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Grandma's Multi-Level Family

by Phyllis Martens

Part 4

Meanwhile the mortality rates refused to decline. Helena had a brother Jake, a carpenter. Jake had married a beautiful dark-haired woman some years before. They now had four girls and were planning to homestead in Montana, when the young mother fell ill. The diagnosis was consumption. She grew worse, was confined to bed. Jake brought the baby over to Helena to take care of until his wife got well. In a few weeks the baby no longer recognized her mother, who would cry and then start coughing. A few months later she died, plunging Jake into deep shock and grief. Plans were being made to divide the four girls among his wife's relatives.

Hearing the news, Helena walked over to the small house. The older girls sat huddled on the couch, eyes red from crying. Little Frieda was playing on the floor with a box of empty spools. Helena greeted Jake's aunt in the kitchen and sat down to wait for her brother. The small room was stifling hot.

Jake had gone to the post office. When he returned his face was flushed, as if he had been walking very fast.

After a moment Helena said to him, "Jake, come outside. I want to talk to you." On the back steps she faced him. "How could you think of dividing up the girls? They've lost their mother and that's enough."

Jake glared at her in his misery. "Na yah, I know that, but what shall I do?"

"Give them all to me."

He studied the wooden step, cracking in the summer heat. "You don't have room," he said at last.

We can make room," she said. "We can add a room. It's a sin to break up a family. Don't you do it."

"Na yah, na yah," Jake said. "You can take them. But four girls...did you ask Johann?"

"I won't ask him," she replied. "He won't say anything. Get their clothes and we'll go." What the other relatives would think, she didn't care.

Johann, when he came up from the store for dinner that evening, was amazed to find not only baby Edna in the house but three extra girls, Anna, Helen and Frieda, sitting solemnly at the table. He stroked his beard and thought things over.

"Well, mother," he said finally, "you have the care of them. If you want to do it, that's up to you." What Johann really thought about adding four children to the five he already had, nobody ever knew. He said so little that even Helena was never sure what he was thinking.

Anna was elated. Now she wouldn't have to sleep with Elizabeth any more. She could sleep with her cousin Helen, who was her own age and her best friend.

Johann made plans to build on two large rooms, extending the house farther over the roof of the store.

When Mrs. Janzen heard about it, she came straight over. "Mr. Janzen and I think it's too much for our nephew Johann to support all these children you keep bringing in," she told Helena. "You have three children of your own, and of course Henry...isn't there another one, Wiebe's girl? That's five already! Now four! Johann has to feed them all. He's just getting established in his business, he needs the money to get ahead. And think what a noise up here all the time! Really, Helena, it isn't right. Let somebody else take them."

Helena saw all too clearly the kind of rag-tag family she was putting together, but she was still angry at Mrs. Janzen about the tablecloth, and she didn't like the aunt's aristocratic manner. Nevertheless she decided to answer politely. "I always wanted to be a missionary but I didn't have an education. These children are my mission. I didn't want my brother's children to be divided out."

Mrs. Janzen sniffed. "Maybe you want to do missions, but he's the one who has to pay for it."

Helena thought about the tablecloth and her anger rose. "I'm the one who takes care of them! If Johann doesn't have enough money, he can tell me--I'll go back to work!" Her blue eyes were blazing and her chin lifted to its most determined angle.

Seeing she was not getting anywhere, Mrs. Janzen left in a huff.

In her old age Helena sat in her rocking chair, alone in the dark, and wondered if she had done right to burden Johann with six extra children without ever asking him. He had never complained. They had been so busy in the thick of it all, both upstairs and downstairs, they didn't have time to think about such questions--life went galloping on. Then she remembered Johann sitting at the kitchen table with a bowl on his knees, cracking nuts or cutting apple slices which the children ate as fast as he could cut them. And they had all turned out well, every one. She decided it had been all right.

She rocked far into the night and worried, then, about all the starving children in the world.

Grandpa and Grandma Jungas with some of their extended family