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Grandma's Multi-Level Family

by Phyllis Martens

Part 1

When Helena Pankratz, Banker Janzen's wife's maid, married Banker Janzen's nephew Johann Jungas, her status was instantly transformed. She moved in one leap from the hot kitchen to an honored place at the table.

Her suddenly elevated rank placed considerable stress on the young bride. She knew well enough that Mt. Lake's aristocracy--the Hieberts, Balzers, Janzens and Ewerts--looked down their long German noses at immigrants from Russian villages. Her own family had come from one of the German colonies, which were more prosperous than the surrounding peasant villages; but her family was poor, partly because they once hid a Polish maidservant fleeing from a German household where, the girl said, her master was mistreating her. The Pankratz family came home one day to find all their belongings dumped out on the street. They moved to a Russian village. The people were friendly but money was scarce. Helena's father was a carpenter, her mother a seamstress. Helena herself never went beyond second grade because even as a small child she had to sit all day sewing seams. After the family moved to Minnesota, her meager wages at the Janzen's went to support her old mother and father and pay off immigration debts.

Johann was not rich, but his relatives were. Helena was determined not to shame her husband in front of them.

The young couple moved to the spacious home above the hardware store which Johann was slowly turning into a solid business. He ordered furniture for the house, including a handsome dining table with eight chairs. Helena invited the formidable Janzen family to dinner, 10 to 12 people in all. She extended the table to its full length, set it smartly with fine china on a white linen tablecloth she had ironed by hand, and cooked a faultless beef roast dinner.

The guests arrived. Helena threw off her apron to greet them, then invited them to the table. Mrs. Janzen surveyed the platter of browned roast, the pickles, the molded butter, the excellent rye bread folded in a napkin, with a slightly dissatisfied air. All at once she said in her sweetest tones, "Helen! What a good idea to mangle your tablecloth and save time."

Mangle! Mangling was to ironing what machine stitching was to hand-crocheting. Helena was furious. She bit her tongue and looked to Johann for support, but he was busy talking about road improvements with his uncle. He wouldn't have noticed the difference anyway--it wasn't for him she had ironed for hours. She served the dinner with perfect politeness, but bitterness rankled in her heart.

When the Janzens were leaving, the aunt fired a parting shot. "Well, Helen, and are you thinking about having children?" Not to have children was shameful, of course. Most people had ten or twelve of them. So far Helena had showed not the slightest sign of having even one.

Stung, Helena retorted, "Yes! And if I do, I'm going to teach them to iron tablecloths by hand, the way I did mine!" The answer had a double barb in that it not only corrected Mrs. Janzen in the matter of the tablecloth but also raked those daughters of hers who for five years had sat idly about while Helena did all the work.

Helena never forgot Mrs. Janzen's cutting remarks and probably never forgave them either. When it came to forgiving, she buried the cat but left the tail sticking out. She said she would forgive Mrs. Janzen on her way up to heaven. Helena had quite a list of things she intended to do on her way to heaven.

(Check again next month for Part 2)