The Tapestry of Grace
April 9, 1897
Augusta stood just inside the Alexandertol Mennonite Church and scanned the crowded benches on the women’s side of the sanctuary. Ach,
every woman in town must have come to tonight’s meeting. Was everyone so interested in the new women’s club, or did they only mean to enjoy an hour of escape from their overly excited children? If the latter, Augusta wouldn’t blame them. As much as she loved teaching the youngest children residing in or near Alexandertol, the last day of school was always a difficult one, with children too eager about beginning the planting season to pay attention.
Weariness from the long day—and her typical end-of-the-session doldrums—tugged at her. Maybe she should have stayed home, after all. But she needed something on which to spend her hours until school began again in late fall. A women’s benevolent society, briefly mentioned by Reverend Hartmann at the close of last Sunday’s morning worship service, seemed a worthwhile pastime. She wanted to know more about it.
On the dais at the front of the church, Martina Krahn noisily tamped a stack of pages on the pulpit. The woman was older than Augusta by only five years but already mostly gray haired with deeply imbedded frown lines forming a V between her eyes and framing her thin lips. She clearly wanted everyone quiet so she could begin. Augusta should take a seat.
She rose on tiptoe and searched for an open spot. Of course, all the back benches were full. Walking to the front would garner the notice of every woman in the room, and especially Martina’s. Something Augusta preferred to avoid. Martina had a way of withering others with her stern glare. Augusta—nearly forty years of age, a seasoned schoolteacher and mother to an eleven-year-old daughter—shouldn’t be intimidated by the other woman. But she was. Based on how a hush had fallen following the sharp clack-clack-clack
of paper against wood, she suspected she wasn’t the only one cowed by Frau Krahn’s authoritarian demeanor.
Augusta hurried up the center aisle to the second bench from the front and seated herself. Martina’s frowning gaze flicked in her direction, and it seemed as if the V in her brow pinched even tighter. Then her dark eyes swept across the entire group. A tiny facsimile of a smile relaxed her ordinarily tense features.
She swept her arms open in a graceful gesture. “Welcome, ladies, to the first meeting of the Alexandertol Frauenverein
Augusta drew back slightly. Had she misunderstood the preacher’s announcement? Or had she missed a previous gathering when the decision to form a group had been made? She hadn’t realized this was an official meeting. A murmur rolled through the room, and Augusta looked over her shoulder at the others. Several women stared at Martina, their confusion evident.
Elsie Weber shot to her feet. “Frau Krahn, I came to learn more about what this ladies’ club is about. If this meeting is for members, I should leave. I always consult my husband before making commitments to clubs and such.”
A few other women nodded their agreement, and all across the benches, pairs put their heads close together and whispered to each other. Augusta had no husband to consult. Her dear Leopold lay at rest in the Alexandertol cemetery, gone for over five years now. But she preferred to pray about the things to which she committed time and energy, to be certain they were God’s will for her. She hadn’t addressed her heavenly Father even once yet about joining a Frauenverein.
Martina waved her hands at the group, frowning again. “Ladies, ladies, you remind me of a coop of clucking, nervous hens. Of course we aren’t an official club . . . yet. But is this not our first meeting to discuss the possibility?”
Augusta contemplated Martina’s opening statement welcoming them all, and she swallowed a chortle. In Martina’s mind, this club was already established. Most likely with her serving as leader. Martina headed up every quilting bee, every church picnic, and every wedding party. She’d even tried to organize the school Christmas pageant last year, but Herr Elias, the teacher for the older children, tartly informed her that he and Augusta were capable of the task and sent her scuttling. Martina hadn’t attended the program.
Although Herr Elias had gloated about putting the strong-minded woman in her place, Augusta took no pleasure in squashing Martina’s quest for leadership. She and her husband were the only childless couple in town, which probably left Martina with extra time on her hands. But Herr Elias had been right that he and Augusta were better suited for organizing the school pageant.
As for this organization, wouldn’t the minister’s wife, gentle Berta Hartmann, make a more personable leader for a benevolent club? Augusta didn’t have nerve enough to voice the question aloud, but a couple others attending the meeting might. If they challenged Martina, there very well could be a fight for control of the coop. Augusta hoped she wouldn’t see feathers fly in the sanctuary of the church this evening.
“Please have a seat, Frau Weber, so we may continue,” Martina said, her voice sweet but her gaze narrow.
Elsie plopped back onto the bench and folded her arms.
Martina cleared her throat, and the whispers ceased. “Perhaps I should begin tonight’s meeting by sharing where I found the idea of starting our own Frauenverein.” She lifted a strip of newsprint from the pulpit and held it out with much pomp. “I cut this article from a recent issue of Der Grütlianer,
which is published in New York City, New York, and mailed to Gerhard each month from his cousin. The article tells about the impact the local Frauenverein has had in comforting those who became widowed or orphaned during the voyage from Germany to America, helping them feel at home in their new land, and meeting their needs for shelter, food, and friendship.”
Martina’s eyes shone as she spoke, and some of Augusta’s weariness lifted in light of the woman’s sincere passion.
“The first Frauenverein, established over forty years ago, limited itself to reaching out to members of its own congregation. But, eventually, it expanded as needs arose and extended its benevolence to the sick, infirm, or otherwise suffering or needy. I believe we should start the same way, reaching out to the widows”—her gaze briefly slid to Augusta—“and orphans in our own community. Later, if we become aware of people outside of Alexandertol who need a helping hand, we could extend it.”
Lucinda Klein, one of the older members of the church, rose from her seat. “Frau Krahn, exactly what kind of ‘helping hand’ will we extend?”
“Food supplies, clothing, or medical care.” Martina answered so promptly it seemed she had a script ready for recitation. “Perhaps housecleaning, gardening, or tending to children.”
Tending to children? Augusta’s heart skipped a beat. She knew a family who had need for this type of benevolence.
“Are these not the types of acts family members perform for one another?” Lucinda dabbed her face with a wrinkled handkerchief. “Is there truly a need for such a club in our community?”
Elsie Weber stood again. She nodded so enthusiastically the frilly brim of her bonnet bounced like butterfly wings. “Oh, yes, there is need. While I don’t know of any orphans living in Alexandertol, we do have several older widows who often need firewood cut or lack the provisions to carry them through the winter months. My Franz has taken unsold bolts of cloth or wilted vegetables from our store shelves to these women on many occasions. He’s also sent our oldest boys to do chores for them.”
Lucinda’s forehead furrowed. “If someone’s already seeing to these needs, why start a club? I hope no one asks me to chop firewood. And I don’t want to sound petty or selfish, but I need the vegetables from my garden to feed my husband and me. At my age, it’s all I can do to grow enough for the two of us.”
Now Berta Hartmann stood, leaned forward, and tapped Lucinda’s shoulder. “Frau Klein, maybe we could put you and your husband on the list to receive benevolence, since your boys both moved to the city and you don’t have someone else to look in on you.”
Lucinda’s mouth fell open. “Heinrich and I have no need for charity.”
Agnes Bauer, who’d been sitting on the very back bench, strode up the aisle to Lucinda and put her fists on her hips. “Frau Klein, there is no shame in accepting help.” Then she turned to Martina and held her hands out in a gesture of defeat. “But her attitude is common. Most people are prideful. They don’t want to admit that they need help. Even if we start this club, will we have an opportunity to serve anyone? I, for one, don’t have time to waste searching for people who need help if those people won’t accept it when we offer it.”
More mutters broke out.