On Being a Mennonite Woman

I’ve been thinking a lot about my maternal grandma, probably because all of her children save one were visiting Oregon last week for a family reunion. Seeing traces of my grandma in her children and hearing stories about her was especially meaningful for me, as was spending time with aunts, uncles, and a few cousins I rarely see, since they all live in the Midwest. I hadn’t seen one cousin, about seven years my senior, in at least 35 years; I was surprised I was taller than him, given how much larger he loomed when we were kids.
But to my grandma, Mary Schmidt. I didn’t know her well, since she died when I was eight, and spent several years before her death in a nursing home, meaning I interacted with her in a limited environment. Our visits often took place in the home’s physical therapy room, where my siblings and I played Olympics gymnastics on the equipment while my parents visited.
I’m sorry to say what I remember most about Grandma Schmidt was her visitation and funeral: she was the first dead person I’d ever seen, and I cried mostly out of fear as our family stood before her coffin. My food-lovin’ dad comforted us by recalling stories of the Kentucky Fried Chicken meals we shared with grandma. Later, at the cemetery, my brother and I got in trouble for jumping on headstones and talking about how we were dancing on graves.
And later still, I got in more trouble for squirting invisible ink on my Aunt Millie’s white satin shirt. I don’t know what I was thinking, doing such a stupid trick right after a funeral. My Aunt Millie certainly didn’t know what I was doing, her appalled face tracing her barely sublimated desire to strangle me. And my mom, worried that the invisible ink wouldn’t fade, also wanted to strangle me, but she had an audience of siblings to keep her from it. I escaped, everyone breathing relief when the ink faded into nothing.
Despite not knowing my grandma well, there are powerful ways in which her life influenced mine, not least of which is the fundamental fact that without my grandma having lived and raised my mom, I wouldn’t be alive myself. There’s also something to be said about Grandma Mary’s genetic code running through me, connecting me to her in ways I am not connected to my own adopted children. I get the echo of my apple shape from her, a shape nurtured by our shared love of candy; my very odd thumbs are the same as hers, and unlike anyone else I’ve met. My sister at one time called me Thumbelina, and has made the joke that I’m all thumbs. Grandma Mary’s hands could have embraced that joke, too, in ways no one else’s could.
So far as I know, Grandma Mary was a fairly traditional Mennonite woman of her time. She worked hard on the farm, both inside of and outside of the house. She raised five children, all who became teachers. When my grandpa died young of colon cancer, she sold the farm, moved to North Newton, and became a cook at Bethel College, helping to nurture a generation of students there. She served others tirelessly, so that my mom told me she died because her body was worn out, her spine wrecked by her sacrificial labor.
At our family reunion last week, I looked around our table at my aunts and uncles, sweating in the atypical Oregonian heat, and thought about the heritage of our family and of our grandma, who—despite poverty and living on a farm—managed to raise five educators. My uncles are the kind of men I think I would have loved to learn from, shy but with a wry sense of humor. My aunts and my mother are strong and talented women, all of them, but with a self-deprecating streak that means they rarely have realized how terrific they are: the Mennonite martyr complex, we sometimes call it, rightly or wrongly.
This martyr complex seems, in its own way, a heritage of the messages my grandma and then my aunts (and then me) received about what it was to be a Mennonite woman. In addition to knowing how to make Zwieback and can green beans, a Mennonite woman was to be humble, frugal, and self-sacrificial to a fault. And yes, it is possible to be self-sacrificial to a fault: if I compliment my mom for her new blouse, she will offer it to me, even if it’s the favorite item in her closet; even if she were crazy hungry, she’d give me all the food on her plate if I asked for it. Judging from a few days’ spent with my aunts, I kinda think they would be the same way.
I wonder if this is part of the heritage my grandma passed down to her daughters, and then to me. My thumbs mark me as Mary Schmidt’s granddaughter, but so too does this sense that Mennonite women are supposed to act a certain way—because someone or something ordained it to be so. Whether we can define the source of this sensibility about how Mennonite women should act—was it God? The Bible? Menno himself?—Mennonite women still know what the expectations are for behavior, as well as they know that Rollcuchen should be eaten with watermelon.*
Still, one thing I admire about my grandma, and also my aunts, is the many ways they both accepted the gender roles they had been told were God- or church-ordained, but also transcended them, either by necessity or by will. My grandma worked outside the home because she had to, lacking a husband to take care of her. My aunts also worked to support their families, farmed alongside their husbands, became 60s radicals, protesting Vietnam. They raised some pretty cool kids, who became cousins I see on too-rare occasions. They developed strong political opinions they are unabashed to share, still, at family reunions.
So I’ve been thinking about my grandma and about family heritage, and about the ways one woman, born at the dawn of the 20th century, has influenced me by giving me life, a history, a faith tradition. And when I feel aggravated about conservative evangelicalism, and the sometimes crappy messages conveyed to young women about who they should be, I need to consider as well my family’s heritage, and the ways the women in my family both accepted—and rejected—the messages they were given about what it means to be a Mennonite woman.  Rather than succumbing to despair about evangelicalism’s seeming misogynies, I should recognize the hope that even those messages confining women can be transcended, something I was reminded of last week, when I looked at the bright faces of my older relatives, wilting in the Oregon heat.
*And if you don’t know what Rollcuchen are—or even if you do—and you’re interested, I’ve been looking for folks to share a Rollcuchen feast with me. Let me know, and I’ll make you some!
My beautiful relatives, enjoying the Oregon sunshine at the Tillamook Forestry Center.