As a young woman in the late 1950s in Akron, Ohio, Esther Royer is approached by a local social club asking to sponsor her in the Miss Akron contest, the winner of which would proceed to the state level, and possibly the national and well-known Miss America pageant. To better prepare for such an event, Esther is encouraged to first enter a modeling contest. She buys a stylish outfit and checks out a book on modeling to get the right tips on how to walk down a runway.
The night of the modeling competition, Esther watches the other contestants go first, and reassures herself that she knows the proper routine. But when the spotlight shines on her, she freezes like a "deer trapped in the headlights of a car." She recovers only enough to flee the auditorium. "On the way home, I berated myself: You can read all the books you want to on how to walk and position your feet, but, deep within, you'll always be an Old Order Mennonite," concludes Esther Royer Ayers.
In this memoir subtitled "A Passage Out of the Old Older Mennonite Religion," Ayers describes a childhood spent being uncomfortably different, and an early adult struggle to find an authentic identity when her family leaves its restrictive Mennonite culture.
In the late 1940s, Ayers was one of eight children in a family living on Germantown Road near Columbiana, Ohio. She finds it a "drab" and "dismal" world, where she and her siblings "learned early to give up our identity for the good of the community."
As a young child, she longs for the pretty and colorful clothes of her non-Old Order classmates, and dislikes the plain dress and long braids required of her. Most distasteful are the black stockings Ayers wears on her legs and she rolls them down whenever she can, only to be punished by her mother for doing so.
She finds the Old Order Mennonite culture devoid of affectionate hugs and kisses, and full of the drudgery of hard work. Particularly painful to Ayers is the Old Order prohibition of school beyond eighth grade and the subsequent pressure to fail two grades, so as to meet legal requirements of attending school until age 16.
Ayers' life changes dramatically when her father dies, after suffering years of slow decline from multiple sclerosis. Her mother finds new energy and comfort in an evangelical "Full Gospel" congregation; she moves her eight children to Akron, Ohio, and leaves the Old Order Mennonite faith.
The second portion of Rolling Down Black Stockings is a series of vignettes from Ayers' life as she struggles with shame about her Old Order background. She lies about her age, not wanting people to know that she failed in school, and marries without telling her husband the truth about her family and home community.
Ayers ends the book with a section entitled "A Walk into the Light," clearly intending that the reader will understand her personal triumph over oppression. Yet this memoir never gets beyond the passage out of the Old Order Mennonites; she explains little about how life is truly better in the "light."
Caught up in personal pain over how hard her life was, she demonstrates little understanding of a religious group like the Old Order Mennonites. "The community left us hanging like a loose twig in a tree," Ayers says ever so briefly, but does not explore the critical issue of why this faith community failed to offer support and mutuality, surely the counter balance to severe everyday restrictions.
The book is far more compelling in its portrait of the Ayers family, its close-knit siblings, a bold and determined mother, and the tenderness that draws them together despite great difficulty.
Only a child, Ayers helped care for her father as he grew increasingly unable to work as a carpenter, plow his fields, and eventually wash or feed himself. "Papa's eyes glistened with love as I washed his face ever so carefully with a soft washcloth," Ayers writes. "It felt as though his facial bones relaxed as I gently moved across his forehead, his chin, then patted it all dry with a towel."
For a reader of this memoir filled with rich stories, this is the triumph that emerges most significant.
Ardie S. Goering
Albuquerque, New Mexico