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Tante Joht
Part 3

by Phyllis Martens

A knock sounded on the front door. "Excuse me." Helena hurried to open it, loosening her apron as she walked so that it hung down straight. The two women waited to see who it was.

Tante Joht stood there in her man's overcoat, carrying the brown bag. A frazzled black shawl was tied around her head, with another cloth under it. On her feet were a pair of high boots tied around with string.

"Tante Joht!" Helena took her by the arm and pulled her forward. "Come inside, it's too cold out there."

"Cold in here too," Mrs. Ortman muttered, visibly upset by Helena's refusal of their clothing.

"I'll make your floor dirty, Mrs. Jungas," Tante Joht objected.

"Na nay, it's plenty dirty already. Come, sit down, you shouldn't be out walking on such a cold day." She led the old woman across the room to the Russian bench. "You need something, Tante Joht? We don't have much now, but if I can help...."

Tante Joht set her bag on the bench and looked around. "Lots room," she remarked with approval. Then she regarded the two women intently, and her face brightened. "You came too!" She turned to Helena. "These ladies brought pincushions to my house. They walked...a hot day, very hot."

Helena said, "From the Parkview sewing circle. They offered to help." She glanced comfortably at the women, who said nothing.

Tante Joht was poking about in her bag. "Eck bruck die vaut--I brought you something." She lifted out a large package wrapped in newspapers. "For the children. Your house burned down, you got nothing." She set the package on the bench beside her and resumed rummaging in the bag.

Helena carefully removed the newspapers. Inside was a large jar of canned cabbage--white, perfectly preserved. "For borscht," Tante Joht told her, and handed Helena a second, smaller parcel. In this one were four or five spools of thread, white and dark blue. "You need maybe thread to sew clothes now?"

Helena gazed at her with troubled eyes. "Last week I went to Franz store to charge two spools of thread, five cents. They said we got no credit. No credit for one nickel of thread! He's a Sunday School superintendent, but he wouldn't give credit for two spools of thread."

"Jah, no credit," Tante Joht said cheerfully. "If you need more, my son John can get it."

Helena put the spools down and touched the old woman's hand. "I didn't, a poor widow.... Viel mal danka schon, many many thanks. Tomorrow we make the borscht."

Tante Joht rose. "I go to Stoesz's, she was in the hospital."

"But don't walk home! I can call Johann, he can drive you. It's too cold, Tante Joht!"

"Ach vaut!" Tante Joht started toward the door. "Walk I still can!"

"At least come in the basement and warm yourself up, we got the stove going down there to heat a little."

"Nay, I can warm up at Stoesz's." Tante Joht walked past the two women into the hall and opened the door.

"Be careful on the steps, don't fall!" Helena cried after her. She closed the door slowly and stood with her hand on the knob.

Mrs. Ortman and Rosie stepped forward. "We'll be going now," Rosie said.

Helena turned, face flushed and eyes bright with tears. "Tell the ladies thank you but I can sew what we need."

The two women picked their way down the slippery ice on the steps, clinging with gloved hands to the iron handrail. On the thickly packed snow of the road it was easier going. They wrapped their woolen shawls around their faces. "Getting colder," Rosie said.

"Well!" Mrs. Ortman exclaimed after a short silence. "She don't want our clothes."

"I wouldn't either," Rosie said. "It would be easier to make new than mend some of that. My Alvina would never wear them dresses...everybody knows who had them before."

"I mend plenty stockings for my boys," Mrs. Ortman said bitterly. "Big holes, too."

"Fancy Tante Joht walking all that way to bring Helena cabbage," Rosie said. "I sure wouldn't of done it."

"From that dirty kitchen!"

"Oh, tush, it looked fine," Rosie retorted. "I didn't know Franz was so tight. Can you imagine?"

"It's a risk, giving credit."

"Five cents? She would pay it back first chance she got. I think it's mean...real mean!"

They reached the park, where the walks had not been cleared--there was only a narrow path through the waist-high snow banks. The women walked single file until, further down the street, their ways parted.

"I can make the report if you want," Rosie said. "Wind's coming up--it's going to snow tonight." She nodded in farewell, but Mrs. Ortman had already turned toward home.

(To be continued)