I chose to read Diana R. Zimmerman’s memoir, Marry a Mennonite Boy and Make Pie, in a very un-Mennonite fashion. That is, I printed out the entire book, even though she had sent me an electronic version, when a scrupulous Mennonite (for the unknowing non-Mennonite readers out there) would’ve just read it on their laptop. In my defense, I printed it on both sides and shrank the text. Mess of manuscript and pen in hand, I settled down to read the memoir with my Pandora station set to play mostly grunge hits from the 1990s. The music choice was entirely coincidental—but it fit with the memoir and the feeling of the snapshots Zimmerman shares about the summer of 1991.
That summer, Zimmerman, her friend, Beth, and two other young women, Nina and Sheila, decide to stay in their small college town to take summer classes and work. The initial scene of the discovery that none of them know how to cook or keep house is vivid and captivating. Their first meal is peanut butter and jelly after a hotpot is ruined through an attempt to cook rice in it. “Maybe I could have saved the hotpot if I had seen Beth’s preparations,” Zimmerman writes. “I didn’t know how to cook, but I did score in the 99th percentile on an aptitude test for mechanical reasoning. ‘Mechanical reasoning’ 12 doesn’t mean you can fix things—it means you can tell ahead of time something like that is never going to work.” One feature of the apartment they share is the fact that the landlady allows them to paint whatever they want on the walls. What they paint becomes a backdrop to those months of independence. “It didn't have to be pretty,” Zimmerman writes, after describing some of the attempts at artistry. She adds, “Before long, it wasn't.” These scenes set the tone for the rest of the memoir. She cannot necessarily correct the problems that arise, but she realizes that they are there, looming, like the damaged hotpot and painted walls.
Zimmerman adroitly shares snapshot after snapshot, giving us glimpses into her life that summer. Those glimpses become a series of photographs that are laid out on the floor of that first apartment. Certain people appear over and over—some gain more resolution as one sees different angles of the same face (like Zimmerman, Beth, Sheila, and Nina), others are always a little grainy, a bit out of focus (like the boy from Los Rios).
Some of the snapshots are probably familiar to anyone who was an American liberal arts college student living for the first time on their own in the 1980s, 1990s, or early 2000s, before cell phones, social media, or helicopter parents became ubiquitous. There are friends who do “dumpster dives” (if you aren’t familiar with the term, Wikipedia has a fairly good tutorial) or have keys to the campus cafeteria to supplement their food needs. Romantic relationships fade in and out of focus. There is a moment when a car is frantically borrowed to carry one of Zimmerman’s roommates to a mental health clinic. A mailbox meant to bear letters from Costa Rica remains empty (the line: “I was angry at my mailbox for never holding the letter I waited for, the one written by delicate fingers that destroyed me without meaning to” totally killed me). The stress of summer classes, low-paying jobs, empty bank accounts, and last-minute appeals to parents for money continually surface and sink throughout the memoir’s pages.
Other snapshots are possibly familiar only to those of us who went to a Mennonite college (or perhaps if you went to a granola college rife with the words “peace” and “social justice”). Like Zimmerman, I attended a Mennonite college, although I chose the “good” Mennonite college, while she chose the “bad” Mennonite college. (Her descriptions of the “good” and “bad” Mennonite colleges made me laugh out loud.) Like Zimmerman, I also went on a semester-long cross-cultural (a graduation requirement for both the good and bad Mennonite institutions), which was supposed to make students more culturally aware, but affected both of us in ways that changed our lives forever. Whether that’s the intention of the creators of the cross-cultural program is up for debate. “I did not expect to come unglued over it when it was my turn. Nobody else ever does,” she writes about her time in Costa Rica the semester before the summer of 1991. “You’re supposed to like it well enough; you’re not supposed to love it. You’re supposed to discover how wonderful your life in Indiana really is. You’re supposed to find friends there, not find yourself.”
The reader slowly learns about the friend and the self that Zimmerman finds in Costa Rica, although those snapshots are always a little grainy, a bit out of focus. It is the emotion behind those shots that come through in Zimmerman’s narrative. She found a place and a person that spoke to her heart and soul, and she senses she abandoned it, because that’s what was expected of her—to finish her cross-cultural requirement and return to the “real” world. To be changed, but only in intangible ways. Zimmerman writes: “I was mad at myself for waking up again from dreams of Los Rios. I was mad at myself for getting on the bus.”
I won’t spoil the ending—though I think it’s fairly obvious early on that Zimmerman chooses a life that’s a bit off the Mennonite-girl-settles-down-as-a-good-Mennonite-girl-should trope. What I really enjoyed about Marry a Mennonite Boy is the fact that it so nicely did the personal and universal trick to which all memoirs should strive, and left me with questions, but I was satisfied with the story arc as a whole. I recommend you pick up this gem of a memoir, perhaps pop in your favorite 1990s CD or mixed tape, and absorb her story.