A Legacy of Endurance

May 9, 2012 at 9:47 pm 1 comment

 “I’m here; the party can begin!”  So declares Erma Florentine Reiss, arriving at a large gathering of friends and relatives in 1999.  And indeed, she lights up the room with her entrance.  At 82 – with a beautiful head of curly white locks, a smile like sunshine, and the bouncing gait of a much younger woman – she has already been widowed three times and raised seven children to healthy, productive adulthood.  Some people wear hardship like a dented suit of armor, but not Erma.   

Born the first of five children to Paul and Lydia Engel in 1917, Erma and her siblings grew up in rural Minnesota during hardscrabble times.  The Great Depression overlapped drought conditions, only to be followed by World War II with its scarcities and the rationing of essential goods. 

“Love and sharing saw us through those difficult years,” writes Erma in a recounting of her family history.  There were extended family get-togethers for birthdays and special occasions, with homemade ice cream made with ice chipped from the family farm’s stock tanks in the winter months.  Visitors brought cakes and cookies, but no gifts were exchanged.  “We [children] didn’t know we were poor.  We were happy and healthy, as our Heavenly Father led us.” 

Much of that health and happiness derived from mother Lydia’s example of taking delight in helping others and in making the most of what you have.  At age ten, Erma would read bible passages to her grandmother, who suffered from cataract blindness, and watch and learn as her mother sewed children’s clothing and household linens from colorful cotton feed sacks.  “Sugar came in smaller white sacks.  They were softer and more absorbent and were saved to use as ‘Sunday dish towels,’ and to make petticoats and bloomers for the girls.” 

In that home, Erma learns that the basic, forthright offerings of time, grace, and talents are the true   acts of giving.  “All her life, my mother was quietly useful, gentle, and friendly.  She gave us all the simple pleasures to remember forever.”  Simple pleasures like perfecting the role of hostess with only the barest necessities at hand; giving parties for neighborhood children in an era when no one else did this; always having time for a game of checkers with her children; making mittens, doilies, and braided rugs for those in need; and filling long winter evenings with piano playing and singing. 

After graduating from the high school department of Dr. Martin Luther College in 1935, Erma moves to Larsen, Wisconsin, as a woman’s home companion for the disabled wife of the Reverend Weyland.  Here she is trained to teach summer school, and becomes acquainted with a missionary bachelor, Marcus Fleischer, who had been diagnosed with MS while attending seminary.  Assured by Mayo Clinic doctors that he is free to pursue a normal existence because “no one dies of MS,” Pastor Fleischer invites her to share his life “in the Lord’s vineyard at Red Granite and Ripon,” and he and Erma marry in 1937. 

By 1942 the couple has moved from their primitive, wood-burning home with no inside plumbing to a more comfortable $7.00-a-month rental home, and are serving as pastor and organist to two congregations.  They have also been blessed with three sons – Daniel, Peter, and Paul – but Marcus grows weaker even as his young boys grow taller.  Like an uncooperative bit of origami, his affliction is unfolding into something very different than had been predicted, and Erma is soon driving him to calls on parishioners and writing out his sermons in large, easily readable script as he dictates them to her.   

On those Sunday’s when his sight, speech, and ability to walk are severely affected, Marcus’ father, a professor at Northwestern College, steps into the pulpit in his place.  When her ailing spouse is forced to take a medical leave even as their third son undergoes surgeries to ease the effects of cerebral palsy, Erma prays for “the Christian fortitude to stand by and care for my husband as I had vowed at the altar.”  The young parents, strengthened by daily readings of the Psalms and the shared certainty that “every turn in life is touched by the guiding hand of God,”  find inspiration in the Apostle Paul’s admonition to be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, and faithful in prayer. 

After seven years of marriage, and clear-minded to the very end, Marcus dictates one more time to his Erma, in German – a poem inspired by the confidence of faith.  On the following day he passes, in the words of that last dictation, “through life’s dark night, to see God’s countenance in blessed light.”   

Humbled by widowhood at the age of 27, Erma is guided to lean on the Lord even more.  She quickly settles on the practicality of moving her family to New Ulm, Minnesota, where there is a supportive network of family and friends.  “We are survivors,” she would later say to an adult son coping with his own personal crisis.  She had established younger than most that endurance flows from “faith, hope, and love”; that you need only, “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.”  Back in 1944, she meekly trusted in this Truth to guide her aright. 

And guide her aright it does, as she is reacquainted, in her new congregation, with her late husband’s best friend from seminary, Waldemar Schuetze.  In 1946, Pastor Schuetze becomes her second husband and father to her boys.  Into this new household arrive three daughters – Ruth, Naomi, and Mary – and in 1958, youngest son Thomas.  “Happiness reigned in our lives,” writes Erma.  “Our children were moderately and consistently disciplined from infancy through adolescence, with parochial school an aid in their Christian training.”   

Also an aid in Erma’s goal of helping her children live as “Christian lights in a darkened world” is the blessing of a second husband devoted to the Lord’s work.  As son Paul says, “Both Dads impressed upon their children that nothing is more important than loving and serving Him who first so loved us.”  So it is, in 1963, when her first-born is diagnosed with Lupus Erythematosis, that she remains firmly grounded – “The Lord is in control; we need to just trust and carry on” – and puts to use, once again, the course in home nursing she had taken in her teens.  Within months, Daniel’s disease is in full remission, and he is delivered from his living room sick bed to begin a career in the ministry. 

In 1976, Erma and Waldemar are called to Ketchican, Alaska, where they are welcomed by an eager congregation of grateful souls.  “But,” Erma later told those gathered for a women’s seminar, “after ten months of joyous labor, love, and commitment in that field,” Pastor Schuetze is stricken with a fast-growing cancer, and they return to Minnesota to spend their last months together.  

“When our vision is cloudy, God sees clearly,” Erma writes of her life’s darker moments; soon, clarity of purpose draws her back to New Ulm to be near family.  And, as it turns out, to be blessed with another chance for a sunny future.  “I lost you once, and I’m not going to lose you again,” says widower Harold  Reiss when he discovers that the girl he dated in high school now lives nearby.  At the age of 64, Erma is once again united in marriage in a ceremony performed by her eldest son. 

“God shines His love with radiance on the paths of our lives,” is how Erma would later describe this new chapter of her story.  Harold’s previous heart condition improves in Erma’s nurturing presence.  The couple travels often to Canada and Arizona, and enjoys seven years of comfortable retirement before Harold dies suddenly in his sleep – a blessedly speedy release from earth’s bonds that spares loved ones the anguish of a prolonged goodbye.   

Always an active volunteer – in church and community activities; at the local Red Cross; in cheerful assistance to her neighbors – Erma walks alone for the next 12 years, the last four living in an addition built onto daughter Naomi’s home.  In 1999, she sends a card of encouragement to an old schoolmate who has lost his wife.  She is 82; she isn’t sure whether he’ll remember her or not, but she knows from working in nursing homes that, “The elderly survivors need a lift in stressful times.”   

Over time, new pen pal Arnie Tiefel becomes a “beautiful link in my chain of friends,” writes Erma.  That friendship blossoms until, in 2001, they are married in a ceremony officiated by her second-oldest son, and her days are “filled anew with God’s grace and mercy.”      

When, after seven years of warm companionship shared in that apartment addition to her daughter’s house, Arnie passes away, Erma responds characteristically:  She does not get blue, she gets busy.  It saddens her to see the chair that Arnie sat in, so she immediately rearranges the living room furniture.  Then, the day following his memorial service, life steps in via a telephone call from Michigan with distractions of its own.  Her youngest son is seriously ill and has been intubated.  Memorial cards are set aside, and Erma and daughters Naomi and Ruth are off to Tom’s bedside to offer loving support in his recovery. 

This was Erma Florentine Engel Fleischer Schuetze Reiss Tiefel.  She gave up the ghost on January 3, 2012, at the age of 94, surrendering only the last few hours of her life to the demands of earthly time.  In the months preceding, she had visited and played piano for local nursing home residents; just four days before she died, her grandson helped her to the family piano where she returned, as she so often had, to her favorite hymn, O Come, Little Children.  “Passing the sweet comfort of the Gospel message along to others was very important to her,” her daughters confirm.  Important to the very finish of her race, the very end of her good fight.   

Take Thou My Hands and Lead Me was Erma’s confirmation song.  “It was my prayer then, and still is,” she would profess to those women’s conference attendees in 2003, adding… 

“Never before in history has there been a generation of women so disillusioned, so disappointed, and – in their view – so neglected and unappreciated.  What today’s professionals write or say is not holy writ; in spite of what the mass media fills the airwaves with, the role of the Christian woman in fulfilling. 

“The love of Christ is always with us; we are energized by the Holy Spirit; we are role-models to our families and to our contemporaries.  Womanhood [itself] is fascinating. 

“A fundamental need in all cultures is to be loved and cherished.  We need lose none of our dignity, influence, or freedom [remaining faithful to God’s Word]”… even in an uncertain world which holds disdain for women of faith.  

In Erma’s own words, “Traditional principles reflect the grace and dignity of our generation.”  And by her example, we are assured that grace and dignity can also be the foundation for a joyful, contented, and healthy life, no matter what earthly obstacles clutter our paths. 

“My advice to you all is to remember, God has plans for every one of us.  We can strive to be content, knowing our loving, gracious Lord is in control, whatever the circumstances.”

Entry filed under: People of Faith and Courage. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , .

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. kirkhams  |  May 10, 2012 at 8:33 pm

    Comment from an acquaintance…”Because Erma’s life was as far reaching as it was, everyone in the CLC must have an ‘Erma’ story. Here’s mine. While she and Pastor Scheutze were living in Fond du Lac, a classmate and I were assigned there for our student teaching. The parsonage was quite some distance from the church. I don’t recall how far, but certainly too far to walk. Erma invited Dean and me to supper one evening. She had fried chicken and an entire table of good foods. During the meal she kept saying how horrible the chicken was. She was embarrassed and apologized for her poor cooking. It didn’t seem poor to me, but it certainly bothered her. Finally she went into the kitchen, rummaged around and came back horrified. The wrapper from the chicken identified it as a stewing hen, which explained its toughness. Again, it didn’t seem that bad to me. Talk about embarrassed! Erma apologized all evening, and as we left told Dean and me not to bring a lunch to school on a certain day later in the week. She showed up that day with another entire, home cooked chicken dinner for the two of us, complete with apple pie still warm from the oven!” D. Ude


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