(A novel by Susan Overturf Ingraham)
Hastings, Nebraska, August 1917
[Janie McAlan Cullen has just given birth to her second son, Al, and she and her husband, Simon Cullen, discuss their son’s future.]
The many children of Adeline and James Cullen and the two sons of Katherine and Jacob Jacobsen grew up in Nebraska during the same decades, but their lives were very different: the Cullens attended a one-room school and helped their father work the land, learning to be self-sufficient, while the Jacobsen children enjoyed the amenities and social advantages of a small town. Although Minden, Nebraska, and the Cullen family farm were no more than two hundred miles apart, Adeline and James and Katherine and Jacob would never meet each other. Their sons, however, would: Simon Cullen and Lars Jacobsen, along with their wives, would choose to join the growing numbers of their generation to leave Nebraska’s farms and small towns in the new century and opt for careers and what they hoped would be a more secure financial future in the city.
If not for the railroads, perhaps no one would have settled in Hastings, Nebraska. Even its name honoured a railroad executive who had never lived there. Lost in the middle of nowhere, two-dimensional with only prairie grass and blue sky, Hastings seemed at first glance to be an inhospitable place. But in the 1870s, there had been men and women willing to gamble that this lonely spot had a future, and all because of the railroad. They built their homes and farms while thousands passed by. Hastings grew slowly but within two decades it had everything the first settlers had hoped for: families and homes, churches and schools, offices and stores, block buildings, service organizations, and even a college.
When Simon and Janie Cullen settled down in Hastings in 1911, seven years before Lars and Lizzie Jacobsen would arrive, Hastings had been a community growing for nearly forty years. Simon and Janie had missed the 1870s when Hastings had become the county seat during a period of rapid growth, and when soddies were the standard home and the two-storey school house could be seen for miles on the flat, treeless prairie. In the 1880s, considered in hindsight the boom years, large, beautiful homes were built as well as an opera house and a hotel, and the population more than doubled. Drought and grasshopper plagues had made life unbearable in the 1890s — almost half the population left — but in the early part of the twentieth century, the town recovered from the horrors of the previous decade and grew rapidly.
Adams County in 1911 had a population of about 21,000, with most of that population in Hastings. To Janie and Simon, both born and raised on farms, the hustle and bustle of Hastings overwhelmed them at times, but the birth of their second son, Alan Sheraton Cullen, on Wednesday, August 22, 1917, was a special occasion. Like all parents, they hoped that their young son would never have to face hunger, pain, fear, disaster, or war, but experience teaches most parents that the human condition always brings some calamities. They hoped for a better life for their son than the lives they or their own parents had already experienced.
The clean and comfortable little house on the corner of Tenth and Bellevue had been the Cullens’ home for a year. Janie had many reasons to feel contentment as she awoke from her short nap, having given birth a few hours before to her son, Al, who now slept quietly in his small crib nearby. She could hear her husband, Simon, and James, their four-year-old son, talking in the next room. She felt surprisingly strong, but Simon had promised her a peaceful afternoon after the early morning delivery and, since the baby didn’t require her attention for the moment, it seemed a superb idea to just soak in the solitude. She knew it would not last for long.
For Janie, the birth of her second son on this hot Wednesday morning was a pleasant joy and she outwardly smiled, though no one besides her new son was in the room to see her. She still vividly remembered the day — now twenty-three years ago — when her mother had died. Even the love she had received from her grandparents and her aunt had not been enough to take away the painful loss of her mother, the frequent absences of her father, and the lack of siblings. My children will never be lonely, she told herself. In her imagination, she saw her two sons playing endlessly together in the backyard or walking to and from school and helping each other with their studies. This was how Simon had described his own upbringing as one of the youngest in a large family of eleven children.
Janie heard her husband walk toward the bedroom. The door opened slightly and, not wishing yet to have her thoughts interrupted, she feigned sleep.
“Janie?” Simon whispered. “Are you awake?”
Janie remained motionless. She heard Simon go by the baby’s crib, and then he tiptoed out of the room as quietly as a man who weighed 225 pounds could tiptoe. Once the door closed, Janie rolled onto her back and lifted herself to a sitting position. She felt stiff and sore. Al’s delivery was easier than James’s, she thought, but I feel older this time! Imagine feeling old at 28!
Two years before, Janie had had a miscarriage. It had been a huge disappointment and she had not been able to talk about it to anyone, but especially not her mother-in-law, Adeline Cullen. Janie had thought Adeline, who had lost three children of her own, would be understanding, but instead she had been indifferent, almost cold. She had said to Janie, “It’s a heavy burden that mothers bear, child. But you will go on living and you will survive.” So Janie had not spoken about the hole left in her heart when she had lost her precious baby boy who never even got a name.
This morning, however, she rejoiced that she had two healthy boys. Women of the new century were choosing to have fewer children, and Janie felt that she might be among them. It was expensive to raise children in the city, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to risk another miscarriage. We might try for a girl, she thought, but that’s all.
Janie slid off the bed and her toes touched the warm floor. It had been a hot day, with the temperature reaching close to ninety-two degrees, but a slight breeze from the windows cooled things down. She peeked into Al’s crib. Her new son was of good size with a cute round face, a little pug nose, and already curly, dark hair. Janie stroked her child’s cheek and watched him move slightly in his sleep. She snuggled her finger into his small right fist and he took hold of it. Janie smiled, stretched, and yawned. He is a beautiful child, she thought. I love him to death.
Janie walked slowly in her bare feet over to the oak wardrobe, quietly opened the doors, and reached for a skirt and blouse which she tossed on the bed. The massive wardrobe, standing seven feet tall at the center where the facade curved into a point, was one of the first pieces of furniture she and Simon had bought. Two doors, hinged from each side, swung completely out for easy access. On the left were five large drawers; to the right were two bars for hanging clothes.
Moving a bit stiffly, Janie shed her nightdress, washed herself, and put on her skirt and blouse. Still enjoying her privacy, she crossed the room to her bureau and ran her fingers over the many baby items which she had folded and neatly stacked — matching hats and outfits, three blankets, and a beautiful crib quilt. All had been hand-made by friends and relatives, including a sacque and bonnet from her Aunt Sarah and a quilt from her father’s second wife, her step-mother, Beatrice.
Just as Janie turned around to check once again on Al, Simon opened the door.
“Ah,” he glowed. “You’re up at last.”
“Yes, I’m up, and feeling pretty good. How ‘bout you? Is everything all right? You sound a bit tired. Is James wearing you out?”
Simon nodded his head and rolled his eyes. “A bit, but my sister‘s very good with him. She and James have gone to the park. Winnifred thought he could run off some of his energy. They’ll be back in about an hour, and then Winnifred'll put together some supper. How’s our little Al?”
“Just fine. Come and look.” Janie reached out her hand and took Simon’s. Together they stood over the crib and looked down upon their new son.
“Isn’t he beautiful?” Janie asked. “I think he’s just the most beautiful baby I’ve ever seen. Don’t tell James this, but he’s even more beautiful than James was. And I love the name we've chosen for him. He has Alan from my maiden name, and Sheraton from your mother, Adeline Sheraton Cullen. Your mother will be happy, I think, to share her birthday with our son and to also give him his middle name.”
Simon looked at his petite wife. He absolutely adored her and doing anything that put a smile on her face pleased him enormously. “It seemed only fair, precious. We named James after me and my father and grandfather, so I thought it only right that our second son be named after you. I think, too, that my mother will be very pleased. She was always very proud of her father. I didn’t tell her in the telegram what we had named him, so I’m sure she‘ll be excited to learn about it when she arrives next week.”
Janie silently said a prayer of thanks that she had found this big, strong, lovable man who always considered her feelings. “Well, I’m sure that our little Al will love explaining to everyone just where his names came from. After all, his great-grandfather was a doctor!” Janie turned from the crib and moved to the rocking chair in the corner and sat down. “I can’t believe how far we've come, Simon, in just six years. Our two sons will live such a different life than the ones we lived as children. Just think about it! James and Al will grow up with electricity and a telephone in their home. They’ll walk to a school just a few blocks away. The opportunities they’ll have will be enormous. It’s such a different world they face!”
Simon nodded his head as he continued to look at his sleeping son. “It certainly won’t be like the farm I grew up on. I was only seven when we finally moved to the big house, but I remember twelve of us in that tiny cabin! My mother had to make all of our clothes, and she certainly didn’t have a phone to call her neighbours.”
Janie nodded. “Your mother deserves some kind of sainthood for enduring that cabin for as long as she did. I could never have done it! It’s just not the same world, is it?” she asked rhetorically. “Your mother waited for so long for her house and yet my house here has so much more than hers ever did — a coal-burning kitchen stove; milk, ice and coal delivered to our door. Can you imagine what my grandmother or your mother would have thought of that?”
Simon smiled and stared down again at his tiny new son. “I think the biggest change for the better is having water inside the house! How many times did I go to the crik and carry back water to my mother? And now we've got running water right in our kitchen!”
Janie responded with mock seriousness. “No, dear husband, by far the best thing in the world is having the bathroom inside. I hated those outhouses when I was a child. Dark and smelly! I worried I would fall in.” She grimaced. “Without a doubt, I vote for the indoor bathroom!”
Simon laughed at his adorable wife. He walked over to her, leaned down and gave her a hug. “Oh, Janie, we’re so fortunate and blessed. A home, a good job, two wonderful sons. What more could we ask for?” He moved to the bed and stretched out over the bedspread, taking off his shoes beforehand lest he get a scolding from his wife. The bed sagged and the springs squeaked their disapproval of the weight suddenly upon them.
Simon closed his eyes and enjoyed the quiet. While he lay still, Janie rocked in her chair and fanned herself. Her thoughts continued in the same vein as their conversation: Hastings would provide many opportunities for their children — parks, an opera house, a motion-picture theatre, brick-lined streets and sidewalks, electrical services to most homes. There were plenty of opportunities for employment — everything from making cigars or bricks to working in the harness and collar manufacturing plant, the brewing and artificial ice plant, or the foundry. Even better, Janie hoped that her sons would go to college.
For a few minutes, Simon kept his eyes closed and Janie enjoyed the view out the window, but Janie broke the silence first. “I’m pleased that our boys will be able to get an education here. You know how much I value that!” Simon nodded, knowing that when his petite schoolmarm wife got on the topic of education there would be no stopping her. “Nebraska‘s a progressive state,” Janie said, even though Simon had heard it before. “Teachers have to be certified, and our boys will be required to finish high school. James and Al can go to either Hastings Business College or Hastings College. They’ll have many opportunities. Don’t you agree, dearest?”
Simon had listened to his wife with his eyes closed, but now he opened them, stared at the ceiling and responded. “I do, Janie.” He stretched his arms and yawned. It’s pleasant to be here, Simon thought, and just talk with my wife.
Janie rose from her chair and went to the window, enjoying the smell of lilacs coming from the bushes just below the window. She crossed her arms and sighed. “You know what else I’m pleased about, Simon?” And Janie continued without waiting to hear her husband’s response. “The church.” Simon started to speak, but Janie interrupted him and continued, “No, I know you don’t care about it as much as I do, but I’m glad that the boys will go to the Presbyterian Church. Maybe one or both of them will even enjoy singing in the choir. Oh, I so enjoy that choir! Mr. Frost is an excellent director. Maybe it’s sinful but sometimes I think I go to church only for the music.”
“I agree about the music, dear, but you know how I feel about the church. Rev. Watson’s sermons are sometimes boring and out-of-tune with the times. Organized religion is too — well, organized! The boys will benefit from religious training, and I will read to them from the Bible every day.”
“Maybe you could come with me to church a little more often? It will set a good example for the boys.” Her soft brown eyes reflected her pleading.
“All right, I’ll try. For you and for the boys.”
Janie gave her husband an unusually bright smile. Outside the window, there were several children running down the street, obviously heading towards Highland Park. Janie said to her husband: “I’m so pleased that you've got a good job. I feel secure about our future.“
“You know, Janie, I agree with you. Hastings is a good place for our kids. It’s certainly a much better life than my parents had. But I’ve got to say that I worry about what’s going on elsewhere. This war in Europe is going to take American lives. I’m sure of that.“
Janie frowned. Her magic spell had broken. “Surely it won’t touch us, will it? You’re too old to be a soldier and our sons are too young.”
Simon rolled over to the edge of the bed and sat up. “I don’t know, Janie. Sometimes evil has to be fought. I wouldn’t want to leave you or the kids, so I guess I would find another way to fight. But I sometimes wonder if this world is really a world we want to bring new life into.”
Janie frowned. “I hope you’re wrong, Simon. Oh, I do so hope you're wrong!”
“So do I, Janie.” Both paused, alone with their thoughts. “Here at home, I’m happier since things have gone Republican. Maybe Nebraska will be a dry state, but I wonder if we'll ever see prohibition across the country.”
On the subject of prohibition, husband and wife did not see eye-to-eye. Simon believed wholeheartedly in it, but Janie was not sure that social customs could be legislated, even though she felt the world would be a much better place if people chose not to drink. Janie chose her words cautiously. “I know, Simon,” she said. “You know, there will always be things that we cannot control. Growing up in farm country, we both know that the weather can make or break a year of hard work. The same is true when one looks at politics.” Janie waited a moment. Simon had always respected and valued her political views. “Why can’t men figure out some of these things?“ she asked with a little smile. “Maybe when women finally get the chance to vote — and they will, I've no doubt of that — things will be different.”
Simon chuckled. “I know, my dear wife, that once women get the vote, everything will be better, of course!” Janie turned from the window just in time to see him wink at her.
“Oh, stop teasing, Simon!” Janie looked down at the floor, pretending a shy submission.
Simon smiled and walked to the window to stand beside her. He put his arms around her shoulders and they both looked out at the small elm trees which had recently been planted along Bellevue Avenue. Forty years of planting trees had already made a big difference; another forty years would make the place completely unrecognizable from the original barren prairie. “Janie, I think we've got a lot of reason to hope. Life is never totally predictable, but I think that, with the good Lord’s help, and man’s ingenuity, we’ll probably see things continue to get better. Just look at the changes that we've seen in our own lifetimes. Union Pacific came to Nebraska twenty years before I was born, and now railroads span the country from east to west.”
Janie said nothing, but she knew where her husband’s thoughts would go next, and they did.
“I still think,” he added with authority, “that those automobiles and airplanes are our future. Henry Ford knows what he’s doing, first with the Model A, and now with the Model T. I’m certain that we’ll own a car some day. Did you know that there are already four hundred cars right here in Adams County? Imagine! They are such a grand improvement over the horse and buggy! Do you think we’ll have enough saved by next year?”
Janie hugged her husband, though her arms could not go all around his ample waist. “Oh, maybe.” When she saw his crestfallen face, she added, “I think we probably will.“
Simon looked into his wife’s eyes. “Did you know that I love you, Mrs. Cullen? Thank you for being you and for understanding me.”
“It’s my pleasure, Mr. Cullen.”
Simon kissed Janie on her cheek. “You know, I wonder if some day we might even have an airplane! Some people are predicting it will be the way to travel by the middle of the 20th century. I must say, they’re amazing machines.” Janie shuddered at the thought, and Simon could sense it, just holding her. “I just think that the ingenuity and curiosity of man will take him in many new directions. Our two sons may find a place working in some of these new technological areas.”
“You’re probably right,” Janie responded, secretly hoping that her sons would never be in an airplane or have to go to war.
Husband and wife grew quiet, staring out the window and enjoying the last few minutes of their privacy. Their sons would demand their attention soon. Simon’s thoughts went to his parents and their farm. They had survived long hard days of work, drought, grasshopper plagues, and political changes. Simon inwardly sighed. A farmer’s life is too dependent on the vagaries of the weather and the climate, he thought. I feel more secure in the city. But I miss the land. Oh, yes, I do miss the land.
Simon’s thoughts were broken by the tentative cries of his newborn son. He kissed his wife’s forehead. “I’d better go see where James and my sister are, and I think maybe that young Al over there is waking up and may be hungry.”
“Yes, go along and see about James. I’ll tend to Al.” She kissed Simon on the cheek, and he turned and left her. Janie went to the crib and picked up her crying newborn son. She held him close and said a small prayer: “Please God, take care of my son. Let him be happy and successful. Let him grow up to be kind, respectful, and honest.” Once, Simon had struggled to make a stubborn mule work on his father’s farm, nearly killing it in the process — a story he had told many times to Janie and anyone else who would listen. Janie finished her prayer: “Let there be no stubborn mules in Al’s life."
- Continue to Chapter 12.
- 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.