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Tante Joht
Part 2

by Phyllis Martens

At the next meeting of the Parkview Women's Sewing Society, Mrs. Ortman delivered the Sunshine Committee's report for the past month. She read from a hand-written page which would later be given to the secretary. The report included visits to the members in the hospital, two Parkview widows, two mothers with new babies (offering a gift of diapers). The report concluded with mention of the pincushions. "We gave 'em all out," Mrs. Ortman stated, and read the names of all to whom pincushions had been given. There was a small stir around the circle of women.

"Who's Mrs. Joht?" An older woman was speaking. "The old lady from the swamp--she always wears a black hat with a cherry on it. She goes around with a bag of stuff from her garden to give to people."

"Oh, her?" The young woman laughed and cut a length of yellow embroidery thread.

"Does she go to our church?" a stout lady in front, dressed in purple, inquired.

Mrs. Ortman cleared her throat. "She did for a while. We thought we could encourage her by giving her a pincushion." She added, "It was the last one."

"We should stay with our active members," the stout woman declared, looking around at the others. "She's got no claim. If she wants to receive from us, let her come regularly to church."

Mrs. Ortman, red in the face, explained rapidly. "We had extra. Tante Richert at the Old Folks Home didn't take hers. She had a whole table full--she makes 'em herself."

Rosie stood up. "It was an awful hot day. We didn't know who else to give it to, all the names was crossed off. Mrs. Joht is poor, real poor, so why not...." She looked around at the ladies and added drily, "We didn't want to bring anybody's back," daring them to ask whose that last unwanted pincushion had been.

The women stirred and suddenly began talking to each other of other things. The chairwoman shuffled her papers. She said crisply, "Let us thank the committee for a job well done. I'm sure that in their place we would all have done the same. Now about...."

Mrs. Balzer interrupted her. "If we start giving to every poor family in town there'll be no end to it, no thanks to us either--they'll just expect more in the future." She turned around so that all could hear. "Let them work, like the rest of us."

The ladies sat in silence. Some glanced at each other, raising their eyebrows. At the last the chairwoman stood up and said loudly, not looking at Mrs. Balzer, "The committee will please consider Mrs. Balzer's remarks for next time. We have one more item of business." She glanced toward the back of the room. "We have with us tonight a representative from the Greater China Mission who will tell us about the need over there. The people suffer greatly in the cold winters. I believe Rev. Mott is starting a drive for usable clothing. Welcome, Rev. Mott."

A small man in a brown suit rose with a smile and came forward. He outlined his vision for help for the peasants in northern China and Mongolia. The woman voted unanimously to take part in a local clothing drive.

After the meeting the women crowded around Rosie and Mrs. Ortman. None of them, it seemed, had ever visited Tante Joht.

"Did you go in? What was it like? I heard she collects rubbish from the dump and brings it to people."

"No, no, she brings stuff from her garden. She brought my aunt Kruger a jar of pickles once when she was laid up with a bad leg. Walked all the way"

"The mosquitoes must be simply awful down there by the swamp."

The young woman with ear puffs said, laughing, "My grandma rubs herself with kerosene to keep mosquitoes away. Keeps everybody away!"

The women laughed with her. Mrs. Dickman, neatly dressed in gray silk, spoke up. "The Johts used to come here to church once in a while. After he died she came in that black dress she wore to the funeral, only now it was too short. I guess she must have washed it and it shrunk so the petticoat showed. One of the deacon wives asked her if she didn't have a longer dress to look decent in the Lord's house, and she quit coming. We felt bad about it. The pastor's wife went over and offered to buy her a new one, but she got feisty and said she could worship God at home where it didn't matter what she had on." Mrs. Dickman sighed. "She never came back."

"Neither would I," Rosie said suddenly, with spirit. "My goodness, all that fuss because we gave her a silly old pincushion." She started walking away, head held high, suddenly paused and looked back. "It was Mrs. Abe Balzer's."

The women looked at her, startled, then began to giggle. "Serves her right," someone said. "Don't dare tell her," another put in, "or we'll never hear the end of it." The women dispersed to walk home in the long light of the warm summer evening.

Two days later Mrs. Ortman resigned from the Sunshine Committee, but was persuaded to stay on by the special request of the chair woman, who invited her over for coffee and a particularly elegant silver cake served on real bone china from Canada.

During the autumn months the conversation at the Parkview sewing circle turned on relief clothes for northern China. Several women went from door to door collecting, until the boxes in the church basement overflowed. Mrs. Abe Balzer was put in charge of sorting. The pincushions were no longer mentioned.

The days became short and overcast. Freezing winds off the Canadian prairies swept the town. Snows fell, drifted up against the houses, and froze to the hardness of stone. Women put on their thick woolen coats and wrapped heavy shawls about their heads whenever they went out. The collecting of clothes for northern China ceased. Now and then Tante Joht was seen in a man's gray overcoat and large boots, carrying her brown bag.

Then even the miseries of blizzards were temporarily forgotten in the excitement of the big event of that winter: the burning down of Johann and Helena's store and home one freezing Saturday night in January. Dozens of men worked through the dark hours by the light of the flames, moving out stoves and washing machines, boxes of shoes, kegs of nails. Others threw buckets of water on the roofs of adjacent buildings. The fire engine finally arrived but was not able to put out the fire because the pumps were frozen. The family, thank God, had been able to get out of the upstairs home before the stairs caught on fire. Rumor had it they were staying with Helena's sister Tante Lieze.

The next day, Sunday, people on their way to church stopped to view the great smoking black pit in the middle of the business block. Sunday School rooms buzzed with talk. The fire had started in the barber shop in the next door basement, likely old man Olsen had been smoking...no, it was an overheated stove...everyone had got out...little Anscha had run into the flames to catch her cat and would have perished had not an alert Hokema grabbed her, Helena had a lot to be thankful for...the family had run out screaming into the freezing night in nothing but their night clothes...no, no, they had been warned in time to put on their coats...Anscha's new piano had got stuck on the front stairway trapping several men, heaven knew why Helena tried to save that heavy thing...no, that was entirely wrong, Helena had actually refused to move the piano though it was brand new, for fear it would block the stairs, in fact the speaker had actually seen the piano fall, flaming, from the second floor into the basement.

Of special interest was the fact, attested to by Klaas since the items were in his drug store at that very moment, that the big family Bible had miraculously been saved, as well as six loaves of bread Helena had baked that very day.

By the end of another week it was reliably reported that Johann had bought the long-vacant Basinger hotel (very cheap as it was falling to pieces) as a place for his family to live. The whole town knew by now, of course, that Johann had let his insurance lapse so that his store and home were a dead loss. How they would get by, nobody knew.

At the next meeting of the Parkview sewing circle, it was suggested that some of the clothes in the basement be given to Helena Jungas for her children since (as had by now been verified) they had lost everything but the few things they had on. Someone objected that much of the collected clothing was not very good. Mrs. Balzer sniffed at that. "If they're proud, let them go without," she stated firmly. It was voted that the Sunshine Committee visit Mrs. Jungas to get the sizes of the children.

Thus it happened that on a Wednesday afternoon Rosie Pankratz and Mrs. Ortman walked up the icy steps of the hotel in the middle of town, information having been given them that Helena would be there cleaning. "Must be a mess," Rosie remarked--the hotel had been vacant ever since the previous owner went bankrupt two years before. Mrs. Ortman replied that beggars couldn't be choosers, anybody could clean out dirt.

They knocked. When nobody answered they tried the handle, found the door unlocked, and went in. The bare wood floor of the entry hall was filth, the black dust accumulated over years trodden into a wet muck. They stomped the snow off their shoes and went through a half-open door into the main parlor.

The room was large with a low ceiling. In the light from two front windows they could see faded flowery wall paper, badly water-stained and in some places hanging in brittle strips. To the left a wide staircase curved down from the second floor. The floor was dirty and covered with bits of rubbish. The room was empty save for a hard bench of Russian make standing near the door and, at the far end, a steam radiator. In the center of the room a lighter patch showed where a carpet had once been. The wood around the patch was badly worn and dirty, nearly black. Through an open door to their right they could see a clutter of tubs, washing machines and the like--the stuff saved from Johann's store. The whole place smelled musty and wet.

"What a mess!" Rosie exclaimed.

"She's got kids to help clean up," Mrs. Ortman observed.

At that moment they spotted Helena halfway up the long flight of stairs, on her knees beside a pail of water. She had been scrubbing the steps but had stopped and was looking towards them. Now she stood up, dried her hands on the apron tucked up around her waist, and came down, carrying the heavy pail. "Guten Tag," she said, using the formal High German.

Mrs. Ortman looked into the pail. The water was black.

"I'm Rosie Pankratz and this is Mrs. Ortman--we're from the sewing circle at the Parkview Church," Rosie explained. It's too bad your place burned down."

"What's done is done," Helena said. She did not look as broken-hearted or sorrowful as they had expected.

"It's a lot of work," Mrs. Ortman said. "Somebody should help you."

"Twenty rooms," Helena remarked. "I'm going to rent them. People from the train, salesmen--one night, two nights. If you hear of anybody...."

A sudden loud thud overhead drew their eyes upward. "Is that your girls cleaning up there?" Mrs. Ortman asked.

"No--they went to school," Helena said. "Mrs. Sukau and Frieda came to help."

"They went to school?" Mrs. Ortman was clearly displeased.

Rosie was staring at Helena in astonishment. "You mean, run the hotel? That's an awful lot of work!"

"Jah--why not? My husband needs his money to rebuild the store. I can keep the family with the rent from the rooms. This is what God told me." Helena looked very tired, Rosie noticed, but her voice was firm. She turned to Mrs. Ortman. "My girls can help me. But they will go to school. I don't want they should get behind. It's enough if they help when they get home."

Rosie gazed with admiration at the firm full figure of Helena, standing straight in spite of old shoes, muddy skirt and worn sweater. "It's a good idea," she said, "if you can do it."

Mrs. Ortman spoke up. 'You can tell us maybe--did the piano get stuck on the stairs?"

Helena stared at her. "Who said that? The men wanted to move it out but I wouldn't allow it--the stairs were too narrow. You think I would let the men burn up in the house because of a piano?"

"You hear a lot of stories," Mrs. Ortman mumbled. "It's a shame, brand new."

There was a pause. Helena waited expectantly. At last she said pleasantly, "Can I help you something?"

Rosie coughed slightly. "We thought...since you lost everything in the fire...our sewing circle has collected a lot of used clothes for China, we got boxes full, all sorted, in the church basement...we thought maybe something would fit your children, if we had the sizes."

"Oh." Helena gazed at the floor. Finally she shook her head. "Danka, we can get by. They saved the sewing machines. I can sew. At Tante Lieze's we made already some things. The girls wouldn't want to wear somebody's old things to school...everybody would know."

"But...seven children to take care of!"

Mrs. Ortman spoke rapidly. "Maybe underwear or stockings--there's lots of stockings in them boxes, need only a little fixing. I saw some nightgowns, a little torn under the arms."

"Nein, danka." Helena's blue eyes sparkled and she shut her lips tightly.

The women stood awkwardly, at a loss. "If you change your mind, let us know what size--shirts or anything, shoes too...we just wanted to help if we could," Rosie explained.

Helena smiled faintly. "I'll have rooms ready to rent out tomorrow night. You can tell it around."

(To be continued)