HOW TO WRITE MEMOIR when your story involves a subculture that few people have ever witnessed? When Shirley Showalter proposed that to me as her topic for her Writing Lessons post, I knew we had hit on a fine subject. After all, all families are micro-cultures, meaning that reading anyone’s memoir writing requires nothing less from the reader than traveling to some foreign territory. How to get the reader to go is the issue for the writer. Here, in celebration of her just-published memoir, Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World, is an experienced hand telling you how. Read on.
How to Write About a Subculture so that Mainstream Readers
Understand and Care
by Shirley Hershey Showalter
Most people in America have never met a Mennonite. In fact, the most frequently asked question at my publisher’s website is “what’s the difference between Mennonites and Amish?”
The American people have been fascinated by both groups, particularly the Amish, for a long time. Their dress, their dialect, their horses and buggies, their courtship rituals, their farming practices, and modes of worship stand apart from, and therefore serve as a gentle critique of, American beliefs in individualism, progress, and consumerism.
Mennonites also believe in simplicity, peace, and share many ethnic roots and geographical locations with the Amish, but they have less strict lines of separation from the modern world.
When I began writing childhood memoir, I wanted to tell the story in such a way as to invite Mennonite readers but also others — the many readers who are curious about who we are and how we live.
In the 1960’s, when I was an adolescent, you would have been able to spot me as a Mennonite right away. I didn’t own blue jeans. I wore modest skirts and blouses and, most noticeably, wore a white, gauzy, prayer covering on my head. My memoir, therefore, invites readers into a long-ago world when Mennonites of my group were stricter and when the family-farm culture that supported their separation from the world was thriving in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
When describing a subculture, it would be easy to fall into the Scylla or Charybdis of memoir writing: either writing in generalities one assumes to be universal or using language known only to the initiated.
This is what I learned and am still learning: always be particular; never be esoteric. Using sensory-rich description of the places, people, and rituals of your world, invite readers to enter. Assume they are intelligent and show them what you the author-character feel, think, and desire. The connection will come from shared emotion recollected in tranquility.
Here are six tips that have guided my writing process:
- Read memoirs which place you in the role of outsider. Observe when you were attracted, ashamed of your group, curious, and when you felt you were “just like” like the “other.” Is the action happening on the page also happening to you? Can you observe why and how this happens? From Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings to Chaim Potok’s autobiographical novel The Chosen to Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club, I have actually become another person in my imagination. Then I want to know how that author got into and under my skin.
- While writing your first draft, try to describe everything as well as you can using sensory methods. Don’t think too much about audience at this stage. Just tell the story. Pay special attention to feeling states and to making them especially vivid by “showing, not telling.”
- After you have a draft you are ready to share, select good readers who are members of all the audience sets you desire. Ask for their honest feedback. A one-page questionnaire helps make response easy. Be sure to ask them where they felt confused about or distanced from the story.
- If you know that language and customs are too esoteric for the uninitiated, create a glossary at the back of the book. This allows you to be light-hearted and humorous if such an approach is in keeping with your voice in the memoir itself.
- Consider including stories that you know your “outsider” reader will identify with. In my story that person was a high school friend named Jeanette who was not Mennonite. One of my readers told me, “If Jeanette could be your friend, then I could have been a friend also.”
- Read your final draft aloud, to representative members of groups you hope to reach. Watch their expressions. Listen to their questions.
In truth, all of us are members of some kind of subculture. It might be based on gender, religion, sexual identity, language, or race. Even those groups subdivide: left-handedness, hair color and texture, allergies, or mutations. Good storytellers and writers have come from every group on the planet.
The way we help outsiders identify with the individual stories only we can tell is to describe the little particular moments of our lives so vividly that others too can see, hear, taste, and touch.
Or as Wordsworth said to Coleridge at the end of the long memoir poem “The Prelude”:
“what we have loved, / Others will love, and we will teach them how.”
Blush, an excerpt
Courtship and the Farmer’s Daughter
There be three things which are too wonderful for me, yea, four which I know not: The way of an eagle in the air; the way of a serpent upon a rock; the way of a ship in the midst of the sea; and the way of a man with a maid.
“Look at this beauty! Red roses on a pink velvet wrapping. Whew! Looks like Valentine’s Day.” The 4-H Club auctioneer was growing excited as he moved around the room.
“What you say, fellas? Do I hear two bucks? I’ve got two. Who’ll give me three?”
I was nervous listening to the bidding during my first box supper social, the most exciting event of the year. All the other boxes seemed so much more spectacular than mine. Boys and girls were seated on opposite sides of the auditorium at Fairland Elementary School. Boys raised their hands to bid on their favorite boxes, but had to wait until the end of the bidding to find out whose boxes they had purchased. Then each claimed his reward, eating supper in a corner of the room with the no-longer-mystery girl who had brought the box.
I was about twelve years old, one of the younger girls in the room that evening. Mother, who knew what box socials were all about, had gotten a brilliant idea earlier in the afternoon as we planned for the event.
Necessity was likely the mother of her invention, since we didn’t stock lots of glittery wrapping paper or bows at our house. Presents often came inside a plain box or a paper “toot” (bag).
So, how to make a box that would sell and attract a good buyer? Mother decided to go against the grain and turn our sow’s ear of ordinary wrapping materials into a silk purse. I watched in awe as she spun magic out of words, like she had done many times before.
“Shirley, take a grocery bag and open it up at the seams, laying it flat. Then wrap up your box.”
As I wrapped, she wrote, pausing to read aloud her words and getting me involved in choosing them. I had to admit it was a great idea, but it was risky, too.
Here was a plain little girl with her plain big box. What if people laughed at me?
While I had doubts about Mother’s idea, I had no experience with what might entice a boy to pay good money for a shoebox wrapped in grocery bag paper.
Mother said, “Let’s catch his imagination. Help me write a poem.”
I can still see the four-by-six-inch card with my mother’s distinctive handwriting—printing with a certain flair that looked almost cursive—in blue ink on white paper. I made several little Scotch-tape circles and affixed the poem atop the box. To emphasize the counter-glitter point, we may even have used bailing twine as string instead of ribbons.
Voilá! My box and I were ready for the social.
With trepidation, I carried my brown rectangular representation of self into the social, where a small mountain of colorful paper-wrapped boxes with carefully curled bows was already growing on a table next to the door.
When the time came to bid on the boxes, the auctioneer started at one end of the lineup and worked his way through, holding each lovely box high: “Some young lady in this room must have put a lot of time into this. Don’t let her down. What am I bid?”
“Fifty cents,” cried out a freckle-faced sixth grader.
“That’s what I like,” said the auctioneer, warming up his rhythm. “A big spender starts us off. Glad you dumped out that piggy bank before you came!”
As the bidding and kidding continued, I grew increasingly uneasy. What kind of wisecrack would the auctioneer make about my box, such an easy target for a joke. My mind worked overtime, until I saw the auctioneer reach for the lone brown box.
“My, my, my, ach du lieber, what have we here?” he asked, as he turned the box to read the attached card. Stalling for time, he pulled a pair of glasses from his shirt pocket.
“Why, fellas, it’s a poem,” he said. “Want me to read it?”
“Sure!” cried one potential bidder who had already lost to a few of the high rollers in the crowd, thus getting a little edgy. The boys were under their own form of pressure.
The auctioneer cleared his throat, paused for dramatic effect to scan the poem, and then began reading my mother’s writing:
I know that I’m not fancy
I can’t be very proud
Among these other pretty ones I’m quiet, not so loud.
I hope you’ll like me anyway
I hope that you’ll agree
My plain outside may not compete;
But inside out I’m very sweet.
“Okay, boys!” said the auctioneer, warming to the challenge. “Just think of what’s inside the box. Poetry! Must come from a pretty sweet girl, don’t you think?”
Evidently the idea of hidden beauty appealed to some of the farm boys in the room. A little kidding ensued. With each bid, I felt my cheeks get hotter. My heart beat faster. Finally, the gavel came down when the price was just under five dollars, one of the higher bids.
“Sold,” the auctioneer cried, “to Tom!”
Now my anxiety shifted to the other extreme. Before, I worried that my brown-bag box would make me a laughingstock.
Now, however, the stakes had been raised by the price. Could the inside live up to its promise? Tall, brawny Tom was one of the oldest and most respected of all these earnest youth. I guessed he might be a senior in high school, since I didn’t know him.
What would he do when he found out he had paid five dollars for a sixth grader’s box? Suddenly I saw the real question: It was not whether the food would be good enough, but rather would I be good enough?
Thoughts like these traveled through my mind like milk through a pipeline as the auction came to an end. Each boy paid for his box and then looked around the room to locate his supper partner.
Tom appeared hopeful as he scanned the crowd of girls in front of him. I took a step forward, trying to act confident. Then I saw his face fall. If he had been in a cartoon, the balloon over his head might have said: “What a sucker I was even to bid on this box. I wish I had stopped at $4.75 like my gut instinct told me to. Not only did I buy a plain box, but here is a plain girl— and she’s only a sixth grader. Geez!”
I tried to pretend I hadn’t noticed my supper partner’s glum demeanor. I let him scout out a place for us to sit down, which turned out to be as far away as possible from the other high school boys.
I waited while Tom opened the box, eager to dig into what I thought was an outstanding supper: cold fried chicken, pickles, buttered bread, chips, pretzels, apples, and sugar cookies (Grandma Herr’s recipe).
Tom’s eyes did not light up, though. He picked at the food in front of him. I offered him his choice of drumstick, thigh, or breast, carefully inquiring, “White meat or dark meat?” Then I began gnawing on a drumstick.
I asked him a few questions such as what grade he was in, what school he went to, and where he lived. He answered politely, but his eyes roved the room. We both listened to the laughter of some of the happy couples who had arranged to beat the box social anonymity through some kind of secret language on the box itself to assure their pairing. The more they laughed, the more Tom and I felt the dead silence between us like air in a coffin.
Finally, I couldn’t stand the quiet, so I rushed in to fill the vacuum. I told Tom about each room in this building, how if he walked down this hall, he would find all my teachers’ rooms: on the right were Mrs. Gibble, Mrs. Rothenberger, and Miss Frey, while to the left were Miss Gibble, Mrs. McCardle, and Mrs. Lochner. I talked about the assemblies we had in this room, how I loved the smell of the white paste we used for all our art projects, and how much fun it was to be on the safety patrol. Blah, blah, blah.
Tom’s eyes never landed on mine, and his ears seemed otherwise occupied, too.
When the 4-H sponsor stood up, signaling the end of the social, Tom quickly did the same. Visibly relieved, he couldn’t wait to mumble thanks, get into his car, and drive off into the darkness.
When I returned home, Mother was all ears, and I was eager to release the pressure of all that adrenalin by telling her the story. She smiled as I described how the brown bag box had started a bidding war and that the buyer was a tall boy. Mom loved tallness. Then I told her about the look on Tom’s face when he saw the box belonged to me and how he hadn’t talked except to answer questions.
“Is this how dating is going to be?” I asked, fear creeping into my voice.
“No, not if you like each other,” she answered. “It’s never easy getting to know someone new, but I’m sure you’ll be ready when your time comes.”
I looked down at the box in my lap. There were two pieces of chicken, two slices of bread, and two apples left inside. My cheeks flushed one more time.
“Oh my goodness,” I said. “Tom paid five dollars for this box, and I forgot to give it to him before he left! He only ate bread, chips, and cookies. What do you think I should do?”
“Just put the food in the fridge,” my wise mother counseled, “and take the leftovers in your lunch box tomorrow. I don’t think Tom will mind. It won’t be the last time he pays too much for a meal.”
The word that best describes my dating experience is courtship. Such an old-fashioned word. It conjures up blurry images of a horse-drawn carriage with fringe on top, long strolls in the moonlight, and bashful young men wearing seersucker and standing at the door with flowers and hats in hand. It’s a nineteenth-century word that dates back to the courtly love tradition during the Middle Ages when longing itself was exalted, and consummation, devoutly to be wished, was a kiss or a stolen embrace rather than full sexual union.
I first saw how courtship worked when I watched Lois, a hired girl who helped Mother with household chores for several months after the birth of my baby sister Sue. Lois, who was single then, was even “plainer” than my mother (i.e., she wore a large hair covering, long dresses, and dark stockings). The neighbor’s hired man, Levi, who used to be Amish but had left his church at the risk of excommunication was also single. Both Lois and Levi were a little older than the average age for dating, so anytime they came in close proximity to each other, we would tease them. Lois blushed whenever we used Levi’s name. Thus, we did it as often as possible. She once sat outside with her Sunday school quarterly on her lap, reading it upside down. We suspected she was hoping to see Levi going down the road. She ended up marrying someone else, but she nevertheless showed me the connection between blushing and courtship. Even thoughts could turn your cheeks red!
Mother, of course, was my best source for courtship education, with lots of stories in her vast repertoire. And, as always, she turned what might have sounded like ordinary encounters to worldly-wise listeners into exciting ones to my inexperienced ears.
Mother loved to talk about her favorite teenage outfits—a yellow dress, cameo jewelry, a sailor suit, a coatdress—and the attention she got when she wore these. Being in plays, 4-H, and church afforded her interactions with prospective beaus, a term girls actually used in her day.
That same year the homeliest and most awkward boy in our class developed a crush on me. I asked Mother, “Why is it that boys I don’t like like me, and the ones I like don’t seem to know I exist?”
For a while, Mother just thought, her hands in the suds. Then she laughed.
“I asked my mother the same question when I was about your age.”
“What did your mother tell you?”
“She said, ‘You have eyes, don’t you?’”
“No. She told me, ‘Well, use them.’”
“Did Grandma show you how?” I asked. “No. She just smiled,” said Mother as she smiled at me.
“Tell me about when you and Daddy met.”
“Well, there was a tradition of having ‘singings’ for young people on Wednesday nights. They were held in homes. Once the singing was held at Paul Hershey’s house [the Home Place]. I was standing at the mirror in an upstairs bedroom where we all laid our coats. In the reflection I saw a very handsome young man looking at me, smiling. I turned around and smiled back.”
“Did you know he was the one then?” I asked.
“No,” said Mother. “But your daddy later told me that he knew then. After we were married I asked him whether it was my eyes that attracted him that night. ‘No, silly,’ he said. ‘It was your smile.’”
Courtship, of course, plays an important role in rural communities, which depend on young love leading to marriage and then to children as part of the economic as well as social arrangement. Without a new generation to share in the hard work of making a hundred acres pay for themselves, a farmer simply could not run a farm. Today it takes a thousand acres and a million dollars or more. For generations before this one, however, it took children, the more the merrier. The sex drive and the farm drive were in alignment with each other.
Farm folks often referred to courtship as a time of “running around.” The Pennsylvania Dutch56 expression rumspringa57 means literally jumping or running around and refers to a period of relative permissiveness before joining the church and settling down into marriage. Since information about Mennonite practices is often confused with Amish ones, and because practices differ widely within both groups, it’s sometimes difficult to sort fact from fiction. My own rumspringa was very tame, but it served an important purpose.
One of the practices I heard about, and we sometimes joked about, was the “blue gate” signal: a father painting his front gate blue as a sign that he had an eligible daughter within. Whether or not real fathers did this, the story that it was an Amish or Mennonite custom persisted.
At the Home Place, Daddy did not paint the front gate blue, but we had our own ways of getting the word out.
If you were in high school, as almost every young person was, people could assume you were eligible by the grade you were in. “Sweet sixteen” was the usual age at which dating began; if you were fifteen, you risked the reputation of being “fast.”
But there were also other ways to send out the signal. The first was to buy a huge class ring with a large red stone and the school’s name inscribed around it. This glittery object was off limits for the hands of Mennonites, of course, although I often gazed longingly upon the gems worn by some of my classmates.
The other way, however, was to purchase a big, bulky class jacket. On the back of the black wool garment, an arc of bright red letters—W-A-R-W-I-C-K—formed an umbrella over two numbers: the year of the wearer’s high school graduation (’66 in my case).
My class jacket had “Shirley” embroidered on the front left side and the oval Warwick logo on the right. The jacket cost more than any other one in my closet, and I probably paid for part or all of it with my own money. I’m sure, however, that I was pleased with the investment. I loved the cool feeling of slipping my arms into the jacket’s warm wool arms with their quilted satin lining. On fall evenings my friends from Warwick ’66 and ’65 and Conestoga Valley ’65 always hoped we would run into a group of boys wearing Garden Spot ’66 or Manheim Central ’65 jackets.
Another way to prepare for dating was by sending one of your individual class pictures off to one of the addresses in little ads found in the backs of magazines such as Ladies Home Journal. You could order twenty wallet-sized pictures for only a dollar and then trade them with friends. Long before Facebook, inventive youth had created a low-tech version.
Every girl owned a wallet with many transparent picture holders. A really popular girl’s wallet bulged with a trove of photos, all with messages autographed on the back. Collecting these photos took courage because the unspoken rules of social hierarchies applied. It was much better to be asked than to ask for a picture.
As I approached the normal dating age of sixteen, I hoped to find just the right glamor shot that would make me irresistible to some handsome young man gazing at my face in the wallet of a friend. I wanted that effect so much that I drove myself to the Olan Mills Studio and sat for a portrait instead of simply waiting until time for my usual school picture.
The results were disappointing, no matter which of three separate takes I chose. None was pin-up material, but I got copies made anyway. After all, I had paid good money for them, and I must have given them away successfully, because I collected a modest number of other photos in my own wallet. I still have three different headshots taken at this photo shoot. I can’t believe I didn’t throw them away. The eight-inch-by-twelve-inch photo apparently never made it into a frame, judging from the crease along the edge. And the outfit? Even the bishop would have been impressed by my buttoned-up modesty.
I began my courtship earlier than many girls did. The summer I turned fifteen, I went to Black Rock Camp for a week, along with about forty other Mennonite youth. There I met a young man named Paul Kennel at the first mixed-gender camp I ever went to. There were only a few boys and about twenty girls that week. Paul was the only boy who interested me, and I was thrilled when he started to talk to me. Both of us loved baseball. Both of us had ruddy cheeks. Somehow I was the lucky girl who got to hold hands with Paul and then write letters back and forth for quite a few months afterward. Maybe it was my eyes.
Timing is everything though. Somehow the letters became less frequent.
About the time the letters ended, our family was invited to the home of a family we didn’t know very well. They lived close to the town of New Holland, went to Groffdale Mennonite Church, and did not live on a farm. We enjoyed getting to know them better one Sunday over dinner, followed by a little socializing when the kids retired to a game of foosball in their family room.
Nelson Wert and his younger sister were the only children in the family. Nelson was a year older than I was and planned to go to college to become a veterinarian. That fact alone made him devilishly handsome to me. By the time we left the house that afternoon, I was hooked. When he called to ask me out on my first real date, I was thrilled. Since I was still only fifteen, I wasn’t sure if my parents would allow me to go, but they must have seen how much I wanted to. Since they had already met and approved of the whole family, they said yes to our date.
I have a foggy recollection of wearing a polished cotton dress with a large floral print. I think we may have hiked, a good excuse for holding hands.
What I remember most was being ready for my first real date fifteen minutes early. I had taken special care with my hair, having learned a trick from other Mennonite girls. When you wear a bun, the only staging area for creating anything like a hairdo is the hair that surrounds the face. If you washed your hair and then used bobby pins to hold it in place, you could crimp your hair like a piecrust. When dry, the hair would fall into a set of waves around the face. I looked in the mirror and was pleased by the result.
I paced nervously in the kitchen, waiting, until I heard the sound of stones crunching in the driveway as Nelson drove his family’s sedan (proof he was not a farm boy!) into our lane. That sound, one I had heard thousands of times before, sent a shock through my body. Sound reverberated under the earth, connecting through my feet to something beyond. I felt like the invisible world was speaking to me. The stones themselves whispered, “You will leave this place, and this is the beginning.”
One night, around 9:30, after the rest of my family had gone to bed, Nelson and I were sitting in the living room next to the open staircase. We were trying to find subjects that led to natural, relaxed conversation—difficult to do since both of us were so young and nervous and inexperienced. Suddenly, a little brown mouse darted out from under our legs and skittered across the wide wooden floorboards of the old house. Neither of us laughed as we both pretended not to notice. I blushed right red. Soon it was time for Nelson to go. When he left, would my chances to date a Mennonite boy on the way to college, such a rare creature, also disappear?
Shortly after the mouse episode, my parents decided it was time to make the parlor more suitable for dating. My father probably wished he could have bought just one bucket of blue paint for the gate. Instead, he had to cough up a lot more for some serious remodeling. We needed a room that could be made private instead of a room that led upstairs and was easily accessible to the curious eyes and ears of younger brothers and sisters on the second floor. Fortunately, the Home Place farmstead was a “double” house with an apartment on the other side. We could enlarge our space by reclaiming one of the two living rooms from that area. The door next to the rental space was closed and locked, and another door opened into the living room with the staircase. The crucial point about that new door was that it could close again, and it was well away from the staircase, so family members could come and go even if I were entertaining a boyfriend in the now-private new parlor, resplendent in its makeover: new wallpaper, paint, carpet, and an accent wall sporting real walnut paneling, the latest in farm interiors.
When the workers peeled away old wallpaper and plaster, they had encountered a surprise. A rugged wooden beam emerged with a black bell attached to one end. The beam still carried rough hatchet cuts made in 1735. Now I would have something to talk about on awkward first dates. The room had a story. Maybe this was the very place where Count Zinzendorf preached in 1742. I noticed most of my boyfriends were not as impressed by this fact as I thought they should be, however.
Now that we had a room and I had turned sixteen, I was ready for the phone to ring again. Despite my fears of rejection after the mouse incident, Nelson did call again, but I wasn’t allowed to go with him on his youth group’s trip. Some other girl took that space, a disappointment to me.
But soon I was back playing my favorite game of Walk-a-Mile58 with our youth group, open to using my eyes on other boys.
By the age of seventeen, I had reached the flagging-interest stage of courtship. I had been with one boyfriend, John, all though the winter of Bible quizzing in 1965. He had learned about me from his sister, my camp counselor. I adored her because she made me laugh. So I looked forward to dating her brother. When he showed up driving a convertible, I was even more interested. After several months of double dates with other friends and their dates, however, we got to that fork in the road: Either get more serious or get going. So we got going . . . in different directions.
Soon thereafter I had a bright idea. Why not start an Old Maids Society? A group of girlfriends pretended along with me that we would never marry and therefore had no more use for courtship. Shades of the Hikta Stikta Club!
We even crashed Joe’s Diner one night. Curious about what Mennonite guys found so appealing in this steel-clad diner, we drove there ourselves, sat in a corner booth, and observed the scene—more like anthropologists than frisky cats on a hot tin roof.
All around us was classic Americana. A waitress wearing a cute little apron ambled over to our table.
“Hi there, gals. What can I get for you-uns?”59
We studied the plastic-coated menus carefully, always conscious of our pennies yet eager for a treat. We all asked for milkshakes and split an order of fries and a hamburger.
The jukebox in the corner almost always had several platters ready to drop down onto the turntable: “Peggy Sue,” “The Little Old Lady from Pasadena,” or “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.” We knew the words to all of these tunes. We loved pretending we could dance and for a little while were just another bunch of teenyboppers. Except for those prayer coverings on our heads.
In the spring of my junior year in high school, with Mother and Daddy’s approval, I planned a visit to Eastern Mennonite College. I was stepping out in the direction of my dream. For Mother the trip was exciting in another way. Her mentor in combining writing and speaking with traditional roles in the home was Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus, Your Friend Ruth on the radio. Ruth lived just a few miles from the college.
Ruth and Grant Stoltzfus lived in a big white house overlooking the western mountains of the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. Mother contacted Ruth to see if she, Daddy, and I could stay in their home while I attended special events for prospective students during the college’s homecoming activities.
At breakfast the next morning, Daddy, Mother, and I joined their family of five children and two parents for breakfast. The food was simple and the table unadorned. What mattered more than food, to the whole family it seemed, was conversation. I was used to chatter at family meals, but not this kind! No one talked about the weather, the list of chores, or what the neighbors were up to. The talk was about books, music, art, and any interesting ideas in what they were reading and experiencing. The Stoltzfuses didn’t always agree. In fact, the point of the conversation seemed to be trying to view the same object or idea from as many different vantage points as possible.
If this was the kind of family life produced by college, then I was all for it! When I returned to my high school classes after my visit to EMC, I doodled in the edges of my three-ring denim binder. I wrote “Allen Grant Stoltzfus” along the edge of my binder, using the oldest son’s full name, positioning it north- south like a lighthouse, not east-west like a field. The very name sent a powerful beacon to my future, which I was sure now would be large with energy. I continued the Old Maid Society halfheartedly, had a few more local dates, and began to focus not only on my academic plans but also on my social ones for the four years ahead. I hoped to spend them at that magnetic place far away in Virginia called Eastern Mennonite College, where I was destined to find some intelligent, good-looking Mennonite man looking for adventure. The name I wrote in my binder was a placeholder. The man himself was a mystery, but one thing I knew. Our conversations at the breakfast table would be brilliant.
How exactly were my future children, the offspring of a former Old Maid and a Future Intellectual of America, going to come into the world?
Courtship and sex were not designed to travel the same road, according to my parents and the books they gave me about Christian dating. I knew the basic facts of life and understood how a woman could become pregnant. I had often seen my little brother taking his bath, but from the time I was ten until the time I got married at twenty-one, I never saw a naked man. The closest I came to such a sight was observing my father exit the bathroom wearing only jockey shorts.
Our sex education in public school health class consisted of a little section about the reproductive organs and menstruation. But sex, of course, is always the subtext of any high school. There were the boys with tight jeans, combs in their back pockets, sideburns, and ducktail haircuts. At school, however, I hung out with the bookish kids who liked to talk about politics and literature, which saved me from too much envy of the popular crowd’s social scene.
So it was that I moved all the way through high school just as pure as Mother and Daddy expected me to be. I never thought of myself as a virgin. I was just a girl. I knew my body was full of energy. I loved the feeling of waking up in the morning firm and strong in every muscle, ready to tackle the world.
Years later, when I eventually wrote a dissertation on women authors born in the nineteenth century, I knew exactly what Willa Cather meant as she described her main character Thea’s emerging sexuality:
She used to drag her mattress beside her low window and lie awake for a long while, vibrating with excitement, as a machine vibrates from speed. Life rushed in upon her through that window—or so it seemed. In reality, of course, life rushes from within, not from without. There is no work of art so big or so beautiful that it was not once all contained in some youthful body, like this one which lay on the floor in the moonlight, pulsing with ardor and anticipation.60
In fact, I could see my own body stretched out on the double bed that had been in the Hess family for three generations. The wide and deep windowsill beside the bed led out to the starry night. The long body pillow I hugged every night stretched diagonally across the quilted cover on the bed.
My joy in my own body led me to curiosity about sex, and then to literature for clues about what the connection between sex and joy might be. I had gone out of my way to try to locate a sex scene a friend told me about in one of Pearl S. Buck’s books, but I never did find it. I also begged my father to stop the car whenever we went past a drive-in theater so that I could study the huge faces on the screen. I longed to see the faraway dreamy people kiss in Technicolor. My father, however, never stopped the car—merely slowed it down.
Mennonite prohibitions included dancing, television, and movies. When my gym teacher taught a class unit on dancing, I had to turn in a note sent by my mother excusing me for religious reasons. Those classes spent with one other lonely Mennonite classmate on the wooden bleachers were some of the longest fifty minutes in high school for me.
Back at the Home Place, one would think I would have gotten a sex education by watching all those animals. However, even our pets did their mating out of sight. The suckling of their young, however, was a very public act. Our dogs and cats were prolific, spawning brood after brood of helpless puppies and kittens clamoring over each other for time at their mothers’ breasts.
My mother was rather prolific also. Six live births. Five different times in my life I was presented with a new baby sister or brother. I loved smelling the tops of their heads, kissing the napes of their necks, even sucking their earlobes or toes. Whenever I had a new sibling, my mother’s discrete breastfeeding was both an embarrassing reminder of her sexuality and a good memory of the perfect union of mother and child. Someday, perhaps, I would want to become a mother, too. But not yet.
Part of the lack of visual sexual instruction on the farm stemmed from the fact that my father was a member of the Dairy Herd Improvement Association and owned registered Holsteins. He no longer left breeding to Mother Nature. Science had entered the scene and spoiled the sex. In contrast to the old way of allowing a bull to jump the cow when she went into estrus, or “heat,” the scientific way is not to call in a bull but rather a professional with the unromantic title of Artificial Inseminator (AI). This person (always a man in my experience) has to arrive soon after the heifer goes into heat, the signs of which are extra vaginal lubrication and her attempts to mount another heifer.
The AI would arrive with a vial of semen procured by duping a bull to have sex with a reasonable facsimile of the back end of a cow. One ejaculation produces over a billion sperm cells, which means that the owner of a quality bull can freeze the semen and sell it to farmers all across the world. Ivanhoe was the great Holstein bull of the 1960s and the daddy of most of our best-producing milk cows. On several occasions I was allowed to watch the amazing process of insemination. The inseminator put on long rubber gloves and then used both hands, one in the rectum to guide and the other in the vagina, to deposit the semen. Then he pulled off the soiled glove, washed his arms in a bucket of hot soapy water, filled out his invoice, and headed up the road to insert his arm into the next cow. Fortunately, artificial insemination bore no resemblance to my later sex life, but it certainly was amazing to watch.
The church made its own contribution to my sex education. A doctor and his wife delivered the formal instruction at Lititz Mennonite Church. They were missionaries returned from Africa, now on a mission to help American youth avoid temptations of the flesh until their passion could be consummated in marriage. The doctor talked to the boys in the main auditorium, while his wife talked to the girls. My friends and I mostly made fun of “Mrs. Doctor” because the approach was so serious, and, like so much other cautionary education, this talk exaggerated even the slightest danger. It was like a Reefer Madness film for the Mennonite world.
Mrs. Doctor exhorted us not to wear high heels because they thrust the body, especially the breasts, into prominence in such a way that a young man might not be able to control his carnal urges. Having worn heels from the age of twelve without provoking any danger worse than wobbly walking, I felt free to disregard this advice.
My mother saw the humor in the Byzantine lecture after a group of my girlfriends and I did a satirical rerun of the event in our kitchen. Mother’s own advice was based on a similarly respectful view of the power of male sexual urges, however, along with confidence that a young woman who knew how to protect the boundaries of her bra straps could keep not only herself pure but her boyfriend also. When I was ten, Mother told me my body would soon be ready to have babies. This information alone was reason to guard oneself, wear modest clothing, and be careful around men both young and old.
The most instructive story my mother ever told me was about one weekend she and Daddy went to the beach together before they were married. She said that weekend had taught her how hard it could be to save sex for marriage. I had seen pictures of the two of them in their bathing suits, with my father’s muscular torso, long arms, and handsome features next to my mother’s curves, curls, and full breasts only partially covered by her two-piece bathing suit.
I never got the message that sex was dirty or unpleasant. Quite the contrary, actually. I sensed that sex was dangerous precisely because it was so pleasurable and could burn you up unless the institution of marriage protected you. My parents often held hands in front of us to display their affection, and my mother loved to brag to us about how handsome daddy was. She even hinted how much she enjoyed sex by saying with great emphasis and a beatific smile, “Your father is a man.”
My mother bought me a book about dating, sex, and marriage within a spiritual context. The gift vanished long ago, but I still have her accompanying letter, written in 1961. I was thirteen then, and she was only thirty-four herself—and very respectful of the power of passion. The letter reveals her struggling to offer both guidance and freedom to her daughter: “I should have liked to have underlined some truths that I think are especially important, but I guess it would be better to let these truths stand out themselves without my assistance.”
I began to notice other nuances. We had gender segregation in church—with men sitting on one side and women on the other. Teenage girls sat in one or two rows near the back, while the teenage boys were on the opposite side. We ogled each other across the center aisle, whispering to our friends, and barely contained our voices well enough to prevent a disturbance in the Sunday service.
One of our favorite frivolities was to go through the hymn-book index and add the words “under the bed” to various titles. Sometimes the hilarity of this juxtaposition would send us into silent paroxysms of laughter that shook the whole wooden bench, producing glares from the sedate matrons in front of us.
Another activity we girls enjoyed in church was faintly, and gently, stroking the tender insides of each other’s arms. This touching was innocent, intended as a diversion from the boredom of sermons or even as aids to keeping us quiet and apparently attentive. Later, when I read that the skin and the brain for women are the two most important sexual organs, I smiled.
When I was thirteen, I learned about the subtext of danger firsthand. As luck would have it, another farm family we knew included two good-looking sons just a few years older than I was. Their mother invited our family to come to their house for lunch one snowy Sunday. Following a big meal that afternoon, someone suggested the four oldest children might want to go sledding. I eagerly buttoned up my coat; put on hat, gloves, and boots; and hurried to join Henry and the two older boys.
There were only three sleds. Henry joined the two older boys on the first ride, which left me standing alone at the top of the hill. My intuition told me that something was not right. Below me in the distance, the two older boys started whispering something in my little brother’s ear. Obediently, he yelled out the letters they dictated: “F” and then “U” and then “C” and “K.” The big boys laughed. Suddenly, the fun of sledding was all gone for me as I watched the older boys take advantage of my brother, who had no idea what he was saying. I never went down that hill. Instead, I ran back to the house, tears streaming down my face. I made up some lie about being too cold and never told anyone what had happened.
I would later recognize this event as an awakening into the power of the patriarchy. The boys were not threatening bodily harm. They were trying to shock me with the worst bad word they knew. But behind their taunt was warning. The wrong man, the wrong sexual act, could scar me forever.
After that, I examined every boy and man I met with a little more care and a little less trust. In the 1960s that was not necessarily a bad thing. I lost a piece of innocence on that snowy hillside at age thirteen.
As a teenager, I wanted to postpone marriage, to avoid marrying a farmer and having babies until I had discovered on my own what courtship would be like in an altogether different place: a college nestled among the purple mountains of Virginia. It had not escaped my notice that the sports teams at Eastern Mennonite College were then called the Courtiers.
56. See glossary, 255.
58. Walk-a-Mile was a popular rural mixer in Lancaster Conference Mennonite youth groups. First, select a country road with low traffic. Then, girls line up on one side, boys on the other. Hold hands. Walk. Try to say something inter- esting. Walk and talk until one boy taps another boy’s shoulders and takes his place. You might call it Mennonite speed-dating.59. See glossary, 255
59. See glossary, 255
60. Willa Cather, The Song of the Lark (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1915), 177.
Shirley Hershey Showalter grew up on a Mennonite family farm near Lititz, Pennsylvania. The first person in her family to go to college, she eventually became the first woman president of Goshen College in Indiana. After six years as an executive at the Fetzer Institute, Kalamazoo, Michigan, she became a full-time writer living in Harrisonburg, Virginia. To read more, you can buy her book, Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets A Glittering World, and reach her on her website.
AND THE WINNER IS…
I hope you enjoy Writing Lessons. Featuring well-published writers of our favorite genre, each installment of the series will take on one short topic that addresses how to write memoir, and will include a great big book giveaway.
It’s my way of saying thanks for coming by.
The contest for this book is now closed. Please see the next installment of Writing Lessons.
The winner of Shirley Showalter’s fine book is Linda Gartz. Congratulations, Linda! I’ll be in touch to send your book.