of her marriage? Why do you think the book is structured this way?
7. To what extent is this a memoir about growing up? Rhoda humorously relates her embarrassment at having to eat "shame-based foods" at school as a child - but admits that as an adult, she enjoys them. Similarly, she looks back fondly on other experiences that were likely not very pleasant at the time - setting off a yard bomb inside the van she was sleeping in on a camping trip, for one. Are there other examples you can think of? Do you think this kind of nostalgia - a willingness to appreciate and poke fun at bad memories - is something that's indicative of maturity, of adulthood? Or is it a dodge, a way to avoid facing unpleasant truths?
8. The Mennonites disapprove of dancing and drinking alcohol. Rhoda says that while growing up, radios, eight-track tapes, unsupervised television, Lite-Brites, and Barbies - among other things - were all forbidden. Does her family gain anything positive by limiting "wordly" influences? Did Rhoda and her siblings lose anything in being so sheltered? What "wordly" influences would you try to protect your children from today?
9. Some Mennonites disapprove of higher education. Do you think that a career in academia necessarily precludes one from faith? How does Rhoda reconcile the two?
10. Rhoda's mother is, as Rhoda puts it, "as buoyant as a lark on a summer's morn." Rhoda claims to be not as upbeat as her mother, but do you think that in some ways, she is? Given the seriousness of some of the issues explored in the memoir, did the humorous voice surprise you?
11. Rhoda freely discusses the problems in her marriage, and how poorly her husband sometimes treated her. Looking back on it, however, she thinks that she probably still would have married him regardless. She asks, "Is it ever really a waste of time to love someone, truly and deeply, with everything you have?" What do you think?
12. Does the memoir signal Rhoda's forgiveness of Nick? Or does the writing of it suggest that in some ways she is still hanging on to her hurt? Forgiveness isn't often explicitly taught. Some religious institutions fall short in this area, stressing that we should forgive rather than telling us how to forgive. How did you learn to forgive? How can we teach forgiveness to our children?
13. Rhoda and Hannah make a list of men they would refuse to date ‚Äî it includes, but is not limited to: men named Dwayne or Bruce; men who have the high strange laugh of a distant loon; men who bring index cards with prewritten conversation starters on a first date. What qualities might you assiduously avoid in a romantic partner?
14. Rhoda's mother tells her, "When you're young, faith is often a matter of rules...but as you get older, you realize that faith is really a matter of relationship - with God, with the people around you, with members of your community." Is Rhoda's own relationship with faith an example of this, in a way?
15. Toward the end of the book, Rhoda remarks that she "suddenly felt destiny as a mighty and perplexing force, an inexorable current that sweeps us off into new channels." Do you believe in destiny? Can you really ever escape your roots or change your beliefs?