Fiercely Independent! Reading ‘On My Own: A Journey From A Mennonite Childhood’

What happens when an intellectual is born into a conservative Mennonite family still dealing with the residual effects of the trauma they experienced as a result of the Russian Revolution?

I’ll tell you what happens! Hildegard Margo Martens’ memoir On My Own: Journey From A Mennonite Childhood. That’s what.

Martens notes in the introduction that her life began in the shadow of her parents’ story; their experiences as refugees escaping a war-torn landscape captures the imagination in a particularly haunting way; it’s a fairy tale gone wrong from another time and space entirely. And it has frequently eclipsed Martens’ own personal narrative.

Near the beginning of this book, Martens writes, “I was given the Germanic name of Hildegard, which means battle maiden, perhaps aptly so, seeing that much of my life has been a struggle to assert myself.”

This is the first memoir I’ve read in which a woman of Mennonite background decides to remain single and raise a child on her own. I almost think that this book could’ve also have been called How To Remain Decisively Single.

Certainly Martens is not the first to have accomplished this, however it’s not a common life-choice when you’ve been raised Mennonite. She has consistently pushed against expectations at every turn: first with her parents, her religion, then also society at large, being fiercely independent and career-minded at a time when it was assumed that every female’s life trajectory would include marriage and motherhood, in that order. To veer from this path with a view of being self-supporting was bold and unusual, but she did not back down.

Martens puts forth many good arguments for singlehood. Throughout her lifetime, she has had several partners, and entertained the idea of marriage…though when she’s been honest about what she wanted, the best choice for herself was always to remain single, even in pursuing motherhood. Check that; especially in pursuing motherhood.

But this is more than just a book about choosing to Murphy-Brown-it-up.

She clearly loves discussing ideas, delving into topics such as religion, history, sociology, existentialism, philosophy, feminism, and gender inequality, coloured with personal memories of conversations and conflicts and relationships within each era as it passed. She walks the reader through each of the decisions she’s made in her life; whether to have a child…her abortion…her regret…and ultimately embarking upon motherhood alone, relishing the fact that she’s taken control of her own life.

The choice of title, On My Own, is a testament to everything Martens accomplished alone. But she doesn’t claim to have done everything right. The same keen, critical eye with which she regards everything, she turns toward her own self as well. Martens is honest about her struggles, her anxieties, her longings, and how she has carefully weighed each of her considerations. Sure, she wanted a life partner…yet, at what cost?

It’s interesting to read her honest memories, punctuated with (and reinforced by) excerpts from letters she had written to her sister many years ago. This book truly is like peering into a time capsule; moments from Martens’ past have crystalized into words on the page, lying in wait for our eyes to graze across them.

At the conclusion of the memoir, Martens fearlessly examines her life, her motives, herself, and considers honestly what her regrets might be. I think most people would assume her regret might be that she had not taken the opportunity to marry when she was younger. But no. You know what Martens thinks she might regret? Not publishing her doctoral dissertation. Oh my goodness, how can you help but love this woman?!

Martens writes with calm, even clarity about every aspect of her life; finances, sex, love, religion, and death. She possesses a keen appreciation for dark humour, and I rather enjoyed reading about the time she (accidentally?) got high while on a Mennonite Heritage trip in the Netherlands.

Often the Mennonite pioneers are celebrated for forging new ground, establishing a new life in a new country. Well, Martens should be celebrated for doing exactly that. Moving to Toronto, pursuing education and a career, refusing to settle and therefore remaining single, having a child on her own at age 43. In this light, Hildegard Margo Martens is a new kind of Mennonite pioneer.

On My Own: A Journey From A Mennonite Childhood is available at McNally Robinson Booksellers in Winnipeg.