Beside the Golden Door
by Beth Staas
The Story So Far
World War I is over. Parts of one German family have the opportunity to move to America, thanks to the sponsorship of a generous uncle-in-law. This is their story, taking the reader back and forth via alternating chapters, visiting personal and historical events year by year. Chapter one begins with August’s arrival in America. He is greeted by three brothers and one sister-in-law where he will stay until the rest of his family arrives. It is 1928, the year that heralds the Great Depression.
Chapter 2: Germany, 1928
Chairs lined up along the walls wherever there was space. A pot-bellied stove and small sink occupied one end of the room, a table against the other. The calendar over the sink and a worn picture of the Last Supper were the only decorations.
Pauline sat atop a pile of pillows on the one chair that had a high back and arms, her cheeks pink, eyes bright. Tuberculosis, the scourge of the poor. At fifty-seven, she looked eighty, a portrait of perpetual mourning. Eighteen children. It hardly seemed possible. Only eight had survived. Every year, a birth or a death. And now the family had shrunk even further, seduced by that siren called America.
Tonight the remaining four were together with their respective families for evening devotions. Marichen and the children would soon be joining August and the others in America. Their voices lifted in song. “Let our hearts be ever joyful, each day filled with sun - n - shine...”
At the last verse, Frederick opened the Bible, his fingers etched with dust from the mines, his voice like pulverized coal. “In my house there are many mansions. If it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.” His watery eyes focused on his invalid wife who seemed to have gone to sleep.
The room smelled of strong soap and bleach mixed with factory smoke seeping through the windows. Martha hooked her feet around the legs of the chair, trying to get comfortable. She peeked through her lashes at the sturdy clothes that were worn for special on Sunday, then at her own blue and white middy. At sixteen she already had a flair for fashion, skilled enough to become a fine seamstress. But Martha had other plans. She would be a model or an actress, eyes half-closed as she sashayed across a runway, her full lips in a seductive pout. She’d wave a cigarette holder in one hand, draping a fox pelt over the other. She would splash on perfume, bathe in fresh water and brush her teeth twice a day.
Completing the reading, Frederick closed the Bible with a snap, bringing Martha out of her reverie. Hurriedly, she moved toward the stove. Tonight there would be good strong coffee made with fresh new grounds, her mother no longer able to cuff her across the shoulders for such extravagance. Checking to see that the water was boiling, she measured carefully then stirred it with a wooden spoon as its fragrance wafted into the room.
Joined by her older sister Alma, they lifted the heavy pot and holding a sieve, Martha began pouring coffee into the cups. Her father had gone to the pantry, bringing out three flasks of schnapps. From another repository came platters of sliced sausage, their juices oozing over the edge. There was bread, not the dark kind laced with molasses, but white bread, so light and airy that it barely sustained the weight of butter to melt in your mouth.
She glanced at Alma and Helmut’s two children on the bench next to their father, happily munching on bread and jam, at Herby and Trudi across from them, their eyes wide as they followed the food passing by, obedient to their mother’s admonition to stay seated. Such good children. It was cruel to make them wait. She would sneak them a piece of sausage as soon as she had the chance.
Amid the commotion, Pauline opened her eyes and looked about vacantly. Martha turned toward her mother. “Something to eat, Mutti? We have nice bread and cheese.”
Pauline shook her head and motioned that she wanted to stand, whispering something in her ear. A quick nod and Martha, together with Alma, guided her into the next room.
Fifteen minutes later, they emerged, with Alma holding a chamber pot discreetly covered with a ragged cloth followed by Martha smoothing her rumpled skirt.
After disappearing out the back door to the community toilet, Alma returned to the bedroom where she slid the chamber pot below where Pauline now lay wheezing softly. Then back to the sink to wash her hands in the icy water.
Alma had been called the pretty one, with soft blond hair and small even features, a title that remained hers until Martha was born. Extravagant and self-indulgent, she overspent and wore things out, a frivolity that fascinated, then alienated, one friend after another. Aged twenty-seven and married with two children, her face had taken on a pinched look, as though mourning her fading youth.
“Come now, more coffee, more bread,” cried Frederick as he moved around the room pouring schnapps into the emptying glasses. “Martha, make hurry.”
“Yes, Papa.” Martha scurried into the pantry to bring out another tray of food, then to the coffee pot to provide seconds.
She stopped in front of Marichen who was seated in a corner, the baby asleep on her shoulder. “A little more?”
“Oh, yes. Such good coffee,” Marichen murmured, caressing the cup. “August says they have coffee like this every day in America.”
“And you will too,” Martha promised. “Pretty soon, come springtime.”
Marichen patted the chair next to her, inviting Martha to sit down. “You should come, too. Make something of yourself in America. You are still young.”
Martha’s face was wistful. “There is no money, no job. And Mutti needs me here. Papa too. Maybe later.”
Marichen’s voice took on a conspiratorial tone. “If Sophie can do it…”
“Sophie has a real job here and a man waiting for her in America. I not so lucky.”
“A job!” Marichen sneered. “She’s a clerk in a store. How much good does that in America when you don’t talk English?”
The coffee pot was heavy and Martha’s arms were beginning to ache. If Sophie wanted Otto, and Otto wanted Sophie, what business was it of theirs? She placed the coffee pot on the vacant chair, reaching to stroke the baby’s cheek. “I think he is asleep. Maybe you put him in the bedroom. Is nice and quiet in there.”
Marichen nodded. Alma’s two children were moving about the room and Herby and Trudi were still on the bench, close to tears. She should be getting them something to eat. You would think someone would step forward to help. Why was she always left to do everything herself?
Grasping Martha’s outstretched arm, she stood and together went into the bedroom where Pauline lay huddled close to the wall. The room smelled of camphor, the bedclothes damp from fever and sweat. It had been weeks since Marichen and her mother-in-law had talked beyond a modest hallo. Not that Marichen had been close to August’s mother or felt a part of the family. She’d caught on soon enough, hearing the whispers – outsider, ignorant, farm girl… Still, Pauline was dying. It was un-Christian not to feel sad. A lifetime of suffering and caring, one child after another. Each Sunday gathering could be her last. She placed the sleeping baby at the foot of the bed, bolstering him with pillows. Then after a final pat, followed Martha out the door.
By now the food was half-gone and Martha hurried to consolidate what was left on the platters, bringing out whatever remained.
It was getting dark when Wilhelm and Guste prepared for home with their respective families. Someone had moved a few chairs in a circle clustered around one that now served as a table. Herby and Trudi sat on the floor with their two older cousins, nibbling from plates in front of them while Helmut and Alma looked on. “We have a chair for you,” Alma said, motioning next to her. She smiled apologetically. “I know you told the children to sit and wait. But they were hungry.”
“Ja sure. I have only two hands.” Marichen eyed the table. “I’m hungry too.”
When she returned, her plate was brimming with pig’s feet, liver sausage and cheese plus a mound of potato salad. “August says a nursing mother eats for two,” she declared defensively.
Alma shot a warning glance at Martha who stood nearby rolling her eyes. “You need to stay healthy so the baby gets big and strong. Especially in the winter.”
Helmut leaned toward Marichen. “And how goes it with August? Have you a letter?”
“Only last week. Five pfennig, air mail,” Marichen replied proudly. “I know that spends a lot. But it was special only once. We need to save.”
He smiled at Alma, both watching how quickly Marichen was emptying her plate. “And what did he say?”
“He has bakery job. I already told you that. Begins in the middle of the night, out in the dark. But no one else is up so he can do the toilet good and quiet. Still, is cold and far to walk, maybe four kilometers. The floor is dusty and full of flour, bad for the lungs. But the ovens make warm and ’Lisbet is glad when he brings leftover bread and biscuits for cheap.”
Herby had finished eating and stood at Marichen’s side holding the empty plate while Alma’s children, Hilda and Gunter, busied themselves collecting the empty dishes, carrying them to the sink. “Mutti, can we have more?” Herby whispered. “Is that allowed?”
“Of course,” Martha declared. “Come. I help you.”
Marichen handed Martha her own empty plate. “August told me to look for strong boxes, but not too heavy, so I can begin to pack. We need to find out how much I can take on ship. Clothes, sheets and blankets, some dishes, the Bible and maybe one or two hymn books.”
“So August making good money? Is he looking for a flat?”
“Pay is not so good but there is overtime and he saves. Everybody works in America. Fritz, Rudy, Otto…”
Helmut studied the floor. “He is lucky.”
Martha had returned and settled Herby and Trudi on the floor with the plate between them, handing the other one to Marichen. “Helmut doesn’t have to go to America to find a job,” she said staunchly. “He just needs to keep looking. Anyway, it should be pretty soon they call them back into the mines.”
“I know. They always have layoffs and then they call them back,” Alma soothed.
Helmut shook his head. “It’s because of the war. Ten years and things are no better. America sends money to help, but it gets only to those who get richer and richer. Hilda goes to bed praying for a coat – not candy, not dolls, not pretty things. Just a coat for my little girl. And we can’t buy one.”
“It’s getting better. The French are gone and the new money makes inflation go away,” Frederick insisted as he joined the group.
“When you have no marks to spend, what does it matter how much a mark is worth?” Helmut’s hands had begun to tremble.
Marichen put down her plate and, as Trudi crawled onto her lap, began rocking back and forth. “We all have sinned and fallen short.”
It was the start of an ongoing diatribe without a solution. “We should start picking up,” Martha said nervously, stroking Trudi’s rumpled dress. “Everyone’s tired and it was a long day.”
Marichen nodded, one arm around the little girl, the other rubbing her back. “Ja. Is past bedtime.”
“I’ll get the baby.” Martha reached for Trudi. “You can come with me and kiss Oma goodbye. But you must be very quiet.”
She motioned to Herby and they tiptoed into the darkened bedroom where Martha lifted each in turn to plant a kiss on the sleeping Pauline’s forehead. Then as the children returned to the front room, she moved toward the foot of the bed to retrieve the baby, enveloping him in her arms. Such a good baby. Sound asleep and still quite cool in this overheated room. Marichen would have to wrap him good so he didn’t get chilled when they went outside.
In the front room, Marichen sat with the children’s coats and hats. Still holding the baby, Martha settled on the chair to wait, cuddling his soft body in the crook of her arm. Pushing back the blanket, she stroked his cheek and kissed his curled fingers. He didn’t stir. Still sound asleep. She bent closer brushing her lips against his dark eyelashes, his tiny nose. His pink lips had a slight off color, no doubt tinged with jelly from the children’s kisses. Surely, that was all. She traced his lips with her finger, seeking out sticky. There was nothing. She gave him a little shake. Nothing. She lifted his arm, and it fell limp. Nothing, nothing. Nothing! A scream surged from the soles of her feet and echoed along the four walls. “Marichen! Oh dear God!”
Marichen turned sharply. “What’s the matter with you? Are you trying to wake the baby?”
“No! No, look. There’s something wrong. He doesn’t move. He’s not waking up. Oh precious God, have mercy!”
It took only a glance. Frantically, Marichen snatched the baby and tried to open his eyes. She looked into his mouth. She lifted him to her shoulder, pummeling him on the back, all the while screaming, “Take a breath, breathe, breathe…” Back on her lap, she fastened her lips over his, trying to force her breath into his tiny lungs as his body heaved in response, all to no avail.
Meanwhile, the rest of the family stared in horror.
“Martha! Alma! Someone get a doctor! Anyone! Go!” Frederick leaped over the chair, pushing the children aside.
Jerked to attention, Martha grabbed her coat and ran into the bitter cold, screaming to the dark sky. “Help, help! Someone help us! Anyone, please help!”
There were neither carriages nor autos in the street. Sunday was a day of rest. A few lights came on in the surrounding buildings and finally someone opened the windows, calling down. “Who’s there? What’s wrong?”
“We need a doctor. Are you a doctor? No? Can you get a doctor?”
“A doctor living here? You must be crazy!” And the window slammed shut.
Martha began to run, still shouting. There was a clinic about a kilometer away. As she turned a corner, she was stopped by a policeman. “What’s the matter with you? Don’t you know it’s Sunday?” He blocked her with his motorcycle, ready to write out a ticket.
“It’s the baby. He isn’t breathing. Oh, help me!”
“What? Someone hurt? Why didn’t you say so? Where?”
She couldn’t think. Where did she live? Where did Marichen live? What was the address?
He grabbed her wrist, turning her around. “You show me.”
She headed back the short distance holding her coat closed as he coasted along beside her, finally pointing to the house.
“I’ll get the doctor. You go inside and tell them that.” He turned, his motorcycle emitting a thin spray of gravel as she raced to the door.
Inside, Marichen rocked back and forth hugging the motionless baby while Frederick stood helplessly by. Alma had gone into the bedroom, tending to Pauline who was babbling, unable to comprehend what the commotion was all about. The children clung to one another, sobbing while Helmut tried to comfort them.
“A doctor is coming,” Martha cried breathlessly. “He’s on his way from the clinic.”
It was another half hour and by then they knew it was over. He entered the front room, and ordered the baby to be laid on the cleared table, poking him here and there with the stethoscope, looking into his mouth, his ears, tapping his belly while everyone stood back and watched in silence, the children sniffling softly. Finally he looked up. “I’m sorry. It’s no use. He’s already getting cold.”
“Oh no! Oh, my baby, my baby…”
Alma reached out her arms, but Marichen was beyond comfort and brushed her aside, taking the stiffening baby in her arms. “Why did this happen?” she sobbed, looking at the doctor. “He was such a good baby. Look at him. Was he sick? Did he fall? Why, why, why? You should know. You’re a doctor. Just tell me why.”
The doctor shook his head. “Sometimes it just happens. A baby dies for no reason and we can’t find out why.”
Marichen collapsed in the chair. “How am I supposed to tell August? What do I say? What if he blame me? What if he say I no good mother? What did I do wrong? Oh, my baby…”
“Every year a birth or a death,” Frederick murmured. “August will understand.”
“You have the others,” Alma said softly. “They are healthy and strong. And you are young. You can have more.”
“I don’t want more!” Marichen choked. “I just want my baby!”
“God works in mysterious ways,” Frederick admonished. “He made Job to suffer and put Jonah in the stomach of a whale. Do not question the works of the Lord. He was a beautiful baby and God took him home. That is all.”
It was no comfort.
Finally the doctor left. There were things to be done – the funeral, the preacher, the notification to family and friends. Alma went home with Marichen to help put the children to bed and prepare baby Werner for burial.
The next day, Marichen bought a tiny white casket lined in satin. It meant they’d eat less for the rest of the month, but that didn’t matter. Werner would be buried in his baptismal gown surrounded with flowers. A picture would be sent to August.
The funeral was in a small chapel that smelled like roses. Sitting in the front row, Marichen sobbed quietly, ignoring her punishing breasts bound tight to keep from making the milk no longer needed.
At first Alma came over every day to see how she was doing. Then someone came twice or three times a week, depending on who had time. Pretty soon it was only after church on Sundays. The women had each lost one or two children of their own and Marichen seemed to be doing all right. And if she wept alone into her pillow at night, her tears would help with the healing.
Three months later, she and August would share their grief in one another’s arms. By then, the pain would have numbed to a steady ache. There would be no point in examining it any further.
Chapter 3: Chicago, 1928
August walked from one end of the flat to the other. Everything was in place, the double bed, a dresser and two floor lamps. To the right, a tiny bedroom held a daybed, big enough for the children to sleep end to end, a clothes closet and a chest of drawers bought second-hand.
Wooden orange crates had been improvised into four rickety chairs and a table. It would have to do for now. There was also an inside bathroom with a porcelain tub, sink and a coin-operated water heater, ten cents per tank. On the other side, a water closet against the ceiling and a chain to pull for a toilet flush.
He’d moved there two weeks after ’Lisbet’s baby Eleanor was born and sleep became impossible. The flat was cheap, yet even second-hand furniture cost money. Then there was the ocean fare for Marichen and the children as well as for Martha, because after her mother died, she had no reason to stay behind.
The clock over the dresser pointed to four. The train was due at five. Wiping the sweat off the back of his neck, he smoothed the featherbed and, locking the door, went out into the bright sun, a fine day and more pleasant than the musty basement. He’d allowed an hour for his walk to the station but Fritz would be there in case August was late.
Marichen and the children! It had been almost six months. Would he kiss them hello like Americans did? Would they cry? He’d prayed over Werner’s picture every day, but the night before he’d tucked it in his underwear drawer. Maybe they could talk about it later. Maybe they could talk about Mutti. Maybe later.
Leaving Huron street, he turned south onto Ashland, a long stretch before going east toward the station. His heart beat faster and he lengthened his stride. Maybe he was excited after all. Yes, he would kiss them, even Martha. Then they would take the streetcar to their new home. The children would like that. Martha and Fritz would continue on to Rudy’s. They’d gather once more on Sunday. Maybe, maybe. Everything was maybe.
He brushed by the crowds, through the revolving door and into the terminal. Only six months in Chicago but already he’d learned his way around. At the baggage area, he found Fritz who had established his spot and after shaking hands, leaned against the wall to wait. Fritz had helped him move, but he hadn’t seen him since.
“You all settled?” Fritz asked, lighting a cigarette.
“Not much to settle. A chest and two beds. But when the shipment gets here, there will be enough.” He looked at his pocket watch, a confirmation gift from many years before. “Are they late maybe?”
“It’s Friday. Everything comes late on Friday,” Fritz replied. “Why? You got something in mind?”
“Don’t talk dirty. I’m a married man. You know what I mean.”
“Then you should smile,” Fritz declared. “And give her flowers. Don’t expect anything from Marichen if you can’t smile and give her a kiss and maybe some candy.”
“Don’t you ever think of anything else?”
“You are the one looking at the watch. I’m just here.” Fritz turned toward the depot gate. “And I see them over there!”
Marichen came first, pulling a large cardboard box, her other hand dragging Herby along as he stumbled to keep pace. Martha followed, clutching Trudi’s sleeve and balancing a suitcase and a huge pocketbook, the surge of people propelling them forward.
“Marichen! Martha! Over here!” Relieving them of their goods, the men guided them to a safe corner.
“You like on the train? Or was it not so good?” asked Fritz, pinching Herby’s cheek.
Martha straightened the collar of her dress and plumped the sides of her hair. “What I need is a real bed and a pillow. But first I gonna find some fresh air and sunshine and take a long walk.”
“Too cold aboard ship?”
“I wouldn’t know.” She eyed Marichen. “We stay all the time below deck.”
“And good reason too,” Marichen declared stoutly. “All those strangers and that man in a straw hat who wanted to give you candy. We know about those kinds…”
“He was a good German, nice and polite. I can tell the difference,” Martha sniffed. “I would give the candy to the children anyway.”
August bent down, placing the box and suitcase along the wall. “You have ticket stubs for baggage?”
“But where is my kiss?” Martha cried, thrusting her cheek toward Fritz. “I come across the big ocean and all you want is tickets? I think maybe I should go back home.”
“Ach, always the Martha. So come here and I give you a little kiss. I even give you a hug nice and tight.” Fritz put his arms around his sister and kissed her soundly on both cheeks. “And Marichen, too.” Taking Marichen’s face in his hands, he brushed her forehead with his lips before turning once more to the children.
Now it was August’s turn. Reaching down, he tousled Herby’s hair, and asked if the little boy remembered him.
Ja wohl, Papa,” was the shy reply.
Smiling, August lifted him and held him close until Herby squirmed to get loose.
Then August turned to Trudi who had buried herself in her mother’s skirts, her eyes filled with terror. “Trudi, will you come to Papa and give a little kiss?”
Trudi shook her head.
“Maybe if I hold her,” ventured Marichen. “Six months is a long time for such a little one.”
She raised Trudi in her arms, facing her husband. “You got an American haircut. And maybe gained a little…”
“No exercise,” he replied. “Just work, work, work.” He reached out to touch Trudi’s arm, wrapped around her mother’s neck, stroking Marichen’s cheek instead as the child shrank back. “Haircut was yesterday. It will grow back.”
“You look fine. Like American.” She bounced the little girl up and down. “She made a surprise for you. But now she’s scared.”
August hunched down so he was looking up at them. “Trudi made a present for Papa?” He chucked under her chin and she buried her face further into her mother’s shoulder. “People like you when you come with presents. What do you think?”
“Ich liebe dich, Papa.” The words were muffled and barely distinct.
Marichen drew in a choking breath. “We practiced it on the ship all the way over. I think Americans talk like that. I told her how it means, but she’s so little…”
“Already talking sentences!” August smiled. “And she only just past two.”
“Ich libe dich auch, Papa.” This from Herby standing next to his mother.
August gestured, groping for something to say. “I hope you were a good boy for your Mutti.”
Turning to Marichen, he breathed a kiss on her lips, feeling his cheeks burn with emotion. “And God brought you safely home,” he whispered, the words tumbling forth.
Fritz nudged Martha and they turned away, the scene too achingly tender to watch, moving toward the crates and boxes coming from the baggage car.
When they returned, August was bouncing Trudi in his arms and Marichen’s flushed face was dried of tears. “Papa says we take streetcar home,” Herby announced.
Six months before it had been freezing cold. Today it felt like the middle of summer, the breeze fresh and clean. Seated on the straw-woven seats, the children gazed out at the colors and shapes, bobbing to the streetcar’s stops and starts.
It wasn’t long before they were at their stop. Gathering their things, they waved to Martha and Fritz, then carefully alighted as the streetcar continued on its way.
August paused as cars whizzed by, balancing the box on one shoulder, dragging the heavy suitcase with the other hand. “What you have in here?” he demanded. “I told you heavy should be shipped.”
“I brought some dishes from your Mutti. We keep some and will give a few to Martha to remember her. Shipping breaks everything. So I carry them with me. The rest is what you said.” She reached for the handle to lighten the load. “I can help you.”
“No, I do it. Just watch the children.”
The apartment was a block away. Unhooking the front gate, August led the way down two steps into the cool interior. The dim light seemed eerie after the bright sunshine and Marichen reached for the lamp.
“Not to waste. Is still light outside.” Then August’s voice softened. “I show you around the flat.”
Taking her by the hand, he moved toward the children’s bedroom, the bathroom and back to the front room and the adjoining kitchenette with gas stove, icebox, sink and double cabinet overhead. “The closet is nice and big,” he offered.
Marichen moved from one spot to the next, running her hands over the appliances. “Easy for cooking,” she smiled. “Where do we eat?”
August gestured toward his homemade dining set. “But pretty soon we get real table and chairs. I saw some at the Salvation Army store. Maybe after payday.” He pointed to the icebox. “There’s already milk, butter, eggs and sausage. I bring bread and biscuits every day from work. We eat good in America for sure.”
Marichen stood motionless. “These are chairs? We not gypsies.” She paused, seeing the stricken look on his face. “You’re right. We buy when there is money.”
Trudi had commandeered a spot on the corner of the bed and fallen asleep. Herby was on the other side of the room standing at the window on tiptoe, staring at some children sitting on the steps. “Mutti, can I go outside?”
“Yes, go outside if you stay in front where we can watch you. But first put on your hat.”
Marichen turned to her husband. “He had bad earache on the boat. After a while some yellow stuff came out. Then everything was good, wasn’t it, Herby?”
Herby nodded, taking his hat from his mother. “I stay right in front.”
With Trudi asleep and Herby outside, August and Marichen busied themselves unpacking. The rest would arrive in about a week.
Soon the sausage was sizzling on the stove as August arranged the makeshift chairs alongside the wobbly table, still pleased at his own resourcefulness. Turning on the lamp, he took plates from the cabinet and placed them on the table with forks and spoons next to them. Herby had returned from outside and Trudi was awake, tugging at her mother’s skirt, wanting to be picked up.
Herby took off his hat. “I want to play but the children laugh at me. How come they talk so strange?”
“Americans talk different. You have to go to school and learn,” Marichen replied as she began filling their plates. “Papa and I learn too.” She stroked his hair. “It will be easy.”
“In America, everything is possible. Now sit down. We gonna eat,” August said.
Once more shy, Herby clambered next to his father while Marichen took Trudi on her lap as they offered a prayer of thanks.
After supper Marichen washed the dishes and prepared August’s lunch for the next day as he read aloud from the Bible. Afterward, they walked around the block, examining their new neighborhood, August pointing out directions, proving how much he had learned. By eight o’clock the children were ready for bed.
The wash-up was in cold water. Hot water would be reserved for Saturday night baths and Monday’s laundry. Shivering, the children snuggled in their respective spots on the daybed with Herby giggling about being upside down, toe to toe.
The front room was dark when Marichen emerged from tucking them in. August was down to his underwear, sitting on the edge of the bed. “I get up at three, you know.”
“But maybe you wait a little for me?” whispered Marichen.
The window shades curled around the edges admitting soft shadows that danced along the ceiling. Slowly, Marichen took off her dress and petticoat, draping them across the makeshift chair. Next came shoes followed by bloomers, long stockings and finally the corset, her naked body outlined against the opposite wall.
“Your hair? You take down your hair?”
Two long hairpins and her hair spilled over her shoulders. “Do they do it here like in Germany or is that different too?”
“We find out.” He squirmed out of his underwear, letting it drop to the floor. Grabbing her fiercely, he threw her onto the bed. There was no preliminary, no foreplay. It didn’t matter that the mattress sagged, that there were crumbs on the bed, that he was functioning on four hours sleep. Barely started, it was over. “I wake you before I go to work,” he promised, breathing hard. He touched her cheek, brushing her hair from her face. “You are my wife.”
Once more in underwear, bloomers and petticoat, they slid over the side of the bed and knelt in silence, their thoughts going to heaven. August began reciting the Lord’s Prayer, and they finished it with a soft Amen. He was asleep almost immediately.
Marichen lay listening to the streetcar’s clang, the wailing siren in the distance and the outer sound of footsteps. The air was heavy and she wondered if it had begun to rain. Bone weary yet restless, she couldn’t rouse herself to look out the window. At midnight there was the sound of church bells tolling the hour. At three, August woke her and she sleepily responded when he turned her over for a more lingering repast before leaving for work. She had begun to doze when she heard the children in the other room. Her day had begun.
Hot oatmeal cut through the morning chill. Along with biscuits and a glass of milk, it was a substantial breakfast.
After picking up the dishes, she allowed the children to play with the contents of her button box on the makeshift table. Finding a sponge under the sink, she washed the windows, polishing them dry with a tattered towel. She scrubbed the floor, dismayed at the number of worn spots on the linoleum, but at least it was clean. The bathroom was another matter. How did one scour a water closet so far over her head? She’d have to ask August when he got home.
By mid-morning she’d moved toward the dresser, discovering Werner’s picture beneath August’s underwear. The funeral, the flowers, the photograph, everything had cost more than she thought possible. After a long time, she put it back. No need to keep looking. The image would be seared into her heart forever.
August had left a house key hanging on the nail over the sink in case she wanted to go out. Oh yes, indeed. She was ready. Calling to the children, she ushered them out the door.
They walked west with the sun warming their backs. Marichen counted the streets in one direction, the house numbers following each turn, keeping mindful of the sun. Then wonder of wonders, they came upon a playground with swings, slides and two teeter-totters. Nearing lunchtime, it was almost deserted except for a few young mothers with babies and two children building a bucket village in the sandbox.
Ignoring her cries of caution, Herby rushed forward and was already on the swing by the time she caught up. Taking a cautious breath, she sat on the one next to him holding Trudi on her lap, rocking gently back and forth. “Is good?” she asked.
He nodded, his eyes bright with excitement. “I know how to pump. Tante Martha showed me. See how high I go!
The boy and girl in the sandbox had left their project and commandeered the other two swings, staring at them with curiosity. “Give me a push?” asked the little girl, looking at Marichen.
Marichen smiled apologetically. “No speak English.”
“I just speak Deutsch. Germany, you say.”
“It’s okay. I’ll do it.” The little boy jumped off his swing and sent the little girl soaring as she screamed with delight. He moved behind Marichen. “Give you a push?” Without waiting for a reply, he gave an off-center push, swinging them crazily from side to side.
“Liebe Gott!” Marichen’s hands jerked off the chains, sending her and Trudi crashing into the dirt.
The two little strangers gasped in horror. Then the girl leaped off her swing and both went dashing across the street and down the block, laughing hysterically. By the time Marichen dusted off her torn stockings, they were out of sight.
Holding the howling Trudi in her arms, Marichen examined her bruises, then crooned words of comfort while Herby stood in stunned silence.
Two of the mothers had come over trying to help but Marichen brushed them away angrily. “No speak English.” Then, “Is okay.”
After a while, Trudi’s tears diminished to a sniffle and she buried her face in her mother’s shoulder. “Go home,” she wailed.
“No, no. We go to sandbox,” Marichen said. “Boy and girl left buckets so we take them because they were bad.”
Herby looked skeptical and walked over to see. His mother had said that there would be real toys to play with, not just buttons or empty boxes. And here they were. Pretty soon he was happily adding to their half-finished architecture, brushing away his sister’s efforts to re-do everything, watchful in case his mother took Trudi’s side. When it was time to go, they’d confiscated the two sand buckets adorned with pictures of fish and seashells with handles that moved up and down, their first American toys.
When August returned from work it was almost three. The children had had lunch and were taking a nap. Marichen was on the bed reading the Bible.
“It’s getting hot outside,” he announced, closing the door behind him. “The bakery was like an oven. But is nice here.” He placed his key on the hook. “The children sleeping?”
She nodded. “We went to the park and they found buckets for playing in the sand. We took them home with us.”
“And you didn’t get lost! See? Is good in America.” He eyed the rumpled bed. “Maybe I take a nap too.”
“A boy pushed us off the swing,” Marichen continued. “He ran away. My stockings are torn and Trudi has scrapes on both elbows. I put on iodine and she cried.”
“After laughing comes crying. But you can darn the stockings. The rest is still good, no?”
“Trudi cried and cried and say she wants to go home,” Marichen continued.
“She means home to Germany.”
August scowled. “You listen to baby? Baby not boss.”
“I told her we already home but she just keep crying.”
“Let her come crying to me. I give her something to cry about.”
“They wanted to play with the children in the park but they not understand.”
“They will learn,” August replied grimly. “You will see.”
“Is hard,” Marichen said softly, her chin quivering. “I did not know that so much.”
His voice softened. “We will visit ’Lisbet and the baby tomorrow. We have Family Devotion like always and you will get used to it.” He perched on the edge of the bed. “And maybe we have another baby so you not cry so much anymore.”
There was a rustle in the other room and Herby came tottering out, his face flushed. “Mutti, my ear hurts again. It hurts and hurts.”
He brushed by his father who reached down to feel his forehead. Startled, August got to his feet. “He has fever. Didn’t you tell him to wear a hat when you went out? Where’s the aspirin?”
“I used it up when he was so sick on the ship.” She gestured pleadingly. “The sun was shining. He didn’t want his hat.”
Impatiently, August reached for the house key, then stopped. “Where is a pharmacy?”
“How should I know? Go ask people. I give Herby bath to cool him down.”
Nodding, August turned, checked his pockets for money and was halfway out the door as she called out, “…and buy some sweet oil for his ear.”
It was an hour before August returned to find Herby half asleep on the bed, hot, but shivering intermittently. The aspirin helped and he said the warmed sweet oil in his ear made it feel better.
Supper consisted of fried potatoes and leftover sausage eaten in snatches as they watched over the restless boy. Even Trudi sensed the drama and clung to her mother. At bedtime, August slept with the little girl while Marichen watched over Herby, laying moist cloths on his forehead, his stomach, his arms, soothing him as he moved from one side to the other, all the while murmuring an urgent prayer, Dear God, not again.
The fever broke at dawn as Herby fell into a restorative sleep, awakening periodically to take a sip of milk or drink of water.
After breakfast, August put on his jacket and cap and walked the two miles to his brother’s flat, explaining why they would miss the Family Devotions. And if Marichen had wept in front of the children, her tears were carefully wiped away by the time August returned.