(A novel by Susan Overturf Ingraham)
Hastings, Nebraska, September 1918
[Lizzie Donohue Jacobsen and Lars Jacobsen bring their new daughter, Kate, to be baptized at the Presbyterian Church. Lars Jacobsen and Simon Cullen meet for the first time.]
At least thirty people crowded into the small rectory, intended for no more than ten or twelve. Rev. Watson‘s personal furnishings, stored temporarily in the basement, were replaced by a table with refreshments: coffee or tea and cookies or small sandwiches. Women sat on chairs lining the walls; others stood and talked. Small children ran between legs and in and out of each group; others held on to their mothers’ hands and stared at the crowd. The women’s husbands stood together, crowded by the small space, attempting to make conversation.
Rev. Watson, as host of the post-baptism tea, attempted to introduce new church members to the older ones. It was at times like these that he wished he had a wife, but he did the best he could. When he saw Simon Cullen standing alone, he grabbed Lars Jacobsen’s elbow and pulled him over to Simon. “Lars Jacobsen, I’d like you to meet Simon Cullen.” Lars and Simon shook hands. “Simon has been a great help to our church, Lars. He and his wife were married here. When our church burned to the ground, Simon spearheaded the committee to rebuild it. He’s a deacon and teaches a Sunday School class.”
“Well, Mr. Cullen, it sounds like you might be some kind of a saint.” Lars pushed his glasses up higher on his nose, a habit that he repeated numerous times every day and could never seem to break.
Simon Cullen chuckled, his shoulders rising with each intake of air. “Hardly! Though I hope the Good Lord might be watching over me.”
Lars stood several inches taller than Simon, but Simon outweighed him by a hundred or more pounds. Simon‘s black hair and brown eyes contrasted with Lars’s blonde, blue-eyed Scandinavian heritage. Both men were clean-shaven and wore conservative dark suits with white shirts and plain ties. Lars had loosened his tie as soon as the baptismal ceremony for his daughter had ended.
“I also thought the two of you should meet,” Rev. Watson added, “because you’re both bookkeepers!” All three men laughed again, but Simon’s remained the loudest.
Lars handed Simon a cigar. “In honor of my daughter’s birth.”
“Thank you. I never turn down a cigar.“ He lifted his jacket and placed the cigar inside his shirt pocket. “And congratulations on your new daughter. Is this your first?”
“Yes. Katherine, named after her two grandmothers. You have children?”
“Yes, two boys. James and Al.”
The crowded, noisy room made conversation difficult, but the men persevered. “Well, I’ll leave you gentlemen to talk,” Rev. Watson said, “and see how others are doing.”
Simon and Lars barely noticed his absence. Over the din of the crowd, Simon asked, “Will you and your wife be joining the Presbyterian Church?”
“Yes. We’re taking classes now.”
Simon pulled the cigar Lars had given him out of his pocket and gestured towards the door. “Would you like to go outside and have a smoke?”
“By all means.” They left by the front door and stood first on the porch. A few children sat in the porch swing nearby and others ran through the yard. Small groups of men stood on the porch and under the shade of trees.
“Let’s go down and stand under that nice elm tree,” Simon suggested.
They stepped down off the porch, crossed the yard, and stood in the shade of the tree. Although it was early September, and the hot temperatures of summer were easing, the temperature remained warm — around eighty degrees — and muggy. The shade felt cool to both men, and it felt better to be outside than inside the crowded room. The brown grass still begged for rain after a summer drought, but underneath the elm tree, the men felt a small breeze.
Simon re-started the conversation. “I think you’ll like our church. Were you not Presbyterian as a child?”
“No, I grew up Lutheran. My wife grew up Catholic. We decided to find a church that we both would like, especially with so much anti-Catholic, anti-Lutheran sentiment these days.”
Simon frowned; he never liked to hear about prejudice against anyone. “Did you feel ostracized?”
“No. But my wife and I want to be accepted in society. We felt the Presbyterian Church offered us that.”
Simon nodded. A somewhat odd way to choose a church, he thought. “I understand,” he said. “Churches can sometimes tie us up in bureaucracy. The bible is our guide to spiritual decisions, not the church. I believe you’ll find Presbyterians welcoming.”
Lars left the comments hanging in the air with no response. You’re a self-righteous idiot, he thought. “So you’re a bookkeeper?” he asked.
“Yes, and general manager.”
“Nebraska National Bank.”
“Wasn’t that the German National Bank?”
“Yes. It just changed its name. After the Espionage Act, everyone became a bit skittish. My employers are loyal Americans, but too many people get the wrong idea, so they changed the name.”
Lars frowned and took a puff on his cigar. He blew smoke rings and watched them float skyward. “My father didn’t like Germans. He’s happy we’re at war with them. So am I. The Espionage Act brings traitors out in the open.”
Simon looked up at the branches of the tree. He puffed on his cigar and chose his words carefully. “I don’t like being at war, and the Espionage Act is, in my opinion, a dangerous law. It’s all-encompassing and just anti-German. Innocent people may get caught up in the net.”
“But we could do with less Germans, don’t you think?”
Simon studied Lars’s face. Are you serious? he thought. He chose his words wisely. “Not all Germans are bad. I’m a fifth generation American, but I’m proud to say that my ancestors came from Germany.”
“Good thing they left,” Lars retorted.
What a jackass, Simon thought. “What is your heritage? It must not be German.”
“Hardly! I’m Danish. My father left Denmark nearly thirty years ago to avoid being conscripted into the German Army.”
“So your father had a bone to pick with the Germans.”
“I suppose that such an occurrence might make a man bitter.” A few children, playing nearby, screamed and chased each other. Simon stared at Lars. This man says whatever he feels like saying, he thought, without any consideration for others. He decided to change the subject, hoping to find neutral ground: “So you’re a bookkeeper, too?”
Lars nodded and blew more smoke rings. “At Schaefer & Brothers Brickyards.”
“Yes, good company. The largest we have in Hastings.”
“It’s a good place to start. I want my own company some day.”
“Maybe. I’ll just have to wait and see what comes around. The Schaefer brothers aren’t young any more, and not very bright, I might add. Maybe some day I’ll buy them out.”
You’re a pompous man, Simon thought. Out to get what’s good for you at the expense of others. “How long have you and your wife been in Hastings?” he asked.
“A year. And you?”
“Seven years. And still a bookkeeper?”
Simon never flinched. “I like my work and I like my employers. It’s a good life.”
“Don’t you want more?”
“I have enough.”
Lars shrugged his shoulders. I don’t have much in common with this guy, he thought. “My wife and I like Hastings.”
“We do, too.“ Simon wondered how he might end the conversation, but no easy answer came to him. Maybe Janie will soon step outside, he thought, and rescue me! “Are you a native Nebraskan?” He hoped it was a neutral topic.
“Yes, born and raised in Minden. My father owns a farm implement business. How ‘bout you?“
“On a farm near Howe.”
“In the southeast corner of the state. Mostly farm land.” Simon took another puff of his cigar. “Is your wife from Minden, too?”
“Yes, although she grew up in Heartwell. We met in high school. How ‘bout your wife?”
“Born on a farm in Illinois. She came to Nebraska as a young woman. We met at Hastings Business College.”
“Oh, I went to HBC, too. What year did you graduate?”
“Six years later for me. Class of Sixteen.”
“We seem to have a few things in common.” Inwardly, Simon grimaced. There is nothing about me that is the same as this man, he thought.
“Yes, I guess we do.” Lars paused and puffed again on his cigar. “Man, I could sure use something a bit stronger than the tea and coffee they have inside! I like a bit of something with my cigar.” He nudged Simon’s arm, as though they were buddies from way back. For the first time, Simon smelled liquor on Lars’s breath.
“Really?” Simon remarked. “I think you’ve already had a little, haven’t you?”
Lars smiled. “Maybe.”
“Coffee is the strongest drink I need.”
Lars raised his eyebrows. “Really? Prohibition is just an anti-German, anti-Lutheran movement. There’s nothing wrong with alcohol.”
“I thought you didn’t like the Germans.”
Lars smiled. “I don’t. But prohibition is sponsored by people who don’t like them either. It’s where I part company with the anti-German movement.”
“Are you a Republican then?”
“Yes, generally speaking, but I don’t agree with all of their issues. And you?”
“A Republican. I vote for the man, not the party, however.”
“Ah, something we have in common then.”
Inwardly, Simon laughed again. There is nothing the same about me and you, he thought. Simon finished his cigar. He looked around for a place to stub it out. Janie had always scolded him if he left it where others might be offended by it. He couldn’t see a place to put it, so he kept holding it. Simon went back to the subject of prohibition: “Alcohol merely makes fools of men. It destroys families, and it ruins people’s health.”
“Mmmm, I’ll have to wait and see if that happens to me.“ Lars finished his cigar and threw it on the dry, withered grass, then stomped on it with his foot. “I think my wife probably wants to be getting home with the baby. I’d better go find her. It was interesting meeting you. No doubt we’ll run into each other again. Are you a Mason?”
“No. I’m on the School Board and may run for City Council. I do a lot of work here at the church, and I‘m also in the Lions Club.”
“Hm. Pity. Masons is a great organization.“ Lars turned and walked away, heading through the door of the rectory. Simon silently hoped he would have little to do with Lars Jacobsen in the weeks and months to come. He looked down at the cigar stub which Lars had left behind. He picked it up, and, along with his own, carried both to the back where he found a small barrel used for burning trash. He threw them in the barrel and returned to the front of the building. He hoped to find Janie inside and leave for home as soon as possible.
Lars found Lizzie sitting with other women. Their new daughter, Kate, was in Lizzie’s lap. “Oh, Lars, there you are. I think we should be going home, don’t you? Kate is going to want to eat soon, and then I’ll put her down for a nap.”
“That’s why I came over.” His strained smile did not go unnoticed by the women sitting with Lizzie.
Lizzie stood up with Kate still in her arms. She turned to the other women. “I’m sure we’ll see each other often, but we must go now.” She smiled and turned to Lars. “I’ll go to the car. Would you go find my mother and yours?”
As Lizzie left, she spoke to several people, most of whom wanted to see the baby. Her delay meant that she met Lars, her mother, and her mother-in-law at the door, and they walked together to the car, parked on the street just in front of the church.
Lizzie approached the passenger side of the vehicle — a brand-new Model T Woody Wagon — and stopped. “Hold Kate while I get in,” Kate said to Lars. Lars took Kate in his arms, awkwardly, and Kate stepped onto the running board. A second step allowed her to sit down.
Lars gave Kate back to her mother. He helped his mother-in-law, Mary Donohue, up into the back seat, and then helped his mother get in on the opposite side. He picked up the crank handle and slipped it into its connection at the front. He turned once, then twice, then a third time — and the engine started. He returned to the driver’s seat.
“All set?“ he asked the three women. “Here we go!“ The car rolled slightly forward and Lars turned it into the street. Lars loved his car. He had been determined to get one just as soon as he had a job and he and Lizzie were settled in Hastings. He would have preferred something sportier, but he was a family man now and so he had settled for a car that could carry him and his family. I’ll get another car — just for me — in a few years, he thought.
Both Mary Donohue and Katherine Jacobsen held on tightly in the back seat. “Lars,” his mother called, “can you slow down?”
“Nonsense, Mother. This isn’t too fast.”
“Did you meet any interesting people, Lars?” Lizzie asked.
“Not many. A guy named Simon Cullen.”
“Oh, I met his wife, Janie. What did you think of him?”
“Didn’t like him.”
“He’s a prohibitionist, for one. Self-righteous and boring.”
“I’ve heard that he’s well-liked in the community, Lars. You would be wise to nurture his friendship, no matter what his politics are.”
Lars turned and looked at his wife. “Don’t tell me what to do, woman.”
Lizzie rolled her eyes and, with her eyes only, looked to the back seat. The message, clear to Lars, was: “Don’t talk like that to me in front of our mothers.”
Lars shrugged his shoulders and kept driving, an easy task since there were few cars on the road on a Sunday afternoon.
“I liked Mrs. Cullen,” Lizzie said. “She was a bit shy and drab, but she‘s intelligent. She‘s trained as a teacher and a bookkeeper. I like to see a woman do something with her life.”
Lars didn’t respond.
“I ran into Marjorie Knowles. She told me my application for membership in the DAR would be finished soon.”
Lars nodded. “And?”
“It looks like I’ll get in.”
“Great,” he said with minor enthusiasm.
They arrived home within five minutes. They could have walked, of course, but Lars loved to show off his car. As they pulled up to their rented house, just two blocks down the street from the Cullen residence, Lars said, “Lizzie, I’m going over to the office.”
“Well, I missed a lot of work last week when Kate was born. I’m still behind.”
“Will your secretary be there?”
Lars looked puzzled. “What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Just asking, Lars. Just asking.” Lizzie held Kate tightly in her arms. “You can at least help us all get into the house.”
Lars begrudgingly got out of the car and helped his wife and child, his mother, and his mother-in-law out of the car. As Lizzie stepped on the porch, he returned to the car and got in. He yelled back to Lizzie: “I’ll see you later.”
“When, Lars?” she shouted.
“When I get back!” And he backed the car out of the driveway and drove away.
Lizzie turned to the two older women. “Well, I guess we have the afternoon to ourselves. Let’s sit in the living room and chat. I’ve not had a chance to talk to either of you in months, and now you’re both here and you’ll both be leaving soon.”
Lizzie led the way. She put Kate in a small bassinette — a gift from her mother — beside the couch where she would be sitting. With only a sofa and a matching chair, there were just enough seats for the three women to settle themselves. Lizzie’s mother chose the sofa while Katherine Jacobsen chose the matching green chair. Lizzie sat near her mother on the sofa. Although Lizzie and Lars had been in the house for a year, Lizzie had not had much time to decorate it. Some things even remained in boxes, since both Lars and Lizzie hoped they would soon be able to afford a larger house, or even build one for themselves.
Lizzie didn’t want to talk about her house, however. Instead, she said: “I want to thank both of you for coming for Kate’s birth. It meant a lot to me.”
Katherine and Mary acknowledged Lizzie’s words by smiling and nodding but both women remained cautiously quiet. Tensions between the Donohues and the Jacobsens had been stretched tight since the day Lars and Lizzie married. Both women had learned to keep their own counsel.
“I chose Kate’s name because of the two of you. You have tried, more than anyone else in the family, to support my marriage. I appreciate that. I don’t know if we’ll ever see my dad and Father Jacobsen in the same room together.”
“Probably not,” Mary said. “Your father doesn’t like Lars’s father.”
Katherine Jacobsen nodded her head. “Jacob can be difficult at times, but he’s a good man.”
Mary nodded. “And so is Alex. The problem goes deeper than that. They are fundamentally opposed in too many areas.”
“Please, Mama,” Lizzie said, “let’s just change the subject. All right?”
Mary nodded her agreement. She smiled at Katherine. “I’m sorry,” she said.
Katherine smiled. “No problem. I understand.” Katherine looked at her hands and placed them on her knees. “Well,” she said, “I see my son hasn’t changed in many ways, has he? Did he really have to go to work this afternoon?”
“I don’t know, Mother Jacobsen. I have learned that Lars does what he wants when he wants to do it. I don’t question him on those things.”
“He sounds just like his father,” Katherine said. “Jacob has worked the same hours since the day we got married. He always wanted to get ahead. I think that is all that Lars wants.”
Lizzie leaned over and peeked into the basinette. She placed the blanket a little higher up on Kate’s small body and tickled her under the chin. Kate’s eyes, wide open, looked up at the ceiling, but she made no sound and seemed quite content.
Katherine opened the conversation again. “I wish, Kate, that Lars could have worked with his father. Jacob would have been so proud to have Lars take over the business when Jacob retired.”
Lizzie nodded her head. “I know, Mother Jacobsen, but you know that Lars and his father just don’t get along. Father Jacobsen is a hard taskmaster and he expects more from Lars than any other employee. When Lars came home and told me he couldn’t take it any more, I wasn’t surprised. He tried for seven months, but I knew he wasn’t going to try any more. We came here to start a new life, and have a new beginning.”
Katherine sighed. “I know, dear, how tough my husband is on his son. I stepped between them for years. At the same time, Lars is sometimes very disrespectful to his father.”
Lizzie said nothing, feeling that this was old ground and she had no interest in covering it again.
Mary tried to change the mood by changing the subject: “This war is frightening. So many men are leaving. Lizzie, what about Lars? Will he be safe?”
“I think so, Mama. He’s made it this far, anyway. First, he has bad eyes; he’d never pass the physical. Second, he’s married and is now a father.”
“But they’re taking all men between the ages of nineteen and twenty-five, aren’t they?”
“Yes, but as I said, there are deferments for health and family reasons.”
“I fear that Lance may have to go,” Katherine Jacobsen interjected. “He’s only two years younger than Lars, and he‘s not married.”
“Oh, I hope for your sake, dear, he won’t have to go,” Mary said. “I‘m worried that my two oldest — Charles and Robert — will go. Thankfully, my three other boys are too young.”
“They’ll be fine, Mama. You‘ve nothing to worry about.” My mother will never survive the loss of a son, she thought.
Little Kate began to cry and Lizzie decided to feed her and put her down for a nap. As she picked up Kate, Katherine said, “I’m as tired as that little one. I believe I’ll go take a nap, too.”
“Of course, Mother Jacobsen. Do you want me to wake you at any particular time?”
“Let me help with dinner, dear. If I’m not up by then, please come and wake me.” She headed for a small guest room at the back of the house.
Lizzie took Kate to the master bedroom. She sat in a rocking chair and fed Kate, then placed her in her crib, where she quickly fell asleep.
When she returned to the living room, her mother was knitting. “Is the baby settled?”
“Yes, she’s fine.” Lizzie stood with her hands on her hips and looked out the window. The house felt stuffy and warm, even with windows open.
“How are you feeling?” her mother asked.
“Not bad, Mama.“ Lizzie smiled. “I’m so glad you came. It’s been good to see you.”
Mary ignored the compliment. “You‘ll have at least a couple of hours of peace and quiet now.”
“Honestly, Mama, how can you possibly know that?”
“Seven children, my dear. Seven children.”
“Yes, and all of them born at home.”
“But you thought the hospital was a good place to be, didn’t you?” Mary asked.
“Yes, I did, Mama. I think, in the years to come, there will not be many home births.”
“I suppose it’s for the best, but I’m not sure. Your grandmother would roll over in her grave.”
Lizzie turned and crossed over to the small, faded sofa which she and Lars had purchased secondhand; it was all they could afford for now, but it was clean and sturdy. She sat on the edge of the cushion and turned directly towards her mother who continued to click her knitting needles. Lizzie took her mother’s hand, forcing her to stop knitting, and said, “Mama, please listen. Thank you for coming.”
Mary Katherine Flynn Donohue took a deep breath. “I wanted to come, Lizzie. You’re my oldest child, my oldest daughter. Kate is my first grandchild, and you even used my middle name for her name.” She looked into Lizzie’s eyes and tried to see what her daughter’s true feelings were. “I didn’t like the way Lars spoke to you, Lizzie. Not today and not several times while I’ve been here.”
“That’s just Lars, Mama. He doesn’t mean anything by it.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Just what I said. He speaks sometimes without thinking what he’s saying.”
“And you are happy with this?”
“Oh, Mama, let’s not talk about this.” Lizzie leaned back into the sofa.
Mary followed her daughter’s lead. “I’m proud that you named her after me.”
Lizzie nodded her head and smiled. “I knew the minute I was expecting that if I had a girl I would name her after you, Mama. You‘ve been the most important person in my life.”
A silence fell between mother and daughter. Each woman wanted to say something, but neither had the words to express their thoughts.
Finally, Mary asked, “Lizzie, are you happy? Has this marriage brought for you what you wanted?”
Lizzie did not know how much she wanted to reveal to her mother. Her mother had often told her, “If you make your own bed, you lie in it.” And, anyway, women didn’t leave their husbands. It was unthinkable. She and her daughter would live a life of poverty. Hesitantly, Lizzie spoke: “Oh, I guess things are all right. Lars has been a good provider. We’re saving our money, and we’ll soon have a house of our own. And we’re very busy with church and our organizations. I have a lot of fun with my friends in PEO and the Women’s Club.” She paused and said nothing for a moment and then added, “Yes, certainly, things are fine.”
“It was silly of him to buy a car.”
“He loves that car, Mama!”
“But a family needs a house first, Lizzie.”
Lizzie had been furious when Lars had arrived home one day with the new car, knowing that their savings for the house had been used, but she did not reveal this to her mother. “I know. But we’ll get a house soon, Mama.”
Mary Donohue knew her daughter well. “I don’t think you’re telling me everything, Lizzie. What’s wrong?”
Again, Lizzie hesitated. “Oh, it’s nothing, Mama.”
“Yes, there’s something. What is it? Does it have to do with Lars’s behaviour after Kate was born?”
Lizzie couldn’t restrain herself. “Oh, Mama, it was awful. He made the most dreadful scene at the hospital that evening. He had gone out with his friends to give out cigars and have a few drinks to celebrate — ”
“Drink?” her mother interrupted. “Why is he drinking? It’s against the law, not to mention a sin.”
For a moment, Mary’s Catholicism was not what Lizzie needed. “Yes, Mama, I know it’s against the law. But Lars has always had wine at his meals — it’s a family custom, you know, and he doesn’t believe in Prohibition. Neither do a lot of his friends. They can find alcohol whenever they want it and as long as they have money to buy it. Let’s don’t get into a discussion about Prohibition right now, please.”
“All right,” Mary responded, though it was clear that it was not all right at all. “Tell me what happened.”
Lizzie forged ahead. “Lars came over to my hospital room quite late — around one in the morning, I guess — and he was drunk from celebrating. He came down the hallway, yelling and singing and shouting at the top of his lungs that he had a daughter. He woke up every patient and baby on the ward, including me! He got to my room and started telling me how much he loved me, and he kept singing. I couldn’t get him to leave and he was bothering everyone! The nurses asked him to leave, but he wouldn’t, and finally they had to get some doctors to grab him by the arms and throw him out of the hospital. I was so embarrassed! He didn’t come to the hospital again until he came to pick us up the next morning.”
Lizzie figured that her mother would provide her with a truism, one of many she had related to her daughter ever since Lizzie was a child. Instead, Mary surprised her by saying, “I don’t know, Lizzie. This isn’t the first time you’ve told me about your husband’s excesses. You’re going to have a struggle in this marriage. Lars won’t change. Both you and your child — and any other children you may have — will suffer.”
It was an ominous prediction, but Lizzie was grateful that her mother did not remind her of what she had told her on her wedding day. Here we go again, Lizzie thought. Mother can be so dramatic! “Oh, Mama, it’ll be fine. Lars has promised me he will control his drinking. He knows that sometimes he overdoes it. I believe in him and I love him. You’ll see — he’ll change. Now that he’s a father and has responsibilities, he’ll change.”
Mary did not believe her daughter, but she felt helpless to do anything. “This is the last time I’m going to speak to you about this, Lizzie. You’ve chosen your path in life and now you must live it. God bless you and your daughter. I hope it goes well.” She rose from the couch, set down her knitting, and said, “I’ll go get supper started. You’d better check in on little Katy.”
Lizzie knew that her mother would live up to her word. She went to the bedroom and looked down in the crib at her child. Softly, she sang: “Hush little baby don’t you cry. Mama’s gonna buy you a mockingbird...” She hummed a few more lines and then whispered to her still-sleeping daughter: “It’s all right, Katy. I’m going to take care of you. Your father will love you, too, and he will never hurt either one of us.”
Lizzie tiptoed out of the room and went to the kitchen where both her mother and mother-in-law had already begun preparations for the evening meal. “What can I do to help?” she asked.
Katherine Jacobsen pointed to some potatoes. “We need those pealed.”
“And after that you can make the salad,” Mary added.
They worked in silence, all waiting nervously for Lars’s return. Katherine had done the same thing for years with her own husband. Mary knew she could change nothing. And Lizzie knew Lars would never change; it would always be this way.
- Continue to Chapter 13.
- 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.