(A novel by Susan Overturf Ingraham)
Atwood, Kansas, June 1956
[On an early June morning, Kate Jacobsen Cullen calls her mother-in-law, Janie McAlan Cullen.]
It was early, the light just beginning to take hold. Janie had risen ahead of her husband of three months, but he was now out working in the fields. After six years of widowhood, one of Simon’s older brothers had proposed marriage to her. Also widowed, Charles Cullen had offered Janie companionship and financial security, both of which she welcomed. After Simon had died, she had struggled to make ends meet, working as both a cleaning woman and a companion for elderly clients. It had not taken long to accept her brother-in-law’s offer. They had married quietly (just as she and Simon had done forty-five years before) and only afterwards had she told her sons.
The worst part for Janie was that she had to move from Hastings, which had been her home for forty-five years, to Atwood, Kansas, where Charles operated his 40-acre farm. If a person wanted to get away from the hustle and bustle of life — or any life — Atwood, Kansas, would have been a good place to go. Located in the far northwest corner of the state, the town never had more than about 400 souls living there. It reminded Janie of her rural roots in Illinois. Charles’s farm work was never done, so Janie was free to spend her days as she wished, and often that was in the kitchen baking. On Sundays they went to church, and every day she played hymns at her piano. Charles, with his religious fervor, often wrote scathing letters to the local paper, demanding changes in government or leadership. These letters embarrassed Janie’s three sons who felt that their stepfather/uncle was too fundamentalist. But Janie was glad to have a home. In exchange, she could overlook her husband’s radical religious views.
As was already Janie’s custom, she had risen ahead of Charles and prepared his coffee. He had followed shortly after, picked up his cup, and headed out to do his chores. When he finished, he would return for breakfast which Janie was preparing at that moment. As she worked on that meal, Janie’s mind went back to the previous evening’s phone call from her son, Al, who had wanted to discuss his wife. The problems between those two just never seem to end, she thought. She usually urged Al to find solutions within his Christian beliefs or with help from doctors.
As she mulled over the conversation in her mind, she heard the phone ring and it awakened her senses to the world beyond the kitchen. It was a party line and so she waited to see if the appropriate number of rings — four — meant it was a call for them. One, two, three, four. Yes, it‘s for us, but who could be calling at this hour of the morning? If it‘s Al from New Mexico, it‘s only (she looked at her watch) four o’clock there. Too early to be him unless something very serious had happened. Considering the phone call last night, I suppose anything is possible because Kate‘s always threatening something. Janie hesitated for a moment, fearful of what news the caller might bring. First taking a deep breath, she lifted the receiver. “Hello?”
“If you want to see your grandchildren again, don’t you ever tell Al that he should divorce me! He told me what you said to him! This is none of your business! Stay away! Stop interfering in our lives!”
Janie hesitated, although she recognized her daughter-in-law’s voice. “Kate, Al is my son. He called me, and he was upset. I listened and I tried to help. I don’t want to interfere, but I didn’t tell Al to divorce you.” This was the truth. Janie had never suggested divorce to her son because she believed it was against the will of God. She worried, too, how a divorce would affect the children and Al’s career. And, although she rarely saw her grandchildren now, she figured that if Kate obtained custody of them, she would never see them.
Kate responded to her mother-in-law in deliberately articulated words: “I — said — this — is none of your — business. Your son is not perfect! You don’t know the things I know. Stay away!” And then the line went dead.
Oh, that Kate, Janie thought. She is impossible to please, never mind like. Janie set the receiver down and returned to the kitchen, but she was still shaking from the encounter. Any time she had ever tried to help her son with his troubled wife, it had led to disaster. It would appear that she had again made a serious mistake, even though it was her son who had called her, not the other way around. She had merely tried to be understanding. She was certain that any effort she might make to patch things up now would be a failure.
Janie shook her head in frustration. There had always been a special place in her heart for her middle son. He was bright, athletic, kind, and responsible. He often talked with her, but when it came to Kate Jacobsen, she had had no influence whatsoever. Al’s love for the young woman created an incredible blind spot in his otherwise logical thinking processes. She had feared from the beginning that the relationship was a mistake, and Janie had been helpless to stop it. Despite all the obstacles the young couple faced, they had stubbornly clung to each other.
Oh, she thought, why did the Jacobsens ever have to move to Hastings? From the beginning they had an air about them. They seemed to ooze with arrogance: Lizzie in the DAR and Lars as some kind of a grand pooh-bah in the Masons. Behind the scenes, however, Janie knew the other stories: Lars was well-known for his shady business dealings, including illegal gambling and liquor operations. Many said that the Jacobsen marriage was just a sham, and that Lars had had a long-term affair with his secretary. No surprise there, Janie thought, for Mildred had a bad reputation. Janie thought that Lizzie was a better person than Lars. Under different circumstances, without their husbands being bitter rivals, Janie mused, perhaps Lizzie and I might have been friends. After all, we had both been raised on farms, had come from pioneer roots, and could claim Irish descent. Yet Janie had to admit that Lizzie had a way of putting on airs.
When Al began to show an interest in Lars and Lizzie Jacobsen’s only daughter, Kate, Janie couldn’t stop her son’s growing affections, and neither could Simon. When Lars Jacobsen evicted his daughter from their home, Janie thought the relationship might end. But Al traveled often to Pauline to see Kate while she was teaching, and Janie could do nothing but watch the ill-fated relationship continue. One day, during the summer after Kate’s first year of teaching, Janie placed Al’s clean clothes back into his bureau drawer and her hand touched a piece of paper. To her astonishment, it was a marriage certificate for Kate and Al. According to the document, they had been married in Bartlett the previous month. Not wishing to betray her son, she had returned the document to the drawer and had never said a word.
Kate is disturbed, Janie thought. Truly and deeply disturbed. Over the last eighteen years, there had been many problems, mostly because of Kate’s jealousy and her paranoia. While Al told Janie about some of the arguments, she was certain that her son did not tell her everything. She knew, though, that Kate was often deeply unhappy, and despite Al’s ceaseless efforts to do his best for her, she never seemed impressed. It was all quite difficult for Janie to understand, but she thought that Kate probably needed to be in a hospital.
Janie believed that Al had made a huge mistake, but she had always counselled her son to make the marriage work. She had never told Al to get a divorce, but considering this morning’s call from Kate, Janie assumed that Al had told Kate that his mother had said a divorce was the only answer. In doing so, he had hoped to prove to Kate that he didn’t listen to his mother’s advice. Unfortunately, Al’s plan -- if there had been one -- had placed Janie in the middle of their argument, and used the grandchildren as a pawn.
A tear fell down Janie’s cheek. What can a mother do to help her middle-aged son in his troubled marriage? she asked herself. Nothing. I can do nothing, say nothing. A few minutes later, Charles arrived for his breakfast, and she did not even tell him about the phone call.
- Continue to Chapter 28.
- 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.