I just finished one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read. In the vast sea of that genre, forget “Eat, Pray, Love“, the book group favorite memoir du jour. Instead, check out Rhoda Janzen’s “Mennonite In a Little Black Dress” and you’ll never look at a horse drawn buggy the same.
Not that Rhoda Janzen’s Mennonite family rode around in a buggy – they would be driven off the road in her native California. Nor does she now, living right here in the Great Lakes state and teaching at Hope College. However, it was a serious automobile accident that sent her packing to see her parents. That, and the fact that her psycho husband left her for another man who he found on Gay.com.
Janzen describes her Mennonite childhood with humor, if not fondness. Her hair “braided with neurotic precision, like Heidi on crack”, her homemade clothes (complete with strips of fabric to lengthen her pants) and the Shame-Based Lunches that smelled of the vinegar-based ingredients that all Germans love.
Speaking of Mennonite food, who wouldn’t want a cute little Cotletten and Ketchup sandwich, with the little saltine cracker meatballs so endearing to Mennonites all over the world? Or, how about a nice pungent bowl of Borscht? For a hearty appetite, nothing but a plate of Warmer Kartoffelsalata (translation – hot potato salad) will do. (Incidentally, while reading this particular chapter, I kind of felt like I was at a Lutheran potluck in the church’s basement with the Schroeder, Schwartz and Krueger families. However, the thought that any associations that I have could relate to Mennonitism startled me, so I quickly put it out of my mind).
Janzen, in her poetic and deadpan funny way, reminisces about her peculiar Mennonite childhood and the realization that she didn’t want to be part of that group anymore when she grew up. She describes her hilarious family in detail including her serious father, endearing non-religious sister and pious brothers (who did not leave the Mennonite faith). Her most detailed descriptions are saved for her quirky mother, whose quiet acceptance of all of her children, Mennonite or not, is heart-warming.
However, it was her description of her husband that made me both angry and sad. Angry at him for being such a complete jerk and sad for her for taking it for so long. Despite the fact that she describes him as “brilliant but tortured”, I can’t help but think of him as “narcissistic but cruel”.
That said, this is a minor quibble since Janzen has worked for so long to overcome her sadness and move on. The last guy she was dating before the book ended was a 27-year-old motorcycle-riding Mennonite. She’s my age, so the age difference kind of weirded me out. Then I figured that there were worse fates, so I moved on myself.
In the meantime, I absolutely loved Janzen’s memoir, Shamed-Based Food and all. She’s the kind of person with whom I would like to sit and eat lunch, chit-chatting amiably about her Menno and worldly lives. She might even Google her name and find this blog saying, “Mein Gott! One of my biggest fans is on the other side of the state!” Just as long as she doesn’t study my grammar too carefully, we could be friends. I’m sure of it.
Pass the saurkraut, please. Danke.