Family Legacies Chapter 14

(A novel by Susan Overturf Ingraham)

Hastings, Nebraska, September 1927

[Now in the 5th grade, Kate Jacobsen leaves school and walks home with her two best friends, only to face the usual tensions at home.]

Almost-nine-year-old Katherine Lois Jacobsen — usually called Katy by her friends — walked out the door of Longfellow School at the end of the first day of the school year with three of her closest friends: Bette Jones, Inella Schmidt, and Liz King. No one had to ask if they would walk home together; it was a ritual already well established. Carrying their school books and walking side-by-side, they headed first to Bette’s house on Kansas Street. The girls giggled and gossiped about students and teachers, what everyone had done over the summer, and who wore what.

“What was all that talk about Al Cullen?” Liz asked.

“I think he got hurt this summer,” Bette said. “Some fireworks went off in his pocket.”

“That must have hurt!” Inella said.

“It’s also not very smart. Who would keep firecrackers and matches in the same pocket?” Katy asked.

“Don’t be so hard on him, Katy,” Liz said. “He’s a nice boy.”

“Maybe. But careless. Did you hear about the time he rode his bike off the train station ramp?”

“No, but I noticed he was looking at you a lot in school today.” Inella smiled at Katy.

“Me? What are you talking about? He didn’t look at me.”

“Yes he did,” Liz added.

Inella began to chant, “Katy and Al sitting in a tree. K-I-S-S-I-N-G.”

Katy blushed and ran ahead of her friends. “That’s not true!” she said.

“Aw, come on, Katy,” her friend Bette added. “We were just joking.”

“Boys are dumb,” Katy said. The girls laughed together, agreeing that boys were indeed stupid. The topic changed several times before they arrived at Bette’s house where they said good-bye to her and agreed to meet at the usual place and time the following morning.

Inella, Liz, and Katy played “I Spy with my Little Eye“ as they walked along. Soon, they reached Inella’s house, and another farewell took place. Liz and Katy talked about which teachers they thought would be the best and, in two short blocks, they were in front of Liz’s home on Denver Street. Liz ran up the sidewalk to the front steps of her parents’ home, turned around and smiled. “See you tomorrow!”

The last of summer’s flowers still exuded a slight aroma. Katy waved good-bye to her friend, walked another half block and turned to stroll down elm-lined Burlington Avenue. She stopped at a particularly tall elm tree and stared up into its branches and leaves, a few yellow ones already beginning to show. A hundred years before, a tree standing alone on the Nebraska prairie had served as a landmark to travellers. Today, the trees befriended Katy as excuses for not returning home. I could walk down this street forever and never go home, she thought.

Katy had walked ten times farther than necessary, but it had kept her from getting home sooner. Her loyal friends never questioned her reasons. That’s what friends are for. Besides, if someone had asked her what she was avoiding, she would not have answered. Her mother had made her promise years ago that she would never tell others about what went on inside their home. It was, in her mother’s words, “nobody else’s business.“ How can I tell my friends about what happens at home? It’s too embarrassing, Katy thought.

As Katy got closer to home, a few cars passed her; otherwise, she was alone with her thoughts. She could not decide what she hated most: her parents arguing behind their bedroom door, or her father’s teasing and noisy behaviour when he had been drinking. Maybe tonight will be a good night, she thought to herself. Maybe Dad will be in a good mood. Maybe he won’t drink. Maybe he and Mother won’t argue.

Katy walked on, but slowly. She looked at the trees and stopped to watch a flock of birds flying overhead. “Perhaps you are leaving,” she said out loud to the birds. “I wish I could go with you.” The birds flew on, and Katy knew that she still had to go home.

Katy continued down Burlington Avenue and she finally reached the sidewalk which led to her home. The Jacobsens’ two-storey house was the talk of the town. With building materials on the Nebraska prairie hard to find, Katy’s father, as manager of a local brickyard, purchased the bricks cheaply through his company so their home could be a show piece for others. Katy found it genuinely pleasing to the eye and she stopped to gaze at it before going in.

It was still very new, and the trees and shrubbery in front still required time to grow. The screened-in front porch extended across the front of the house, with large, white-bordered screens and a lovely swing at one end. Her mother had several potted plants on the porch as well as a large welcome mat at the front door. Above the porch on the second floor were the windows for her own bedroom and her brother’s. Each of them had a room of their own and there was a third bedroom which was where her grandparents or aunts and uncles slept when they came to visit. Four steps, bordered by brick-lined balustrades, led to the front door of the porch. Once inside, just a few steps brought visitors to the front door of the house which led to the living room, a large fireplace to the right and the stairs climbing to the second storey on the left, the kitchen nearly straight ahead.

Katy walked up to the front steps and sat down. She still didn’t want to go inside and destroy the delicious delights of her first day of school. She was good at all subjects, and she knew it. She had been promoted a half grade twice in the last three years, so she was a year younger than her classmates now. Like Al Cullen, she had attended Longfellow School since kindergarten. Her first day of Fifth Grade had been all that she had expected.

Katy stood up. She never entered the house through the front door — her mother’s orders. Instead, she walked down the driveway to the back door which was never locked. Just inside and to the right were several hooks and shelves for coats and bags, but Katy passed them by and stepped up the three steps into the kitchen. “Mother! I’m home,” she yelled. There was no answer. Still holding her school bags, Katy took a banana from the fruit basket on the counter, walked into the living room and then climbed the steps to her second-floor bedroom.

Katy liked her bedroom; her mother had helped her decorate it to Katy’s wishes. Windows looking west stretched from the top of the radiators to the ceiling and covered one side of the room. Shelves over the radiators displayed her favorite things — a picture of herself in her dance costume for last year’s recital, a picture of her mother and father, a collection of dolls which were too precious and fragile for playing. Her four-poster bed was made of light maple and she had to step on a stool to get up on it. On top of her bed was her Grandmother Donohue‘s quilt, each square made of a different material and depicting flowers and trees of Nebraska. At the foot of her bed was a cedar-lined hope chest, a gift from her parents just one year ago. It was almost empty now, but Katy planned to fill it with linens for her future marriage. On her bureau she had a small oak jewelry box, another gift from her parents. When opened, a little ballerina popped up and twirled to the strains of Beethoven’s Fur Elise. The box held several treasures — mostly small pieces of jewelry which her mother had given to her. Katy often took them out and admired them, waiting anxiously for the day when her father would give his permission for her to wear them.

Katy put her school books on her desk, removed her shoes and placed them in her closet, and carefully began to take off her new school clothes. She thought she had looked quite smart in her blue-and-white plaid skirt, which her mother had made, with an off-white, long-sleeved sweater to match. Her mother had also bought her a new pair of shiny black Mary Jane shoes; she removed these and placed them at the bottom of her closet. She carefully hung up her new skirt and sweater, and then put on some overalls which her mother allowed her to wear around the house. She removed her grandmother’s quilt, pushed her pillow up against the headboard, and sat down on her bed. She picked up her favorite book — Little Women by Louisa May Alcott — and opened it to her carefully-placed bookmark. The quiet house gave her peace; the words from her favorite book let her mind forget everything else.

Katy‘s mother expected her to clean house every Saturday, even though her father hired a maid to come in every Wednesday to do many of the routine chores. Katy also helped prepare every evening meal and cleaned up afterwards. Her mother also expected her help when she held club meetings or bridge games; Katy usually served coffee or tea and picked up empty plates and cups from the ladies. Katy detested these meetings; she felt like an unpaid private maid. She also looked after her little brother, though that responsibility had lessened as her brother had grown older.

Katy's peace and quiet did not last for long. Within twenty minutes, she heard a sound downstairs. It was probably her mother; her father usually got home about six o’clock, and her mother always had dinner ready for him. Her father insisted on it because, he said, it was exactly what his mother had always done for his father. Reluctantly, Katy put down her book and slid down off the bed. She lingered in the quietness and orderliness of her room for a moment longer, then opened her bedroom door, heading back down the stairs. As expected, she had just reached the first landing when she heard her mother’s voice. “Katy? Katy, is that you? Come here and help me, please.” Katy entered the kitchen where her mother had just placed several bags on the kitchen table. “Ah, there you are,” she said. “Where have you been? How was your first day at school?”

“I was upstairs reading. I got home about half an hour ago. School was fine.” Katy spoke robotically, answering her mother’s questions with precision. She paused while her mother began to empty the bags, but when she continued Katy sensed that her mother was not really paying much attention. Katy was used to that. “That’s good, dear. I’m so glad to hear that. Now please help me. I need to put away these things and start dinner.” Together they put away the food. Within minutes, Katy’s mother asked Katy to prepare a salad, so Katy began cutting up some carrots. As they worked on the meal, they chatted comfortably.

“So tell me about your day, honey. How did it go? Who’s your teacher this year?”

Katy’s mood lifted a little. “We’re going to have three teachers, Mother. Miss Senneff is going to teach most of our subjects, but Miss Sloane and Miss Flowers are going to teach music and art.”

“Oh, that’s wonderful, dear. You already know all of those teachers, so I think it will be a good year, won’t it?”

Katy smiled. She had to agree. “Yes, Mother, I think it will. And I had great fun seeing all my friends again too. Everyone had to tell me about their summer holidays.“

As Katy talked about her day and cut the vegetables for the salad, her mother prepared the rest of the dinner and listened. For a short while, they were just two girls together, laughing and sharing the events of the day. Both of them ignored the clock, ticking toward the time when Lars would come home.

Her father’s arrival was always fraught with concern. On his best days, he would enter with a jolly laugh and have lots of stories about his day at work. On other days, he would shout and rant about his bosses or accounting problems or troubles with a buyer. On his worst days, he would be in a dark mood, unwilling to talk to anyone, grumbling and muttering his way through the evening meal and complaining to Katy’s mother about the food or something she forgot to do. He always had a drink from his liquor cabinet as soon as he walked in the door; no one could use the cabinet but him and he kept it locked and carried the key to it on a chain with all of his other keys. Sometimes Katy heard her parents arguing about his drinking — her mother didn’t want her father to drink because it was illegal and because, when he did, it made him mean.

After dinner, Katy’s dad would often fall asleep on the couch in the living room and then wake up in time to go to meetings at eight o’clock. Katy knew that he went to the Masonic Hall and to the Elks Club, but sometimes he was secretive about his whereabouts. Katy could admit that she rather liked her father when he was funny and telling jokes or even playing hide and seek with her and tickling her til she thought she would die. But too often he was just unpredictable and really mean. Often, after being out late at night, he would come home in a bad mood, slurring his words and stumbling over his own feet. It was at those times that he would argue the most with her mother and when sometimes she heard sounds from the bedroom which frightened her enormously.

So Katy waited on this day, as she did on every single day of her life, to see what kind of mood her father would be in when he arrived home. The closer it got to the time of his arrival — usually between five-thirty and six o’clock — the more tense things became. Katy wanted to ask her mother sometimes why her father was so difficult. She loved her mother, but sometimes she was even angry with her for not changing things. She longed to talk to someone about it, but she had decided long ago that not talking about it sometimes helped to make these feelings not exist.

Katy finished preparing the salad. She set the table without her mother having to prompt her. As she was placing the last plate on the table in the dining room, she heard her father‘s car enter the driveway, pass by the kitchen windows, and roll towards the garage. A few moments later, the back door opened and her father entered.

“Lizzie,” he shouted loudly. “I’m home!”

Sometimes Katy felt she almost had a sixth sense that helped her to know when there might be trouble, but her father had not yet said enough words for her to be sure of his mood. She heard him lumber up the three steps to the kitchen and begin talking to her mother. She couldn’t hear them well, which she considered a good sign. She entered the kitchen and her father immediately said, “There you are, my favorite little girl. Come to your daddy. Tell me about your day at school.”

Katy walked towards her father and sat down with him at the kitchen table. “It was good, Dad. I enjoyed it. I saw all my friends, and I like my teachers. I think it‘ll be good to be in the fifth grade.”

“That’s my girl!” He stood up and strode into the small room off to the back of the house which they called her father’s study. Furnished with an oak desk and matching chair, a large upholstered chair where he read the paper, and a radio, the room served as his hideaway and where he could drink without being seen. In the corner stood his liquor cabinet. Lars walked over, unlocked the cabinet, and poured himself a drink. Then, following his usual routine, he picked up the day’s newspaper (placed there earlier by Katy) and read.

Everyone knew that as long as Lars sat in his study, things would be quiet, so Katy ran back up to her room. Shortly after opening up her diary to begin writing, her brother arrived home and passed by her door. A few moments later, he knocked and then entered. He never knocked and waited to see if he could come in. It infuriated Katy.

“Frankie, stop it! How many times have I told you to knock and wait to see if you can come in?” She closed her diary and put down her pen.

“Hey, how was your day? Who’s your teacher? After school I went over to Johnny’s house and we had a great time. How’s Dad? Is he in a good mood?” Frankie never waited for answers. He walked around his sister’s room, looked out the window, and picked up his sister’s dance portrait.

“Frankie, put that down!”

“All right, all right. Just calm down.”

“You’d better get ready for dinner, Frankie.”

Frankie left without saying another word.

Katy removed her coveralls and changed into a bright blue skirt and blouse. Within minutes, Frank re-joined his sister and together they went to the dining room. To avoid a confrontation with their father, they made sure they were on time. Conversation at the table that evening was limited; besides, Katy and Frank were not allowed to speak at the dinner table.

Once the meal was over, Katy helped her mother clean up. Within half an hour, her mother had left for her weekly bridge game. Her father, after napping for a short time on the living room couch, got up and left the house to attend an Elks Club meeting. With both parents gone, Katy was now in charge and she told Frank to remain in the house and stay out of trouble. She went to her room to do some homework, a typical first-day math review. Frank was not likely to concentrate on his homework, but he still went to his room to keep up appearances. The time passed and Katy and Frank’s mother came home from bridge. Katy got ready for bed and her mother came in to say good night.

For Katy, a day when her parents didn’t argue was a good day. But, as Katy snuggled up in bed, she remembered another interesting event of that day. She had stood in the playground chatting with her friends and at one particular moment she had looked across the playground to see Al Cullen and Roy Marvel walking together as they approached the school. They joined a group of other boys and Katy had looked across the playground later and caught Al’s eye. At first Al had looked away but she had seen him look back again, and she knew that he had seen her looking at him. He seemed like a very nice boy — a little short, perhaps, but still very nice. Everyone thought he was really cute. Her mother told her she was too young to think about boys yet, but she liked to do things that boys did — run and throw a ball and play games. Getting into the Fifth Grade meant that she would be in the same classroom with Al Cullen. And she decided, just before she fell asleep, that she rather liked that. She heard her friends' friendly taunt: “Katy and Al sitting in a tree. K-I-S-S-I-N-G.” She fell asleep.

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.

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