Family Legacies Chapter 19

(A novel by Susan Overturf Ingraham)

Hastings, Nebraska, March 1937

[Kate Jacobsen finds herself trapped at home, banned to her room by her father, and wonders what the future holds.]

Kate sat at her desk in her room and stared out the window. She could do anything she wanted to do within the confines of her bedroom: her father had banished her to her room only moments before. She hated these banishments, more than she ever did as a child. This afternoon, she would miss her English class, but her professor knew her well and Kate had completed all the assignments. Worse than missing class, however, was the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations at the park. She could easily miss all the fun if her father did not come back within the hour and allow her to leave the house.

A cool March breeze blew through a crack in Kate’s window, and she crossed over and closed it which effectively cut off the air and also muffled the sounds of traffic and singing birds. Kate returned to her desk and opened the bottom drawer, lifted up a small piece of flat balsam wood with a ribbon attached to it, and pulled her diary out from under the wood. The “secret compartment” was not terribly effective, but Kate figured it would keep some people away — like a snoopy little brother. She opened up her diary to page forty-five and began to write slowly and neatly, her handwriting large and distinct, easily readable, and more masculine and massive than feminine and fine. She dated the top line: Wednesday, March 17, 1937.

Dear Diary, she wrote

I don’t know why my life has to be more difficult than others. There are many people on this planet, and I’ve learned that few of them have a father like mine. Why me? Why couldn’t I have had a reasonable father? My thoughts are disjointed — I don’t know what to do. I wish Al were here. He would help me. But it’s so hard to trust anyone. It’s so difficult to love, to trust. I’m so utterly weary of Dad’s control. I can trust no one, not even Al, who says he loves me. I wish I knew what love was. It’s too confusing. My father supposedly loves me, but he does dreadful things — to me and to others. My mother loves my father, yet she lets him speak hideous words to her. I think love is for the foolish. If I allow myself to fall in love, I will simply be letting another man control me. I can’t do that! I can’t believe that at 19, almost 20, my father’s still telling me that I have to go to my room. You would think I was only six years old!

Kate’s altercation with her father was already becoming a dim memory. He banished her to her room for many things: she wasn’t wearing appropriate clothes, or she had on too much make-up, or she might be going to meet “that Cullen boy.” It didn’t matter: Kate figured he just found an excuse — any excuse — to keep her in her room. To avoid further argument, Kate usually agreed. Today, she had decided to bide her time until her mother came home. She thought her mother might release her. Kate looked out at the window, thinking, and then bent her head and continued to write:

Dad can be so different from one day to the next. I’m afraid of him sometimes, and there are things that have happened which I don’t want to remember. Oh, he’s such a difficult man! If he disapproves of anything — he will tell me. Like that time he made me change clothes because he thought my dress should only be worn for Sunday School. Or that time he told me I couldn’t play with Sally because her mother was Jewish. Or the time he scolded me for over an hour because I got a B on that biology test instead of an A. Or when he sent me to my room because I had not put the dishes and silverware on the table correctly. God, I hate him. But if I hate him, then how can I love him? And I should not hate my father, should I?

Kate lifted her head from her diary and looked out the window. Winter was still holding a grip on Nebraska and there were small patches of snow here and there. But spring was trying to show itself; small buds showed on the ends of young tree branches and the first flowers of spring — crocus — poked their head through the cold, wet earth.

Kate shook her head and pointed her finger at an imaginary person sharing her room, a habit she had begun as a young child.

“Dad is the same with Mother and with Frankie,” she said aloud. She stopped and seemed to listen to her imaginary friend and then said, “Yes, but Willy rarely gets scolded — lucky him!” Kate returned to her desk and continued to write in her diary again:

Whether it’s me, Mother, or Frankie, Dad is determined to get his way. And he will do it with his fists, his words, or even his silence. I hate him! I know I do! But how can someone hate their father? There must be something unnatural in that. But I won’t let him hit me — ever again!!! Oh, I just want him to stop! I hate to look at him or to watch him! His face gets so red. I never want to look at him again! Never!

Tears flowed down Kate’s cheeks; she couldn’t continue writing. She reached over and took a clean handkerchief out of her drawer and wiped her eyes. “I don’t know what to do,” she sobbed. “What will I do?” She stood up and paced the floor. This must be how animals in a zoo feel, she thought. Caged and helpless. Kate walked back and forth several times, calming her nerves. Then she returned to her diary:

Sometimes, she wrote, I can’t figure out either Mother or Dad. They send such mixed messages. Dad tells me that I must not date Al and certain other boys, yet I know that he sees other women behind Mother’s back. Mother tells me to not talk about other people, yet I hear her gossip with her friends while she plays bridge. Dad tells me to be honest with my teachers, but he tells me to lie to those men who call him here at home and say that he’s not here. Mother says that she loves Dad, and then after a fight she tells me that she hates him and wants to leave him. Dad says terrible things about people behind their backs, but then he smiles and greets them with a handshake when he sees them at church. I think maybe they’re both crazy!

Kate stood up again and walked across the room to a small bookcase where she kept her favorite collections. She reached for a collection of W.B. Yeats’s poetry and found “The Second Coming.” She read it several times and then returned to her diary.

She wrote:

I like the lines from Yeats’s poem that says, “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.” That’s the way I feel now. I feel like I’m losing my center!! Everyone wants a part of me — my parents, Al, my friends, my teachers. I want to be a good girl. But I can’t please everyone and also be who I want to be!

Again, Kate paused. A loud truck went by outside and she looked to see what was happening. It apparently had mechanical problems and three large men were pushing it down the street, even though the motor continued to roar. Kate watched until they disappeared.

She picked up a picture of Grandma Jacobsen and said, “I love you, Grandma.” She set it down and returned to her desk.

Bless Grandma Jacobsen, she wrote, who told me once that I should never worry about what anyone says. She can be a lot of fun. She told me once that life hasn’t always been easy, living with Grandpa Jacobsen, and I’m not surprised. Grandpa Jacobsen kind of scares me! He’s so serious and proper! He would never let me sit on his lap, like I used to do with Grandpa Donohue.

Kate raised her head, glanced around the room, and then continued to write:

I like to visit Grandma and Grandpa Donohue. They laugh. But I can never tell them about Dad and certainly not about Mother, who is their own daughter. I just can’t do that!! It’s even harder to be honest with Grandma Jacobsen, even though I think she sometimes knows that things are not all good at our house. She knows that her son, my father, is sometimes difficult. She tells me, though, that I must obey my parents. She told me once that she was not sure about marrying Grandpa Jacobsen, but she did it because she was told to do it. She says it hasn’t been so bad. But Grandma Donohue says I should be careful about who I marry — that marriage to a man outside your clan can mean a lifetime of unhappiness. Sometimes when she says that to me, I think she’s trying to tell me about Mother and Dad.

Why don’t Mother and Dad understand my feelings when they, too, had to defend their right to get married? Mother told me that even on the day of their wedding, her father said she was making a mistake — because Dad was Danish. Mother knows what it’s like to marry someone who her family disapproves of! Why does she do the same thing to me? Why can’t she see that it was wrong for her family to try to control her? And, anyway, times are different now! My generation doesn’t care about what country you came from. We’re all Americans — born right here. I’m not so much Irish or Danish as I am American! And so is Al! Why can’t my parents end these old-fashioned ideas!?

Kate stopped writing and listened. She could not hear a sound in the house, except for the ticking of a clock in her room. Everyone had left the house. “Maybe I should just leave,” she said out loud to herself. Her inner voices said something and she responded: “But if I go, Dad will check on me later. He’ll know I left. He’ll ask Mother.” Kate shook her head. “Yes, I think Mother would tell on me.” More silence and then Kate again: “Yes, I could try to get Mother to side with me this time, I suppose.” Kate’s inner voices continued but she eventually said out loud to them: “No, it’s safer to remain here for now, even if I don’t get to meet Al at the park.“

Kate’s thoughts went back to the time, less than an hour before, when her father had banished her to her room. As she was leaving to go to class and then to go to the park afterwards, her father had questioned her. She told him the truth: she was going to class. But somehow — and she didn’t know how — he guessed that a tryst with Al was planned for later. He told her: “I don’t trust you, Kate. You always lie to me. Go to your room.” And, just like that, her afternoon had changed completely.

Kate’s hand bore down on the page ever harder now and her fingers were getting sore, but she continued:

I love Al, and I know he loves me! Dad has been against him from the beginning, and I don’t see why. I don’t care!!! I know that Al is a good person and he makes me be a good person. We have lots in common: immigrant backgrounds, same church, good students. Dad says that I’m bad for wanting to be involved with Al because Al’s father is a bad person. How can that be!? He couldn’t be worse than my own father! Dad just refuses to get to know Al. And, anyway, I want to marry Al, not his parents! I think Dad is an awful person!! He embarrasses me! And Mother is sometimes NO better! She is always defending Dad even when he’s scolding me! “This is for your own good,” Mother always says. Ha!!!! How can she know what’s for my own good when she allows Dad to treat me the same way he treats her!!??

Kate stood up from her writing desk and crossed the room to her bed. She picked up her small brown teddy bear, a gift from Al, and held it close to her body. Hugging her teddy bear made her feel better. It was as though Al were there with her in the room, giving her strength. She sat down on the bed and looked across the room, through the windows, at the mostly bare elm trees. This had been her bedroom since she had been ten years old, but it had also become her prison. As she had grown older, it seemed as though she was always doing something which her father disapproved of. But these days the only thing they ever argued about was Al. She stretched, returned the teddy bear to the bed, and walked back to her diary.

Oh, she wrote, why can’t this be over? Why must I continue to battle with Dad day after day? He is NOT going to end my relationship with Al!! I won’t let him!! He can keep trying but he is not going to succeed! He can slap me, curse me, yell at me, banish me to my room — but I’m not going to leave Al! We’re going to get married! We WILL be married, in spite of Dad. I hate him, I hate him, I hate him!!! He’s all that I do not want to be. He is dishonest, controlling, unfaithful, and domineering! He‘s a bigot, a philandering husband, and no good! I hate him!!! And I don’t understand why Mother has stayed with him all these years. Maybe she’s just afraid of him — like I am. I hate him, I hate her, I hate this house, I hate this place! I swear that some day I am going to get away!

Kate closed her eyes and leaned her head back, massaging her neck and trying to relieve the tension. Then she wrote:

I have never written this in my diary before, so this is a secret. When I was ten, my father came into my room five times and got into bed with me. He always smelled of alcohol and he would touch me in places that I don’t think he should have touched. I don’t know why he stopped coming, but I’m glad that he did. I told mother but she didn’t believe me.

As Kate wrote, tears began to slip down her cheeks, and then her crying turned into sobs. She held the handkerchief to her face, and let the tears flow. Then, almost like a faucet turning off, she stopped crying and re-read what she had written. With very careful strokes of the pen, she covered up what she had just written. When she was finished, the entire paragraph was unreadable.

When Kate was satisfied that her words could no longer be deciphered, she started again:

I wonder if Al’s at the park now. I’ll bet some of the gang are there. Bette, Marnie, Liz, and Inella. I love Al but can I trust him? Can he keep his eyes off those other girls? And, anyway, I don’t know if I can trust those so-called friends of mine. They all tell me that I’m so lucky to have Al, so what’s stopping them from trying to take Al away from me? I will watch Al carefully. He will not humiliate me as my father has humiliated my mother!! When I finally get away from this house, I will NEVER return! I swear that I will never speak to my father again! Then he will know what he has done to me. If he wants to have a daughter in his life, he will have to change!!

The silence of the house enveloped Kate like a warm blanket. Ironically, while being a prisoner, she also felt safe and protected. Downstairs, she heard the telephone intrude on the silence. It’s probably Al, calling to find out why I haven’t shown up, she thought. He’s probably really upset and worried about where I am and wanting to know what has happened. Kate stopped and cocked her head, as though someone were talking to her. She answered, “Yes, I suppose it might be Inella or Bette calling for him. It would be too big a risk for Al to call here.” Kate remained silent again, her lips moving silently. Then she spoke, “No, if I go down and answer the phone, Mother could come home and if she finds me talking on the phone and tells Dad about it — I’m in more trouble. I have to remain here. Al will have to figure it out on his own."

Kate stood up and paced. The phone stopped and then began ringing again. She put her hands over her ears. Oh, please stop ringing, phone! Please stop! It rang again — five times, ten times, fifteen times. Kate screamed, louder than the telephone but surely not heard by anyone. When she stopped screaming, the phone had also stopped and Kate could only hear the ticking clock and her rapidly beating heart.

Kate felt drained, exhausted. She walked to her chest of drawers and picked up a small jewellery box. Inside, under the lining, she had a photograph of Al — his high school graduation picture. She often took it from its place and held it. She leaned it up against the lamp on her desk and stared at her boyfriend’s likeness. She thought of what she was missing by not being with him right now, and suddenly picked up a pillow and threw it across the room, screaming loudly, “I hate you, Dad!” Tears came running down her cheeks again, and she glared out the window, gripping her hands on the window sill, emotions boiling within her. Moments passed as she considered her no-win situation.

After glaring silence and pacing, Kate took a breath and picked up the pillow and returned it to her bed. Then she sat down at her desk and continued to write:

I must find a way to be rid of my father‘s meddling! I cannot stand it any longer!!!! I must be strong. I think others may know or will find out what’s going on. Some may tell my father of our plans. Al and I must work alone. If we put our trust in anyone, it could get back to Dad. And Dad MUST not know!!!

Kate looked up and her eyes glanced through the room, as though by looking she might conjure up something. She bent her head again and wrote:

I have lost friends because of my relationship with Al. I’m sure that that is why Liz is no longer my friend. I hate her for turning on me! People don’t understand me and they don’t know what I am going through! I think that Dad has even paid some of my friends to tell him things about me. Everyone is against me!!! I can trust no one!! Ever! What I need is money. If I can get out of this house, then what my father thinks or does will no longer matter. He cannot have me trapped in this house forever. I must seize the moment! I must seize the day! Carpe diem.

Her four years of high school Latin classes proved useful to her now. Kate stared at the last words she had written. She looked out the window and then back to her diary. Carpe diem. Carpe diem. Carpe diem. She wrote it over and over and over again. The phone rang again, but Kate kept writing. Carpe diem. Carpe diem. Carpe diem.

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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