margrethe’s winter coat

by nan lundeen

The box makes an appearance at 8:05 a.m. From the corner of her eye Margrethe Schneider watches her daughter-in-law heave and shove the cardboard box loaded with old winter clothes for Lutheran World Relief across the kitchen floor to the back door. The old woman turns from the sink and catches a few words sounding as if they come from a distant cave. “Carry to the car . . . snowstorm . . . Robert’s.” Lydia shouts as she slaps tape on the box, perspiration beading on her forehead. “Otto!”

Her hearing aid rests on the windowsill where snow and cold air poke at the cracks. Snow already and two weeks until Thanksgiving. She likes the nutty scent of his pipe tobacco. He must be sitting in his chair reading the paper enjoying his second cup of coffee—he says she makes the best coffee.

            She scrubs an eggy plate and wonders if Penney’s still has that navy winter coat she wants. Stylish. Covered buttons, not those cheap plastic ones, nein. Remember the knitting bag, she tells herself. She’ll finish the red wool scarf to go with her new coat tonight, yet. Lydia thinks she’s a scrawny old biddy like to die before she gets enough good out of a new coat. Humph. When Hans was alive—no money for herself. Now she has plenty, ja, thanks to William.

            Hans. Humph. Always tight with the money from the time they boarded the steamship in Hamburg; 1887, it was. Traveling in steerage on the cheapest tickets so he could afford land in the new country. Thank the good Lord for William. He did good by her, running the farm after Hans passed. A noisy baby, though. She’d held little William, born at sea, close to her breast to protect him from ravenous rats and mice and gave him the teat to silence his cries the moment he screwed up his face on the jam-packed ship.

She wrinkles her nose, remembering the stench from unwashed bodies on the ship and then in the bumpy, clanging immigrant cars that carried them to Davenport, Iowa. Slept sitting up on hard benches because Hans refused to pay the conductor a dollar, twenty-five cents for a straw mattress to throw on the floor.

            Margrethe’s shoulders tense when she senses Lydia coming up behind her. Lydia’s brittle voice punctures her silent word.

“Mother! What did you do with your winter coat?’ Margrethe can hear when someone stands close to her and hollers, but careful not to smile, keeps her face impassive, deaf to questions about her old coat. “I found your boots, but your coat ain’t in the closet. Just leave those dishes. I’ll do ‘em later. I want to get you out to Robert’s before the snow gets worse. I hate those dang country roads.”

She hears Lydia huff in frustration at her silence, and soon the woman’s ever-present scent of Ben-Gay has left the room.

Hot water swishes over the plate. A thorough rinse, the water feeling good on her hands. A smile creases Margrethe’s wrinkled face at the thought of her youngest. Robert was a happy man with a ready laugh before he hurried to enlist after Pearl Harbor. Margrethe had gotten down on her knees for him every day, as she had for Peter. He came back from the war quiet, his laughter stilled, but he came back, but he came back, danke Gott. Built a good life with Jane and Karen, ja. Bought a new Singer! And then Jane bought one of those new-fangled steam irons—so easy to press seams. Already 1952, and times change.

She tucks a stray hair back into the tight bun at the nape of her neck and turns to dismantle the stove top, removing grates and wiping down the porcelain surface with a blue and lilac dishcloth she had crocheted. Wrenches the lid off the teakettle and peers in. Caked with lime already. She hunts fruitlessly under the sink for vinegar—Lydia must have moved it again—and hurries into the front room, dishrag in hand, where Lydia stands hands on hips glaring at her husband. Otto knocks pipe ashes into the ashtray which stands beside his chair, strikes a match, and draws anew on his pipe.

            Margrethe asks where is the vinegar. Lydia looks at her blankly. Did she talk German again? Lydia leans in toward Otto, her lips moving, her face flushed.

            Otto turns his head, winks, and turns back to Lydia who pivots on her heel and stomps in her black oxfords to the laundry room off the kitchen.

            “Here!” She thrusts the jug at her mother-in-law. A frown line marks the bridge of her nose. “You better not be starting on that dang teakettle again.” She hollers at a slightly lower

decibel than usual as if she wants to sound kinder for Otto’s benefit. “Roads are gonna be bad, and we have to drop off the box for World Relief at the church.”

            Ja, ja, mein Gott! Her son will not drink his coffee from water boiled in a dirty teakettle while she’s out to Robert’s. Good thing she baked rye bread yesterday. It will last him til she gets back. Wiping her hands on her bib apron, Margrethe pours vinegar in the kettle and sets it on the gleaming stove. After it boils and cools, she’ll apply elbow grease using her hand-made knife, a keepsake from her fourth child, brown-eyed, blond-haired Peter. She clicks her tongue as she remembers Hans mocking Peter, saying he had cow eyes. Ach, only twenty-nine and in his grave already, so lonely over there in France. But he did good, fought and died in the Second Battle of the Marne in 1918, a battle they say helped turn the tide against the Second Reich. Not like those Osterbergs. They were good neighbors—made hay together every summer, but they sent their boys back over to fight for the Fatherland in both world wars. There was never a question for the Schneiders.

            “We’re American now!” Hans had declared, bringing his fist down on her kitchen table, two years before Peter gave his life for their new country. She’d agreed with Hans on that, glad to be American and grateful for the rich Iowa soil that, with hard work, gave them a good living. And that Hitler! She shudders. She misses the farm, where standing at the sink she saw broad fields waving corn in the summer, snow-swept in winter, not a view of the neighbors’ garage, like now. Never minded the work. Every summer, putting up hundreds of jars of garden vegetables, butchering chickens, and the boys and Hans killed a hog every fall. Hans made his own sausage. Very popular, Hans’ sausage. Humph. The corn crops were good, even carrying them through the Depression, Hans gone already in 1920. Although one year, or was it two? Hail took all four hundred acres. But they were spared tornadoes. Hit all around them. One spring, took the neighbor’s barn. Nothing left but sticks.

            Otto comes through the kitchen and squeezes her arm on his way to the basement to stoke the furnace. Ach! What time is it? Here she is staring out the window, yet. She counts back: five years already she lived with Otto. She knows he can use the rent she insists on paying. Rubs her shoulder. Not too bad today. Straightens herself. She made it to age eighty-four before willpower wasn’t enough to shovel coal into the big farmhouse furnace. The fire sometimes went out in the middle of the night, and she wasn’t about to call William out of his warm house three miles away in bed with Clara. She’s stopped asking Otto whether the want ads have jobs. He makes ends meet with that janitor job evenings over to the elementary school. Tightens her jaw. That lumber company should have found different work for him after he fell off that ladder and broke his arm in three places. Three places! Drei!

            Snowing harder now, swirling around the driveway. Otto’d have to shovel before they could leave. Iowa winters are just as bad if not worse than German ones.

            The hot vinegar she pours down the drain steams her glasses. Peter’s knife in hand, she scrapes, thinking of the old country. As a child, she forced herself to ignore the smell of cows and pigs under their farm home in Schleswig-Holstein because the critters kept them from freezing in winter. She scoops out the caked leavings from the kettle and raps the spoon against an old newspaper. She glances out the window, and in her mind’s eye sees cousin Augusta, her pug nose red with the cold, rolling a big ball of snow for a snowman. Long gone now and bearer of the only news from the old country. Wrote that Margrethe’s parents died before World War I began, first Mutter of pneumonia, and Vater a year later of unknown causes. Mutter’s face faded with time, but her hands stubbornly hold onto clarity in Margrethe’s mind. The powerful hands of a big woman, large-jointed, strong thumbs, but ah, so gentle when she sat Margrethe down to braid her long hair. When she had to leave home to go to work, Margrethe had been unable to make the braids, so her bun was born. She takes after Vater, who had been slight and nimble.

Would she have boarded the steamship in Hamburg if she’d known she’d never see them again? What choice did she have, three weeks married and eight months pregnant? At the time, she refused to think about the finality of their goodbyes, but Mutter knew. And she saw it in Vater’s robin’s-egg-blue eyes—tears of sadness that she hadn’t lived up to their expectations, but twinkles of happiness she would have a better life—ach, no promise of a happy life with Hans, but she never told them what he had done.

There had never been enough money, nor could she abandon her duties as wife and mother, to visit them before they were gone.

She blinks against the bitter vinegar smell and her eyes, ringed by creases, water, remembering how after Germany invaded Poland in 1939, cousin Augusta fell silent. If she did try to mail letters to America, they never made it. Several months after the war ended, she opened Augusta’s first letter with trembling hands. Starvation had claimed three of their

neighbors, one a six-year-old girl. Augusta didn’t know how her village would survive the approaching winter. Coal and wood were scarce.

Mein Gott! she was grateful when the Lutheran World Relief started up in October that year, glad she could knit hats and mittens for the annual November clothing drive at St. Paul’s, knowing many of the boxes would go to Germany. Blessed with strong hands and big-jointed thumbs like Mutter, her knitting needles clacked every time she sat down. Seven years, the war ended seven years ago, already. She bears down, gripping the knife.

The acrid vinegar smell fills her nose. Her forehead aches. But vinegar is her friend. After she scrubbed her husband’s pus and blood off the kitchen table with her own lye soap, she wiped down the floors and walls with hot vinegar water—the table, ja, her mind skips to William’s proud twelve-year-old smile when he and his brothers, Peter and Walter, carried it into the kitchen. William had crafted it from heart of pine, and it was sturdy enough to bear his father’s weight while the doctor lanced Hans’ infected middle ear. He died right there on her table from an abscess on the brain. She shrugs—penicillin had yet to be discovered. How many years was Hans gone now? She counts. Thirty-two. With him, a violent end, a violent beginning.

She’d been scrubbing the floor on her hands and knees in the Schneider household back in the old country, working as a maid to help out her folks, when their only son Hans came up behind her and forced her into a brutal embrace, the result of which was William and marriage.

For years, she set her jaw and tolerated his use of her body, giving birth at home to nine children, no cries breaking the silence until a child found voice.

            Rinsing the kettle with hot water, she captures the dregs in the sink strainer which she knocks against the waste basket to empty out.

            A change in the house’s atmosphere when the back door slams behind Otto on his way out to the car with the box for World Relief. She watches him open the garage door, heft it into the trunk, and grab the snow shovel.

            There. That is done.

She plucks her hearing aid from the windowsill and takes it to her room where she tucks it into her pocketbook. She’ll need it at Robert’s. Her visit couldn’t have come at a better time, ja, because tomorrow, the boxes, including the one safely in the car now, will go from the church to the World Relief, and German winters can be so bitter. Jane said they were driving into town to Penney’s tomorrow to buy wool for two new skirts Karen needs for school. If Penney’s doesn’t have the coat in petite, she’ll shorten the sleeves and hem, herself. Until then, she’ll make do with her spring jacket.

The End

Margrethe’ s Winter Coat was first published by Evening Street Press Number 20 Spring 2019

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