Family Legacies Chapter 20

(A novel by Susan Overturf Ingraham)

Pauline, Nebraska, September 1937

[Forced out of her home by her father, Kate Jacobsen quits college and gets a teaching job.]

Kate sat at her desk at the front of the classroom and stared at the empty desks before her. The children had left forty minutes ago, and the room no longer echoed with their voices, footsteps, or laughter. Two piles of children‘s booklets lay before her — those that were marked, the smaller pile, and those that were not, the taller pile. The dark, grey skies she could see through the window foreshadowed the coming winter, but the early September temperatures still reached above freezing marks, so it was unlikely to snow. Kate put her red marking pen down and stood up, feeling a need for a stretch. Her mind wandered back through the day — a good day, her first day as a teacher. Still, she felt very tired, and she thought she might be getting a headache; she hoped it would not be another migraine.

She still had things to do, so she remained in the quietness of the room. The children were wonderful, she thought; I‘m going to enjoy working with the first four grades. Her head seemed to almost burst with ideas of what she would do tomorrow, and she still had to finish the marking. She grabbed a broom and began sweeping the floor, a requirement of her contract, shoving aside each row of desks as she swept and then replacing them as she began the next row. Next, she dusted the shelves and got the wood ready for the morning’s fire. As she worked, her thoughts naturally drifted to “the situation,” as she and Al had come to call it long ago.

She had never imagined that this year — 1937 — she would already be teaching. Instead, she had expected to be in her junior year at Hastings College. But her father, one night last spring, had changed her entire life in one brief moment. To this day, Kate still didn’t understand the animosity between her father and Al’s. “Simon Cullen and I are enemies,” her dad always said. “Al Cullen is just like his dad and he’ll never be able to support you.” Neither she nor Al could have predicted the vehemence with which her father would oppose their relationship.

Kate finished sweeping and returned to her desk, sitting down a little wearily, continuing to recall what had led her to this classroom. Kate had not given in to her father. She had watched him bully her mother, her brother, and his business partners. She had seen him slap and hit her mother; she had sworn that she would never let him treat her like that. She also knew that it was wise to fear him — he was a formidable opponent.

Kate shook her head. Poor Al, she thought. He never could figure out why Dad hated him so much. Al had tried several times to talk to Mr. Jacobsen, but every single conversation ended with Al retreating in the face of false and venomous accusations.

To avoid her father’s wrath, Kate and Al had played a continuous game of hide-and-seek since they started dating in high school — meeting at friends’ homes and always letting Kate walk the last block home alone. We thought that Dad would give in, didn’t we? Kate asked Al in her head. In time, I thought Dad would come around. “Love conquers all,” Kate said out loud. And then she laughed because it was such a lie. They had thought, in time, that their parents would accept their desire to marry and they had even made a plan: they would marry in late September of 1939, after she had passed her twenty-first birthday. Her father’s permission would no longer be necessary. But they had not reckoned on the power struggle that would ensue between Kate and her father, and neither of them had realized how far he would go to get his way.

Kate could not concentrate on the booklets she needed to grade. She stood up and walked to the window. Staring out at the prairie landscape — the same one her mother and grandmother had seen — she began talking to herself, a habit which developed over the years: “Oh, why on earth can’t Dad see Al for the good person he is? I hate him so much!” She hit her fist on the pane of glass, startling her, and calming her down. She turned and sat down in one of the children’s seats — for a fourth grader.

Two incidents had occurred just a few weeks apart, and they served as the catalyst for Kate’s current situation. She remembered the first incident quite well. It had occurred last spring as Kate was leaving for class and then a trip to the park to see Al. Her father had not believed her lie that she was going to join some friends, and he had banished her to her room. She had been forced to stay there for several hours, while Al waited anxiously and fretfully at the park, unable to reach her by phone and assuming that she had probably been discovered by her father but not knowing her fate. It had been a horrendously difficult afternoon.

In May, after a long church choir practice, Kate had come home to find her father sitting on the living room couch sullen, angry, and drunk. Al had left her a block away from her home, as usual. Her father immediately demanded to know who she had been with. Perhaps without realizing the final consequences of her actions, Kate had instinctively snapped back: “I’ve been at choir practice and, yes, Al Cullen was there, too. Al's a good man,” she argued, not for the first time. “He’s a lot of fun to be with. But I wasn’t with just him anyway.”

“Yes, you were!” her father had bellowed. “You’re always with him! I know all about your lying and sneaking around. Don’t you lie to me now!”

Kate — recalling the moment again now — had tried to remain calm, but her heart pounded and her palms sweated. Tired of his games, she had just wanted her father to accept Al and let her move on with her life. She had stood her ground. “All right, Dad. I won’t lie to you ever again. But I’ve not lied to you tonight. I did go to choir practice and Al was there. Do you hear me?” Her voice began to rise just slightly. “I was with Al. We were at choir practice.” She repeated herself, hoping that by doing so, her point would be better made. “But there were lots of other people there,” she said. “We were never alone at practice, so nothing could happen. Let this go, Dad.”

Lars Jacobsen was never willing to let someone else get the better of him. “Letting go” was not in his vocabulary. He spoke again, this time louder than before. “I don’t believe you. You’re a little slut, aren’t you? No daughter of mine is going to behave like that!”

“I‘m not a slut!” Tears began to fall down Kate’s cheeks and she pulled her arms around herself. Stomping her foot, she said, “I am not a slut. Al is a good man. I went to choir. He walked me home. That’s all. That is all!“

“Well, maybe you went to choir, but you were together afterwards, weren’t you?” Kate could still see her father in her mind, glaring at her, his eyes not flickering. He had set his glass down on the table beside the couch and he had stood up and walked towards his daughter.

Kate could still feel the heat of his anger, but she had refused to back down. “Yes, Dad, we were together after the practice. I just said that. We walked over to Heartwell Park and we sat on a bench and talked. Then, he walked me home. That’s it, Dad. Nothing else happened. Al Cullen is a gentleman, and he wants to marry me.”

Kate’s father sneared and stumbled slightly, moving closer to Kate. “Marry you?” he laughed. He had lifted his finger and pointed it at Kate’s face. “That young man will come to nothing. He can’t possibly take care of you like I have.” He paused and leaned on a nearby chair for support. “Are you crazy, girl? What’s gotten into you? Al Cullen is not for you! I’ll never let you marry him! Never!”

“You can’t stop me, Dad,” Kate remembered saying. She had looked straight into her father’s blurry, red eyes. “Not when I’m 21. I can do anything I want then and you won’t be able to stop me.”

Lars Jacobsen roared, “You will not marry that young man! Do you hear me?“ And then he growled, “I’ll see you in hell first.”

Kate had stood her ground. She rubbed her hands together, as though that would eliminate the dampness. She took a big swallow, wet her lips, and, losing control of her patience and her anger, she had yelled at her father: “You will not stop me, Dad! I am my own person and I can do what I want. I love Al Cullen! We wish to be married and we will be! You can’t stop me!”

The slap across her face had come quickly and, even now six months later, Kate could still feel it. At the same moment she had felt the sting, she had heard her father shout, “You little slut! You’ve already slept with him, haven’t you? Haven’t you?” And before Kate could respond, he had roared: “Get up to your room now and stay there! You may not leave this house for a week! Seven days, do you hear me? Seven days! And you will never, ever see Al Cullen again! I’m going to put a stop to this once and for all. I’ll send you away if I have to, just as my father sent me away. You’ll go to live with my cousin in Chicago. You’ll not win against me, young lady!”

As she thought about it now, Kate still felt her cheeks grow hot and the tears well up behind her eyes. She remembered that, for a brief moment, she had wanted to take it all back, to tell another lie, to go upstairs, and continue to hide everything from her father. But some inner voice told her that there would be no return from the stance she had taken that night. So, she had stood her ground. Her voice taut and angry yet amazingly calm, she said to her father, “I’m not a slut! I’m a good person. And Al and I love each other. He’s a good man, a better man than you! We’ll succeed with or without you. Wait and see. You can’t stop us!”

Despite her strong words, Kate had felt her knees grow weak. Her father glared at her, standing not more than two feet away. She was sure that he would hit her again. The veins at his temples bulged and she could hear his shallow breathing. However, in a controlled, calm voice he spoke to her again, and his words were not the words she had expected: “I’ve had enough of this. You’ve disgraced this family. I’ll no longer support you. You’re no longer my daughter. Pack your bags and get out. Now. You can return when you’ve agreed to keep Al Cullen out of your life forever.”

At first, Kate had not believed him. Her father had threatened to send her away to relatives, but he had never told her to get out. She had no way to support herself and he knew it. To leave home meant her chances of finishing college were destroyed, never mind what might happen between her and Al. She realized her father was determined, yet she saw this precipitous event almost as a relief. She was not sure how she would manage — but manage she would. She had Al. She had friends. She had looked at her father and spoke coldly, “All right, Dad. I’ll get out. But let me tell you now: This will not stop me. I will marry Al Cullen, with or without your consent.”

Her father had walked back to the light blue couch, collapsed into the cushions, sighed deeply, and uttered the last words she would hear from her father for some time to come. “Go, Kate. Get out. Now.”

Kate had moved to the foot of the stairs. She gave him a final chance to change his mind. Her mother appeared at the top of the stairs and gestured to her to come up. Kate quietly climbed the stairs to her bedroom. Lizzie Jacobsen put her arms around her daughter and said: “He didn’t really mean it, Kate. He’ll forget this happened by morning and then you’ll be able to come back. Just pack enough for tonight. I’ll talk to your father in the morning. You’ll be sleeping here tomorrow night, I promise.”

Kate didn’t think her father would change his mind, and she was utterly sick of her mother’s placating. Even if by some miracle her father did relent, she was not sure she wanted to come back. While her mother watched, Kate packed a small bag. She used an extension phone in her parents’ bedroom to call her friend Inella to ask if she could come over for the night. Inella had willingly agreed. When Kate walked out the door of her parents’ home twenty minutes later, her life, and Al’s, had changed forever.

Kate had stayed away from home for several days. Her friends let her borrow clothes and her parents’ friends let her eat at their table. Al supported her with love and encouragement. On the fourth day of her absence, when it was necessary to return and get more of her belongings, she called her mother when she knew her father would be at work.

“Mom,” she whispered. “It’s me. How’s Dad?

Kate’s mother burst into tears. “Oh, Kate, he’s still very angry. He says he never wants to see you again! But he’ll get over it. Just give me a little more time, please, Kate darling. How are you?”

Mother is so weak, Kate had thought. What’s the matter with her? She could not bear to tell her mother what she really thought, so she responded only to the final question her mother had asked. “I’m fine, Mother, but I need some of my things. When can I come over to get them?”

Over the next several weeks, Kate had slowly retrieved most of her things. She moved from one friend’s house to another, and she finished her sophomore year. By the end of the semester, she and Al had devised a plan. First, Kate had needed a good-paying job. She had worked after school in Mr. Goldstein’s clothing store for years; he was a kindly and generous gentleman. Her father, of course, had been opposed to her working for Mr. Goldstein. “No daughter of mine is going to work for some lousy Jew!” he had screamed at her when she had first told him of the job. Kate had always been glad that she had ignored her father, because Mr. Goldstein had become almost like a father to her. Unfortunately, working for Mr. Goldstein now was not going to be enough; she needed a better job. She applied for and got a teaching position in the small town of Pauline for the 1937-1938 school year. Al, they decided, would continue his junior year at Hastings College. It really did not seem so bad. Pauline was south of Hastings, only about thirty miles as the crow flies, and Al could come to see her on the weekends when he wasn’t playing basketball. The year would go quickly, and in only two years, Kate would be old enough to marry without her father’s consent.

As Kate finished up her first day’s teaching chores, she thought again about her father. She had to admit that finishing her education would be easier if her dad would let her return home. The money she earned this year would be useful. Next year, she was prepared to teach part-time, perhaps work in Mr. Goldstein’s store, live on her own somewhere in Hastings, and go to school part-time until she graduated. She could and would do that if she had to. However, perhaps her dad would eventually soften. She knew that her mother would not give up her fight for Kate’s right to return. Kate truthfully was not sure whether she wanted her mother to win, and she feared any “conditions” that might be imposed upon her if she did. With such violent and determined opposition from her father, Kate had been forced to become resilient. Even some friends had suggested that she might be better off with someone besides Al. But she would not back down. And especially not now. Not after she had been forced from her own home because of her feelings for Al. Hell would freeze over before she would ever give up this man just to please her father.

As Kate began her short walk home, her thoughts were still filled with the events of the last few months. Through it all, Al had been supportive, kind, and loving. He had helped her with her resumé, travelled to Pauline with her to find a place for her to stay, and gone with her to see her classroom for the first time. Only three days before, he had driven her to Pauline and had helped her get settled in her rented room. Afterwards, they had kissed and waved good-bye and, although they were parting, they felt that they were embarking on an important new phase in their relationship. Just before she had left for Pauline, Al had written her a letter which he had handed to her when they had said good-bye. She carried it with her, and she already knew it by heart. It said:

My dearest and only Katy,

This is the end of a very unpleasant period in our lives, mixed with the most exotic pleasures. I am sorry because it marks the end of our youthful school days. I think of the joys that we have had and I also think of the joys that we might have had, if only things had been a bit more favorable to our association. However, I am not going to weep over our lost youth. We have much joy ahead of us, for we are just coming into our prime.

Our new era announces to the world that we are coming of age, a young man and a young woman, ready to take their places in the world. Soon, I will be able to claim you as my own; soon, I may have you and hold you and love you always. We have a beautiful relationship between a lovely girl and an earnest boy.

I love you, Katy. I say so now and I’ll say the same, the same, fifty years from now. You’re the finest girl I’ve ever known. You’re beautiful in mind and body and I love you, respect you, and admire you. May I always be worthy of such a girl as my Katy.

Love,

Al

As Kate went over the words of the letter in her mind, she picked up the students’ papers and notebooks, grabbed her light coat, and locked the school, since she was the last to leave. She trudged along the sidewalk, feeling like an alien in a foreign land, but the words in Al’s letter rang through her head. I will get used to this routine, she told herself; my days will be long and busy. I must count my blessings: it‘s good to be away from Dad. I can and will be a good teacher, and I will earn $500.00; I can save for next year’s college tuition.

She reached the white frame house, belonging to Miss Jones, and let herself in through the side door with a key. Putting her books and papers down on the small chair near the telephone table, she noticed a letter addressed to her: Miss Kate Jacobsen, Pauline, Nebraska. The return address was 2415 University Avenue, Hastings, Nebraska. Kate was surprised. This was not from Al. This was from Peter. Peter Evans. It‘s odd that he has sent me a letter, she thought. But she knew that Peter had always been fond — very fond — of her. She opened the envelope, written and postmarked the same day — September 5, 1937. She read through the letter twice. She wished it had been a letter from Al. However, Peter had always been kind to her and she appreciated his thoughtfullness. She knew that, if she snapped her fingers, Peter would come running and he would be serious competition for Al — and perhaps, she thought momentarily, he would be someone Dad would approve of. But Al had her heart; she knew that they were destined to be together. She decided that the letter from Peter was just good for her ego — she had more than one gentleman admirer and when you are only nineteen, a girl can’t be too quick to drop everyone from consideration. Maybe, too, it was a way to make Al jealous. She decided to keep the letter — for now. She folded it up, replaced it in the envelope and went to her room. She retrieved her diary, hidden under the mattress, and placed the letter inside it where it would be safe from prying eyes. As she sat down in the chair and took her shoes off, there came a knock at the door. She had not heard Miss Jones approaching and she thought: I’ll have to get used to that.

“Kate, dear, is that you?” Miss Jones asked. “I thought I heard you come in.”

“Yes, ma’am, it’s me.”

“Oh, that’s good, dear. Did you see the letter for you?”

“Yes, I did, thanks.”

With the door between them still closed, Miss Jones added: “The bathroom’s free now, dear, if you wish to use it. Supper will be on the table in about half an hour. I hope you can join us. I want to hear all about your first day of teaching.”

“Yes, Miss Jones, thank you,” Kate replied. “I’ll be there.”

Kate listened to Miss Jones’s footsteps as she walked back down the hardwood floor. She did not know Miss Jones well yet, but she liked what she had seen so far. Miss Jones had never married and now took care of her elderly, ill mother. Her father had died a few years before and left them plenty of money, but Miss Jones liked to supplement the income by renting out the room.

Kate turned and looked out the window. Daylight was gone, and she was tired, but she still had work to do to be ready to teach the next day. She needed a little rest, then dinner, then work, then sleep. Her head still ached, but not too badly. She thought she could make it through the evening. Her first day as an independent young woman was almost over. She laid down on her bed without removing her clothes and stared at the ceiling. She felt a little dizzy and weak, and her heart was beating a little more rapidly than usual. Still, she felt calm and confident. She had done it. She was here, independent! A teacher! How about that, Dad? she thought. You didn’t think I could do it, did you? Well, you were wrong. Very wrong.

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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