My mother welcomed my father and me at the door and led us through my grandmother’s house like a newly hired tour guide. She showed us into the kitchen, walked us through the living room and pointed out where the hospital bed had been. It was there that my grandmother had called out, “Ruth . . . Ruth . . . I want to go to sleep now.” And then had passed on. My mother told us that my grandmother seemed to have doubts at the end. She had refused to pray with the pastor who had stopped by earlier that week. But they—my mother, the nurse, the pastor—stood around her bed and prayed over her just the same. My grandmother closed her eyes and turned her head.
I had spoken with her a few weeks earlier while she was still in the hospital. She had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and was given only a few weeks to live. We talked about the weather. I promised to make it back to Illinois to see her as soon as I could. Time was running out, but I held onto this Hollywood fantasy that my grandmother would prolong dying until she saw my face, although I hadn’t made contact with her for years except for a thank you card for money and a Christmas card every now and then. I didn’t know how to bridge the gap that loomed between her rural Mennonite world and my Eastern urban life. And I was afraid to meet the sadness in her eyes when she saw me, the adult, who had walked away from the Mennonite culture and faith.
Raised Mennonite, I had been taught to “be in the world but not of the world.” We called ourselves “believers” and those who weren’t Mennonite or Anabaptist “nonbelievers.” Traditionally, being “not of the world” meant wearing modest clothes, refusing to use modern conveniences, and abstaining from politics and war. While some Mennonite communities conform more to “the world” than others, all claim a mutual heritage of martyrdom and non-violence that is several centuries old. When I was a child, I learned about the torture and execution of the first Mennonites in a book called “Martyr’s Mirror.” Mennonites were known as Anabaptists during the Reformation because they defied the teachings of the Catholic Church and re-baptized adults. To escape persecution, they met in caves and secret meeting houses to worship; when discovered, they refused to renounce their beliefs and went joyously to their deaths, convinced that they were ushering in the kingdom of heaven. I had often wondered if I’d have the courage and the obedience to die for God. I prayed for the strength to turn the other cheek.
At 14 I was baptized into the Old Mennonite Church. At 18 I left. But not officially. I just drifted further and further into “the world.” However, when people discover that I was raised Mennonite they look at me with increased interest and curiosity. “That sounds fascinating. Are you like the Amish?” they ask. So, I tell them that I wore a prayer covering, cape dress, lived on a farm that had no electricity, drove a horse and buggy, and that I went to a Mennonite school. Some of the things I say are true, but for the most part I’m lying because I don’t want to disappoint them. It seems people want to hear a story of how strange and different my life was. They want to believe in a Utopia, in an idyllic past that still exists—somewhere. Their eyes get dreamy, they imagine me dressed like KeUy McGillis, who played an Amish woman in the movie “Witness.” Sometimes I’m tempted to pass my hand in front of their face, to wipe that glassy, faraway look from their eyes.
But I too want to believe in this post card image of myself. And by telling these stories, I’m giving myself the past I have always longed for. A simple past, not one filled with confusion and pain for being different or not different enough. A past where I fit in, where I belong. The more I tell this story, the more I believe it really happened. My re-created history gives form and meaning to my life. Every word is true. That’s the way it was. Honest.
The real truth is that this fabricated past belongs to my grandmother’s generation. They were the ones who wore the traditional dress—men in plain black coats, women in cape dresses and prayer coverings. To be “not of the world” protected and sheltered them from the evil that thrived in the “world.” The Old Mennonite Church’s belief in non-conformity afforded its members a simplicity and an authenticity that I would never know. However, their separateness didn’t spare them from their own internal conflicts. Churches often split over biblical interpretations about worldliness, the healing power of the Holy Spirit, and women’s roles. These disagreements caused rifts in families who today remain estranged from each other, shackled to their idea of the “true faith.”
Mennonites have always lived in a perpetual crisis of identity. And I grew up watching my own community struggling to draw the perfect line between “us” and “them.” Even my parents were divided. My father wanted to follow the rules; he was a minister called by God to preach. My mother wanted to live her life as she saw fit and not submit to a group of men who thought that only they could divine the Lord’s will. That left me somewhere in between, wondering which side I should take.
The problem was that I looked like someone not quite belonging to either world. I never wore my hair in braids or tied back into a bun like other Mennonite girls or like my mother did when she was young. My hair was short, always short. My mother had been cutting my hair since I was 3. She said that when she was a teen-ager her parents had forbidden her to cut hers. Only heathen women, Jezebels, or women who want to be like men wear their hair short, they said. But my mother told her parents if they wouldn’t let her cut her hair then she would pull it out. The next morning, with her head held high, she came down to the breakfast table modeling her newly ragged bangs. I used to dream of looking like a conservative Mennonite girl. Then there would be no more doubts. I would have known where I belonged. I could have lived in one world.
When I went to public school I shored myself up with the Bible stories I had been told to keep the evil at bay. They protected me from the devil that was waiting to steal my soul. Some days I was David and the world was Goliath. Some days I was Jonah. Other days I was Daniel in the lion’s den. But in spite of my fear I felt drawn to these people who hadn’t been saved. I was told that those who weren’t Mennonite, even if they did go to church, weren’t true Christians like us. Walking home from school I wondered what it was like to live in that world of sin.
I had wanted to be the best Mennonite I could be, but I also wanted to fit in. I wanted the luxury of looking like everyone else; I didn’t want to stand out in my homemade clothes. When I arrived at school in the mornings I would pull my skirt up to my chest so that the hem would ride on my thighs, not six inches below my knees. This desire to be part of the “world” made me feel that I wasn’t good enough for the Mennonites. And trying to pass made me feel like a traitor to my faith. Goodness was an innate characteristic that I had been denied. I had always felt tarnished in the most basic sense, like God had marked me at birth and was still punishing me. Yet I didn’t know why. I sat on top of a mountain of forbidden thoughts and feelings, and feared that some day it would erupt and blow me to pieces, and I would land on the ground in a heap of muscle and bone.
I felt like a stranger sitting in my grandmother’s living room, watching my mother guide the rest of my family through the house. I noticed that the story she was telling had changed. My mother was adding things, leaving details out and stressing certain parts at different times. But that didn’t really matter. The end was still the same. Death had seeped into the furniture, the carpet, into the cracks on the floor, even the food. It clung to my skin thick as the August heat.
I was exhausted. The trip to my grandmother’s funeral had been grueling. My father and I had traveled in separate cars because my mother had gone to Illinois a few weeks earlier to take care of my grandmother. My father had raced across 1-70 as if he were competing for a prize. He weaved in and out of traffic, flashed his turn signal on and off like a siren and almost sideswiped a semi. I drove close behind him feeling like I did when I was a child and had to sit in the back seat with my mother. I could almost hear my brothers tease, “Boys in the front, girls in the back!” I would feel dizzy, nauseated and would lean forward to try to look over the front seat. Maybe seeing the road would help. But my mother would tell me to sit back and try to sleep. She always brought along an empty Crisco can just in case. My father stared straight ahead and said nothing. He stopped only for gas.
Seeing the back of my fathers head made it seem like nothing had changed. It looked the same as it did when I was a child, black as the Illinois dirt. Once again my father was leading me back to the land, back to the people who live in the kingdom of heaven on earth, to the place my parents still call “home.”
Hot and humid journeys to Illinois wove my childhood together. We moved a lot during my first eight years, because my father was studying for the ministry. He served as an assistant pastor on college campuses and in Mennonite communities in Pennsylvania, Oregon, Illinois, Indiana, Vermont and Kansas. Each church was different, some more conservative than others. The tension between my parents rose when a community was too strict. In most churches, having short hair, wearing makeup and jewelry was considered wrong. Mennonite women were required to wear their long hair drawn back into a bun. Their clothes were to be modest in color and style. And after women were baptized they were required to wear a covering—bonnets made out of white coarse cheesecloth-like fabric that sat on top of a woman’s head, or larger ones that fit like a cap.
This dress code warded off the dangers and evils of pride, which in turn could tempt a man to covet his neighbors wife. Ministers warned it could lead to sex. Coverings also symbolized woman’s submission to man. But my mother never held herself too strictly to these rules, even though she was married to a preacher and was supposed to set an example. She wore clothes that made her stand out. They were a little too colorful, a little too modern. Gossip had it that she was proud, because my mother saw nothing wrong with showing off her looks. It seemed humility was foreign to her. Unlike me. I still avoid looking in the mirror in case I might see myself as beautiful and be stricken with a severe case of pride.
When I was a child my mother started complaining about having to wear her covering. My brother and I spent many Sundays wondering if this would be the day my mother would go to church with her head bare. We worried that she would be shunned, and we along with her. She had been complaining for months that the only reason she had to wear a covering was because she was a woman. On Saturday nights, my brother and I sat outside my parents’ closed bedroom door listening to the deep low murmur of my fathers voice telling my mother to give it a little more time. Change will happen soon. The next morning she sat with me in the back seat of the car, her lip quivering and her head covered. I stared at her through the silence, knowing that it was only a matter of time before my mother would never wear a covering, regardless of the consequences. And I wondered if I could ever be that strong.
My imagination saved me then. I escaped by rolling under the pews and making up stories and songs. I lived for the day we could return to my grandparents’ farm in Illinois. During those summers when my father was in college and seminary, we had lived in a trailer in my maternal grandparents’ orchard, spending every two weeks at my father’s parents’ farm down the road. After we moved to Pennsylvania we continued to spend holidays and summers in Illinois. Every place we lived was a temporary substitute for the real thing.
Home is land. Home is made by generation after generation passing down fields, homesteads and memories. It is the place where your mother and father and their mothers and fathers worked and sweated and married and died. It means family plots in the cemetery that mark the first families who set foot in the Midwest, and are now waiting as the generations that follow join them in the ground.
I never really knew my grandmother. She didn’t talk much. At the funeral, her best friend stood up and observed that my grandmother never had a thought. I didn’t know what that meant. But my father told me that after the Sunday School lesson the leader would ask if anyone had a thought on the scripture. If my grandmother had one, she never said. Most people thought of her as a saint because she didn’t speak her mind or say a harsh word to anyone. I spent countless summers and holidays sitting in her living room when the family was gathered, fidgeting in the heavy silence until an adult said I could go outside and play.
My male cousins sat on the left side of the church shoulder to shoulder, filling the pew like a football team. My father had asked them to be pallbearers; no girls allowed. The women sat on the right side. Rarely now in Old Mennonite circles do men and women sit on opposite sides of the meeting house as customs once dictated, though sometimes it seems to happen naturally. My grandmother, who “cried for joy” when her only daughter was born, who lost her mother when she was 17, and her grandmother that next year, who cried of loneliness when marriage took her away from her sisters and aunts, who lived in the middle of nowhere with four men and one daughter, would now be carried by her grandsons to the grave.
We stood in the Mennonite cemetery surrounded by pasture, mixing sweat with tears. It was the hottest day that summer. The canopy that shaded my grandmother offered little refuge for the large congregation, who had weathered the heat to pay their last respects. A row of wooden folding chairs stood vacant until my father began motioning for people to sit. Even then, there was a constant shuffle of people offering their seats to others, as if protection from the sun was too proud or selfish an act for these humble people who had known only farming and the Lord their entire lives.
My grandmother lay in an oak casket, the only one who showed no sign of being bothered by the heat. I found a place where I could see her face and wondered what she would have said to me if I had reached her in time. I remembered how she used to read stories to me and how she loved to play games—Racko, Dutch Blitz, Rook. We would play for hours. And she would always win. Now I searched for something to say to her. But nothing came. I heard the the minister say “Amen.” Then some people began to mill around while others headed back to the church for the potluck funeral meal.
I have always thought it odd that people serve meals after funerals—casseroles, salads, meat, breads. Mountains of food descend upon the grieving family, who can barely meet your eyes much less lift a fork. Food is a requirement at funerals because eating belongs to the living. The earth will eventually devour all to whom it once gave life and breath. When we eat we are feeding off all of the people who have gone back to the earth. Perhaps the final battle against death is waged through food. In the end we are all cannibals in some form, whether it be physical, emotional, psychic or symbolic. But I didn’t want to eat my grandmother. Not that day. Not while the hot August sun was steaming my brain like cauliflower.
When people ask me why I left the Mennonites I don’t know where to begin. Maybe it’s simple, maybe it runs in the blood. In the 1950s, my uncles enlisted in the Navy and the Air Force, thumbing their noses at the church. To them pacifism was the coward’s way. They broke their parents’ hearts when they chose to serve their country, not the Mennonite God. With two sons lost to the world my grandparents looked to my father, their third son, to stay and farm the land.
From the time I was a child, making the choice whether to be “in the world” or “not of the world” hung around my neck like a stone. Mennonites believe in adult baptism, so you aren’t a member of the church until you’ve reached the age of responsibility, when you can make a real choice. I looked to my father who seemed happy in the church, then I looked to my mother who fought against the roles that women played. I used to beg God not to turn me into a woman. I knew if I were a man God would call me to do great things, just as He had called my father. I imagined myself standing behind the pulpit just like him.
When I heard my father preach, I thought he was God. To me, he was the closest thing to heaven. As he stood at the pulpit with his jet black hair, wearing his plain black suit, he was transformed into a prophet preaching to the Israelites. I would look around at the people’s faces and wonder if they knew that I was his daughter, God’s only daughter. I would watch to see if they were listening, if they were moved by him. At the Kansas church, my father and the other pastor would make their entrance and exit together by walking down the middle aisle while the congregation remained seated. When my father walked up or down the aisle, I would try to reach out and touch him, like the man who touched Jesus’ robe because he wanted to be healed. I remembered that Jesus felt the healing energy leave his body, and I would look for signs from my father when he was at the pulpit to see if he knew I had touched him, to see if he would bless me in some way, because even then I felt that I needed some kind of blessing. I had a wildness in me, a wildness that didn’t serve a Mennonite girl.
In my teens, my Mennonite friends and I had been taught to keep a distance from the other kids at school. We were discouraged from saying the “Pledge of Allegiance,” standing for the “Star Spangled Banner,” and from participating in any school activity that was considered too “worldly.” We were not allowed to go to school dances, but sometimes my mother would bend the rules and let me go. When we did attend social functions my Mennonite friends and I went as a group. Whatever the extent of our non-conformity to “the world,” we were taught to conform to each other. We went to church on Sunday morning and Sunday night, and youth fellowship every Wednesday; we went on outings together, ice skating parties, conference activities, hymn sings, taffy pulls, quilting bees, sewing circles, and even weekend trips. We turned the other cheek when the kids at school made fun of us. We thought of ourselves as the chosen ones, because we were being persecuted as our ancestors had been. We were the smartest students and the best behaved. The teachers loved us. They would hold us up to the class as examples of good behavior, the model students, the teachers’ pets. We did what we were told.
But that doesn’t mean we weren’t tempted. Especially when it came to sex. I had been taught that sex was dangerous, the work of the devil. That having sex before marriage was one of the greatest sins you could ever commit, worse than blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. I had read in the Bible that blaspheming the Holy Spirit was the only sin that could not be forgiven. Upon finding out what blasphemy meant, I set out to do just that. It was my nature, I thought, to break all of the rules, to sin, to test God and see what would happen. But sex seemed much more real and dangerous than yelling foul names at the Holy Spirit, and then holding my breath waiting for God to descend from the heavens to strike me dead. Sex was confusing because the same men who preached against it showed no sign of discomfort when women would pull out their breasts to feed their infants during the middle of the sermon. Men who, it would be discovered later, did more with the women who came to them for counsel than simply pray.
One summer at my grandparents’, I discovered my aunts diary and read how she had made out with boys in the balcony after church. When I was 15, in the Sunday School room during a worship service, I did the same with a boy who was an usher. He was 17, a senior and on the basketball team, one of the few who walked the line a little closer to “the world” than the Kingdom of God: He drank. We lay on the floor and before he kissed me, unlike other Mennonite boys who insist on praying first, he recited the lines “Beer for the queer, wine for the fine and whiskey for the frisky,” and then he told me about all the racy things he had done. We rushed because he had to get back to the service in time to take up the collection. While his hands fumbled over my body, I listened carefully for the song that the congregation sang before the offering. Later when I would make out with other Mennonite boys, we would pray first, they would tell me how it was God s will, and afterwards we would pray again. I wondered how a girl could ever say no to God.
Sex before marriage was forbidden. But some girls got pregnant and had to marry. Others confessed their sin before the community where they were forgiven but then gossiped about for years. My friends who got pregnant were sneaking around with boys who weren’t Mennonite. It was never clear what the real sin was, premarital sex or going outside of the faith.
I could never get my story straight. Who was I? On the bus rides home from school I pretended I was a real Mennonite girl, one who looked the part in my covering and cape dress, who lived on a farm and would someday marry the Mennonite boy down the road. On other days I was the most popular girl in school who had lots of boyfriends, played first chair flute and would move to California or New York and become a famous actress. But in reality I was neither. And yet the stories I told myself gave me some comfort from feeling like a foreigner in the outside world and a misfit among the Mennonites. I felt like a double agent, a spy masquerading in both worlds.
As the tension of straddling two worlds increased I knew I had to make a choice. So I picked the Mennonite world. Most of my friends had been baptized a year before and I didn’t want to be left out. I had attended their baptismal class but my pastor told me that I wasn’t ready. I had too many doubts about God, even though I desperately wanted to believe. When I was finally baptized, I hadn’t resolved my inner conflict, but I had no real plans to leave the Mennonite church. Where would I go? What would I do? I wasn’t raised to be a part of “the world.” And I had to consider the possibility of The Afterlife. If I didn’t choose to follow Christ I would go to hell. I decided that if there were the slightest chance of eternal life I couldn’t risk being on the wrong side.
By then more and more women in my congregation had switched to wearing doily-like coverings that sat flat on their heads. And some, like my mother, had decided to wear them only at church. Sundays were full of intrigue, waiting to see who would have on the new style of covering and who would stick with the old. As a child I had always dreamed of wearing a bonnet-like covering with strings that rested on my shoulders. If I looked like a Mennonite, then I would be a Mennonite. But now things had changed.
The only things that had remained the same were the rituals of communion and foot washing; they were charged with a mystery and excitement I hadn’t found anywhere else. Foot washing symbolizes community and is modeled after the servanthood that Jesus showed his apostles when he washed their feet at the Last Supper. It’s meant to remind “believers” of their true relationship with each other, restoring humility where pride may have taken root. There was something exotic about washing feet, especially for a group of people who saw the body as the battleground of sin. But men and women never washed each other’s feet. The men would go to the front of the church and the women were sent to the basement, or a partition would be set up at the back of the sanctuary.
Before I was baptized I used to hide in the bathroom during foot washing, waiting and listening for signs that the women had finished. Soon other girls near my age would gather there to talk about anything but the fact that our mothers and fathers were touching and kissing other men and women. We spoke with an awkward giddiness that stemmed from anticipating this ritual of intimacy. Girls who were newly baptized would seek us out and report that during the “holy kiss” women would get their signals crossed and would kiss each other on the lips, and that sometimes the old women would just go straight for the mouth. They told us how the women would roll off their stockings, and how they dreaded taking old, musty, sweaty feet into their hands to wash them. We guessed at who did or did not bathe the night before and why soap was never used if people’s feet smelled that bad. What if the feet that smelled the worst were our parents’? We promised each other that our feet would always smell like the feet of Jesus after Mary washed them with her perfumed hair.
When the women were allowed back into the worship room, the tension that had filled the air was erased by the sound of voices singing a cappella in four-part harmony. It never failed to send chills down the back of my legs. Eyes closed, mouthing Gott ist die liebe, my voice tried to follow my mothers alto part, as I imagined what the men looked like when they kissed each other, and dreamed of the day when I could kiss a woman with the “holy kiss.”
After I was baptized my friends and I would pair off with someone different until we found our favorite, and then after that we would try to wash only each other’s feet. But sometimes an older woman would choose me as her partner, and this always left me feeling queasy. Old skin and clammy feet made me want to run from the church. Would this be my destiny, sitting in a church basement, fat from eating starchy food at countless potlucks, unable to take off my hose without losing my breath when I bent over, only to have an adolescent girl sit below me, washing my feet and wondering what secret hid between my thighs?
At the cemetery, I lingered at my grandmother’s grave site with my aunt and my cousin. We watched the gravedigger clear away the flowers and the fake grass-like carpet from the grave. He was a fat man whose jeans rode low revealing the crack in his bottom. I had watched him during the final prayer as he stood against the fence south of the grave, showing cows to his son. There had been a drought that summer and the herd was too busy scavenging the ground for green to notice the black human shapes beyond the fence. He looked like a character out of a Flannery O’Connor story,
his presence grotesque amid the plain people who believe they are God’s chosen few. He asked us to back away from the grave while he lowered the casket. He said the shock of seeing the hole in the ground was just too much for some people and he’d prefer if we’d keep our distance. We sat on the folding chairs under the canopy listening to him talk about his work. He had seven funerals scheduled that day.
The last time I had been at this cemetery was for my grandfather’s funeral when I was 8 years old. We left Pennsylvania in the middle of the night. My father drove to Illinois like a mad man. When my grandpa died, I had asked my preacher father if God would bring him back to life like Lazarus. And if He wouldn’t, then why not, since we all know that He can, so maybe we shouldn’t do what He wants us to do if He never does what we ask, because I had asked for things many times but He never gave them to me. My father didn’t say much. He just turned his head and told me that God knows what’s best, and that I should trust Him. I felt betrayed. Someday, when I would be old enough to understand, God would tell me the truth, for He had a lot of explaining to do about a world where everyone dies. Why do I have to die?
I remember how everyone cried at my grandpa s grave side, even my mother who kept saying that she never understood him. My grandpa had watched with sadness as my mother took the last of his three sons away from the farm. He never forgave her, but maybe he should have forgiven God, since that’s who my father said took him away. He said that God had called him to be minister. I spent many hours wondering about “the calling,” and about how special my father must be since he was recruited by God. And I waited many years to be called by God to something, but He never called or sent me a road map. When I realized that God would never get in touch, I finally turned my back on Him.
When the gravedigger was finished we threw some flowers and a few handfuls of dirt into the pit. I thought of my grandmother, looking like a stuffed bird, roasting in a coffin on the hottest day of the year. I hoped that she would find comfort below where it was cool and damp. I imagined that she would have liked knowing that her body was being delivered next to her husband’s by an honest man doing an honest day’s work. My cousin, aunt and I walked down the gravel road toward the church. The wind and passing cars blew dust in our noses and eyes. I wondered if the farmers’ spread of starches and meats and pies would stick like the gray dirt in our throats.
A few days after the funeral I drove back to Pennsylvania. My parents would stay in Illinois to settle my grandmothers estate. My father helped me load up my car with some of her things—photographs of the farm, several dishes, some plants, a Mennonite hymnal and a quilt. Speeding down the road, I thought about my grandmother’s final hours, why she had refused to pray. Maybe she had tucked away a part of herself that the Mennonite world couldn’t touch, and that’s why she had kept her thoughts private. And maybe, just maybe, she, like me, looked in the mirror one day and caught a glimpse of “them.”
Title: Ger.,“God is love/He loves even me.” From a traditional Mennonite hymn.