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. 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 Two sees the family in Germany gathered for Sunday devotions at the home of patriarch Frederick and his tubercular wife Pauline. It is to be a farewell to August’s family, preparing for their journey to America. The sleeping baby Werner had been tucked safely in bed. But they discover to their horror that the baby has died: Crib Death, not unknown even then.
Chapter three takes us back to Chicago. August’s family has arrived, where they accommodate themselves as best they can in a basement apartment, with baby Elsie, born a year after their arrival, adding to their struggle to adapt to America’s customs and language.
Chapter four describes how Alma and Helmut separate under the pressure of poverty then reconcile in order to regain custody of their children.
Chapter 5: Chicago, 1933
Marichen sat staring into space. She’d been doing that a lot lately, drained of energy and ambition, indulging in comfort food until she swelled out of her clothes. They’d moved out of the basement flat on Huron Street after their clothes turned moldy and the children got one chest infection after another. Then the new baby developed double pneumonia, and was baptized at the kitchen sink with Fritz and Martha as godparents. That was three years ago. They moved once more and got bedbugs and cockroaches. Next it was a first floor flat on Division Street with two bedrooms and an eat-in kitchen, a place that seemed promising despite the rat carcasses in the alley. Still, they dared not let up on the bugs, spraying kerosene around the beds and bed-springs, leaving the flat to reek from one week to the next.
Meanwhile, the two older children attended church school and Marichen was able to do some day work if she were allowed to bring the baby, leaving her to play on the floor while she scoured, dusted and did laundry. Later she was steered to the night shift at The Chicago Women’s Club, substituting for the regulars when they got sick or went on vacation, reasonably scheduled so she could plan accordingly. But sometimes a telegram would summon her for that very night, a shift without sleep. Still, any job was a windfall in the heart of the Depression. They’d even managed to buy a few pieces of second-hand furniture. Then it turned into a lifeline for August was laid off a month before Christmas.
“The shoes are nice in a row,” declared Elsie from under the sewing machine. “Now what should I do?”
Marichen looked at the three-year old. “You will take a nap pretty soon. Then Papa comes home and I go to work.”
“Is Papa at work now?”
“Not exactly.” Marichen pictured the storefront, the massive corn poppers, the copper kettles for mixing corn syrup with shredded coconut or pecans, the squares of wrapping paper, supplies and equipment that took the last of their savings. Pop-P Corn & Candy Company. The brothers had launched a business, embarking on the American Dream as captains of industry. “He’s with Onkel Rudy making popcorn balls to sell on Sunday. Maybe he brings some home.”
Elsie didn’t much care for popcorn balls especially the coconut kind. But she didn’t dare say so. Eat! And you ate. Sleep! And you slept. When someone raised a threatening hand you scrambled. “C’n I go out on the porch? It stopped snowing.”
Marichen nodded pulled out of her reverie. “I watch you through the window.” Taking down Elsie’s coat she added a long scarf wrapped twice around the little girl’s neck then inserted her own gloves inside a pair of woolen socks to keep her hands warm. That would have to do.
Scampering onto the porch Elsie began scraping the snow from the railings, piling it into a mound on the middle of the porch only to find that it clung to the improvised mittens refusing to turn into any kind of shape. After a half hour she was about to go back inside when Mrs. Still, the lady next door, came down the gangway with her young son Jake.
“I have a Christmas tree!” Jakie cried, waving an evergreen branch over his head. “The man said I could keep it.”
“That’s not a tree,” Elsie snorted, looking to Mrs. Still for confirmation.
“Don’t be mean and spoil it. To him it’s a tree and that’s good enough.” She bent toward the steps urging the little boy into the flat, sending an angry scowl over her shoulder.
Seeing her mother gesturing through the window, Elsie went inside hoping she’d not done something wrong.
“Lunch is ready and you need to dry off.” Marichen placed the makeshift gloves next to the stove. “What did Mrs. Still want?”
“She said Jakie had a Christmas tree. But I told her it wasn’t a real tree. Only a branch. I was right, wasn’t I?”
“Jews don’t believe in Jesus so they think a Christmas tree is a sin. Jakie will learn about that later. He’s still young.” She put a sandwich in front of the little girl. “See how lucky you are?”
Elsie nodded. Jesus belonged to the God family. He was supposed to save her from the Devil whose presence throbbed through the dark in wild patterns as she tried to go to sleep. It was something she dared not tell her mother. If I should die before I wake… The bedtime prayer terrified her.
She lingered over her sandwich unready to take a nap but her mother lay down next to her and soon they were both asleep.
Herby and Trudi came home from school at three and August arrived shortly thereafter. Newly awake, Marichen stretched and yawned then moved to the bathroom to get ready for work.
Suddenly there was a banging on the door. Marichen turned toward the children with a questioning look.
More banging, this time louder. “Mrs. Zahn?” It was a woman’s voice. “We are here from the church.”
A look of terror came over the children’s faces. Had the teacher followed them home? Had they done something wrong?
August cautioned quiet with a finger across his lips.
“Mrs. Zahn?” the voice continued. “We’re here about Christmas.”
“I have to get to work,” Marichen whispered. “I can’t be late.”
Another bang. “Anyone there?”
August gestured helplessly and went to the door.
Festooned in red and white Santa hats, two smiling young ladies stood surrounded with gaily wrapped boxes filled with cans of peas, beans, corn and something that smelled like a turkey fresh out of the oven. “Oh, we’re so glad you’re home. We were about to leave! Merry Christmas!”
“Merry Christmas,” August muttered. “What can I do for you?”
“We’re from the Lady’s Aid Society at St. John’s. We brought this for you.”
August eyed the boxes suspiciously. “We don’t need nothing. My wife has to go to work. Excuse me, please. We can buy for ourselves.”
“We’re not selling anything,” the lady cried. “This is a gift from the church. Every year they take up a collection for people like you. We know how hard it can be.”
August sucked in his breath. “Give it to someone who needs it. We are okay.”
Marichen stood beside him, hugging her coat. “They doing this in the Christian way, August,” she whispered. “We should thank them, thank God...”
The children were staring at the boxes, their eyes wide with wonder.
“Yes, of course. Christmas dinner. And a little something for the children. We’ll put it on the table.” The ladies moved inside eyeing the mismatched furniture, the threadbare rug, aware of the peculiar smell. “Santa Claus left these with us. He said your children have been good. Is that true?”
Herby and Trudi nodded, nudging Elsie to do the same.
“They like Sunday school,” Marichen declared. No harm in establishing credentials.
“I’m sure they do. My sister and I grew up in the church. We know how important it is, especially for children.” They stood for a moment at the open door shifting from one foot to the other. “Well, we have a few more deliveries and it’s getting late.” Patting the children on the head, they turned and left.
August closed the door his expression a mixture of wonder and shame.
“I have to go,” Marichen declared, breaking the silence. “They won’t want me again if I not on time.” She paused, clasping her hands together. “God works in mysterious ways. Oh August, we are blessed.”
“Yes, yes. You have to go. I cover the turkey and put it on the porch to stay cool. You can put everything away when you come home.” He surveyed the boxes. “Maybe we take the turkey to ’Lisbet for dinner. I go tell them tomorrow. It will be a surprise.”
He looked at the Christmas tree decorated with lights and ornaments. Other indulgences included a bag of unshelled nuts and a three-pound box of chocolates. Presents for the children would be simple – a doll for Elsie, a folding blackboard desk for Trudi and a pair of high-cuts for Herby with a pen-knife tucked into its side pocket, all purchased before August had lost his job. They would be distributed before the Christmas Eve church service, a practice carried over from the Old Country. The gifts from St. John’s would be opened at ’Lisbet’s house. Santa Claus? A pagan concept. There was no such thing.
On Christmas Day they dressed in their best and headed for Orchard Street, walking past empty saloons and the darkened movie house, pausing in front of the Salvation Army storefront as a brass trio played Christmas carols, each moment a delight in this winter wonderland. Within a half hour they were there.
The children ran ahead eager to see their cousin Eleanor and Aunt Martha who had married the incredibly handsome Wally, a man who smoked cigarettes, drank beer and laughed at his own jokes. Aunt Sophie, expecting her first child, greeted them with smiles and an enveloping hug. Eleanor whisked them back out to visit some of her friends after the caution to be back in an hour.
The men settled in the front room, sipping homemade wine or beer while the women chatted amiably in the kitchen. The flat was less crowded now that Martha and Otto were on their own. ’Lisbet and Rudy had turned the bay window into a private space for Eleanor. The Murphy bed was largely unused, for Fritz had moved into the storefront on Montrose Avenue to protect the popcorn equipment. Rudy continued working for ’Lisbet’s uncle, ensuring a steady income.
Meanwhile, August and Fritz would make the popcorn, going out on weekends, one hawking east-west the other north-south, hoarse and chilled or dripping with sweat depending on the season. “Buy popcorn balls, two for a nickel. Coconut, pecan, plain, give one to your sweetie-pie lady friend. Only five cents, Mister. Only a nickel.” If they were lucky, there would be a child or two sitting in the back seat. “Little princess, tell Daddy you want some. Only a few pennies.” Sometimes Wally would join them, his teasing grin disarming all but the most impatient drivers, while the others took turns in his car between surges of traffic.
“There is a store on the next block that will be vacant in a few months,” Rudy began. “We could expand and sell things like in a candy store. The school’s close so we might stock pencils and paper too. Then we have another store, then two and three stores all over Chicago. Pop-P Corn and Candy Company. All of us together like a big company.” He lit a cigarette blowing smoke rings toward the ceiling. “Is nice, no?”
August was dubious. “Marichen scrubs floors all night then comes home to sleep one, two, three hours before the children are up. I make popcorn and sell two, three baskets on Sunday. The milk in our icebox goes sour because we can’t buy ice. Once I get a job there will be money but no more extra time.”
Otto turned to Wally. “You have a good job and Martha works in Marshall Field’s stock room. But Sophie and me, I don’t know. We need furniture and with baby on the way…”
“We’re not hungry any more. There is no war. And if we work hard…” A deep draw from his cigarette sent Rudy into a paroxysm of coughing.
“You better put out that cigarette!” ’Lisbet called from the kitchen.
“Here, give it to me,” Martha whispered, sideling into the room.
Wally laughed and patted her behind as she leaned against him taking a deep drag.
“Maybe we make Pop-P Corn and Candy Company for ladies, too. Brothers and Sister.”
Martha settled on the arm of her husband’s chair. “What you talking about?”
It was simple enough. There was a vacant store just a block away. They could continue popcorn production opening the smaller place as a candy store. “’Lisbet can take care of customers. She speaks English pretty good now.” Rudy’s eyes were bright with excitement. “Then we open another store, then another. Candy stores. School stores. Ice cream stores…”
“You already owe me money,” August interrupted, “and I have nothing left. My girls wear two dresses, one on top of the other because they have no sweaters and their coats are almost worn out. I fix shoes with rubber soles from the dime store but children outgrow them and get crooked toes.”
“It’s not easy for any of us but that is why we came,” Rudy insisted. He turned to Martha. “You and Wally like being in business, yes?” He began coughing again.
Marichen stood in the doorway, hands tucked under her apron. “You need to drink hot milk with honey and butter then stay in bed to sweat it out, Rudy. And you should stop sleeping with the windows open. It’s not healthy.”
Just then the children came in, their cheeks rosy from the cold.
’Lisbet turned from the stove. “Eats are almost ready. After that we open presents.”
But first, supper. Then warmed with good feeling and a full stomach the men went back into the front room to smoke and drink while the wives cleaned up. Wally tried to teach the children to sing “The Little Brown Church in the Wildwood,” beginning, Oh come, come, come, forgetting the rest of the words, prompting gales of laughter. Everyone knew Silent Night and sang as the twilight gave way to the lights on the Christmas tree. Finally it was time.
The presents had no nametags. The children would simply have to pick, youngest first.
Elsie walked up to the tree choosing the smallest box, hurrying back to her mother’s side.
“You have to open it and show us,” prompted Marichen.
Undoing the wrapping Elsie drew out a coloring book and a box of 16 crayons holding them up for all to see.
Next it was Eleanor’s turn. Sitting on her mother’s lap she unwrapped a fluffy brown and black Teddy Bear. “You can take it to bed with you,” ’Lisbet offered.
“And stop asking for a dog,” Rudy added.
There were two boxes left. Eying them carefully, Trudi said eenie-meenie, then unwrapped a pencil box filled with ruler, sharpener, scissors, rubber bands, colored chalk, bringing forth another chorus of oohs and ahs.
There was one left and everyone leaned forward. It was Herby’s turn.
“The best shall be last,” Fritz called out reassuringly.
Sitting in the middle of the floor Herby unwrapped the colorful package revealing a tattered shoebox.
“So what did you get, Herby?” Fritz prodded. “You got shoes? Show us.”
Herby lifted the lid drawing out a handful of dusty coal. Dumbfounded, his face flushed then turned white.
Fritz eyed the bewildered boy. “What’s that we see? Are you a bad boy who gets only lumps of coal for Christmas?”
“I wasn’t bad,” the boy protested, close to tears. “How come the others got nice things and I didn’t? What did I do wrong?”
“Church people must know everything,” Fritz insisted. “You better tell Mutti tonight when you say your prayers. There should be something you did.”
“The others could have picked this one,” Herby wailed. “How come I got it?”
“Okay, that’s enough, Fritz,” Martha declared, taking the box from Herby. “Such a bad joke. America has Santa Claus, not Nicklaus. Now give him his real present before I give you a hit on the head.” She reached down and lifted Herby to his feet. “Go wash your hands. Onkel Fritz hid the real present. He only makes fun.” She glared at her brother.
The little boy retreated into the bathroom and they could hear sobbing through the door.
“Leave him alone,” admonished August as Marichen started to get up. “He will come out when he’s ready.”
“Ach, it was only in fun,” Fritz muttered, pulling out a small box from behind the couch. “He should not be such a crybaby.”
“He’s only a boy,” Marichen stormed.
“Life is hard enough for a man,” Fritz replied. “A sissy boy will never make it. He has to learn to fight, to be strong…”
“Ja sure, Mr. Soldier Man. Like you in the war, so smart you get captured then escape three times so you get plenty beatings after you caught. Is that how you got strong? What good did the beatings do?” Marichen was trembling. “Better you not try to be Mr. Tough Guy.”
“Enough!” August thundered. “It’s over.”
When Herby emerged he received his real present, a small harmonica with a songbook and instructions on how to play. But after a few tries Herby put it back in the box spending the rest of the evening sitting quietly next to his mother.
By nine o’clock the air hung heavy with cigarette smoke and the lingering scent of pine. Christmas was over. August and Marichen wrapped the children in their coats and hats and after soft goodbyes went out into the cold, taking the streetcar home.
Elsie fell asleep and August carried her the rest of the way, an unexpected tenderness as the others trotted behind.
“Tomorrow you can play with your nice new things,” Marichen declared as they prepared for bed. “You are lucky. The only present I ever got was a ball and that was just once.”
Closing the door, she sank on the couch next to August, watching as he took off his shoes.
“Don’t start with me, Marichen,” he growled looking up. “Fritz is a stupid fool but he’s my brother and a good person most of the time.”
Reaching into her pocket, she withdrew a brown booklet with smudged markings and the title engraved St. John’s School. “I wanted to show you this but waited until after Christmas.” Her eyes reddened. “Herby thought it was his fault.”
“Something you not tell me? Because why?”
“The teacher said we owe them money. They will not let Herby go back to school or get report card if we no pay. The same with Trudi.” Her lips trembled as she handed him the booklet.
He looked at it carefully and finally put it down. It said their tuition was three months behind. “We not have the money, Marichen,” he said quietly. “There’s rent and electric. And now we need to help grow the business. It is our future.”
“The future is our children,” Marichen cried. “They should be learning in the good Christian way.” She reached for his hand. “Maybe if we talk to them,” she pleaded. “They know we poor.”
“They shame us and make us beg then give us a turkey to make themselves feel good.” His voice was biting. “No. Let them keep their verdammte school. Public school will be good enough. The Christian way belongs to us right at home.”
“But it’s a nice school,” she begged. “The teachers talk German and tell us the children are smart. Trudi comes home to teach Elsie songs and they sing themselves to sleep at night. The pastor likes them.”
“We will find another church just as good or even better. One where nobody tries to be a showoff every Sunday.”
There was no arguing. Oatmeal instead of corn flakes, soup instead of roast beef. Extras were for other people. For them it was to be polite and hope no one perceives the difference.
So after the New Year, Martha and Wally helped register the children at the new school telling them about the wonders of recess with crackers and milk afterward. Their books would be free and they could even take them home. “Just remember to sit up straight and fold your hands on top of the desk. Then everything will be all right.”
It would be another change mandated by the adults. A reminder of learning how to cope.