by Phyllis Martens
The family had moved into three rooms on second floor: carried up a stove, crowded in a big round table and some chairs, put beds everywhere. Hanging here and there were clothes Taunte Auna and others had brought in. The rooms were used mostly at night--during the day the children were in school and Helena and Johann were downstairs.
The girls hated going to school. They didn't like the clothes which had been brought in. Also, they had been outfitted with shoes that wouldn't sell. Anna had red shoes which she hated wearing because nobody wore red shoes. Helen had orange button shoes. At school Helen sat all day hiding her feet under her skirt; she explained in a whisper to her friends across the aisle, "I've got dumb shoes on." Both girls voiced their opinions frequently and loudly to their mother, but Helena said firmly, "Be glad you have shoes. You have to go to school."
Rent out the rooms and you will have bread. Helena rented rooms: registered the guests, kept the books, cleaned the rooms. To get the sheets washed, she had to carry the dirty laundry down two or three flights of stairs to the basement, using a roundabout way to bypass Johann's store with its waiting customers. She had three washing machines: an electric one with a drum that rolled inside a tub, a second electric one, and a tub with a wooden paddle turned by hand. Water was heated in a huge caludron. Bars of strong soap were shredded into the machines. The steaming laundry was pulled up with a long wooden spoon and fed through wringers, then carried outside to be hung out on the long clotheslines. When the laundry was dry it was taken back to the basement to be mangled, neatly folded and carried to the storage closet upstairs.
The town could not understand why Helena did not keep the older girls home to help her. Farmers often did that when work was heavy. Surely work came first and education second, particularly for girls. A couple of ladies from Bethel Church came to see Helena after she had missed church a few times. Helena explained that she could not get away--she had too much to do. "Let Helen and Anna stay home and help--they're old enough," the women said, darting curious glances around the lobby (never stayed overnight in a hotel in their lives, Helena thought).
Helena stiffened. "They'll finish eight grade," she retorted. "High school too." Defeated, the women left.
A few weeks after the fire the family came home from church to find Helena sewing. The girls were shocked. "Mother! Sewing on Sunday?"
Helena lifted a stubborn chin. "If God doesn't give me clothes for you any other way, I'm going to sew on Sunday."
She needed two spools of thread to finish the dresses. Money she had none, ask Johann she would not. The alternative was to buy on credit. Everyone did it. Johann had hundreds of dollars of debt on his books. The next day she hurried to Ewert's drygoods store and timidly asked for two spools of thread, a nickel each, on credit. The clerk said she'd have to ask Mr. Ewert. Now this Ewert had been her Sunday School teacher at one time, and moreover was one of the elite, a good friend of the Janzens. Helena was confident he wouldn't mind helping her out. But to her great astonishment and humiliation, Mr. Ewert hemmed and hawed and refused the ten cents of credit. The name of Ewert was thenceforth entered next to that of Mrs. Janzen on Helena's forgive-them-on-the-way-to-heaven list.
As for Mrs. Janzen, she never did come to see Helena at the hotel.
It was old Mrs. Goossen, living with her elderly husband in a poor house next to an alley, who in spite of her poverty brought Helena two large square Russian-style loaves of bread. "The children might need it," she explained. Helena thanked her with tears in her eyes. The bread might feed the children, but the kindness fed her soul. It was the old story of the Widow's Mite, except that in this case the rich put in nothing at all.
For eight years Helena ran the hotel. During the day she was in the basement doing laundry. At night she registered guests. She couldn't undress completely for bed because the bell downstairs frequently rang to announce travelers off the 2:30 a.m. train. When she had time she cooked, sewed and ironed for the family. She was always tired.
Her man, however, was rebuilding his business. Debts were being paid off, money was deposited in the bank. Let the people say what they wanted--things were going just as she had planned.