CHANGE AND TURMOIL
Unaware that trouble was only days away, Emma was happier than she’d ever been. Once she might have described the early morning emptiness of their street as gloomy. Now she delighted in the dawn dancing silently on the cobblestones. The howling winter wind at the window would have frightened her. Now she greeted its icy arms around her and laughed. Even the scent of steaming bleach filling their small apartment every morning was comforting in its familiarity.
“Sing with me, Mama. It’ll make you feel good.”
Her mother looked up from the row of laundry baskets at her feet as two pots of soapy water continued to boil on the kitchen stove.
“Don’t be silly, Emma, and close the window. The neighbors will complain if they hear us.”
“Come on, Mama, don’t worry about them.”
Her mother pulled a pillow case from one of the baskets, smoothed and folded it, and added it to a stack of already folded laundry on the dining table.
“I have more important things to think about than singing, and so should you,” she said, her voice weary.
“You work too hard, Mama, and don’t get enough sleep.”
Her mother straightened her back and put her hands on her hips.
“If I sleep, I don’t get paid,” she said, spacing her words as if she were speaking to a child. “I’m glad I still get work with so many people unemployed. We could manage when Papa was alive. I only had to do mending or alterations once in a while, but prices keep going up and without him —“
”That’s why you should let me help. I’m working, it’s only right.”
“Absolutely not,” her mother said, shaking her head. “You and Theo need to save for when you’re married — though now people say there’s no point with everything so unstable and inflation so high. Soon you’ll have children. They cost money too, you know.”
Emma’s heart skipped a beat. Did she know? She and Theo hadn’t told anyone yet.
Her mother brushed a lock of damp hair out of her face and adjusted the pins that held the rest of her hair in a bun. It hurt Emma to see her mother’s hands so red and swollen from the daily washing and wringing out of other people’s laundry, and flung her arms around her.
“You mustn’t worry so much, Mama. We’ll be fine, and after we get married we’ll help you and maybe you won’t have to work at all.”
Her mother kissed her cheek but her shoulders seemed to slump as she answered.
“I think sometimes you forget that you aren’t as well off as your friends. Greta and Otto may think they are Socialists but they live in a mansion. And Léonie’s family has money and the shop, and her husband is a doctor. We are not in the same class.”
Emma folded the last of the pillowcases and placed them on the table.
“We’re friends, Mama. Theo says —”
“I know, I know. Theo thinks the working class should have the same rights as the rich. He’s an idealist. That’s why I worry. People will think he’s a dreamer, or a troublemaker because he’s so political, and he’ll never get a proper job.”
She pursed her lips and pulled an armful of towels from the still half-full basket. Emma took them from her and started folding them.
“He’s not a troublemaker, Mama. You know that. He just wants to make things better.”
Emma loved listening to Theo talking about his dreams for the country. His eyes would light up and he’d tell her how much better life will be for their children because of what the Socialists had already accomplished.
“Theo will be a responsible husband. And Léonie’s parents pay me well enough that I can save and help you too.”
“Modeling fancy clothes is fine when you’re young and beautiful but that won’t last,” her mother went on, clearly not yet finished with her.
Emma reached out to hug her again. She knew it was out of caring and not anger that her mother said these things.
Emma would have told her that she’d already decided to ask the Grünbaums’ tailor to teach her how to measure and cut so that she could work even after her belly grew too big for her to model. But her mother would only worry more if she knew about the baby. Nor did Emma tell her that the Socialists were planning a general strike to force the conservatives to negotiate. Some of Theo’s friends were talking about emigrating if things did not improve. Theo said he’d never do that, but once their baby was born he might feel differently. She didn’t tell her mother that either.
“Don’t be so concerned, Mama. Everything will be fine. Theo is a good man. I know you like him.”
Her mother softened, as she usually did in the end.
“I do. He makes me laugh—reminds me of your father when he was young.” She stroked Emma’s cheek. “But that’s neither here nor there. Go on, it’s time for you to leave for work.”
“Don’t forget, Greta and Sophie are coming over this evening and you promised to make them your best Palatschinken—the ones with farmer’s cheese and vanilla sauce.”
“I’ll be curious to hear if things have improved at the Bruckner mansion.”
“They haven’t. Otto’s father married Elsa after his wife died so she’d be a mother to Otto, but that never happened. She only focused on her own daughter. Marion is fifteen now and more spoiled than ever. Even though Elsa and Greta are very different, Greta hoped they’d all grow closer when Sophie was born but nothing changed. Greta says it’s as if the house were divided in two, with only the servants knowing or caring what’s happening on both sides.”
Emma put on her coat and gave her mother another hug, then ran downstairs and through the inner courtyard to the front entrance, waving to Frau Mandl, the building’s concierge, as she passed.
Theo was waiting outside, leaning against the wall, his hands in the pockets of his Loden coat, his dark curly hair disheveled by the wind. Emma reached up and kissed him.
“It’s winter, remember?” she said as she pulled his coat closed. “Sorry I’m late but just as I was leaving Mama said to tell you that not everyone thinks Socialism is the answer, and Father Johannes said the Socialists are godless.”
Theo laughed, a deep belly laugh that echoed down the street.
“Well, I hope you told her not to listen to him. You know it’s just because he thinks the Socialists are all Jews.”
“I thought Dollfuss outlawed discrimination against Jews.”
Theo frowned. “Officially, although our dear chancellor also disbanded parliament and outlawed all the parties except his. He wants to be dictator, Emma. The Socialists should have overthrown him when they had the chance.”
As they walked through the old streets, past St. Stephen’s, through the Graben to Léonie’s parents’ store on the Kohlmarkt they passed a line of security forces.
“Don’t drop the bomb!” Theo whispered mischievously, his brown eyes twinkling.
Emma poked him in the ribs with her elbow but couldn’t help but giggle.
“Stop making jokes, Theo, they’ll arrest us.”
“Not me,” he said. “I refuse to be arrested. Besides, they’re too busy admiring each other’s uniforms. The whole city center is full of them: police, army, and paramilitaries—both their Heimwehr, and our Schutzbund.
Emma squeezed his arm. “Will I see you tomorrow?”
“No, it’s going to be a busy couple of days.”
“You’ll be careful, won’t you?”
She reached up to adjust the collar of his coat.
“Of course. We’re well prepared, and when the strike is over everything will change for the better. We’ll get married and find an apartment, and have lots of Socialist babies. I promise. Meanwhile, I’ll definitely see you at Léonie’s for Josef’s birthday.”
“That’s not until next week!”
He laughed and drew her into his arms again.
“You’ll survive, my sweet. It’s only a few days, and your friends will keep you busy.”
She felt the warmth of his chest against her cheek and the beating of his heart in her ear and thought how much she loved him.
“Be careful, no bomb dropping, my big beautiful bear.”
Life was good, and soon she’d have everything she’d ever wanted.
She gave him a last kiss, turned and opened the tall glass doors marked Grünbaum & Co.