Family Legacies Chapter 16

(A novel by Susan Overturf Ingraham)

Hastings, Nebraska, October 1931

[Lizzie Donohue Jacobsen awakens in her room and realizes Lars is not yet home. She paces and frets, fearing his return but wanting it over.]

Lizzie lay still in her bed, the covers keeping her warm, a cold north wind making it feel more like December than mid-October. She calculated that it was about two o’clock in the morning. Moonlight streaming through the window lighted her chest of drawers and the musical jewellery box resting on top, a gift from Lars many years ago. She gazed through the moonlight and the dark shadows to the far corners of the bedroom. She could see yesterday’s clothes on the brown-velvet chair, a white blouse and straight black skirt, tossed there after her evening out to play bridge. Her shoes lay haphazardly on the floor next to her bed, and the door to the walk-in closet stood ajar, revealing more clothes, including the matching black jacket to her skirt and her houserobe hanging over the top of the door, and Lars’s white shirt and tie, hanging from the knob. She stretched and rose from her bed. It might be wise to get up and put away my clothes, she thought, but it‘s such a luxury to leave it. Stella will take care of all of it tomorrow. Thank heavens for maids!

Lizzie had gone to bed around midnight; she wasn’t sure what had awakened her. Maybe it was just knowing what might come next, or having too much fun with her friends earlier, or hearing a sound outside. Whatever the cause, she was now fully awake and waiting — always the inevitable waiting. Nearly sixteen years of waiting for a husband who often came home drunk and abusive. She actually felt nauseated, just thinking about Lars’s return.

Lizzie walked to the window and looked down on the backyard and her garden. The bright moonlight revealed the barren flower beds; the summer’s colorful flowers were gone and she found it depressing to look at the dark earth. She turned from the window, crossed the room, and slipped on a cozy houserobe and warm slippers. She returned to the other side of the room and sat down in her chair; the matching one, which sat on the opposite side of the room, was Lars’s. She liked it quiet and dark like this; no one was asking anything of her. She had to admit that she preferred being here without Lars.

Down the hall from the master bedroom slept Lizzie’s three children, each in their own bedroom: her beautiful, talented daughter, Katy, age 13; her clown, her son, Frankie, 12; and her baby, Willy, 3. Willy had been an unexpected surprise, but he had brought new love and joy into her life. It brought Lizzie some comfort to know that her children didn’t know what she knew about their father. She avoided arguing when they were home and, if they were home, she and Lars went behind closed doors. When Lars returned home late, and far too often drunk, she tried to appease him so that the children would not awaken. As Willy had grown older, she had even sometimes arranged for him to be taken out of the house with friends or with Stella, while Lars was on a rampage. Of course, now that Katy and Frankie were older, Lars sometimes argued with them and she was finding it more and more difficult to protect them.

It was rare to have this much time with no demands on her. Her mind wandered over the fourteen years of her marriage — they would celebrate their fifteenth wedding anniversary in just two months — and she began to think of the good and the bad of those years. It had certainly not been easy, even from the beginning, with her own parents’ disapproval. She could still remember her father’s words: “He’s not Irish.“ She had fought with everyone in her family — her mother, her father, her sister, her brothers — because none of them had wanted her to marry her taciturn Dane. And Lars’s family equally disapproved of her, though she had slowly developed a comfortable relationship with her mother-in-law.

In the beginning, Lizzie had seen a side of Lars that others did not see. He could be funny and even kind, and his battles with his father had turned him into a vulnerable and needful person. It had been easy to attract Lars because he had been so much in need of love. Lizzie had also seen the ambition in him, and she had wholeheartedly believed their marriage would take her away from her hard and difficult childhood on her parents’ prairie farm. Lizzie had yearned for social status and privilege, and she had believed that Lars would, with her love and support, provide her with those things. Both were prepared to do whatever was necessary to achieve their dreams. Lizzie could admit to herself now that she had not really been in love with Lars, but she had seen his potential. She had thought love might come later, but sadly, it had not. She had no way of knowing that her mother-in-law had once had the same thoughts about Lars’s father.

Lizzie had no trouble admitting that her life was better here than on the farm, despite her troubled marriage. If success was measured in “things,” she had success. Most noticeable was their home, which Lizzie believed was the most beautiful home in Hastings. It was identified by the locals as “the Jacobsen home.” Lizzie cherished it as if it were her fourth child, and she loved showing it off to her friends. She kept her home clean and well organized, and she could afford the maid who came in twice a week to help. It boasted many rooms: four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a living and separate dining room, a modern kitchen with a small alcove, even a recreation room in the basement. Lizzie adored all the things she owned and could show off to others: her Irish linen for the dining room table; her crystal, silver, and china for entertaining; even the furniture and carpeting and drapes, all of which she had chosen. The house, for Lizzie, had become the showpiece of her life: it proved that Lars was a good husband and father, and gave her social status in the community.

Lars may have made the money, Lizzie thought, but I have been a willing partner in helping him rise to power, because Lar’s power is also mine. I’ve been by his side all along, advising him, telling him how to dress for success. We are both ambitious, she thought, and he couldn’t have made it without me.

Lizzie‘s thoughts turned to her surroundings. Looking at the bedroom, she shook her head. It's symbolic of both the good and bad of our marriage, she thought. We have conceived our children here, but we have also had our most brutal fights here. Lizzie knew her marriage was a sham. It might have worked, she thought, if he hadn’t had those affairs and if he’d stopped drinking. Crossing her arms across her chest, Lizzie stood up and walked back and forth across the room, reflecting on the many events that had contributed to the shattering of her marriage.

Lars had never told Lizzie about his business activities, but she was no fool and she knew that he often got what he wanted through clever scheming. He was an adept manipulator who had smooth-talked many a client into signing a contract. After the Great Crash, she knew that Lars had been forced to make difficult and unpopular decisions in order to keep both the brickyard and the Jacobsen family afloat. She suspected that Lars had probably cheated people along the way, but she partly justified her husband’s behaviour in her own mind by believing that he was just playing by the rules of the business world.

She knew there was a rumour that Lars was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, which had had a parade through the downtown area. The men had worn their robes and masks, so no one knew if Lars was among them, and he had refused to admit to her whether he was or not. Lizzie was frightened of what Lars might do when masked, perhaps slightly drunk, and acting within a group of other men. Sometimes the man has no sense at all, she thought. Membership in the Klan is risky.

Lizzie had found it harder to live with the knowledge of Lars’s infidelities, even though sex for her had always been a chore. When they had first married, she had been totally unprepared for the sexual intimacy she was expected to share with her new husband. They had made love under the covers, in the dark, and Lars had always fallen asleep afterwards, totally unconcerned about her. It had often been a painful experience, and usually she had been left unsatisfied. She was never able to tell Lars what was wrong. Lars had been unsympathetic about her fears and ever-demanding in his needs. He had complained about always making love in the dark, and he had grown tired of her increasing desire to reduce the number of times that they did it. She had welcomed each pregnancy because Lars had stayed away from her.

Lizzie paced back and forth through the room, stopping to look out at each window. She turned and sat on the edge of her bed. She stared once again into the moonlighted darkness. She and Lars had agreed to get twin beds at least ten years ago when Lizzie had learned of Lars’s first affair. Damn you, she thought. I have given you everything, but you can’t even keep your pants on! When a friend told her that Lars was having an affair with his secretary, Lizzie had confronted him. They had had a violent argument. Lars had denied any wrongdoing, and Lizzie had never spoken to him again about it. After that, though, her friends willingly kept her informed of every woman he saw. Beyond her personal embarrassment, Lizzie believed that Lars’s behaviour had totally destroyed any chances for his political ambitions. He had once thought of running for mayor or even for a national office, but those dreams had died long ago, thanks to his improprieties. Well, she thought, at least I know you’re not going to demand anything from me any more.

Lizzie unconsciously smoothed out the bedspread and then stood up and began pacing again. She was beginning to worry — a little — about why Lars was so late. She wondered if he would not come home at all; he had done that a few times before. She had to admit that she had known about his drinking even before their marriage; she had naively assumed when they got married that it would end, but it had not. There had been numerous embarrassing moments where Lizzie had been forced to steer Lars out of the room before he said more than he should or even picked a fight with somone. Worse still was how he behaved towards her when he was drunk.

Lizzie could not remember the first time Lars had hit her. He always blamed the alcohol for his behaviour and he always apologized the next day, sometimes sending her flowers. She covered up her black eye or her bruised cheek with sunglasses or make-up. Each time she had hoped it would be the last time, and she had learned how to placate him. Fear of him had grown, slowly and steadily through the years, and she had developed a self-protective mode, both for herself and her children.

Lizzie stopped again at the bedroom window, this time looking down on the driveway. There was still no sign of Lars. Is he not going to come home at all tonight? she wondered. Maybe that would be for the best. It would be nice to just go to sleep, she thought, and wake up in an empty room. She turned away from the window and continued pacing. If she knew he would not be coming home, she could go to sleep. But not knowing if he would come made it impossible to relax. She walked to the bathroom and got a drink of water. She returned to the bedroom, but there was still no sound of Lars’s car in the driveway.

Recently, Lars had warned Lizzie that they might have to cut back on expenses. This was terrible news because the only thing that was good about her marriage was her children and this house. Lizzie could not imagine what she would do if she couldn’t give her children the things they wanted and needed, or if she had to limit her social activities. But she refused to think negatively. Despite Lars‘s warnings, she tried to believe that they were safe. The only sign of trouble had been when Lars had asked both her and their children to lie to creditors who might call. They were to say that he was not home, even if he was. Katy hated doing it, but Lizzie didn’t mind. She understood its necessity even if her fifteen-year-old daughter did not. There was much at stake: their home, their social status, her reputation with her friends. If she had to lie to a creditor so that she could face her friends in the DAR the next day, she would do it. They would survive this, as they had survived many other challenges, and they had worked too hard to get this far.

I will fight to keep my children and this house, Lizzie thought. Lars will not take those things from me. She saw no alternatives to her marriage, and she had gone over this in her mind many times. Leaving Lars was out of the question. So was divorce. She knew that her mother and father would never take her back into their home, especially with three growing children, and she could not possibly afford to take care of them without Lars’s support. Lizzie knew no one in her social circle who was divorced. Like several of her friends, who also put up a good front, Lizzie would continue to let the outside world think that all was well inside her world. If she could only convince herself.

Lizzie looked at the clock. It was three-thirty, and still Lars was not home. He had gone to an Elks Club meeting. They usually finished their meetings at about midnight and then retreated to a bar. Even knowing that his homecoming might be difficult, she was exhausted and at the point now where all she cared about was having the wait over. Hurry up, Lars, and get home, she thought. I want to go to sleep!

At that moment, she heard the car move slowly down the driveway. From the bedroom window, Lizzie saw Lars get out of the car. He wasn’t mumbling to himself, nor did he sing; he shuffled to the garage door and raised it. Lizzie watched as he returned to the car and drove it into the garage. That’s a good sign, she thought. He may not have had much to drink tonight after all. Of course, he may also be too drunk to be thinking clearly.

Lizzie watched Lars close the garage door. She decided it was time to get back into bed. She slipped off her robe and left her slippers at the foot of the bed. She could hear Lars whistle, stumble, curse — she hated his constant cursing — and then reach the back door. She waited in her bed, knowing that Lars was entering the house. Lizzie couldn’t hear him stumbling up the three small steps from the back door to the kitchen, fumble for the light, drop his keys on the floor, or run into the kitchen wall. She knew from experience about how long it would take him to get to the bedroom. She took a few deep breaths and listened. She heard him stumbling down the hall, stopping at the bathroom to eliminate some of that alcohol he had consumed over the course of the last several hours.

Within minutes, he was at the door of the bedroom. He said nothing and she feigned sleep, though her heart pounded. She waited. Maybe tonight he would just collapse on his bed and leave her alone. He moved uncertainly about the room. “Goddammit!” he yelled. “Why in God’s name are these shoes on the floor where I can stumble on them, woman?” Lizzie considered remaining quiet, but Lars persisted. “Lizzie,” he shouted, “get out of that bed and clean this bedroom right now! What’s the matter with you?”

Lizzie stretched, yawned, pretended that she had just awakened and spoke softly: “Quiet, Lars. The children will hear. I’m sorry about the shoes. I’ll get them out of your way right now.” But her agreeable tone and soft voice did no good. As she reached to pick up the shoes, he grabbed her arm and wrenched her around. “Why can’t you have this place ready for me when I get home? Why are you such a slob?!”

Lizzie winced from the grip Lars had on her arm. “I said I was sorry, Lars. Let me go and I’ll put these away. What can I do for you? Can I get you something to eat?”

Lars released her, but as Lizzie started to back away, he hit her hard across her face with the back of his hand. She was thrown across her bed and she laid still, touching her cheek and grabbing a handkerchief from the night stand to stop the bleeding where his ring had cut her. She knew it was best to remain passive, and reasoning with him never worked either. Her only goal was to avoid getting bruises.

When she did not rise from the bed, he calmed down. He began to undress, saying nothing. He stumbled and almost fell as he tried to remove his pants and shirt, and then collapsed on his bed. Lizzie did not move. In a matter of moments, he was sound asleep, and she knew when he awoke he would not likely remember anything. Besides, he would rush off to work before they could have a decent conversation with each other anyway. She slipped off his shoes, pulled a blanket over him, and went back to her own bed.

Despite her throbbing cheek, Lizzie smiled. I got through it, she thought. Lars only hit me once, the children didn’t hear a thing, and a little make-up will cover up the bruise tomorrow. She crawled into bed and fell quickly to sleep.

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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