(A novel by Susan Overturf Ingraham)
Heartwell, Nebraska, December 1916
[Lizzie Donohue marries Lars Jacobsen, despite opposition from both sets of parents.]
“Here, Gladys, help me with my dress,” Lizzie said to her sister. “It’s time to put it on.”
“Of course.” Gladys reached across the bed and picked up the long cream-coloured wool skirt. “Mother did a beautiful job, didn’t she?”
“Yes.” Lizzie stepped into it and Gladys helped her to hook it at the back. “And the colour is perfect for a December wedding.”
“And now for the top.” Gladys helped Lizzie into the bodice and closed it at the back with small pearl buttons. The bodice, lined and boned, was designed to reveal Lizzie’s tiny waistline. The sleeves had a large cuff, from wrist to nearly the elbow, which mimicked the lace and brocade of the bodice. The collar hooked separately but continued the brocade from the dress. Lizzie would wear a mock-floral headdress, a long veil, and cream-colored wrist-length gloves, but those were still resting on the bed.
“Oh, Lizzie,” Gladys said, “You look so beautiful.” As she spoke, Gladys turned her sister towards the mirror. “What do you think?”
“It looks beautiful, Gladys. Thank you.” I suppose I look beautiful, Lizzie thought. Most of the time I don’t feel that way, but I am a bride today so it must have something to do with that. Still looking at her reflection in the mirror she asked, “How ‘bout you, Gladys? Are you ready?”
“Of course I am, Lizzie. Can’t you see?” She twirled around the room, showing off her maid-of-honor’s dress, made of light blue wool. “It looks as though we are both ready, so we’ll have to sit here and wait for them to come and tell us it’s time.”
“I don’t dare sit down, Gladys. I might get wrinkles and I don’t want people to look at wrinkles as I say my vows.”
“All right then. We’ll stay standing.” Gladys giggled, took her sister’s arm and walked with her to the bedroom window. It looked cold and white; snow had fallen for three consecutive days.
“Lars’s mother says that the weather today is very much like it was on the day Lars was born,” Lizzie told her sister.
“Has she been to see you already?”
“Yes, she dropped by this morning very briefly.”
Gladys stared out the window. “It’s cold outside. But there’s no place on earth like Heartwell. Don’t you think you‘ll miss us?” Gladys asked.
Lizzie smiled at Gladys. “Yes, I will. But I’ll come often to visit and we’ll see each other, you’ll see.”
Gladys put her arms on Lizzie’s shoulders and looked straight into her eyes. “You’re my only sister, Lizzie. I know I’ll see you, but not enough. We have always helped each other. What will you do without me and the rest of your family?”
“But I’ll have Lars,” Lizzie said, and pulled away from Gladys’s gentle hold. “Lars will be my family.”
Gladys lifted her eyebrows. “Of course! I know Lars will be your family. But we were your family first, and things in the world are so scary right now.“ Gladys turned and looked out at the winter landscape: “Oh, I do so wish you weren’t going away!”
Lizzie stared out the window but did not at first respond to her sister’s comment. It was true. The world was scary and had been ever since that man had been assassinated in Sarajevo nearly two years ago. After his death, the whole world (except Americans, of course) went looking for a fight. President Wilson had kept Americans out of it so far, but it didn’t look good.
Lizzie frowned; she didn’t like talking about the war in Europe. “I don’t know, Gladys, if things are any worse or any better right now than they ever are. Aren’t men always fighting? Aren’t they always going to war? What about me? What about my future? I have a right to expect something better than living with Mama and Papa forever, don’t I?”
Gladys could see the hurt in Lizzie’s eyes. “Of course, Lizzie. I didn’t mean that you shouldn’t get married or plan a future with Lars. It’s just that some things are out of our hands. What if America decides to fight? Lars is twenty-one and he could be asked to be a soldier.”
“Oh, ridiculous.” Lizzie frowned and walked away from the window. “They would never take Lars. First of all, his eyes are too bad. And his father, who has a lot of friends in important places, would keep him out of the war.”
Gladys turned and followed her sister. “Well, maybe, but I’m not sure you can count on that, can you? Aren’t you being just a wee bit naive?”
Lizzie’s eyes flashed in anger. “I’m not naive, Gladys. Don’t lecture me!”
A tear formed in Gladys’s eyes. She remained silent and returned to the window to stare at the winter landscape.
Lizzie thought: It might not be a good time for a young couple to plan a future, but today is my special day. “Gladys, I’m sorry I got angry. I love you dearly, but I have no intention of letting you spoil it by saying such things.”
Gladys turned back to her sister. “I’m sorry, Lizzie. I shouldn’t have said that. I think Mama and Papa are very glad that you‘re getting married at home.”
Lizzie shrugged her shoulders. “Oh, thank you, Gladys, but don’t try to make it sound as though they’re happy about this. You know that they’re not. Lars’s parents wanted him to marry a Danish girl in the Lutheran church. Mama and Papa wanted me to marry an Irish boy in the Catholic church. We’re not getting married today with their blessings, that’s for sure! I know that they are all miserably unhappy about us, but I can’t help that. I love Lars and he loves me. Why must there be so much dissension over that?”
Gladys saw the pain on her sister’s face. “I know, Lizzie. Sometimes parents just get a little confused about what things they can or can’t control. I think Mama and Papa have decided that they can be happy with Lars as their son-in-law.”
“I don’t think so,” Lizzie said. “You haven’t heard the things Papa has said to me.”
Gladys had no response. “Well, let’s just be sure that you’re all set to go.” She pushed her sister gently towards the mirror once again and they both looked at their reflections. Each young woman rewound a curl and placed a bit more powder on their nose. As they finished, there was a quiet knock on the door, the door opened, and their mother entered.
“Mama, doesn’t she look beautiful?” Gladys asked.
Mary Donohue looked at her eldest daughter and smiled. “Yes, she does. She is the most beautiful woman in this room because she is a bride and all brides are beautiful. Always and forever.” Mary seemed unaware that her words, intended to be a compliment, did not seem that way to her daughters. Gladys felt the sting of being second-best, since she wasn’t the bride, and Lizzie felt the sting of being beautiful only because she was a bride. But neither daughter would have dreamed of telling their mother their true feelings. Instead, they both smiled and waited for their mother to express whatever was on her mind, as they knew she would.
Mary moved across the room and stood behind her two daughters and they all stared into the mirror together. All three women had long thick black hair, high foreheads with dark piercing eyes, well-rounded noses, smooth distinct lips, and round chins.
“Lizzie,” her mother said, “are you sure you know what you‘re doing?”
Lizzie inwardly rolled her eyes and she delayed her response. She had been asked this question too many times, but she attempted again to assuage her mother’s fears: “Yes, Mama, I am.”
“But, Lizzie, how many times have I told you how important the clan is in your life? When life gets difficult, they’ll be there to support you. I’ve told you since you were a wee thing that you should never marry outside your clan. Yet, here you are, marrying a Danish boy. Why?”
“Oh, Mama, please! Let’s not go over this again. Not today. Not on my wedding day!”
“But, Lizzie, this is a decision that will affect you for the rest of your life. Once you are married to Lars, I can’t help you. Lars will be your husband; you‘ll have to obey him and follow his rules. You won’t be able to return to your family or to your clan.”
“Mama, that is just so old fashioned! People don’t think that way any more. Yes, of course, I’ll be loyal to Lars but you’ll always be here and so will Papa and my brothers and my little sister.”
Mary shook her head. “That’s where you’re wrong, Lizzie. You and Lars will begin a new life and your family will be forgotten. You’re even going to be in Minden with Lars’s family. You are marrying his clan; he is not marrying yours. If you had married an Irish boy, I would have known his parents. The Jacobsens won’t come to our home, except for today’s wedding, and they don’t go to our church. They will not be people we see every day and socialize with. You have lost your clan, Lizzie, forever, by choosing to marry outside of it.”
Lizzie neither wanted to believe her mother nor argue with her. “Mama, please. Let’s don’t discuss this today. It’s my wedding day and we should be happy. I want you to be happy for me. Can you just do that for me today?”
Mary Donohue sighed. How can I be happy about my oldest daughter marrying outside her clan? she asked herself. I must try, one more time, to convince her of her mistake. Maybe she would even decide to not go through with the wedding. Mary sighed and looked at her daughter. She knew Lizzie wanted to hear no more negative comments about Lars. I don’t want to spoil your day, she thought. Torn between these two considerations, she struggled to find the right words and the right mood. “Lizzie, I love you. I will always love you. But once you marry Lars Jacobsen, I can no longer help you. Whatever happens from that point on will be your problem. Do you understand that?”
“Yes, Mama, I do. But I will be all right. You’ll see.”
Both women looked into each other’s eyes and a solemn pact was made at that very moment. Lizzie knew that she would never be able to tell her mother her troubles once she was Lars’s wife. And Mary knew that she was losing her daughter forever and would be unable to help her.
“Your father will be here soon to take you downstairs,” Mary said by way of ending the conversation. She turned to her youngest daughter. “Gladys, we should go downstairs. You need to see if everyone is ready, and I’ll take my seat.” As Mary turned to close the door she looked back one more time and said to Lizzie, “Everything will work out, I suppose. God is looking out for you and He knows what’s best.”
Mary left with her youngest daughter and Lizzie remained. Am I doing the right thing? she asked herself. I love my family, but I also love Lars. Lizzie closed her eyes and pictured Lars in her mind: handsome, tall, ambitious. Then she pictured her father: tall, strong, a working man. She believed both of them were good men, but they were both stubborn. It seemed unlikely that either one of them would yield to the other, no matter what the topic or issue might be. Men, she thought, they can be so difficult!
Lizzie stared out at the winter whiteness and knew that Lars’s family and hers would never get together. This is probably the last time we’ll all be in the same room together, she thought. I’m not sure if we’ll even be getting together with anyone for Christmas next week. Small snowflakes began to fall outside the window. Lizzie continued her thoughts: But Lars must come to the Donohue Sunday gatherings. He must! And I suppose that I will go to Jacobsen family meals.
Lizzie’s father entered the room, and Lizzie turned from the window. He looked quite handsome, dressed up in his best suit for his oldest daughter’s wedding. She smiled and he smiled back.
“Are you ready?” he asked. “Everyone is waiting downstairs.”
“Yes, I think I’m ready, Papa. Just let me take another moment to catch my breath.”
Lizzie reached for the veil on the bed and placed it on her head, adjusting a few loose hairs. As though her father had read her mind from a few moments before, he said, “You have powerful roots here, Lizzie. And they connect to Ireland. You know that, don’t you?”
“Yes, Papa, of course I do.” Lizzie knew what her father would say, but his voice would probably calm her nerves so she didn’t stop him.
“You know I come from a humble background, and I have taught you to appreciate your Irish roots.”
“Of course, Papa.” Lizzie put on her gloves, which went to the elbow. First the right, then the left.
“Your grandparents — my parents — were born during times of great struggle in Ireland with terrible winters and potato crop failures. When your grandfather was thirteen and your grandmother was nine, nearly half their crop was destroyed. People used their rent money to buy food, but the next year brought more failure, and there was no money left. Seventy-eight thousand souls died, but your grandparents survived, which is a great testament to their strength and courage. After they married nearly sixty years ago, they boarded a ship, endured terrible hardships, and came to America for a better life — for themselves, for their children, and for their great-grandchildren.”
Alexander Donohue told this story to his daughter as though she had never heard it before. Her father was one of seven children — he was a twin, but his weaker brother had died in infancy. He had married Lizzie’s mother, Mary Katherine Flynn, over twenty years before. Her mother, too, had come from Irish stock, first through her father, then her grandmother, her great-grandmother and her great-grandfather. Her great-grandfather had left Ireland in the 1770s — much earlier than her father’s kin. Thus, while Lizzie’s father hailed from Irish Catholics, her mother ironically came from Irish Presbyterians. She always found that little fact somewhat amusing; her parents always said that religion was a private affair. Perhaps that was why her mother had become a Catholic, converted by friends in Heartwell, while her father claimed no religious affiliation at all.
“I know you can appreciate all that I have said, Lizzie. I have told you over and over again that you must be proud to be a Donohue. The Irish people are good, strong, hearty survivors, tenacious and determined to be free of political chains or oppression. You have nothing to be ashamed of, coming from humble beginnings, so don’t ever let that Jacob Jacobsen try to tell you otherwise.”
“Oh, Papa, he’s never said anything like that to me.”
Alex Donohue took his daughter’s hand in his. “No, perhaps not yet. But once you are a part of that family, he will try to tell you that his son and his family are better than yours because they’re Danish, Lutheran, and businessmen. I’ve been a farmer all my life, but that’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s good, honest work. And I’m a God-fearing man even if I’m not a Lutheran.“ He paused and kissed Lizzie on the forehead. “Promise me, Lizzie, that you’ll never let the Jacobsens convince you that your Irish roots are not something to be proud of. You are what you are and you come from honest folk. Your life is better today because of your grandparents’ sacrifices. If you do not remember that and make use of it, you have betrayed the love of both your parents and your grandparents.”
Lizzie looked up at her father. “Oh, Papa. You know I would never do that!”
“I hope not,” he said, his voice serious and deep.
Lizzie did not want to cry, not now, not today. Tears would ruin her face. Once I am married, she thought, all this talk will be over. I’m so tired of everyone trying to talk me out of this. "Papa, Lars is a good man. His father left Denmark to escape German oppression. He desired freedom to live his life the way he wanted to live it. That’s not so different than the Irish, now, is it?”
“I suppose not, Lizzie. But you can mark my words that the Jacobsens will think it’s different.”
Silence fell between them and each knew that time was running out. Soon Lizzie would trade her father’s protection for Lars’s. While Alexander Donohue wondered if Lars would take care of his beloved daughter, Lizzie wondered if Lars would ever be accepted by her family. Oh, I love him so, she thought. I don’t understand why everyone else can’t accept that. Lizzie shook these thoughts from her head. She lifted her shoulders and took her father’s arm. “It’s time to go down, Papa.”
“Yes, I know. Are you sure about this, Lizzie?”
“Yes, I am, Papa.”
“All right then, let’s go.” They walked to the door and entered the hallway, turning right to the stairs. As they stood at the top, they could hear Mrs. O’Donnell, a family friend, playing “The Wedding March” on the piano, and below them stood Gladys, holding her bouquet of red roses and waiting to start down the aisle.
Lizzie and her father descended the stairs. As they entered the living room and everyone turned to smile at them, Alexander Donohue leaned over to his daughter and whispered into her ear, “Never forget your Irish roots. That young man may think he will be important some day, but he’s not Irish, and he never will be.” Lizzie looked ahead to Lars. She heard her father’s words, but she saw Lars before her. She walked down the aisle and her father handed her to Lars. As she took Lars’s hand, she smiled. She never even realized her father had stepped back.
The Justice of the Peace began to speak but Lizzie heard little of what he said. She looked at Lars, who smiled at her, and she thought: I loved you from the moment I first saw you. You’re not Irish, but that doesn’t matter. Together, we will succeed, and your family and mine will some day wonder why they ever doubted us. I don’t care what either Mama or Papa say. I know my own mind.
“Do you, Lizzie, solemnly swear to take this man as your lawfully wedded husband?”
Lizzie looked again at Lars. I will love you forever, she thought. I can deal with your temperamental outbursts, and your nights on the town. I want to have a child soon, and you will settle down.
Lars turned and faced Lizzie. He lifted her veil and kissed her quickly on the lips. Everyone clapped and Lizzie and Lars turned to face their families — the Irish on the right, the Danes on the left. The couple laughed and headed for the door. Lizzie imagined herself on Lars’s arm at a wonderful social event, perhaps even with Lars running for political office. Her new life had begun. A war might be going on in Europe, but right now this was Lizzie’s moment.
- Continue to Chapter 11.
- Refer to Family Tree to keep relationship of characters in mind.
- Return to Family Legacies Table of Contents.
Disclaimer: While it is true that my characters were inspired by my own genealogical study, I could not and did not know my ancestors with the same intimacy that I have created in my characters. Therefore, let it be said that these characters are fictional and created from my own imagination. Similarity to persons living or dead is unintentional and coincidental.