The Reitlingschoefers

Jenifer McVaugh


John (Hans) and Margarete Reitlingschoefer (Lloyd called it roofing-shingles) lived around the corner from us on the five mile road going back towards the reserve and the village.  I think the Reitlingschoefer family still owns the property, which was, by the time of John’s death, extremely large.  Past Reitlingschoefer’s there used to be a terrible hill, I didn’t know if it was Cly Veeter’s hill or Clive Eater’s hill.  It turns out it was Klawetter’s hill, and it has now been bulldozed for being too terrible.  Their original house (somebody’s homestead?) had burned not long before we arrived in the early seventies.  The brick bungalow they built afterwards is still there, I think it is rented.  The original barns survived the fire.


The Reitlingschoefers were ethnic Germans, born in Latvia, in the first years of the twentieth century who came to Canada in the fifties to join the community of Balts, to many of whom they were related, already here: the Vietinghofs, the von Mullens, the Frisches, the Neumans.  Perhaps one or more of their children, Harry Reitlingschoefer, Rainie Sell or Mary Morganstern, had already come over and encouraged them to join them.  In the fifty years before South Algona Township, the years they were growing up, going to school, making a life, and raising a family their part of northern Europe had changed names several times, they were herded by governments from one place to another, required to adapt to several different official as regimes shifted.  Again, this was something I took for granted—everybody has a past—but I see now that their past was remarkable, and we were privileged to meet such time travellers. 


Hans, John, died first, some time in the seventies.  He had served, I believe, as a cook in the second world war, and escaped from a prisoner of war camp once, by, I believe, swimming across rivers, and smuggled seed potatoes (in his socks)  into Canada when he came over. He was a hard working man and spent most of his time, as far as I saw, outdoors, just coming in to be fed, and making us all feel good as he took off his boots and relaxed into the daily festival of gemutlichheit.  He was always called John.  His wife was always called Mrs. Reitlingschoefer.


Mrs. Reitlingschoefer was small, age-shrunk, beautiful like a bird, like a doll, like an ur memory of all grannies.  like a good witch.  She had bright blue eyes. china white skin and bright red hair into her old age, which she wore under a bright triangular kerchief.  She wore dowdy woolen dresses, skirts and sweaters, woolen underwear and stockings and slippers, and button-behind aprons.  All her clothing was old and much mended. A passing glance could see the Reitlingschoefers as Hansel and Gretel, popping in and out of a barometer to tell the weather.


Mrs. Reitlingschoefer deeply wanted to be good to us, and was greatly obliged when one of us would come to her door.  When we did she would sit us down to eat a snack while she prepared more food for us to eat, and more and more, until we left, untasted dishes still on offer.  She also gave us strawberries, asparagus, raspberries, potatoes, tomatoes, pieces of meat, loaves of bread and pastries, jams, cheeses and honey as well as second hand clothes, and dishes, and the use of her bathtub.  She seemed to want to give to us, and we were easy to persuade.  She would reluctantly allow us to work for her, cleaning or mending or gardening (at half her pace), but only if we ate when we arrived and when we left and also took home bushels of produce.  At the time I thought she was generous and we were suitably grateful.  In retrospect her desire to give and give seems even more peculiar than our willingness to take and take and take.  We invited her to come and eat with us as well (dog bone stew , steamed nettles).  She never wanted to, but once did, and sat at the fire pit, her kerchief exchanged for a felt hat.


I heard more clearly the music of Mrs. Reitlingschoefer than the words.  I once wrote down a cookbook to her dictation, the Joy of Kuchen. The first syllable of  kuchen is more like a ‘coo’ than a ‘cook,’ and that was her voice, too, a coo, “come, eat just little bit more.”


Her food was fresh and rich.   I didn’t write down one recipe for a tasty chicken dish she said was very simple;  just cut up a chicken and boil it in sweet butter until it falls from the bone.  Her kuchen recipes called for butter, quark, cream, lots of eggs, and usually mentioned specifically that the dish comes out better the more sugar you add. 

She had a strong personal faith, in the evangelical Lutheran tradition.  She was preyed on not only by us hippies, but by the 100 Huntley Street crowd who sent her devotional aids and requests for more money.  She saw the living God in all creation, regretted her failures of faith, hope, and charity, cried for thankfulness that Jesus loves her and us all.


Once we washed windows together, taking them down and washing both sides before we put them up again.  We noticed that washing windows is a two person job, so that the one can call the other one’s attention to the spots on her side that she can’t see.  We agreed that there was a lesson about character and friendship in this.  Mrs. Reitlingschoefer got me a job with Frau Frisch, who introduced me to buttermilk, which is still a passion of mine.  She also got me a job with Frau I-don’t- remember whose method of spring cleaning the kitchen was to take everything out, from the fridge and stove and pipes themselves down to the contents of every cupboard and drawer, then scrub out the kitchen, then let it dry while you scrub every thing you took out, and then replace the contents.


As she got older I noticed that Mrs. Reitlingschoefer’s world constricted.  She no longer saw into the corners, wasn’t bothered by what piled up, lost her enthusiasm for sorting through her possessions to find something she could give away.  She knew she was dying of cancer for three years before she finally died.  She lay on a sofa for three months before she finally died.  She was taken to hospital and suffered there for three – weeks?  Days? – before she finally died.  She died in August of 1987.  I know this because my own mother died at the same time, and so I wasn’t here when Mrs. Reitlingschoefer, who mothered me so assiduously, went to hospital and died.


My mother, who was just Mrs. Reitlingschoefer’s age, seemed in good health, but an examination had shown her to have a dangerous weak spot in her heart artery. There was an operation to correct the defect which had an 80% success rate.  My mother went into hospital as cool and fresh and impeccably groomed as she always was.  She kissed my father and said she would see him the next day.  She died, anesthetized, on the operating table.


Mrs. Reitlingschoefer spent three years preparing for her death and three months receiving visitors, seeking their forgiveness and assuring them of her love.  I was consoled in these two deaths, by the possibility that each woman died as she would have wished, according to the plan of her long life. 


My own mother and I had a troubled relationship, I was not a good daughter.  Mrs. Reitlingschoefer told me that she was very cruel to her own children, not a good mother.