Mrs. Juhle

She sat at her kitchen table, her flabby arms in front of her, hands holding a cup of coffee on the oilcloth that had been scrubbed so many times that the pattern was worn off and white in front of where she habitually sat. The heat of the coffee was comforting to her fingers through the cup. Her feet were cold, even in her sheepskin lined slippers, but they had been that way since the last of October. She had almost grown used to it, though she thought that it might have aggravated her dropsy.

This time of day the sun was low enough that, for a short time, there was plenty of light reflected off of the drifted snow, through the window, into her kitchen. Looking out, she saw the last remaining traces of a trail broken through the drifts to her kitchen door. The wind had quickly filled the tracks with snow so that they were almost lost if you didn’t know they were there.

She looked over toward the wood burning kitchen range where the coffee pot sat, steaming, slightly, to the right of the fire box. She heaved herself off of her kitchen chair and leaning on the back of it, she reached to the range and moved the pot further away from the hottest part of the stove top. The range never really heated the floor and water would freeze on the floor near the door even with the stove going full blast. She collapsed back in her chair and looked through the open passage into the living room to where the Christmas tree stood as far from the oil heater as it was possible to get it in the confines of that limited space. She was sparring with how much she used the oil heater. The road to her farm was blocked by snow and the oil delivery truck would not be able to make it in until spring. Her wood pile was adequate providing she didn’t splurge. She kept the range banked and the damper closed when she wasn’t cooking.

She remembered dressing in her late husband’s trousers and flannel shirt. She had layered her sweaters under it and pulled her fur topped overshoes on over two pair of heavy wool socks, then tied the trouser cuffs down over the tops of her overshoes with old shoe laces. Breathing hard from this preparation, she braved the cold and knee-deep snow to find and cut a small pine tree to decorate. She was filled with hope and a brief happiness at the prospect of the upcoming season of joy and love.

Carefully, she cut a scrap of red cloth into long strips which she tied into bows. She made a star out of cardboard then folded tin foil around it, and with a common pin, stuck it to the top of the tree. She cut out images from old Christmas cards and, with paperclips, hung them and the red cloth bows all over the tree. She saved her few glass ornaments for last, placing them where they were most visible.

The labor had been a happy one. Although she didn’t know them, she anticipated the visit of a neighboring family that lived across the lake a half mile away. She met the woman once, the previous summer, when she stopped to inquire about a cow that had wandered off. The woman had followed the cow’s tracks on the dirt road around the lake to Mrs. Juhle’s farm. The woman knocked on her door and asked if she had seen or heard a Jersey cow wearing a bell. They chatted for a few minutes outside her door on that summer evening. In that time, she learned that the woman, Mrs. Nielsen, was a remarried widow with two children. They had bought the old Lindholm farm that same spring.

Two days before Christmas, Mrs. Nielsen called to tell her that she and her two children would be walking across the lake on the ice to visit on Christmas Eve day.

She fired up the range that morning and packed in extra firewood which she piled in a battered wooden box beside the range. She had split the kindling the evening before so that when she awoke, she could start the fire, as soon as she laid it up on the grate, to heat the kitchen to a reasonable temperature for her visitors.

When the telephone rang a little after noon, she had answered with joy and a quavering voice: “Hello.”

“Yes, we are ready to start walking over. We’ll be there in about half an hour.” Although she didn’t know this family, the woman she had met the previous summer seemed to be quite friendly and she thought the rest of the family would probably be the same. She looked at the thermometer outside her kitchen window. It registered twelve below zero, a bit warmer than the last two days. 

She took out the can in which she had put the cookies she had baked for Christmas and arranged them on a plate that she placed in the center of the table. Dumping the last of the old coffee that she had been nursing for the last two days, she started a new pot to percolate on the wood range. She set out cups, spoons and sugar on the table, then sat back down to await their arrival.

She heard voices, then saw them as they came into view through the unfrosted center of her kitchen window. The woman was in the lead, breaking trail through the deep snow, her breath jetting clouds of steam coming out in quick puffs. The scarf over her mouth was white with frost. Behind her, a girl was followed by a boy.

Her heart raced as she heaved herself up from her chair to meet them at the door. They were bundled in scarves, caps, mittens and extra trousers, pulled down over the tops of their boots and tied with strings around their boot tops to keep out the snow. “Welcome and Merry Christmas!” she shouted as they piled through the door.

“Sonny, close that door. You’re letting all the heat out,” Mrs. Nielsen scolded. The boy, about six, pushed the door almost shut, its final half inch blocked by the snow they had just tracked in.

“Don’t break it” Mrs. Nielsen scolded. She stepped to the door, pushed with her foot on the bottom corner to help the boy shut it against the resistance of the snow.

“Put your boots and wet things next to the stove,” Mrs. Juhle said. She took their head scarves, which now had become wet where, only moments before, there had been frost. The boy was wearing cheap rubber coated mittens that were wet inside from his own perspiration, even in the extreme cold. His fingers were so numb with cold that he couldn’t unbutton his coat.

Mrs. Juhle bent down to help. He backed away, frightened by the sight of her drooping skin, swaying under her arms and hanging low over her ankles. She could see fear and revulsion in his eyes as he turned away and fumbled with the buttons. Her stomach knotted itself. Trembling, she turned toward the woman and said:

“I have hot coffee on the stove; I’ll pour you a cup. Help yourself to the cookies.” The little girl looked at her suspiciously and furtively reached for a cookie.

“Duddy, say thank you,” Mrs. Nielsen scolded. The little girl mumbled something that resembled what her mother had ordered, then reached for another. The boy was crying silently, still fumbling with his buttons. Mrs. Juhle suppressed a sob as she watched his struggle. Mrs. Nielsen didn’t seem to notice.

“Do you have everything you need?” she asked. “We have a four-wheel drive jeep and can get out to town by driving on the lake where the snow isn’t so deep. If you need anything, just call me. I’ll get it for you the next time I go to town.”

“Thank you so much for the kind offer,” Mrs. Juhle said. “I’ll let you know when I do.”

She heaved herself back to her chair and wearily sat down. Mrs. Nielsen was going on about something but Mrs. Juhle’s mind was so occupied with the struggle of the little boy, she couldn’t make any sense out of what she was saying, so she nodded and forced a smile from time to time. Then it became clear; It was about Jesus, the Baptist church and her salvation. Of that, she was sure.

“And I’ll come to the edge of the lake with the jeep if you would like to walk down there. We can all go to church together.”

Mrs. Juhle looked at the kitchen clock as it gonged out three o’clock. The time had passed at a snail’s pace. What she had hoped would be a joyous occasion had turned leaden and painful. She was relieved when Mrs. Nielsen said; “We have to go. There are cows to be milked and wood and water for Sonny to carry in. Merry Christmas. Now remember if you need anything or want to go to church with me, just give me a call.”

“Thanks, for the offers, but as far as church is concerned, I am a Lutheran. May I offer you a suggestion?”

Mrs. Nielsen looked surprised. “Well, yes, what is it?

Mrs. Juhle felt her heart start to beat more rapidly.

“You should get your son a proper pair of mittens. His hands were so cold that he couldn’t unbutton his coat.” Mrs. Nielsen quickly glanced at her son. He lowered his eyes and looked ashamed. “He’s never complained about the mittens,” she replied defensively. “Besides that, he chose them himself. He said they would be good for throwing snow balls.”

“Where were you when he chose them?”

“Well, my husband, Frederick and I were there, with him, in the dry goods store.” She remembered that Frederick was complaining angrily about how much money winter clothing cost for children, especially since “they grow out of them so fast.” Mrs. Nielsen averted her eyes as she replied. Suddenly her face felt hot and sweaty. Mrs. Juhle saw it all:

“Please forgive me but does Frederick have cheap mittens as well?” 

“He’s the man of the family and needs good mittens to do the work that he does,” Mrs. Nielsen blurted, looking away again. A feeling of nausea almost overwhelmed her. She grabbed the back of a chair to steady herself. She had actively ignored her son’s discomfort because Frederick had insisted that “a little pain and discomfort was good because it developed self-discipline.” She had heard him moan in pain when his feet, protected only by shoes and rubber goulashes were so cold that he could hardly walk, after carrying and stacking many armloads of firewood that Frederick, who was wearing sheepskin lined aviator boots, had cut in the woods. Frederick claimed that Sonny’s reactions were exaggerated and, as usual, screamed and threatened him. The boy did what he always did: He bit his lip and endured the pain and abuse.

Without looking at Mrs. Juhle, Mrs. Nielsen quickly put on her winter clothes noting, ashamedly, that she had a warm pair of mittens and mukluks.

“Get your clothes on,” she urged her two children, “We’ve stayed too long. “There are chores to do and it will be dark soon.” She did not again look at Mrs. Juhle but concentrated on her children.

“Goodbye, Mrs. Juhle, Merry Christmas.” She pushed her children out the door and pulled it tightly shut. Mrs. Juhle moaned to herself and shook her head: “Good bye to you too and Merry Christmas.” She sat numbly in her chair and nibbled absent mindedly on a cookie, not tasting it or acknowledging that she was eating it. 

As the sun set, she lit a kerosene lamp and set it on the table. Its light yellowed the worn white patches of the oilcloth. The enveloping silence, softly punctuated by the ticking clock and the whispering fire in the range were no comfort to her now. The gaiety that she had hoped for had had no chance. She grieved for the little boy and the woman who had so fooled herself. It was obvious that her life, too, was extremely difficult. That had made it possible for her to believe her husband, Frederick’s assertions, in spite of the reality that was so obvious to Mrs. Juhle.

She chastised herself for opening her mouth, now that she had some time to think about it. It was not normally in her nature to criticize another person, but the pain Mrs. Nielsen was inflicting on the boy, unknowingly, was impossible to ignore.

“Judge not, judge not, judge not” reproved the ticking clock, echoing in the empty stillness of the surrounding darkness. She clasped her hands, closed her eyes and whispered into the darkness:

“Dear God, I feel that I have sinned in some way but I don’t quite know how I could have done it differently. I was so happy at the possibility of having neighbors to ease my loneliness. I am so disappointed. Please help me to know what I should do.” She realized, then, that there was nothing she could do to un-do what she had said. She also realized that what she had said needed to be said. Even so, she felt like her prayer had been heard in some way: that there was a kind of light in the darkness that had not been there before.

“I will sleep on this. Perhaps an answer will come to me in my sleep.”

Before going to bed, she took a brick out of the oven, wrapped it in newspaper and slid it under the covers. The temperature in her bedroom was just a few degrees above freezing and the hot brick would warm her feet and her whole body as she waited for the bedding to warm from her body heat. She hurriedly took off her clothes, pausing, only briefly, to regard her ruined body in the mirror before quickly putting on her night gown and slipping under the covers. She felt a terrible emptiness.

“What have I to live for now that Victor is gone and I am alone with no one to love or love me,” she thought as she drifted off to sleep.

She dreamed that Victor was with her that night. She felt the warmth of her husband’s love and her love for him. She was filled with happiness. She told him;

“I wish there was some way that I could give you a gift this Christmas.”  

“Come with me, my love,” he responded. “You have nothing to gain by staying as you are.” She looked at him. He was young and handsome as she remembered him when they were first married.

With the cold reality of another winter morning, though this was Christmas Day, she contemplated her desolate and lonely future over yesterday’s warmed-over coffee. During the night, the whistling wind had piled drifts of snow against the side of her house and in front of her door. She knew what she must do: A galvanized wash tub hung under the eaves, against the south wall. She donned her outfit for going outside. Her heart was pounding in her breast. She was about to set out on a new adventure, into the unknown.

With the washtub, on the kitchen range, filled with snow that had so conveniently been provided by the winter wind, she stuffed in firewood to create a roaring fire. As the snow melted, she shoveled in more to melt until the tub was more than half full of melted snow water. She waited until it was warm, then dipped out a pail full to lighten the tub. Straining, she lifted the tub off of the range and placed it on the floor a short distance from the chair that she habitually sat on. She poured the pail of warm water back into the tub. She put another chair, sideways to the tub, between her chair and the tub. 

There was only one more thing to do before she was ready: Going into the bedroom, she removed her husband’s hunting knife from a drawer next to his side of the bed. She drew the edge of the blade across her thumbnail. It was sharp.

“Thank you, Victor,” she whispered as she walked back into the kitchen. Sitting down on her favorite chair, she leaned down across the other. Holding the knife in her right hand, she put both hands in the warm water.

“I’m coming, Victor.” She slid the sharp edge of the knife quickly across her left wrist. Almost fainting, she switched the blade to her left hand and repeated the act. She marveled at the way her blood made red, wavy rivulets in the water as she fainted.

Frederick arrived that afternoon from Minneapolis. Mrs. Nielsen had spent the morning scrubbing the floor in the kitchen on her hands and knees. The water froze on the floor as she scrubbed it. She thought about Mrs. Juhle and the unhappy visit they had shared. She thought about her son’s shabby mittens. She was afraid and ashamed to tell Frederick about the details of the visit, so only told him about the offers she had made. That evening they walked around the farm as the sun was low in the west. Its golden glow was warming on the snow, contrasting with the shadows the trees cast in long pale blue lines. A Great Horned owl hooted on the other side of the lake, near Mrs. Juhle’s farm house.

“That sound gives me a chill,” Mrs. Nielsen whispered.

“I’ve heard that the Indians say that owls call a spirit away when someone dies, Margaret,” Frederick responded. She squeezed his arm as they continued their walk.“You know, those mittens Sonny has really don’t keep his hands warm. Maybe we should get him a better pair for Christmas. What do you think?”


  • Detlef Wieck lives with his wife, Kathleen, on an island off the coast of Washington state. He is a water-colorist and a writer of short stories. He has been a prospector, boat builder, commercial fisherman, park ranger, carpenter, and volunteer.

  • The Los Angeles Alligator Farm (ca. 1907.) From 1907 until its relocation in 1953, the area of Lincoln Heights was home to what the Los Angeles Times dubbed “the city’s most exotic residents”--a thousand-strong collection of alligators that welcomed visitors every day of the year to see, pose with, and even ride them. Alligator postcard (1910s)from Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas. From Public Domain Review