Mennonite Memoir: Fun In A 'Little Black Dress'

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress
Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home
By Rhoda Janzen
Paperback, 272 pages
List price: $5.99
Read An Excerpt

Everybody knows the morning-after embarrassment of the mysteriously random sex dream. My most unlikely dream partners have been Dan Quayle and an Amish farmer. While I'm at a loss to explain the first, the second is no doubt the result of seeing the movie Witness at an impressionable age; I'm secretly aroused by the thought of bonnets flying.

So I came to Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home with a slightly pornographic curiosity, only to learn that life with the plain people mostly involves Super Scrabble, agrarian history field trips, and borscht in thermoses.

I wanted author Rhoda Janzen, a middle-aged professor who returns home to the Mennonites, to offer a glimpse into an exotic world; instead, it was like visiting my own aging parents, who live by 150-watt bulbs and drink Taster's Choice.

When I was first out of college, my roommates and I had a rule: When watching a 9 o'clock movie, if nobody was having sex by 9:15, we changed the channel. It's closing in on 11 before the recently divorced Janzen finally meets a hot, young Mennonite fella. He takes her for a spin on his motorcycle, and she becomes a cougar:

His torso was all hard rangy muscle. At intersections, he straightened his back briefly, leaning against me, resting his hands on my upper thighs as if by prior invitation. The day was warm, and we were starting to sweat.

Well OK.

If the guilty pleasure is a little slow in coming, there's still some G-rated fun to be had along the way. Janzen is like a funny, self-deprecating BFF who complains about her butt and reminds you to notice how your new boyfriend treats the wait staff.

Wendy McCleod i i

Wendy MacLeod is a playwright-in-residence at Kenyon College. Her plays include The House of Yes, which became a Miramax film; Juvenilia; and The Water Children. Read Baldwin hide caption

itoggle caption Read Baldwin
Wendy McCleod

Wendy MacLeod is a playwright-in-residence at Kenyon College. Her plays include The House of Yes, which became a Miramax film; Juvenilia; and The Water Children.

Read Baldwin

Mind you, I'm not sure Janzen has any business dispensing dating advice. This is a woman who accidentally married a gay man, and lets herself be picked up by a born-again Christian wearing a Crucifixion nail around his neck.

Living in Ohio, I still long for the Hollywood version of the plain people. But instead of Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis ripping off their dark clothes, I see the young Amish couple at the supermarket buying Pampers and baby formula. The pies they sell to tourists are made with a pre-fab filling that's heavy on the corn syrup, and the laundry billowing on their clotheslines is polyester.

If pigeons in Manhattan are rats with wings, Janzen's memoir reminds us that the Mennonites are just contemporary Midwestern farmers with bonnets.

My Guilty Pleasure is edited and produced by Ellen Silva.

Excerpt: 'Mennonite in a Little Black Dress'

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress
Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home
By Rhoda Janzen
Paperback, 272 pages
List price: $5.99

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.

Excerpted from Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen. Copyright 2009 by Rhoda Janzen. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Co. All rights reserved.

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