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Tante Joht
Part 1

by Phyllis Martens

Mrs. Tina Ortman and Mrs. Rosie Pankratz were in town on an errand of mercy. The afternoon was hot. Gardens and shrubs baked in the sun, hollyhocks hung wilting along fences, porches were empty. The town was quiet, waiting for the heat to pass. Curtains hid the darkened cool interiors of houses. In the shade of a carriage shed two small children were silently digging in the dirt with spoons. Near them a dog lay panting.

The two women walked along the shady side of the street. Their low-belted dresses, made of thin summer material, clung to their backs in damp blotches. Under their wide-brimmed hats their faces were red and perspiring. Rosie carried a flowered cloth bag by its long wooden handles. Mrs. Ortman held in her hand a sheet of paper covered with writing. Now and again they stopped, consulted the paper, and went into one of the houses along the road.

They were delivering pincushions to the elderly women of their church--the widows and shut-ins. The pincushions were made of brightly colored yarn knitted into strips, which were wound tightly into a solid doughnut into which one could push needles and pins. They had not sold well at the July auction, and the sewing circle of the Parkview Mennonite Church had decided unanimously to distribute the surplus to deserving members. The bag was now nearly empty; only two remained, a pink-and-yellow and a lime green. However, all the names had been crossed off the list. The women halted in the shade of a large cottonwood to consider what to do.

"Mrs. Abe Balzer's is left, and the one Tante Richert gave us," Rosie said, peering into the bag. "I wish she hadn't of given us any, we had it all figured out."

"It's a shame to take them back," Mrs. Ortman observed. "Mrs. Balzer would be hurt." After a pause she added, "Not that I care, her pincushion's that awful green, but she makes such a fuss."

Rosie took the list from her companion and studied it. "Maybe we could keep them ourselves," she suggested, frowning at the crossed-off names.

Mrs. Ortman grimaced. "I have my own. Anyway, think what the ladies would say if they found out we kept some."

Rosie took a small handkerchief from the bag and wiped the perspiration that had collected under her hat. Her blonde hair clung to her forehead in damp curling wisps. "Mrs. Peske lives just over next to the hospital--she don't get around much any more."

Mrs. Ortman shook her head. "She's Alliance. They'd wonder why we came barging in."

"Well, I can't think of anybody. Maybe Tante Willemscha--she's nearly blind."

"What would she want with a pincushion? Besides she's First Mennonite. The ladies said to stick to our church."

They looked out over the town: white frame houses drowsing in the shade of tall trees, gardens of peonies and vegetables. The black earth was turning gray in the baking sun.

"Tante Joht," Rosie exclaimed suddenly.

Mrs. Ortman looked at her in surprise. "She don't go to our church."

"She used to, for a while--that's good enough. It's hot, I want to get home."

"You want to walk all that way to her place?"

"No--but can you think of anybody else?" Rosie put the list in the bag and looked at her friend.

"I'm not going inside though," Mrs. Ortman declared firmly. They left the shade of the cottonwood and went on down the road, turning left onto a narrow dirt road bordered by drooping sunflowers and weeds.

Tante Joht lived near a swampy patch with the city fathers had not got around to draining. Her house, built on slightly higher ground, was approached by a walk made of planks laid endwise between her front door and the road. A growth of chokecherry bushes filled the yard and pushed up against the windows of the tiny house. Out back a small area had been cleared...a few straggly rows of carrots and dill were visible in the tumbled black dirt. Still further back, hummocks of sharp-edged grass grew everywhere in the drying swamp. The smell of decay and muck hung in the air. Over the steaming vegetation hovered clouds of mosquitoes.

"We'll get bit to pieces," Mrs. Ortman said.

"They don't bother me." Rosie started down the planks. Mrs. Ortman followed, stepping carefully to avoid catching the heels of her shoes. They knocked on the door which, like the rest of the house, was made of rough boards weathered to a uniform gray.

After a few moments the door opened and Tante Joht appeared--a small elderly woman in a long-sleeved cotton dress and sagging black apron. A piece of cloth was tied around her head. "Na, goan dach! Kommt nen! Come in, come in!" she exclaimed and pulled the door further open.

Rosie walked in. Mrs. Ortman hesitated; then, mosquitoes settling on her back, hastily followed. Tante Joht shut the door. "Lots mosquitoes," she said cheerfully. "Come, sit down, I find chairs." She swept a tangle of rags from one wooden chair and removed a pile of old newspapers from another, the back of which was broken off. "Come, sit down."

But the women had stopped near the door. The tiny room was stifling. Clouds of steam rose from a huge boiler on the stove, in which a red-hot fire burned as if it were the dead of winter. Perspiration began at once to trickle down their faces.

"I cook cabbage in," Tante Joht explained, pointing toward the stove. The table, they now saw, was piled high with cabbages. Beside them lay a blackened cutting board on which lay a heap of cabbage already shredded and a large kitchen knife. Glass jars stood everywhere, some already filled and sealed. Tante Joht pushed a tub of green dill out of the way with her foot and hurried to the sink. "Sit down, I make coffee."

Almost fainting in the heat, the women sat down. "Don't bother with coffee, we won't stay only a minute," Rosie said hurriedly.

"Na, why not? The stove is hot already." Tante Joht was dipping water into a tin kettle from a pail under the sink. "Outside hot, inside I make fire in the stove, don't make no difference." She set the kettle on the stove beside the boiler.

"But...you'll get sick," Rosie objected. "You need to go somewhere to cool off."

"Maybe, but the cabbage I got to cook today. Farmer Erickson brings cabbage from his garden, left over, maybe spoiled a little, I cut it off. Dill I grow myself, outside." She hunted in a cupboard for cups, found two and set them on the table.

"We just came to bring you something from the sewing circle," Mrs. Ortman said. "We're the Sunshine Committee. From the Parkview Mennonite Church."

Tante Joht stood still. "For me something?"

Rosie took the pincushions out of the bag. "If you have use for one," she said politely.

Tante Joht came over to look at the pincushions; wiped her hands on her apron, picked them up and examined them. "Schon, schon," she murmured, then looked up. "I don't go no more to church."

"It's all right, we have extra," Rosie explained hastily. Her face was flushed. "Pick the one you want."

Tante Joht turned them over in her hands. "Schon, schon." At length she held up the pink-and-yellow. "A nice color, not? I use it."

Mrs. Ortman had folded a piece of newspaper and was fanning herself with it. She sat with her eyes closed.

"Tante Richert at the Old Folks Home, she made that one," Rosie told her.

"Jah? Tante Richert?" She examined the pincushion again. "She knits good." She pointed toward the back corner of the room. "Me, I make a quilt for John. My son."

The women looked where she pointed. A small iron bedstead under a window was piled up with old clothes--men's trousers, dark skirts, coats. Some had already been cut into squares. Two or three crates on the floor overflowed with more clothes. A black dress hung over a string tacked up by the window, shriveled, bone dry. Something stirred in Rosie's memory, told to her by Helena...Tante Joht had once gone to church wearing a black dress but had been shamed by women, for some reason, and never returned. Was this the dress?

Mrs. Ortman looked about for a sewing machine. "Do you sew by hand?" she asked, with evident disapproval. She looked at the disorder everywhere--piles of old papers, dried dill in rusty pails, old shoes, a pair of boots.

"Yah, by hand," Tante Joht said absently. She was looking at the green pincushion still in her hand. She held it up. "Maybe this one, you don't need it? I give it to my son's wife? They have a new baby, one month old tomorrow." She looked at them, pride in her eyes.

Rosie glanced at Mrs. Ortman, who was again sitting with her eyes closed, fanning herself, and said quickly, "We're very glad for her to have it."

Tante Joht placed the pincushions carefully on a kitchen shelf, where they glowed like flowers. "Schon, schon. Thank you." She moved suddenly to the stove, where the kettle was steaming. She removed the lid of the kettle, then screwed the top off a jar. "Now I make coffee."

"No, please, we won't stay, but thank you very much," Rosie said. "We just came by for a minute. You're busy canning."

"I got plenty time," Tante Joht protested, halting with the jar of coffee grounds poised over the kettle.

But the women had risen and were moving toward the door. Tante Joht set the jar down and hurried after them. "Wait, I show you my picture, then you go." She snatched from the window sill a photograph of a young man with a dark beard, beside him a thin unsmiling woman holding a baby. Around the couple, children of various heights stood with their arms straight down at their sides. The baby wore a long white dress edged with lace. "My John's family. A nice picture, not?"

"Very nice," Rosie agreed, counting the children in spite of her haste--six.

Mrs. Ortman opened the door. "We have to walk home," she remarked.

"You walked?" Tante John exclaimed. "It's too hot, you get sick maybe. Wait, I ask my neighbor Mr. Sneer, maybe he can ride you home in his carriage."

"No, no--we'll rest in the shade," Rosie promised. "Well, goodbye. I hope your cabbage turns out good." She started out the door, then turned back. "Congratulations on the baby, Mrs. Joht. A fine baby, she's very pretty." The two women set off across the planks.

"I don't like you walk," Tante Joht fretted, still holding the photograph. Rosie turned and waved.

The air outside, hot as it still was, now felt cool on their flushed faces. Partway down the road they stopped under a tree. Rosie took off her hat and fanned her face." At least we got rid of them pincushions."

"Did you see the cabbage?" Mrs. Ortman asked. "Half rotten."

"The jars looked good though," Rosie said. "She cuts off the bad parts."

They walked on. Mrs. Ortman stepped around a pile of drying flower stalks someone had thrown over the fence. "All that junk. She ought to throw it away."

"That's how poor people are," Rosie said. "They save everything in case they need it some time. Better be saving than wanting, my grandma Peters always said."

"All them kids! Her son ought to know better. Should be taking care of his mother, not populating the earth."

Rosie plodded on, not having an answer.

"Hope the ladies never find out we gave her two," Mrs. Ortman continued grimly. "Her daughter ain't never come even near our church." She paused, then added, "Must be Lutheran. That baby had on a christening dress. If they ain't well off they shouldn't have spent money on something like that."

"Maybe somebody gave it to them," Rosie said, frowning slightly.

Mrs. Ortman grunted. "Maybe. Well, here's my corner. I got pickles soaking."

They stopped at the corner. Rosie said, "I'm going home and get these hot clothes off and go sit in the cellar in my undies to cool off."

Mrs. Ortman raised her eyebrows. "What if somebody comes down?"

"I'll yell at 'em to stay out," Rosie said lightly. "Anyway, my kids are too little to pay much attention. Will you do the report this time? Maybe you can leave out that Tante Richert gave us an extra one, and just say we gave one to Tante Joht to encourage her to come back to church some time."

Mrs. Ortman agreed, and they parted ways.

(To be continued)