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Helena's Refugees

by Phyllis Martens

Part 1

When the Jungas family moved into the hotel, two things happened: Helena stopped acquiring children, and life for everyone past the age of accountability became a hard-work-no-frills affair.

The situation now was this. Johann, Helena, and the children--two boys and six girls--lived in three rooms on second floor. Al and John slept in one room, all six girls in another. In the third room the family cooked, ate, sewed, and did homework. A washbasin and mirror in one corner were curtained off for privacy. Helena and Johann slept there as well.

Imagine, please, ten people in this room at once: girls ironing skirts, boys slicking down their hair at the washbasin, Johann looking for some papers, Helena cooking potatoes over the kerosene stove, the younger ones dawdling over breakfast . . . table, chairs, stove, bed and cupboard in everyone's way, the older girls scolding, making sure the door to the hall was closed--the noise had to stay inside because everywhere else on second and third floors strangers were using the rooms.

Downstairs were customers. Outside the front door was the street, a main highway carrying east-west traffic through the town.

The hotel hummed like a beehive. Johann ran down early in the morning to sweep the front steps and open the store. During the morning rush hour the Jungas children hustled down the stairs, past farmers in striped overalls wanting to buy nails and wrenches, and out the front door to school. Hotel guests carrying suitcases hurried downstairs on their way to Sukau's restaurant or the train depot. In between checking out guests, Helena descended to the basement to start the fire under the meergroppa--the huge iron basin in which the wash water was heated.

All day Helena worked as fast as she could to strip beds, get the laundry done and perhaps a few beds made up. In summer streams of sweat ran down her neck from the steam in the basement. In winter she bundled up in a thick coat and shawls to hang out the sheets. The sheets froze as soon as they hit the line, but somehow they froze themselves dry. Johann tended his store.

The late afternoon rush began with the children returning from school, not in a big hurry to get home and start working. The older girls had to clean guest rooms--dustmop the floors, make up beds, wipe out washbasins. The first thing they did upon entering a room was open the small cupboard below the washbasin where the chamber pot was kept, life the lid and look in . . . if the pot was clean and dry, their afternoon instantly felt brighter, their work more blessed. Actually, as they found out, a full chamber pot was not the worst of possible disasters. Very early one morning a gentleman on third floor, embarrassed at having had to use his pot during the night, carefully put the lid on and tiptoed down the stairs to empty it in the bathroom on second floor. Halfway down he tripped. Helena cleaned up the mess without comment. Why shame the poor man? He was ashamed enough already.

After school the boys helped their dad in the store, unpacking crates, waiting on customers, tidying bins of nails and bolts. Helena came up from the basement to register guests who wanted a room for the night; this she did sitting at a small table in the upstairs hall.

The girls made supper--bean soup maybe, with bread and leftover pie--and settled down to homework at the big dining table. Helena sewed, using one of Johann's treadle machines. After store closing time Johann lit a lamp and worked on his books until late at night. In summer he walked to his garden--a large piece of land five blocks away--to plant tulips and look after the raspberry vines, or bring home peas which he shelled after the children were in bed.

Life was hard, but who expected it to be easy? The community was built on work. It couldn't be helped--the work was there and someone had to do it. The laundry women at the hospital rose before dawn to heat water, fell exhausted into bed late at night. Businessmen kept their establishments open sometimes until midnight. And the farmers--what with horses and pigs, equipment breakdowns, seeding, harvesting, blizzards, droughts, butchering, grasshoppers, and detassling, they got little enough rest. Their wives never got any at all. When their men went to bed they still had to finish canning, pickling, candling eggs, baking, patching overalls, mending the children's stockings, and doing whatever else they hadn't gotten done during the day; not to mention taking care of sick kids and newborn babies. People didn't sit around complaining about the work. Who complains about the cold in Siberia? It's a waste of time.

(to be continued)