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Mennonite in a Little Black Dress




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Rhoda Janzen On Writing Mennonite In A Little Black Dress

Rhoda Janzen author of Mennonite in a Little Black Dress

I had just returned to a conservative Mennonite community after an absence of more than two decades. In the recent past, my husband of fifteen years had ditched me for a guy named Bob whom he’d met on Gay.com. The same week I’d been in a nasty car accident. My heart was broken, my legs were scarred, and I just wasn’t up for research as usual. So when my sabbatical rolled around, I went home to the Mennonites. It was therapeutic, almost soothing, to be back in the old stomping ground, browsing an antique mall with my seventy-year-old mother. At one stall she spied a country-fresh ceramic rooster and said, "Do you know Norma Franz? Conrad Franz’s wife?"

"Sure," I said.

"Norma Franz has a thing for roosters," she said thoughtfully. Then, following some thread of logic that I couldn’t quite trace, she added, "Her husband Conrad is a Butt Man. You know how some men like to focus on one body part? Well, Conrad Franz has a thing for bottoms. Once he took a picture of Norma’s bottom. She was wearing beige slacks and she was bent over, like this." My mother obligingly bent over right there in the middle of the antique mall.

"Norma told you this?" I asked.

My mother nodded.

"Was Norma posing? Or did Conrad just sneak up on her?"

"She had something on her shoe," my mother answered. "And then Conrad wanted to frame the picture and hang it in the living room! Can you believe that?"

"Did Norma let him?"

"She did! She showed me the picture." "How’d it look?" I asked. "It looked like a bottom in beige slacks. That’s not my idea of art." "Mom," I said, "which would you rather put in your living room: a framed picture of Norma Franz’s bottom in beige slacks, or this ceramic rooster?" She snorted. "Oh, no contest! The rooster! But it wouldn’t look good on the piano." "Why do you need to put it on the piano? You could put it on the coffee table." "No, the grandkids are too rowdy. They’d knock it over."

"In that case," I advised, "maybe you should revisit the picture of Norma’s bottom. You could hang it above the sofa."

"No," my mother said decisively.

"A picture of Norma’s bottom would be problematic for Heinrich Groebel. He stays with us when he’s in town for conference meetings. Those South American Mennonites are always so straight-laced."

Together my mother and I considered the Rev. Heinrich Groebel’s shock and distaste upon confronting solitary gabardine patootie above the couch. We paused for a moment of respectful silence before moving on to the next vendor’s stall.

In the days that followed I described this incident and others to my friends via email. They started pressing me for more email bulletins about the Mennonites. They wanted to know about my parents’ church, their neighbors, their moral preferences. My friends seemed fascinated by my enormous extended family, many of whom wore tall black dress socks with shorts and sandals and a sweater-vest. In the same way that all of Los Angeles comes to a grinding halt when there’s a high-speed car chase on TV, my friends were mesmerized by my parents’ frugality and stern simplicity. There must be a universal need to explore why some people, for instance my father, elect to reuse their toothpicks. And I have photo-documentation of a parental teabag that flavored three separate cups of tea. It was finally my friend Carla who told me to start saving my emails. She said they were starting to smell like memoir.

As I reflected on my turbulent return to this community, I began to see resonant possibilities in the Mennonite world around me. Here were marital drama and profound failure, plucked out of an urban intellectual landscape and set down in the middle of a Mennonite no man’s land, where folks were charitable to ceramic roosters they didn’t like, or, variously, to bottoms in beige slacks. I decided that healing was not only possible, but probable. And I began to write.