(A novel by Susan Overturf Ingraham)
McCook, Nebraska, April 1948
[Nine years later, and four babies to raise, both Kate Jacobsen Cullen and Al Cullen struggle with finding happiness in their marriage yet still haunted by the past.]
Kate sat in the waiting room of her doctor’s office and randomly flipped through pages of a magazine. She felt butterflies in her stomach and thought a headache might be coming on. Her hands shook and her palms felt warm and sweaty. I wish I had never promised Al that I would do this, she thought. The minutes ticked by. Several patients arrived, went in, and came out. Kate wondered why her name didn’t get called. Everyone’s going in but me. They’ve forgotten me. This never happens to anyone else. Just me. She stared at the pages of the magazine but she saw nothing.
She glanced around the room. There were several women with children, one man in a business suit, and five women like herself — alone. Kate looked down at her dress: it was a pretty one with bright yellow flowers on it. Perhaps it’s a bit too showy, she thought. The doctor will think I’m flirting. She shook her head and looked at what the other women were wearing. Everyone else had dark colors: blue and black. Oh, no, I shouldn’t have worn this dress. She lifted her hands to her hair and patted it down. She could feel the waves in the back and on the sides. I hope my hair looks all right.
“Mrs. Cullen?” The nurse’s voice interrupted Kate’s thoughts.
“Yes,” Kate said, as she stood up and followed the nurse down the hall and into a small examination room.
“And why are you here to see the doctor?”
“That’s private,” Kate said sternly. “I’d like to tell him about it.”
The nurse frowned. “You can tell me anything you wish, Mrs. Cullen. I won’t tell.”
“Thanks, but I’d rather tell the doctor.”
The nurse shrugged her shoulders. “Very well, Mrs. Cullen. I’ll just leave your folder here for Dr. Hickman, and he can talk to you.“
“Thank you.” The nurse closed the door and Kate took a seat on the only chair in the room. Fifteen minutes passed while Kate looked at her watch repeatedly and paced the room. Where is he? she thought. Why do people always ignore me?
As the thoughts went through her mind, the door swung open. “Good morning, Mrs. Cullen,” Dr. Hickman said cheerfully. “How are you today?” Since Kate was sitting in the only chair in the room, he rolled a small stool around from the end of the examining table and sat on it, facing Kate directly. Dr. Hickman wore a white coat, neatly cleaned and pressed, over a pair of brown trousers and a white shirt and tie. His stethoscope hung around his neck and pens were attached to his pocket. Kate had noticed his diploma from the University of Nebraska School of Medicine, Class of 1946. He was probably the same age as Kate: about thirty.
Why do you have to be so damn cheerful? she thought, but she said: “My husband urged me to come and talk to you.”
“What’s the problem?” Dr. Hickman gave the appearance of caring, perhaps due to his youth. Kate had been in his office no more than twice before.
Where to begin? Kate thought. A secret marriage for fourteen months. Then, the stressful day of ending the secret and an attempt at normalcy. She had earned her BA; Al had earned his Masters. Her life could be reduced to numbers: six homes in six towns in eight years. Four children in six years: Katrina, 8; Sarah, 6; Michael, 4; Allison, 2. Difficult pregnancies, the war years, housing shortages, poor medical and dental care. Kate’s grievances went on and on.
“I really don’t know where to begin.” Kate sighed and looked down and folded her hands in her lap. I should never have worn this dress, she thought. She sighed and looked at the doctor. “Life has been difficult for more than a decade.” She glanced at a small window in the room. “Can you cover that window?” she asked Dr. Hickman. “I don’t want anyone to see me.”
“Certainly.” Dr. Hickman stood up, reached over a small counter, and pulled a small white curtain over the window. He sat back down. “Does that make you feel more comfortable?”
Kate looked at the window. “It doesn’t really completely cover it, does it?”
“It will be fine,” the doctor said, in his most reassuring voice. He smiled and looked at Kate. “Go on. What is it you wanted to tell me?” The doctor acted as if he didn’t have any other patients; Kate was surprised that he was willing to listen.
“I’m tired. Very very tired.“ Kate crossed her legs and leaned back against the chair. She looked stiff and uncomfortable. Her hands clutched her purse as though someone might try to steal it.
“Well, four children in six years isn’t easy on a woman,” the doctor said.
“Yes, I know that.“ Kate felt like rolling her eyes. This doctor isn’t going to know how to help me, she thought. They never do. Still, she went on: “It’s more than just the children,” she said. “I’m at home all the time. My husband is away all the time. I’m lonely. I’m nervous. My husband and I argue a lot.”
“What do you argue about?” As he spoke, Dr. Hickman turned to the counter and picked up a pad of paper and a pencil. He looked poised to take notes.
“What are you going to write down?” Kate asked.
Dr. Hickman put the paper and pencil down. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you feel uncomfortable. Let’s start over. What do your husband and you argue about?
“Everything. He spends too much time at his job — he’s a professor at the junior college. There are several young women who work in his office. I’m afraid he’s having an affair.”
The doctor raised his eyebrows. “Why do you think that?”
Kate smirked. “It’s so obvious! He’s always telling me about his students and the women he works with.”
“Why would that mean he was having an affair with any of them?” the doctor innocently asked.
“Because that’s what men do!” Kate said vehemently. She shook her head and pointed her finger at him. Her heart pounded. Doctors don’t know a thing! she thought.
Dr. Hickman could see the anger and even the fear in Kate’s eyes. Although not trained in psychology, he had an interest in human behaviour, and his job often required him to make decisions about people’s mental and emotional condition. Momentarily he wondered if he might have to order Kate Jacobsen to some sort of mental health care institution, but he needed more information, so he asked: “Why do you say that?”
How much do I want to tell you? Kate wondered. Can I trust you? She hesitated for only a few seconds, and then said, “Because it’s true!”
“Do you think that all men have affairs, Mrs. Cullen? Even if they’re happily married?” Dr. Hickman remained distant from Kate on his stool. He sensed it would be unwise to get too close to Kate. He kept his arms folded across his chest.
“Yes. No. I mean, I don’t know. I don’t know if my husband is happily married!” Kate’s chin trembled a little. She twirled her thumbs and bit her lip.
Dr. Hickman observed her actions. Go slowly here, he thought. He maintained his distance. “Tell me more about yourself, Mrs. Cullen. I know you were born and raised in Hastings and you graduated from Hastings College. I know you have four children and your husband is a professor. What else can you tell me?”
Kate sighed. I hate telling this story again. “My husband and I were married in 1938. We eloped because my father didn’t want me to marry Al. Al has his Masters; I have my Bachelors. We’ve lived in six towns. Let’s see, they were” — Kate counted off each town on her finger as she named them — “Saronville, Thadford, Wayne, Beatrice, O’Neill, and now McCook.“
“That’s quite a few. Why did you move around so much?”
“Al was always looking for a better-paying job.”
“And did he get one?”
Kate hesitated. “Yes, he did. Why?”
“I just wondered. If you have moved a lot for your husband’s career, and it’s improved his career, then don’t you think it was worth it?”
Kate stared at Dr. Hickman. But that’s not the point, she thought. “I suppose it was worth it, yes. But we left for other reasons.”
“Such as what?”
“Such as there were people who wanted to harm me.”
Dr. Hickman raised his eyebrows. “Oh? Who would that be? And why would they want to harm you.”
“I can’t tell you that.”
“It’s not safe.”
Dr. Hickman stared at Kate Jacobsen. He felt he was getting nowhere and receiving some very odd comments from his patient. He changed topics: “What happened during the war years?”
“Al taught. He got his Masters. He volunteered for a lot of things. He was gone a lot. He had a fatherhood and occupational deferment, but he still wanted to join up. I wouldn’t let him.”
“He wasn’t going to leave me and the kids, that’s why!” Kate glared at the doctor, as though daring him to suggest she was wrong.
“It must have been difficult for you,” he sympathized.
“Yes, I was miserable. I had two little girls and my son was on the way. I was sick all the time and Al was gone from six o’clock in the morning til eight o’clock at night. And he worked with nearly all women! All day long he was working with women!”
“That bothered you.”
“Yes, of course it did!” Kate‘s tone was derisive. Why wouldn’t I be bothered? she thought.
Dr. Hickman changed the topic again: “How difficult was your son’s birth?”
Kate shook her head. “Very difficult. Breach. Afterwards, the doctor told me I shouldn’t have any more children. In fact, they told me that I shouldn’t have more children after my second child was born.”
“Then why did you have two more?”
Kate’s eyes blazed. “You tell me! Both were a complete surprise! After Allison’s birth, Al had a vasectomy.”
“Don’t you feel that’s a good thing?”
“You don’t want more children, do you?”
“Not really. No.”
“Then why the concern?”
“It’s my duty to have babies and be a mother. That’s what women do.”
“Well, things are changing Mrs. Cullen, and some women do more than just take care of their children. You have a degree, do you not?”
“Yes. I can teach school, if I want to.”
“Why don’t you?”
“I can’t. I tried it for a semester, but it was just too much with four little children.”
“Ah, I see.” Dr. Hickman felt they had still not touched on the real problem. He looked at his watch and realized he needed to move on. Still, his curiosity kept him asking questions. “What did your family do after the war?”
“Al wanted to get back into teaching. He hoped to get his Ph.D. at the University of Nebraska. As soon as we knew the war was over in Europe, Al wanted a better job. I was only a few weeks away from delivering Allison. Al got a job in O’Neill. Do you know where that is?”
“Yes, it’s in the north, near the South Dakota border? In the Sand hills?”
“Yes. It was an awful place. We lived in a terrible home, because there was no decent housing. Al was superintendent of the school system, but there were few children! He got a job here in McCook just as soon as he could. At first, though, we couldn’t find any housing.”
Dr. Hickman nodded. “Yes, after the war, it was tough to find anything. My wife and I had the same problem when we came here.”
Kate went on as though she had not even heard the doctor. “For a while, the kids and I lived with my parents in Hastings. But that didn’t work, so we moved to my husband’s parents’ home.”
“Did that work?”
“A little.” Kate paused to gather her thoughts. “Then we spent the summer in Seward, while Al worked on his Ph.D. Finally housing became available to us in McCook.”
“So is this the best situation you’ve had since you were married?”
Kate considered that question carefully. “Yes,” she said hesitantly, “I suppose it is. But a nice house is not what makes a marriage good and strong.”
“How would you describe your marriage?”
“Troubled. I don’t trust him with other women. I’m alone a lot. I’m tired.”
“Can you do anything about those things?”
“Yes, I can. I can be with him as much as possible.”
“How can you do that?”
“I often meet him at his office at the end of the day.”
“With the children?”
“What would you like your husband to do to make life better for you, Mrs. Cullen? Do you agree that he has to work to make a living for your family?”
“Yes. But I just wish he didn’t work so much. I’m so tired! I never get a break. I can’t sleep at night. I‘m alone so much of the time. We‘ve lived in such terrible places. I’m just so tired. And, anyway, even if I stay with him night and day, there are people who want to harm me.”
Dr. Hickman looked perplexed. Are we now getting to the root of the problem? he thought. “Who is out to harm you?”
“I can’t tell you who.”
“Because they might harm you, too.”
Dr. Hickman shook his head. “This seems strange to me, Mrs. Cullen.”
Kate became agitated. “It’s not, doctor. It’s not! I know what I’m talking about.” She glanced around the room, as though she feared someone might be listening to their conversation. Then she leaned forward and whispered, “It’s all right, doctor. I’ve written everything down. If anything happens to me, the world will know.”
Dr. Hickman stood up and turned to the counter. “Mrs. Cullen,” he said, “I think you just need a little something to calm you down. I’m going to prescribe a mild sedative for you. It will help you sleep. You are really a very lucky person: you have an intelligent husband who provides well for his family and you have four healthy children. What more could a woman ask for?” He filled out the prescription and ripped off the top piece of paper and handed it to Kate. “You get this filled today. I guarantee you’ll be feeling much better in a few days.“
“Thank you, doctor,” Kate said, absent-mindedly, staring at the piece of paper and wondering how it could possibly solve her problems of a philandering husband, too many children to raise, and a community who hated her. She left the doctor’s office, went straight to the drug store, and had the prescription filled. When she got home, she sat down and wrote a small note which said: Al, if I die, check out these pills. The doctor gave them to me. She took the note and wrapped it around the bottle of pills, securing it with a rubber band. She hid it in the bottom of her bureau drawer, underneath her sweaters. She had no intention of taking the pills. Dr. Hickman might be trying to kill me, she thought.
As Kate occupied her time with child care that afternoon, Al left his office early and made his way to the Presbyterian Church, located not far from the college. Just two days before, he had come home to find Kate in another terrible mood. She had been crying a great deal, and as always, it seemed as though there was nothing he could do to make her happy. Al could not imagine what he was going to do. This afternoon, he had decided to go visit the Presbyterian minister, Maurice Brewster. He seemed like a decent sort of fellow, and Al thought that perhaps the good minister would see something that Al didn’t, though he couldn’t imagine what that might be.
He knocked on the door of the minister’s home. Maurice, a man of about sixty, wearing a casual black sweater over a white shirt and dark wool pants, looked mature and wise from Al’s thirty-one-year-old perspective. Maurice led him into his study and took a seat behind his cluttered desk, offering another chair to Al. The small room was the minister’s study, where he planned his sermons and perhaps even prayed. Behind him were floor-to-ceiling bookcases, filled with books of every description, lying on their sides, in piles, and even turned in backwards. Al momentarily wondered how the minister could plan anything working in such disarray.
“Well, Al, what can I do for you?” Maurice asked. “I was rather surprised to get your call.”
Al hesitated. He knew that Kate hated him talking about them to anyone else. She liked to keep their private life private. Al did, too, most of the time. But right now he felt more desperate than usual. He had made up his mind to come and talk to Rev. Brewster, so there was no point in holding back.
Al cleared his throat and leapt in. “Well, Reverend, I don’t know how to help my wife, Kate.”
“What seems to be the problem?” Maurice placed his arms on his desk and leaned forward towards Al.
“She’s always unhappy. Always angry. She’s lonely, and she’s tired, raising four children.”
“Well, being tired seems rather understandable, doesn’t it?”
“Of course,” Al said. He wondered how he would get across to the Reverend the severity of Kate’s behaviour. “Let me try to explain a little. Kate is an intelligent and talented woman, but she grew up under the watchful eye of a tyrannical father who drank too much, beat his wife, and had affairs with quite a few women in town. He didn’t approve of our marriage and so we had to elope.”
“Well, that must have been difficult,” Rev. Brewster replied. “But that’s all behind her now, isn’t it?” The minister leaned back in his chair and smiled as though he had come up with the perfect solution.
Al shook his head. “In a way, yes, I suppose. But in a way, Dr. Brewster, no. Kate believes all men are like her father. She doesn’t trust me to be faithful to her. She‘s afraid I’ll start drinking. She thinks when I don’t come home on time that I must have been with a woman.”
Rev. Brewster chuckled, making it seem as though they were talking about a frivolous subject. “Well, I’m sure that every woman does that to some extent. Surely you can just assure her that you are faithful?” Rev. Brewster looked at Al as though this were the simplest of questions. Al almost started laughing out loud, but he didn’t.
“I’m afraid not. Nothing I say or do changes her confidence. She doesn’t trust anyone, and she constantly worries that others will harm her or our children.”
“Hmmm,” Maurice responded. “That doesn’t sound very good. Has she been to the doctor?”
“I’ve asked her to go.”
“I think she might have had an appointment today.”
“Do you think that might be helpful to her?”
“Not really. No. Oh, I don’t know.” Al shook his head and stared up at the ceiling. “I just don’t know what to do any more, Reverend.”
“Do you think Kate would come talk to me?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“Would you be willing to try?”
And there the conversation ended. From Al’s perspective, it had been a useless exercise. Kate’s problems are so complex, he thought. I’ll never find someone who understands.
Al left the minister’s office, knowing that Kate would not agree to go talk to him and knowing that the minister had given him no useful coping skills. He walked home with a heavy heart, knowing that he was late and Kate would be angry. As expected, when he unlocked the door and stepped in, Kate was there, demanding to know where he had been.
Al had learned long ago to never lie to Kate. Since she believed he was lying even when he was telling the truth, he figured that a lie would just get him into double trouble. “I went to see Rev. Brewster.”
“Rev. Brewster. Why?”
“Because I needed his advice. I thought he might help us with our marriage.”
“Did you talk to him about our private lives?”
“Not really, no.”
Their discussion continued for most of the evening, in between preparing and serving supper, cleaning up afterwards, and getting the kids to bed. As the evening progressed, Kate became more upset. Not only had he not told her that he was going to see Rev. Brewster, but Kate accused him of lying about his secretary and the time they had spent together that day. Late in the evening, she said, “I’ve disliked that woman since the day we moved here. Admit it, Al. She’s been flirting with you and you’ve been flirting back.”
After nine years, Al had come to realize that nothing he said changed Kate’s apparent low opinion of his fidelity. It was late, and he was not going to engage in any more argument. “I love you, Kate,” he said, “and only you. I am not interested in anyone else. Now or ever. Please, let’s just go to bed and let this go. We both have to be up early. I have a class to teach at 8:30.”
“I can’t stand this any more, Al. I’m going to take the kids and go to Hastings tomorrow.”
“Don’t be silly, Kate. You need me to take care of the kids, and I love them just as much as you do. Don’t talk nonsense. You’re not going anywhere. And you’re certainly not going to go live with your father!”
Kate remained stubborn. “Yes, I am, Al. I am. I’ve got my own money, and I’m not going to be talked about in McCook as the poor wife who didn’t know what her husband was doing behind her back. No one likes me here anyway. They’re all waiting to see me fail. You’re not going to make a fool of me. Either we leave together or I leave without you.”
“Kate, that’s all such nonsense. People like you a lot, and I adore you. You know I do. But you have to stop thinking that I’m always looking for someone else. It’s just not true. And no one is flirting with me either.” Al winced when Kate raised up her hand, but instead of slapping him, she touched her forehead and produced a huge, long sigh which sounded as though all air had left her lungs.
"Al, I want to believe you, but I don’t. I’m never sure."
They got ready for bed, and no more words were spoken. Al chose to sleep on the living room couch, while Kate fitfully slept on their double bed in the master bedroom. In the morning, there was little talk between them, but the last words Kate said to Al as he left were, “I’m leaving, Al. Today.” Al turned around to look at her, but she had already closed the door. Did she mean it? he wondered. You never knew with Kate. It would not be the first time she had threatened to leave. He headed towards the college with half of his mind still on Kate‘s threat. He had to teach a class, but he decided that afterwards he would go home again.
As Kate closed the door she thought, the irony of it all. Here I am, nearly nine years married, four children to care for, and I must return to the protection of my father, the one person who told me that I would regret the day I married Al Cullen. Kate reached into the bottom of the closet and dragged out a large suitcase, big enough for a few clothes for her and the children. Kate blamed almost everything on Al: If he weren’t so good looking, if women didn’t find him attractive, if he hadn’t been so patriotic, if he were home more often, if he helped her with the kids more, if he helped around the house more, if he showed her that he loved her.....if, if, if. When she ran out of reasons for her unhappiness, she would go back in time: if they had not gotten married, if she had chosen Peter instead, if she had listened to her father, if she had listened to her mother, if she had waited to get married....if, if, if.
Kate had once made the mistake of calling her mother and telling her of her terrible loneliness. But Lizzie had not been sympathetic. She had told Kate — just as Mary Donohue had once told her daughter Lizzie — that Kate had chosen Al and she must live with that choice. She had said to her daughter: “That’s what I had to do, Kate, and that’s what your Grandma Jacobsen had to do. This is a woman’s lot.”
Kate wasn’t sure she agreed with her mother or grandmother. Things are different now, she thought. Women can be independent. They don’t have to stay in a loveless marriage. She began to pack the suitcase, certain that her actions would bring Al to his senses.
“Katrina!” Kate called. A moment later, nine-year-old Katrina entered her parents’ bedroom. “Katrina, tell Sarah that you and she are not going to school today. We’re going to take the train to Hastings. I need your help. Is Michael dressed yet?”
Katrina, excited about an obvious change in her day, responded quickly. “Yes. He’s in his room. I’ll go get him.”
“Good, but wait here. I need your help.” Kate pointed to the suitcase and said, “Carry this to the door for me and I’ll make sure Allison is ready. Move along now. Let’s go.”
Within minutes, Katrina, Sarah, Michael, and Allison were walking to the train station, but Katrina was slowed down by holding on to Allison while Sarah held Michael’s hand and Kate carried her purse and suitcase. They reached the train depot within twenty minutes. Kate looked back continuously, wondering if Al might follow them but he was never there.
At the depot, Kate marched up to the ticket booth and requested tickets for her and her four children. “We want to get to Hastings as quickly and as cheaply as possible,” she said.
“That’ll be $1.00 for you, ma'am,” the ticket agent, an older man, said, “and $.25 for each of the little ones. $2.00. You’ll be riding in a coach car with others. Private rooms cost more, of course.”
Kate frowned at the realization that her ticket was four times more expensive than each of her children’s but she reached into her purse and pulled out two one-dollar bills. She always knew that her secret savings would come in handy — and it had. The man took her money and stamped “PAID” on five separate tickets which he then gave to her. Pointing to a turnstyle at the left he said to Kate, “Just take yourself and the children over there and give your tickets to the porter. He’ll get you on the train right away. They’ll be leaving soon.”
“Come on, children. Let’s go.” As Kate picked up Allison, she was followed by three tiny youngsters, each one slighter taller than the next. The porter took their tickets and assisted them with their bag as they boarded the train, settling down at two seats which faced each other. The children were excited and, as soon as the train moved, they shouted and screamed. The train slowly gained speed and Kate stared bleakly out the window at the familiar Nebraska landscape. Just as her father-in-law, Simon Cullen, had once ridden the train home to Hastings, a little bit daunted by his experiences in the “outside” world, here was Kate, running away from Al and heading home to Hastings, too. Simon Cullen, however, had a happy ending to his train ride. Kate had no idea how her ride would end.
The train moved along quickly and Kate faded into a daydream. Within moments, however, it was interrupted. “Mother! Mother!” Katrina shouted. “Look, there’s Daddy!” Kate turned and looked out the window. There, on the road which paralleled the train tracks was Al, driving in their 1947 Ford Tudor, frantically looking over at the train in between moments of keeping his eyes on the road.
So, he does care, she thought. Kate and the children watched Al in the car as he drove beside them, then disappeared as the road turned away or the train turned away, then joined up with them again. The children squealed whenever he came into view; Katrina decided they were having a race and they would probably lose. When they pulled into the Hastings depot, Al was already there, waiting in the main lobby, just as his mother, Janie, had once waited for his father, Simon, to return. The children, unaware of the strain between their parents, ran to hug their father.
After quickly greeting the children, Al looked directly at his wife. “We’re going home, Kate. You and the children are coming with me. There is no way that you are going to live under the same roof with Lars Jacobsen. And my children aren’t going to live there either.”
Kate looked into her husband’s eyes, gazed around at her children, and fleetingly thought to herself that they were all worth fighting for. “All right, Al. I’ll go back with you, but you have to promise me something.”
Another promise, Al thought. No doubt something I can’t possibly agree to. “What is it, Kate?”
“I want out of McCook. I want to get away from these people who dislike us. We need a fresh start. Promise me that you will begin looking for a new job, Al.”
Al didn’t understand it. Kate was always sure that people disliked them or were out to get her. He did not see it that way. He was proud of his work, and he felt people thought he did a good job. He enjoyed the social life they had at church and at the college. His efforts, however, were never enough for Kate. Despite his growing belief that no matter where they went Kate would always be unhappy, he told himself he’d do what he had to do to try to make his wife happy.
“All right, Kate. Yes. I’ll start looking for a new job.”
“Good,” Kate said. “Then let’s go.”
Kate, Al, and the four children got into the Ford coupe and drove home. The next day, Al once again began to search for job openings in post-secondary administration. This time, he thought, it was time to leave Nebraska. But this time, he decided, it would be for good. Maybe somewhere else, he thought, we can raze the demons from Kate’s brain.
- Continue to Chapter 25.
- 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.