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Helena's Refugees

by Phyllis Martens

Part 2

Helena's life was ruled by one word: clean. Sheets, rooms, stairs, hallways, floors. The guests might not have been finicky, but the government inspector was. Helena herself was even more finicky.

In May that first year, when the weather got warm, Anna woke up one morning complaining that she had itched all night! Helena's world halted in midspin. Vaumskyi! Bedbugs!

She ran to Anna's bed and looked under the mattress. Sure enough, in the corners under the wooden slats, bedbugs were hiding.

The very same day all the sheets came off the storeroom shelves, as well as the children's underwear, to be rewashed. Helena ran to Balzer's drugstore for powder to sprinkle on clothes, mattresses and shelves. The girls spent every spare moment wiping down guest rooms with disinfectant and treating the woodwork with creosote. Before making the beds they turned up the corners of the mattresses to inspect for bedbugs. When summer was over for the summer, Helena bought rolls of paper, cooked up some glue, and she and the girls repapered every guest room to cover over the cracks in the walls.

When the government inspector came around to check for bedbugs, Helena set her chin at a defiant angle and told him, "Go ahead. I'll give you $5 for every one you find."

The weather grew hotter. In Minnesota, the air in summer is humid--it presses down on people so that they keep wanting to go somewhere else, like drive to the next town. But it's no use because the air is just as heavy over there.

In the hotel, the heat and cramped quarters were getting on everybody's nerves. "For crying out loud, why can't we at least eat in a different room?" Frieda said irritably. Helen, sweating as she stood by the stove boiling a badly faded skirt in pink Rit, argued that the room smelled so bad they could never invite their friends in. Helena considered the matter and yielded up #4 across the hall.

Johann put in a long narrow table and moved the four-burner kerosene stove to a small enclosed porch overlooking the back yard. Now while she was cooking, Helena could watch her chickens.

It did not occur to Helena not to keep chickens even though she was running a hotel. Everybody kept chickens. "The only thing is," young John told his friends, "she won't kill her chickens. If she wants chicken for dinner she catches a couple of them and goes over to Bill's Egg Store and trades them for two chickens she's not friends with. We always eat Bill's chickens."

When the chickens were moved to a wooden shed in Johann's garden, they became John's job. He had to walk over there after school to carry in feed from a back shed. One day it was snowing. John looked at the chickens huddled miserably in their draughty cold shack and felt sorry for them. He found a hatchet and chopped off their heads, one by one, all 27 of them, stuffed the floppy bundles of feathers into a gunny sack, and took them home on his wagon. "Ma," he told her, "we have work to do." Helena took one look and filled the boiler on the stove with water.

A year later John got the job of taking care of his mother's two hogs. He got tired of carrying slop five blocks to the garden every day, so one afternoon he took along his new shotgun and shot both of them, loaded them in his wagon and hauled them home. John told me, many years later, that he never got a licking for either escapade. In fact, his dad gave him the empty chicken barn and he sold it for cash.

Meanwhile the younger girls had pursuits of their own. In one of the basement rooms Johann had set up drums of turpentine, linseed oil, and six or seven other kinds of oil, with small tins set under the taps to catch the drips. He allowed the girls to get a little oil to play housekeeping with, stipulating only that they must turn off the taps properly. One day he walked in to get some paint thinner and saw oil all over the cement floor--a tap wide open, the drum completely drained. He cleaned up the mess and walked around the rest of the day grumbling to himself. Finally Anna put her arm around him: "Daddy, you know you're not really angry with us." He didn't say much in reply; in fact nothing more was said at all. There is enough scolding in the world. Why add to it?

Actually, the managing of the children owed less to philosophy than to logistics. Johann and Helena simply didn't have time to discipline or even supervise the children very much. Take the matter of school lunches, for instance. Most children brought brown bread smeared with schmalz, or brown lard, carried in tin boxes, and looked with envy at Banker Hiebert's girls, who had elaborate lunches in baskets, with chocolate cake and napkins. But the Jungas kids, who lived only a few blocks away, brought no lunch at all. They had to rush home at noon. Anna and Helen would look in the cupboard and ice chest hoping to find leftover soup. If there wasn't anything, they boiled some eggs. Al grumbled: "Is that all you have?" Helen slammed the salt shaker on the table and snapped, "If you want more, go find it yourself!" Anna seethed in silence. Their mother was out hanging laundry on the line. She had to let the children work out their quarrels for themselves.

As a result the children developed strong bonds among themselves and became an enterprising lot. For example, one Christmas Anna and Helen were in despair about a gift for Al. He was a sophisticated young man--what could they possibly make for him? Buying a present was out of the question as they had no money. They poked through Helena's ragbag and found some cloth which they sewed into a pillow. But what to stuff it with? In the basement they discovered a pile of sheep wool--just the thing. They stuffed the pillow and stitched it shut. A grand gift . . . except that the wool, being unwashed, presently smelled so bad the gift had to be thrown out. What Al had to say about the pillow, nobody seems to have recorded.

(to be continued)