Emma of Aurora
The Thread of Love
Some say that love’s enough to stave off suffering and loss, but I would disagree. Quietly, of course. Words of dissent aren’t welcome in our colony, especially words from women. I should have learned these lessons—about dissent and love—early on before I turned eighteen. But teachings about spirit and kinship require repetition before becoming threads strong enough to weave into life’s fabric, strong enough to overcome the weaker strains of human nature. It was a strength I found I’d need one day to face what love could not stave off.
But on that Christmas morning in Bethel, Missouri, 1851, celebrating as we had for a decade or more with the festivities beginning at 4:00 a.m., a time set by our leader, love seemed enough; love was the thread that held the pearls of present joy. It was young love, a first love, and it warmed. Never mind that the warmth came from the fireplace heat lifting against my crinoline, so for a moment I could pretend I wore the wire hoop of fashion. Instead of something stylish, I wore a dress so simple it could have been a flannel sheet, so common it might belong to any of the other dozen girls my age whose voices I could hear rising in the distance, the women’s choir already echoing their joy within our Bethel church. Winter snows and the drafts that plagued my parents’ loft often chilled me and my sisters. But here, on this occasion, love and light and music and my family bound me into warmth.
Candle heat shimmered against the tiny bells of the Schellenbaum,
the symbol of allegiance my father carried in the church on such special occasions. The musical instrument’s origin was Turkish, my father told me, and militaristic, too, a strange thing I always thought for us German immigrants to carry forth at times of celebration. The musical instrument reminded me of an iron weather vane on top of one of the colony’s grain barns, rising with an eagle at the peak, its talons grasping an iron ball. Beneath, a crescent held fourteen bells, alternating large and small, dangling over yet another black orb with a single row of bells circling beneath it. A final ring of tiny bells hovered above the stand my father carried this early morning. As a longtime colonist, he walked worshipfully toward the Tannenbaum
sparkling with star candles placed there by the parade of the youngest colony girls.
My father’s usual smiling face wore solemn as his heavy boots took him forward like a funeral dirge, easing along the wide aisle that divided men from women, fathers from daughters, and mothers from sons even while we faced one another, men looking at women and we gazing back. All one thousand members of the Bethel Colony attended. The women’s chorus ended, and I heard the rustle of their skirts like the quiet turning of pages of a book as they nestled down onto the benches with the other seated women.
Later, the band would play festive tunes, and we’d sing and dance and give the younger children gifts of nuts and apples, and the men might taste the distillery’s nectar of whiskey or wine, though nothing to excess, before heading home to open gifts with family.
We began the Christmas celebration assembled in the church built of bricks we colonists made ourselves.We gathered in the dark, the tree candles and the fire glow and our own virgin lanterns lighting up the walnut-paneled room as we prepared to hear Father Keil—as my father called him—preach of love, of shared blessings, of living both the Golden and the Diamond Rules. He’d speak of loyalty to our Lord, to one another, and ultimately to him, symbolized on this day by the carrying of the Schellenbaum and the music of its bells across the red-tiled floor.
As my father passed in front of me, I spied my older brother, Jonathan, my brother who resembles me. He, too, is small and slender with eyes like walnuts framed by thick brown eyebrows set inside a heart-shaped face. I used to tease my brother about his chipmunk cheeks until the day I overheard Helena Giesy say, “Emma Wagner and her brother look like twins, though Jonathan is two years older. Such puffed up cheeks they share,” she said. Our rosy cheeks bind us.
Jonathan held his lower lip with his teeth, then raised his eyebrows, letting his eyes move with deliberateness toward the front and the tall, dark-haired man standing next to Father Keil. Now my heart skipped. Jonathan lifted his chin, grinned. My face grew warm.
I never should have told him.
At least I kept the secret from the little ones, though Catherine at nine, wise beyond her years, would claim she was adult enough to know, but she’d have clucked her tongue at me for even thinking in the way I did. David, Johanna, Louisa, and William, well, they’d have blabbed and babbled without knowing what they really said.
The bells tinkled and the band struck up notes. Later, if the weather held, the band would move out onto the platform around the church steeple and play Hark! the Herald Angels Sing
so loudly that perhaps the ears of those in Shelbina thirteen miles south would be awakened and our colony would intrude on them, but in a glorious way. We were meant to be set apart by our commitment to the common fund, Father Keil told us, and yet to serve. Lately, Shelbina and its railroad threatened us. My father said Father Keil grew worried that Shelbina’s life might lure young men away. Father Keil would do his best to keep Bethel’s sons loyal, separated, even though he said our passion should be to bring others to our fold, save others from God’s planned destruction of our world, give to those in need, especially to widows and their children, We were to bring to the colony, through our acts of love, the women who wore white globes called pearls around their necks, the fine ladies who sought after jewels and gems that marked false loyalties to luxury over faith.Neighbors
. The people of Shelbina were good neighbors, I always thought. They bought our gloves, our wine, and our corn whiskey. But few of us really knew them.We had no way of knowing if they’d heard about the coming destruction or if they suffered from worries and woes. Our religious colony cherished lives of simplicity, sharing frugal wealth in common, all needs of colonists met, silencing desire for unnecessary passions. Whatever cash we earned went to the common purse. If we needed cash for some outside purchase, we went to that same coffer. Whatever we needed from the colony’s yield, we simply walked to the storehouse to secure it.My mother said it eased all worry about the future; I saw it as one more person to have to convince to let loose the purse strings.
We colonists were different from those around us in Missouri; we were an island of our own. We worked to stay unsullied by the larger distractions of the world that Shelbina symbolized even while we attempted to bring others into the joys of our colony’s ways.
Only the strongest of us could reach outside and yet stay faithful, Father Keil said. I smoothed my skirt and felt the ruffle.
The brass horns pierced the room, announcing Father Keil’s beginning words. Angels’ trumpets. Music is the perfect way to celebrate a glorious occasion, I’ve always thought. Jonathan played in the men’s band. Not me. Not girls, not young women. Our music came from our voices raised in the choir or while beating rugs or dyeing wool or serving meals to men. I couldn’t carry a tune in a candlestick holder, something else that made me different.
But separation from the women’s choir or the brass instruments of music did not keep me from the joy of this day especially.
My father set the Schellenbaum
on its stand, then took his place across from us, sliding next to my brothers, who then wiggled on down the bench, a place they always sat.We’d been a part of this colony for as long as I could remember. My father had been one of three scouts sent out from Pennsylvania by our leader to find a “place of separation” in the unknown territories, far from the larger world. I was five years old when we moved with other German families discouraged by the changes in George Rapp’s colony at Harmony, Pennsylvania. We seceded first to Phillipsburg, then into Indiana, then into Shelby County, Missouri, where our leader imagined Bethel into being. It is a joyous place, Bethel, even though my father says many will be summoned in the morning to discuss reasons we might have to leave again.
Change never troubled me. I welcome change, newness, though I work to keep my pride in check about it. Pride is an evil thing, our leader tells us.We must not envy, must not lust, must not covet. So no one knows I’ve stitched a ruffle to my crinoline. It is a harmless vanity easily removed but one that warms my spirit knowing it is there, unique on this winter morning as crisp as a hot-ironed crease. I gaze without envy along the row of plain and simple wool dresses of Bethel’s sisters on the benches.
Change has its richness in a colony where everything seems the same. At seventeen, I am of marriageable age, so change sticking its head inside my door will be patted like a welcomed dog on its happy head.
Before we left our brick home this morning, my mother cautioned me when I noted that thismight bemy last Christmas as Emma Wagner. Next year, next Christmas, I might carry a new name and enter the festivities not as a child, but as a woman.