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A Tendering in the Storm (Change and Cherish Historical), Page 2

Jane Kirkpatrick
I took a deep breath that pushed against my Kate. I rested my chin lightly on her bonneted head and watched an old woman scrub at the mud of an oyster in her lap. She wore a scarf around her full brown face that marked her as a Chinook or Shoalwater or even a Chehalis native. Something in the way she held herself promised strength if not wisdom too. Both were necessary to survive on this Bay.

  Andy squatted at the tide pool, pulled at a starfish. He laughed as he plopped back onto the mud.

  “There are four tides a day on this Pacific,” Joe said. “Our work is dependent on being out there on the flats when the tide goes out and exposes the oysters. We break up the clusters. If there’s an oyster ship awaiting, we pick the larger ones, toss them into baskets or bags and sail them out, and we’ve earned our wages. There are more oysters out farther, have to reach them by boat and bring them in closer to seed our beds. In the winter, you’ll be working in darkness, so you best get that lantern of yours ready.”

  “Indeed,” Christian said. “I’ve been meaning to make a tin cover for Emma’s lamp, one where the wind can’t ever blow out the light.” He smiled at me, then brushed a wayward hair strand beneath my bonnet. Both the act and the look he gave me told me I was cherished.

  I wanted to live with them in Bruceport, though it would mean close quarters along the beachfront, huddled in huts made of driftwood or maybe out on stilts built over the oyster beds. But I could cook for Joe and Christian and the children. Our family would be together. That’s what I wanted. But I had compromised. Anything to avoid going to Oregon with Herr Keil. I’d agreed to stay with the children miles away with the remainder of Christian’s kin and the scouts. My in-laws would “look after me,” as Christian put it. One day on the Willapa River, once we built it, I’d have a home to call our own. This was my desire, a home without a dozen other people in it. A dwelling, safe, filled with my family and only the things I treasured, safe from others telling us what to do or think.

  “Best you ready yourself for the boat,” Christian told us. Andy began dragging a very long, double fork–like tool, scraping it across the beach as though it were a boat in tow. Christian lifted it from him and the tongs stood on end at least two times the height of my husband, who was over six feet tall. The tool had a hinge to open the two forks.

  “Works like a pincher, ja?” Joe said, as he reached with his thumb and middle finger to pretend to pinch at Andy’s nose. My son giggled. “You’ll get skilled enough using those tongs, Christian,” Joe said. “As I steer our oyster boat, you’ll stand on the bow and with the tongs feel the bottom like you were searching for treasure. When you feel a clump, you close the hinge and pull them up and drop them in the basket in the boat.”

  Christian tried to open and close the long oyster tongs. “Like fishing in the dark,” Christian said. He was awkward on land, and both he and Joe laughed.

  “It’ll come to you in time,” Joe said. “Worst part will be learning to stand on the bow without slipping yourself into the Bay, though a salty bath will wake you up.”

  “Perhaps I should learn how to swim,” Christian said. Joe hesitated but then chuckled, clapping Christian on the back.

  “That’s a good one,” Joe said. “Ja, that’s a good one.”

  I’d remember that day later, hold it to me like a hug that time permits to bring one warmth. My husband and I began a new adventure, one not sanctioned by the infamous Herr Keil. The tools of our new trade were long tongs and sailboats. It was a new way of tendering through life’s storms, and I was hopeful despite my disappointment.

  “We’ve weathered the biggest storm of 1856,” Christian told me as we walked back toward the shoreline. His arm wrapped around me while tidewater unveiled its treasures. Wet sand clung to our wooden shoes. Our son chased after quick-footed birds. A skiff of wind lifted our son’s little flat hat, and Christian took two steps in his brogans to retrieve it. “I’m not a rich oysterman yet, Junge,” he told Andy, tapping the hat onto his head. “So hold on to this.”

  My husband’s reference to the storm referred not to the great western winds that blustered in off the Pacific Ocean and toppled trees, leaving them crisscrossed on the forest floor. My Swiss-born husband wasn’t even talking about the martial law imposed in the Territory by Governor Stevens, meant to protect us from the Indians. No, my husband referred to the turbulence that brewed and bubbled then settled after it tore our colony of Christian believers in two and nearly splintered our marriage as well. It was the “bread of adversity” and “the water of affliction” as Scripture notes it that Christian and I, Emma Wagner Giesy, his wife, had weathered.

  My husband, a tall man (I barely reached his chest) with a compassionate heart, once shared in the leadership of our colony of one thousand Missouri Bethelites who planned to move the settlement to the Washington Territory. Instead, earlier this spring we severed our relationship with the mostly German members of the Bethel colony who ventured west. The former scouts and many of my husband’s fourteen brothers and sisters and their families stayed here. After our terrible winter when Keil refused us the use of ammunition to hunt, wanting it saved for “protection,” Keil ordered many of the colonists not to come north from Portland. So I never even saw my brother, though he rode in Keil’s wagon train. Keil barked his orders and the colony split. It was like chopping willows at the root base.

  A few noncolonists chose to settle in our Willapa Hills and Valley. A family named Wagonblast had joined up with Keil at St. Joseph, Missouri, and remained at the Willapa, their young children right now probably playing jack stones, oblivious to the anxieties of their elders. Karl Ruge, an old teacher who’d been faithful to Herr Keil though he remained a Lutheran, stayed. I was glad for it. I found comfort watching Karl smoke his three-foot-long clay pipe with its wide bowl that curved up like an elbow. The smoke swirled around his stringy beard, lifting like mist to the cedars above. Karl loved words and read books without apologizing, so at the very least, our children would have an education beyond Herr Keil’s Bible or teaching of practical things, “useful reading” Keil called it. Karl’s presence gave me reason to hope such education would include my daughter Kate one day, and not only my son. Without the colony rules to shape us, everything would be new. Or so I hoped.

  One other Giesy named Big Jack, a distant cousin of my husband’s, traveled around the Isthmus of Panama to settle here too, where the timber towers and the blackberry brush tangles. Big Jack chose the Giesy name, I’m told, to start anew. His arrival in Willapa caused a storm. But that’s a story better left for later.

  I loaded the children onto the mail boat going upriver with the incoming tide. We’d been apart before in our marriage, when my husband recruited for new colony members. But I’d grown accustomed to his snores, his pushing-ups each morning, his mustache-covered kisses smelling of earth and onion every day, and I would miss him. Keil is the fault of all this separation. Ach! My life must not always come back to Keil.

  But perhaps once one has given their all, foolishly even, as Herr Keil would put it, to a grand dream, then abandoning what we’d done here and turning back would be … a violation of that pioneering spirit. To “listen to reason,” as our colony leader said, and follow him to Oregon would remind us always of the months and years we put into readying this place for others, believing we were in the palm of God’s hand. To leave would make us ever regretful. Or so we told ourselves that spring.

  It takes time for the mind to swing upon a different hinge.

  We’re a hopeful people, we Swiss and Germans, and faithful and perhaps dreamers too, or we never would have journeyed west at all. We heeded the Sehnsucht, that great yearning, rather than remain in the warmth of our brick Bethel houses with readied fireplaces and streets with sturdy names like King and Elm. We gave up living close to bustling cities like Hannibal and Independence. Instead, we live isolated—fifteen river miles from the vast Pacific Ocean.

  It was my plan that convinced my husband to try oystering. It was a kind of farming, tho
ugh of the sea instead of land. Farming was something we knew about. Christian had been a tinsmith and recruiter, but in the colony we all set aside our various tasks to help with planting or weeding or harvest. We knew that farming required focus and effort. Risk pervaded farming, too, but with many hands helping, we could bring in a good harvest if the locusts or hailstorms didn’t get it first. But in Bethel, even if we lost the harvest or it was poor, we would still be fed. For whatever anyone earned making gloves or wagons or cloth or preserves went into a common fund. Then whatever we needed we were allowed to take out. We cared for others, served up the Diamond Rule, making others’ lives better than our own. But we owned not a thing in our names. It was all in Keil’s name. I think that’s one of the things that turned Keil off of Willapa: he wanted all land to be his.

  Here, because of donation land claims, Christian and I had land in our names, as did his parents and brothers. But we didn’t have the security that if a crop failed we might still eat, unless we leaned on our neighbors or found some other way to live.

  Our leader said we’d made him broke almost, buying up land claims when we could have gotten free land in a more forgiving landscape. Worse, he claimed we’d been unfaithful, hadn’t listened to the calling of our God, and that was why we’d had such a trial here attempting to build our homes, clear ground, survive the wailing winters.

  I think that hurt my husband most, the suggestion that his faith wasn’t strong enough to stave off suffering and loss. I remembered once Keil saying Brother John Will back in Bethel lacked faith enough for Keil to heal his tailor’s arm. In the church, Keil upbraided him for this weakness. That very day, Brother Will hanged himself for failing Keil, and our leader chastised him even then, saying his arm could not sew but it could work well enough to bring on his death. I feared such might happen to my husband if we had stayed in the shadow of Keil.

  We’d been sent to find a place of isolation so that our children would not be influenced by the outside un-Christian world; to find timber and a place where one could sell our produce, our furniture, our milk and cheese, and our wagons to others as we had in Bethel. Our choices required a delicate balance, weighing safety and isolation with survival and success through commerce with the outside world.

  I’d found my place in this Willapa country. I recognized wild celery now and knew how to prepare it. I located wapato, Indian potatoes, and knew how to cook them. While at the beach, I watched as the Shoalwater people collected clams, raking at the sandy dimples that signaled a clam’s presence. They dug pits and heated stones until the rocks glowed, then laid the clams on top of the stones, covered them with mats of weeds and grass, and watched the steam as the clam juice filtered down onto the hot rocks, the sizzle offering up a scent like the blacksmith’s cooling of hot iron.

  My friend Sarah Woodard, who lived with her husband at the landing, showed me how to strip wild raspberry roots to find that center as tender and tasty as a cucumber. We learned much from those outsiders, if we listened, watched. Keil didn’t see this. He let the light of insight illuminate few of his dark thoughts.

  Perhaps that’s why in the end my husband agreed to try oystering. We hoped to prove that challenges are not necessarily God’s punishment for disobedience. They do not mean one has erred. If we forge ahead, we’ll still find blessings and new paths. That’s what I told myself as I waved good-bye to him that day.

  As I write this, years later, my youngest daughter, Ida, works at her school books. She asks me to explain the word hinge, using English. I’m not sure when she decided to speak just English, but it pleases me as a mark of her independence. I press my hand upon the circle of braids she wears at the top of her head and inhale the sweetness of her. I tell her first that a hinge is the thing that keeps the two sides of the oyster shell together, so what is inside may stay alive. She frowns. “It’s the little piece of flesh that opens and closes, allowing the two sides to be a whole.” Then I show her the top of Christian’s lantern, how the hinge lets it open and close. She nods, returns to her writing, leaving me to ponder still.

  A hinge is so much more. It divides two sides of a story. It is what separates mourning from joy, belief from aimlessness, surrender from independence. It’s what holds those halves together. “A hinge is a circumstance upon which later events depend,” I add, more for me than for Ida. Who could have known that day on the river how I’d soon long for the hinge of faith, and with it the hope that I’d once again find home.




  Before my husband received the call to prepare him to sit at the right hand of Jesus, he was a tailor.

  It’s fitting he was such, for tailors create and re-create. They stitch and mend and realign, ever mindful of the cloth, the thread, and the person who will wear the mantle on the body God prepared. Oh, I know my husband, Wilhelm Keil, does not truly create as God does. But God works through him, and he comes as close to our brother Jesus as any man can and still have his feet upon this earth. He chose me as his wife, kissed the part in my dark hair, never mentioned the tiny mole at the side of my face that I saw as imperfection. He chose me to be the mother of his children, and I am blessed to be his handmaiden. Well, handmatron I suppose I should say, though not to Dr. Keil, who might object to such musings on my use of words. It’s why I write in this private little book the thoughts I’d not share with him.

  Dr. Keil must not be distracted. We need his wisdom and his visionary sight. Our journey west from Bethel was a quilt requiring many stitches to hold it all together, and we’re still sewing. He’ll use whatever he must to be successful and to carry out his belief in what he is called to do.

  Some years back, when he dabbled in the mystical, he wrote his formulas for healing in a book. He used his blood for ink. I did not know of this when I met him. A wife is not privy to a saint’s workings, nor should she be. Emma Giesy might take note of that. She’s one who wants to know her husband’s thoughts, and while her husband is not the leader that mine is, she will be challenged in how to be a good wife to one who is a lieutenant in God’s army. What such leaders share with their wives are gifts we cannot ask for, nor do we deserve them when they arrive. We’re to treat such secrets as fragile porcelain easily crushed. But my husband told me of that blood-lined book when he burned it and found his true calling in gathering disciples to him to live communally, each according to his need, each according to his gifts so all are loved and served as the book of Acts advises.

  I write these words not in blood but blackberry-juice ink.

  He receives no pay, my husband. In Pennsylvania, he once led a group of followers away from the American Methodist Evangelical Church when he learned they intended to pay their pastor four hundred dollars in annual wages. “Four hundred dollars!” he raged, and rightly so. No one should receive a salary for doing the Lord’s work. God provides, for heaven’s sake. The products of our hands and fields will fill the common purse, but this is the outcome of doing the Lord’s work, and pay enough.

  That’s why we sell whiskey.

  Yet he works so hard, has such responsibility for this flock now spread across two thousand miles from that desolate Willapa Valley to here in Portland, Oregon, and back to Bethel. We still have friends in Pennsylvania—Phillipsburg and Harmony—though my husband is no longer considered the head of those colonies, just the one in Bethel. Nearly one thousand people rely on his leadership and guidance. Only a quarter of us headed west last year. This was wise in retrospect as what awaited us was troublesome indeed. Still, the lack of full compliment worried my husband, I could tell. He mentioned often those left behind. Everyone wanted to come, he told me, but some had to be left behind to run the businesses until we are established here in the West. Andrew Giesy, Christian’s brother, is a trustworthy man. He stayed behind to lead at Dr. Keil’s request.

  Others have waited to leave Bethel only because they want to come to a settled place. “Such little faith,” my husband say
s. But I tell him, “It is evidence that we have too long been influenced by the world.” We do need to find an isolated place where we can live without so many worldly things to compare ourselves with. To some, even among the Bethelites, we appear to lack, and yet we had sturdy homes, food enough for all, help when needed, and opportunity to work at many tasks, all in service to each other and our Lord.

  But I’ve spied magazines with drawings of women wearing huge hats, the cost of which could feed a family for a week. I see them now on women who ride past in primitive carriages on the muddy streets of Portland. I watched when men rode into our old Bethel to buy up wagons, smoking their cigars. I do not mind the smoking. Tobacco comes from the land, so it is a gift from God. But their vests were draped with gold chains and watches they look at just for show as they stayed overlong, bothering the workers with their many questions, filling their heads with thoughts of fine horses and money for themselves. They don’t watch the time. They take our men and women from their labors, so they do not seem to need their watches.

  Yes, going west was good. The discussions before leaving energized the old and encouraged the young. I only wished we had all come. I miss David and Catherina Wagner and others whom I’ve served meals with at the gross Haus, our Elim. Such a lovely house. The Wagners sent their oldest son, and this was good. And they sent their daughter Emma, though I suspect that was a relief. She has such a willful way about her. She never would wear her hair with the part down the middle as I do, as most matrons of the colony who understand their place do.

  What happened there in Willapa did nothing to change my mind about that woman’s passion to be different. Christian Giesy is a good man, though I worried about his possible distraction with a young and spirited wife so close. My worries were well founded. They remain at Willapa, for now, which presents new challenges for my husband, all because the scouts did not do proper work. Or perhaps were all distracted by that Emma.