(A novel by Susan Overturf Ingraham)
Minden, Nebraska, December 1895
[Katherine Jacobsen lives with her husband, Jacob. On this day she gives birth to her first-born son, Lars.]
A breeze of cold December air from the nearby window — opened just a crack — blew over Katherine’s face. It felt like snow might be coming — but her body lay warm and snug under the three heavy quilts her mother and grandmother had made as wedding gifts. Her husband, Jacob, slept on a small cot in the opposite corner of the room, a deference to her and her current condition: her first child would be born soon. She preferred it when Jacob did not sleep with her, and she had decided that after her child was born, they would buy two beds. It is the seemly thing to do after a year of marriage, and — besides, she thought, I will be nursing the child for several months.
Katherine Jacobsen knew the layout of her bedroom, even in shadows, just as Adeline Cullen had known the layout of her cabin eight years before on the day she gave birth for the tenth time. Katherine did not know Adeline, though they lived less than two hundred miles apart. While Adeline helped her husband to work the land, Katherine and Jacob lived in the small town of Minden — one of many which grew up along the railway lines of Nebraska in the 1880s and 1890s. Katherine’s master bedroom — twice as large as Adeline’s tiny cabin — contained a large oak four-poster bed, a green-and-blue oval braided rug, two pine clothes cupboards (one for her and one for her husband) and a small vanity table with a stool and a mirror where Katherine could arrange her hair. Heavy green drapes, which Katherine had made herself, hung from both windows.
Katherine reluctantly lifted the covers and walked to her clothes cupboard; Jacob stirred in the corner. She preferred to dress alone, so she moved quickly before her husband awoke. She lit a small candle and took from her cupboard a long-sleeved, blue housedress which wrapped around her body, covering the growing child within her. She pulled on her stockings and buttoned on her black shoes. She sat at her vanity and brushed her long blonde hair into three parts, braiding them together and tying a blue ribbon at the end. Sometimes she wrapped it around her head, but today she decided to go no further and let the braid hang down her back. She glanced at the mirror, noting in the candlelight what she considered to be her assets — her blue eyes and her high cheekbones. Then she turned in her seat and looked at her profile in the mirror, noting her large abdomen and wondering when she would be thin again. Before leaving, she walked over to Jacob and shook his shoulder. “Jacob. It will be time to get up soon. I’m going down to fix breakfast.”
Jacob moaned an assent, and Katherine left. She slowly descended the stairs — not moving very quickly in her ninth month — and turned left at the bottom and into the kitchen. She had thirty minutes to prepare her husband’s breakfast, and his schedule never varied. She lit the two kerosene lamps on the table, put on her apron over her loose-fitting dress, and tucked a few strands of blond hair behind her ears. Within minutes, she had two eggs cooking in boiling water, and bacon and sausage sizzling in the frying pan. After she slipped two pieces of toast into the oven to brown, she picked up the weekly newspaper, the Gazette, which was folded open to page two at Jacob’s place setting, and turned it to page three. She poured a glass of water for Jacob, and stared out the window as she waited for everything to cook. From her kitchen window, in the growing light, she could see the backyard, the well, and — a block away — another house.
I love this house, she thought. It’s the best thing about my life. But I wonder if it will be enough. Katherine cracked the eggs open and scooped out the insides and mashed them into a bowl. She put the bowl on the same plate with the bacon and sausage and placed it at Jacob’s place at the head of the table. She pulled the toast from the oven and put raspberry jam on each piece, placing them at the edge of her husband’s plate. Just as she finished, Jacob appeared at the door, dressed in his suit and tie.
She rubbed her hands nervously on her apron, glancing quickly at the table to see if all was ready. “Good morning, Jacob. Your breakfast is ready.”
“Thank you.” He sat down, picked up his paper, and began to read while he ate. Katherine turned back to the stove to clean up and also prepare breakfast for herself, her sister, and her mother-in-law; they would eat after Jacob left.
“How are you feeling this morning?” Jacob put down his paper and looked at his wife.
Katherine, surprised by the question, hesitated. “I’m fine. Why do you ask?”
“The baby will come soon, will it not?”
“Do you think the baby could come today?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never had a baby before.”
“Yes,” her husband repeated. Jacob rarely asked how she felt.
“Thank you for asking,” she said, but she could think of nothing else to say.
Jacob nodded and finished his breakfast. When he rose to leave, Katherine followed. Jacob walked to the front door, put on his coat and hat, and picked up his briefcase, which contained the store’s accounting records.
“Good-bye, my dear.” He kissed Katherine on her forehead, opened the door, and left.
To complete their morning ritual, Katherine moved to the living room window, pulled back the curtain, and waved. She would not see Jacob again until he returned home that evening, usually around 8:00 p.m., when he would expect to have his supper ready. Good-bye, Jacob. I will see you tonight, she thought. I know you will spend the day working hard to achieve your goal. One day you will come home and tell me you have bought the business. Even though Jacob was gone from her sight, Katherine held on to the curtain and stared out the window. What will you be like as a father, Jacob? You have determination, intelligence, a good business head, but will you know how to love your son or daughter? Do you have compassion?
Katherine shook her head, as though to remove the thoughts from her head. She turned from the window and stared straight at Jacob's picture of his hometown in Denmark — hanging slightly askew on the wall — but a precious item to her husband. He will always believe that Ribe is the only place worth living, she thought.
She returned to the kitchen to find her younger sister, Marie, already there and setting the table for the three women. “Good morning, Marie. How are you this morning?”
“Just fine. And you?” Marie looked at Katherine’s swollen belly.
Katherine reached her hand up and felt the baby kick. “I’m fine.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes.” Katherine paused. “Marie, I’ll admit that I’m a little frightened.“
“It will be fine, Katherine. Your mother-in-law is here, and I‘m here. We’ll get the doctor here on time. Do you think it might be today?”
“Yes. I think it might be today. And I can’t understand why my younger sister is braver than me.” Katherine stepped over and hugged her sister. They worked together in comfortable silence.
“Good morning.” Mother Jacobsen’s deep voice startled both of the sisters.
“Good morning, Mother Jacobsen. How are you this morning?”
Mother Jacobsen, dressed in black in honor of her late husband who had died ten years before, complained in broken English: “Back hurts. Feet swollen. No sleep. I tired.” She elaborated on her aches and pains in Danish, but Katherine and Marie understood little of it. While they had come to America as very young children and learned English in school, Mother Jacobsen had come when she was in her late 50’s and had learned little English.
The three women ate breakfast in silence. Afterwards, Mother Jacobsen returned upstairs. Both sisters smiled when she left, for now they would be able to talk.
“Katherine, I need your advice.” Marie placed the dishes in the sink and began to wash each plate.
“And what might that be about?” Katherine dried each plate as Marie handed it to her.
“Mother and Father want me to marry Mr. Jensen.”
“And you don’t want to?”
“No. He’s much older than me. I’m only sixteen. I want time to meet someone else.”
Katherine nodded her head. “How old is he?”
“Hmmm. Nine years older. Jacob is three years older than me, and you know that it’s not uncommon to see ten years between couples.”
Marie frowned and stopped washing dishes. “The age difference is just an excuse. I can’t decide if I like him, Katherine.“ She turned and looked directly at her sister. “What did you think of Jacob before you married him?”
Katherine dried another plate and put it away. “I liked him. He was kind. He wanted to marry very soon after we met. Mother and Father said it was my decision, but Jacob was persistent! I suggested the one-year engagement, hoping that I would learn to love him. He didn’t give up. When I finally set a wedding date, I felt an obligation to marry him because I had made him wait so long.”
“But you love him, don’t you?”
Katherine stared into space. “I don’t know. I live in a beautiful house, he has a good job, we go to church, soon I will have a child. It should all be good, shouldn’t it?”
“Yes, but you don’t seem happy. Why not?”
Katherine leaned against the counter for support, and stared at the ceiling. “I don’t know, Marie. It’s hard to tell you what married life is like. Men do things in the bedroom which are not pleasant. I didn’t know what I had to do to conceive a child.”
“What do you mean?” Marie reached up and covered her mouth with a giggle.
“I can’t tell you. You will have to wait until you are married. But, Marie, if you don’t want to marry Mr. Jensen, I don’t think Mother and Father will force you.” Katherine finished wiping down the table. “Let’s finish this work here and then you can keep me company in the parlour, Marie.”
With the clean dishes stacked in the cupboard, the cutlery laid in the drawer, and the table ready for the next meal, Katherine and Marie walked into the parlour. Marie walked over to the fireplace and put on another log which crackled and sizzled as it settled into place.
Katherine picked up her needlepoint and slowly sat down in her soft green chair with extra pillows. “Oh, I’m so tired. And my back hurts.”
“Is there anything I can do?” Marie sat down beside her — in a less comfortable rocking chair with thin cushions — and picked up her needlepoint as well.
“No, just talk with me. We’ll keep our hands busy.”
“‘Idle hands make idle minds.’” Both women quoted their mother’s oft-repeated maxim simultaneously, and then laughed together.
“Are you feeling better today, Katherine?”
“A little. I’m ready for this child to come. First, three months of throwing up every day. Then three months of unwanted contractions. Then two months of bed rest. I hope it’s over soon.”
“It will be.” Marie smiled at her older sister, trying to reassure her.
“What if something goes wrong, Marie? What if I can’t have babies as easily as Mother did? Seven children! I don’t know how she did it!” Marie listened but let her sister talk. “I’m not sure I’ll want any more children after this.”
Marie frowned at her sister’s idea. “Katherine, you can’t have just one child!”
“Maybe I can, Marie. Who’s to say I have to have two or five or seven or ten?”
“No one, of course. But one child? They’d be lonely without brothers and sisters.”
“What if I can’t have another child, Marie?”
“That’s different. You’d learn to live with it, I’m sure. But that’s not going to happen.”
“We’ll see, Marie. We’ll just see.”
Marie put down her needlework and stared at her sister. “Katherine, why are you so unhappy?”
“I don’t know the answer to that, Marie. Jacob and I married too soon, I think.”
“Now, you see, that’s just what I’m worried about with Mr. Jensen. How do you know when you’ve found the right man?”
Katherine stopped sewing. “I honestly don’t know. Jacob is cold and unfeeling. Not unkind, just unfeeling. And he thinks constantly of his work and some day owning his own business. I didn’t see these things before we were married.”
“It’s good, though, that he can take care of you. And you have this lovely house.”
Katherine nodded and stared at her needlepoint. “Yes, I have this lovely house. But, remember, my dear little sister, that having a house is not the only thing in life.” At that moment, the house surrounded her with an ominous, unexpected finality. I feel trapped, she thought, but her sister’s voice broke in.
“I love your house! Jacob built you a strong house.“ Katherine remained silent and Marie carried on: “You have such lovely things. This lovely parlour set for instance,” and she pointed to the lady’s chair Katherine sat in and the matching medallion-back sofa. “You have added your own personal touch: the drapes, the antimacassars for the chairs and sofa. And Jacob bought you that lovely mahogany dining room table and chairs for a wedding gift.“
Katherine shook her head. “Remember, Marie, they are just things. They are not what makes a man and woman happy together. They don’t make a family.”
Marie frowned. “Oh, silly, I know that. But you have a house that any woman would envy. Fireplaces in every room, large bedrooms upstairs, a modern kitchen, a well and privy in the back.”
Katherine laughed. “Yes, we must not forget the privy!”
“Katherine, you know what I mean. We have a life in town that is so much better than for those who live on farms. We have stores and shops, food that comes by rail to us. It’s a good life!”
Katherine leaned back in her chair. She felt the child kick and she hoped that perhaps today her agony would end. “Marie, I understand what you are saying. I should be grateful for what I have, and I am.“
Several minutes passed while Katherine and Marie were lost in their thoughts and working at their needlepoint designs again. “You like Minden, though, don’t you, Katherine?”
“Yes, I do. We have friends and family here. There are many people who are the same as us.”
“I like it here, too. I wouldn’t want to live on a farm.”
“When we moved here from Chicago, I missed my friends and working in Mother and Father’s store. Chicago was big and busy, always something going on.“
Marie shrugged her shoulders. “I missed friends, too, at first, but I made new friends here.”
Katherine looked at Marie. I feel so much older than you, she thought. One year of marriage has changed me in many ways. “It’s good to have friends, Marie, but remember that marriage changes that.”
“What do you mean?”
“Your husband comes first. There’s no time for your friends.” And you don’t know yet that men can be cold and distant. You don’t know yet what men and women do in bed. Katherine sighed. She could not tell her sister everything. Instead, she changed the subject: “The land here is too flat. There are so few trees, and even fewer streams. I know that Jacob misses his homeland.”
Marie had no difficulty changing topics. “Does he talk about Denmark often?”
“Yes, often, though as you know, my husband is not a talkative man.”
“It must have been so hard for him to leave with just his brother and his mother. And he left sisters behind, didn’t he?”
“Yes. Four of them, all married, and some with children. But he and his brother preferred to be free, not soldiers in the German Army. The trip over was dangerous. Terrible weather that made them all seasick.”
“I don’t remember our trip. Do you?”
“Yes, a little. The ship was big, and I saw the ocean once when Father took me up to see it. But we stayed below for almost the entire trip. You don’t remember any of that?”
Marie shook her head. “No, not really. Just some memories of darkness and feeling cramped.”
“It was even worse than that.” Katherine closed her eyes and visualized her one look at the ocean from the deck of the ship before a man came along and told her and her father that they could not be on deck.
“We were fortunate to have relatives here,” Marie added.
“Yes, and that, too, was not something Jacob and his mother and brother had. They came to Minden because it was settled by Danes, and they felt more comfortable in a community where others spoke their language. But they knew no one, and Jacob and his brother had no work.”
Marie smiled. “But it didn’t take Jacob long to find something, did it?”
Katherine rubbed her forehead, as if to ward off a headache. “Yes, he was resourceful, and he soon worked for the farm implement company and then made his way up by proving his worth.“
“I admire your husband, Katherine. He’s a hard worker.”
“Yes, he is. I can’t deny that. You and I were very lucky, though, to have come to America when we were very young. We don’t remember much of Denmark, but Jacob and his mother miss it every day.”
Marie leaned closer to her sister and whispered: “Have things gotten better between you and Mother Jacobsen?”
Katherine looked towards the door, checking to be sure Mother Jacobsen was not nearby. “No, and they probably never will.” Katherine paused. “That’s all I’m going to say about that.” Another pause. “I know Jacob misses Denmark.”
“But he likes Minden, doesn’t he?”
“He does. In fact, he likes it more than I do. There are so many small towns everywhere. Who’s to say one is better than another? Minden is probably better than most. I really can’t imagine what it must have been like for the first people who came here. Flat prairie. Treeless. Many went on, over the Oregon Trail and the Mormon Trail to points further west.” As Katherine finished her words, Mother Jacobsen entered the living room, startling both Marie and Katherine. “Mother Jacobsen, do you need anything?”
“I fine. I knit. Make Jacob sweater.” She went to her chair, picked up her knitting and began to stitch. “How are you?“ She pointed to Katherine’s stomach.
“Fine, Mother Jacobsen.” I wish you weren’t here, Katherine thought. Why can’t I be the only woman in my own home? Why must I share it with you? Mother Jacobsen smiled at Katherine. I wish I could have one day in this house without you here. Katherine felt her face turn red.
“Are you all right?” Marie asked.
“Yes, I’m fine. I just got a little warm suddenly.” Oh, God, Katherine thought, what shameful thoughts. Mother always told me that a marriage survives or fails, based on what the wife does. I must not complain. When the first labor pain hit her, moments after her sinful thoughts, she merely squealed slightly.
“Are you all right?” Marie asked again.
“Yes, I think so. That was strange, though. I’ve never felt that before.”
Mother Jacobsen looked up from her knitting. “You will know when time.”
“Even with the first one?” Katherine asked.
“Yes. Your job to know.”
The next pain, deep in her abdomen, forced Katherine to stand up. “Oh, my. I think perhaps that it’s time.” Mother Jacobsen and Marie put down their knitting and needlework and helped Katherine leave the room and climb the stairs to the master bedroom. Pains, intense and unyielding, shot through Katherine’s abdomen and the baby kicked, as if to say, Let’s get on with it.
The early-morning light flooded through the window of the master bedroom. Oh, Katherine thought, I hope it’s a pretty day for my child to be born. Not a snowstorm! Marie and Mother Jacobsen settled Katherine on the edge of the bed; Mother Jacobsen helped her undress, embarrassing Katherine, while Marie reached for the birthing dress stored in the closet. Katherine breathed shallowly and felt light-headed but she remained conscious. Mother Jacobsen smoothed the sheets, fluffed up the pillows, and assisted Katherine into bed. Marie left to get the doctor and to tell Jacob that his first child was on its way. Mother Jacobsen, too, left and hurried downstairs to start a large pot of water boiling on the stove.
The doctor arrived and stayed, hovering nearby constantly. Mother Jacobsen and Marie came and went. Katherine breathed through each pain and waited for the next...and the next. Sometimes she screamed. Once, Jacob came in to kiss her forehead. Hours passed. Katherine remembered the changing of day to night and then another day and then another, and she watched the growing snowstorm clouds and the falling snow. Pushing became the only goal — not the birth of her child.
Toward the end, they told her later, she became delirious, mumbling incoherently. The baby arrived, while Katherine was too exhausted to realize that it had happened, and Marie whisked the child away. Katherine fell asleep, unaware for three more days of the fears and worries of her family. But despite the doctor’s pronouncement that Katherine would not live, four days after the birth of her son, she awoke to find Jacob at her side, his body slumped over and his head on the bed.
Katherine, touched by this unusual sign of tenderness in her usually business-like husband, asked in a soft voice, “Jacob, where is my child?”
Jacob lifted his head and smiled, gripping her hand. Without a word, he leaped from his chair and left the room. Is it alive or dead? she thought. Is it a boy or a girl? Why did Jacob leave the room without a word about the baby?
Her answer came just a moment later. Marie stood at the door, Katherine’s small son in her arms. “He‘s been waiting to see his mother for three whole days.” She walked across the room and placed the small boy in his mother’s arms.
“Oh, he’s beautiful!” Katherine held her son tightly. She knew at that moment that the terrific struggle had been worth it. Her blonde, blue-eyed son looked strong and healthy. “Are you able to feed him?” Marie asked.
“Of course.” Marie helped Katherine to sit up, though she still felt weak.
“He’s hungry,” Marie said. As soon as Marie could see that Katherine was settled, she left the room.
While Katherine fed her son, she checked out every toe and every finger — just as countless mothers have done before. Maybe, she thought, it has all been worth it. She was happy to see this child. At the same time, she was struck with an ice-cold fear: Can I survive another pregnancy?
As her son took her milk, she said to him, “May you have a good life, my son. America is a good place. We will name you Jacob, like your father. But we will call you Lars, by your middle name, so we won’t confuse the two of you.”
Lars's big blue eyes gazed up at his mother. “Your father will teach you to be successful in business,” she said, “but I will love you and even spoil you. Your father will sometimes be cold, so I will make up for that.” Katherine did not know on that day, of course, that one day Lars would meet and do business with James and Adeline Cullen’s son, Simon. Nor did she know that the little girl in Illinois, Janie McAlan, would have great reason to quite dislike her son.
- Continue to Chapter 4.
- 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.