(A novel by Susan Overturf Ingraham)
Heartwell, Nebraska, March 1896
[Mary Donohue has given birth to her first child, Lizzie. She speaks with her mother and sister and lives on a rural farm with her husband.]
In her soft, lilting alto voice, Mary Katherine Flynn Donohue sang the “Lament of the Irish Emigrant“ to her week-old daughter, Lizzie, just as her mother had once sung it to her: “They say there’s bread and work for all,/And the sun shines always there;/But I’ll not forget old Ireland,/Were it fifty times as fair.” Mary clasped her daughter’s little hand in hers. Lizzie squirmed slightly, but she soon fell asleep, lulled by her mother’s voice, and Mary placed her child into her crib and covered her with a small quilt made by Lizzie’s grandmother, Mary’s mother. Mary lingered, looking at her daughter.
Once assured that Lizzie slept, Mary tiptoed to the window and looked out. Snow fell in large flakes — a late winter storm. I’m ready for spring, Mary thought. Enough of snow for this winter. She took a deep breath, stretched and enjoyed the quiet stillness. Life really couldn’t be more perfect, she thought. A good husband, a healthy first child (and, with luck, more to come), a place to live, family nearby, and food on the table. What more could a woman want?
Mary, who had come to Heartwell at a young age, lived only thirty miles northeast of Minden, where Katherine Jacobsen lived. Though they had never met, they shared many commonalities. Both were married, both were mothers, each claimed roots in a strong ethnic community, each had moved from Illinois to Nebraska. Both had a sense of humour and a love for life, but there the similarities ended. While Katherine claimed Danish ancestry, Mary Donohue swelled with pride to be Irish. She lived on a farm, though she had grown up in Heartwell, and she had married a man she both loved and respected, not someone cold and distant, like Katherine’s husband, Jacob.
Neither woman — Mary or Katherine — knew Adeline Cullen in southeastern Nebraska, nor little Janie McAlan in Illinois. But, one day, there would be reason for all four to know each other.
Mary moved from the window to stand in front of a large oval mirror, standing on its own. She stood straight-on and then checked her profile. Not bad, she thought. Not bad. At 20, she felt healthy and fit, and, unlike her unknown counterpart, Katherine Jacobsen, Mary had had no difficulties with the delivery of her first child. In that way, she was more like Adeline Cullen.
This morning she dressed in a simple but practical muslin beige skirt and matching blouse which she had made herself. Her long brown hair, fastened into a bun at the top of her head, glistened in the light. She was 5’5” tall, two inches shorter than her husband, and she used her hair to create more height. Staring still at her profile in the mirror, she thought, You can hardly tell that I had a baby. I’m almost back to my regular size in just one week!
Mary put her husband’s freshly washed clothes away. She heard her mother and her sister, Angela, talking in the parlour; after checking on her child one more time, she went to join them. As she entered the room, both Angela and her mother laughed. “What’s so funny?” Mary asked, thinking that perhaps she had not fixed her hair right or had worn something incorrectly.
Angela, who was sitting in a large comfortable green chair across from the matching sofa, spoke first. “Oh, Mary,“ she said, still laughing, “Mama was just telling me of the time Papa tried to fix a meal for himself. It was quite a disaster, and Mother needed a whole day to clean up after him!”
Mary crossed the room and sat down beside her mother on the sofa. “Oh, yes, I’ve heard that one! You’d think a man who could mix powders and medicines could also prepare a meal, now wouldn’t you?”
The three women laughed together, genetics making the sound of their laughter remarkably similar in tone and pitch. Mary’s mother, Josephine, laughed the loudest. A stocky woman, Josephine Flynn had the same blonde hair and piercing blue eyes of her two daughters. She loved a good story, often embellishing it with each re-telling. Her husband, Michael, had died of typhoid fever five years before. It had not been easy to raise seven children on her own, but she had done it. Watching her eldest daughter bring new life into the world had been a great joy.
“Mary,” Josephine said, “I wish your papa could be here today to meet little Lizzie.”
“I do, too, Mama.” Mary reached over and patted her mother’s knee.
Josephine smiled back. “How are you feeling? Everything all right?”
“I’m fine, Mama.”
Josephine’s question went beyond just motherly concern since she was an accomplished midwife and had helped to deliver Lizzie. After her husband died, Josephine had worked as the town’s postmistress, but she had supplemented her income as the local midwife and herbalist, going anywhere with her horse and buggy and in any kind of weather. People didn’t pay her in cash, but she made lasting friendships and often brought home food for her family.
“You let me know if you notice anything amiss,” Josephine now told her daughter.
“I will, Mama. I promise. But, remember, I’m not really new at this. I took care of all my siblings, remember?”
Josephine nodded. “Yes, yes, I know, dear. But I’m talking more about you right now than little Lizzie.”
Mary smiled at her mother. “I’m fine, Mama. Just fine.” She looked out the window. “Oh, look at that snow coming down! Where’s Alex?”
“He’s out in the barn, I think, making sure the animals are safe. Why? Do you want me to go get him?”
“No, no, I don’t need him at the moment. Let’s all have a cup of tea. Do you have time before you go, Mama?”
The three women stood up together, walked to the kitchen, and prepared the tea and toast. A few minutes later, they settled again in the parlour, knowing that little Lizzie would not awaken for another hour or two.
“Mama,” Mary asked. “Tell me again about my grandparents and how they got here.”
“Oh, child, haven’t you heard that story enough?” Josephine shook her head and laughed. Angela and Mary looked at each other and smiled, knowing that their mother loved to tell the family stories, but always protested at first and liked to be coaxed.
“Yes, I have heard the stories,“ Mary said, “but now I have Lizzie and I want to tell her the same ones. I want her to know where she came from and why she should be proud of being Irish. Come on, Mama, Angela and I want to hear it again, don’t we, Angela?”
Angela nodded her head in agreement. She and her sister could have been twins, both in appearance and temperament, though they were five years apart in age.
Josephine began to tell the family history: “Well, your great-great-grandfather on your father’s side left Ulster County in the 1770s to avoid imprisonment for his involvement in an insurrection.“
“There was already a warrant out for his arrest?” Angela asked.
“Yes. He worked on a ship to pay for his passage, apparently worried the whole time that someone would arrest him before he could get to American soil.“
“He came alone?”
“Yes. No wife, no children. But there were other men on the ship like himself who were running from British law. Once he got to America, he fought against the English again in the American Revolution.“ Josephine took a sip of tea and stared at the braided rug on the floor. “He had a hard life, I think.”
“What about the other one?” Angela asked.
“I assume you mean James Burke, your great-grandfather (still on your father’s side) who fled Ireland after fighting in the Rebellion of 1798, and like his father-in-law before him, he did so to avoid going to jail.“ Josephine chuckled. “Your father’s side of the family — 100% Irish — were a rebellious lot. But they came here to make a better life for their descendants.”
“I wish I could have known them,” Mary said, “but I’m proud to know that their blood is in my veins.” Mary looked at her mother. “Now tell us again about your parents, Mama.”
Josephine took another sip of tea and carried on. “My papa and mama were both born in Virginia, but I don’t know much about their families. Neither could read or write. They worked hard, though, and my mother gave birth to nine children. My brother, Thomas, died of black measles, and my sister, Martha Ellen, died of a mad-dog bite. Mama died while giving birth to my baby brother. She was still young but she’d had too many babies and she’d worked too hard. It was because of her death that I wanted to be a midwife. I think Mama might have lived if she‘d had help.“
“You were just seventeen, weren’t you?” Angela asked.
“Yes.“ Josephine paused, as though remembering the day her mother had died. “I had to do a lot of Mama’s work — housecleaning, cooking, caring for my younger siblings. Papa remarried, as you know, and he and his new wife, Mary Ellen, came with your papa and me to Nebraska in the mid 1870’s. I never liked Mary Ellen much. She was cold and unfriendly, but she did take care of Papa’s children. I think that’s the only reason he married her.”
Josephine took a few bites out of her toast. “We came by covered wagon and we filed a timber claim in Antelope County near Brunswick, Nebraska. It was so different than Illinois! So flat and treeless. Heaven only knows why they called it a ‘timber claim.’ Your papa used to say we had enough timber to build half of one wall of a cabin. We tried to make a go of it, but when the grasshoppers came in those huge black clouds and ate everything in sight, we were sunk. We tried it for a second year, but the grasshoppers came again and that’s when we gave up. Papa decided to go back to being a druggist and we moved to Heartwell. You’d been born by then, Mary, and I think it was a good decision for all of us. We would never have survived there.”
Mary nodded her head enthusiastically. “Oh, I agree, Mama. Heartwell has been good to us. If you hadn’t moved here, I would never have met Alex and I would not have Lizzie now. So I’m not complaining!”
Josephine continued reliving her past, as though she had hardly heard Mary. “I felt safer here in Heartwell, too. I’ve never forgotten that day in Pierce County when that Indian came up to my door and insisted that I give him the calico dress I was making for you. I just wanted him to go away, so I gave it to him and thankfully he never came back. And look what happened to your grandpa!” Two years before, the same year Mary and Alex had married, Josephine’s father had been shot by a neighbouring farmer while arguing over the ownership of some horses.
“It never might have happened,” Angela added, “if the wind hadn’t been blowing. That other farmer might have heard what Grandpa was saying instead of shooting first and asking questions later.”
“Yes, I suppose so, Angela,” Josephine said. “But Papa was always stubborn, and remember that he pulled his gun out first.”
“I wish he had come with us when we moved here,” Angela said. “Maybe he’d be alive today.”
“Maybe, but your grandpa did things his own way. It was the Irish in him, I think.”
“But you don’t know as much about your father’s family, do you?” Angela asked.
“No, I don’t know a lot of details. He knew who his parents were, of course, but they had been born in the United States. All he knew for sure was that his grandparents had definitely come from Ireland, like your father’s family.”
“I think they must have been a lot like Alex’s parents,” Mary said. “He’s told me as much as he knows about them. They left in the ‘70s to escape the potato famines. As children, they had nearly starved to death, but they made it. As soon as they were married, they came to Nebraska.”
Mary had met her husband, Alex, after she and her family had moved to Heartwell. Although she had been a town girl and Alex had been a farm boy, they met easily enough when Alex and his father came into town for supplies. Alex had noticed pretty Mary Flynn when she was just sixteen years old. Two years later, they had married. There was a pause in the conversation, each woman thinking something different: Mary, glad that she had found Alex; Angela, hoping that she would soon meet someone she could marry and have a family like her sister; and Josephine, wishing that her husband were still alive to see his new granddaughter today.
The silence was broken by Josephine. “Well, I’d better move on for now, Mary. I need to check on a couple of expectant mothers, and this snow will slow me down. I’ll come back this evening to see how you’re doing.”
“I’m just fine, Mama. You don’t need to do that.”
“I’ll decide that, young lady.” Josephine stood up and headed for the front door. She put on her coat, scarf, and boots and said, “I’ll see you later.”
Angela and Mary both went to the door and waved good-bye. Since there was still no sound from the bedroom, the two sisters gathered together the tea cups and plates and took them back to the kitchen.
As they cleaned up, Angela asked her sister a question: “Are you happy, Mary?”
Mary cocked her head. “What a funny question. Of course I’m happy. Why do you ask?”
Angela waved her hand and said, “Oh, I don’t know. I just wish I could find someone like Alex. I don’t know who I’m going to meet in Heartwell. It’s just so small and there are no young men.”
Mary laughed at her sister, as they washed the cups and plates. “That’s silly. Of course you’ll meet someone. I know Heartwell’s small, but look at our Irish community. There are lots of young men. You’ll find someone. What about that cute boy, Dennis O’Connor?”
Angela grimaced. “Dennis! Oh, I can’t stand him. He’s always acting silly. No, there has to be someone better than Dennis.”
“He’s probably just shy, Angela. Boys find it hard to say what they mean and to tell a young girl how they feel. Anyway, you’re only fifteen. There’s lots of time yet.”
Angela didn’t respond but continued to rinse out the dishes. She knew that her sister was probably right, but she still couldn’t help feeling that she’d like to go out into the world. Her entire life had been spent in Heartwell, Nebraska. It had once been a stopping point for the railroad, and the little town had done well for itself with large Irish, Scottish and German communities helping to make it grow. But when they built another railroad through the southern part of the county, Heartwell struggled to stay alive. That was three years before her father died of typhoid. What with grasshoppers and economic woes and her father’s death, Angela felt as though her family had had a lot of bad luck. “Mary, there has to be a better way to live. Heartwell is so small and nothing happens here. I think I’d rather live in Hastings or Lincoln.”
Mary put a hand on Angela’s shoulder. “Oh, Angela, don’t say that. Life is good here. There’s plenty of food and fresh air. You have a place to live and a family who loves you. And there are so many good people in the Irish community. They’ll be there for you whenever you need help. Do you think you’ll get help from anyone if things go badly for you in Hastings or Lincoln?”
Angela thought a moment before responding. “Well, I suppose not. But I still don’t see what’s so great about being here.”
Mary decided there was no point in arguing with her sister. She’ll figure all of this out in the next couple of years, Mary thought. But she did have a warning: “Now don’t you go breaking our mama’s heart by leaving here. You know what she has always said: ‘Never marry outside your clan.‘ That’s important, Angela. Don’t you forget it. If you go off to Hastings or Lincoln, you might not find a good Irish boy. If you stay here in Heartwell, you’ll have lots of good young men to choose from.”
Angela had thought that Mary would understand her desire to explore new places. Hiding her disappointment she simply said, “Yes, Mary, I suppose you’re right.”
The sisters finished up their cleaning — Angela pouting the whole time — and Angela left shortly afterwards. Now alone in her own home, with her new baby in the next room still napping and her husband outside, Mary had a moment of time to herself. She sat down in the parlour and picked up some mending that needed to be done. Outside, the snowing had stopped; it looked as though about a foot had fallen.
She felt warm, safe, and secure in her home. She felt loved, not just by her husband, but by her mother and her siblings and by those who shared the Irish community with her. What is it about the Irish? Mary asked herself. We stick together, we’re loyal to each other, we love our homeland. Perhaps, she thought, Angela is just too young yet to understand the importance of clan and community, loyalty and devotion to those who are the same as you. We are no different than any other group.
Mary had rarely experienced discrimination, but she had heard plenty of stories from her kinfolk. She felt safer when she was with people of her own kind. The Germans, the Danes, the British, the Irish — each had their own church and even created their own political party. Maybe what binds people together more than anything else, she thought, is their simple history and common suffering. Mary worried about what Angela might do — something that might break her mama’s heart. Leaving Heartwell would be a mistake, Mary thought. She must stay with her clan.
The baby cried in the next room and awoke Mary from her thoughts. She went to the bedroom and stood over her child’s crib. Lizzie, awake and stretching, seemed quiet and content. Mary sat down on the edge of the bed and leaned over the crib’s edge to look at her little daughter. Elizabeth Katherine Donohue was her full name, but they had decided to call her Lizzie. “Oh, little one,” she said, “I have much to be grateful for: a good husband, a beautiful daughter.” Mary picked up Lizzie and held her in her arms. “Your papa is a very good man, you know. He is a successful farmer, a good provider, a loving husband. He says that there is no better black loam than right here on our farm. He says that our land will support all three of us — as well as any other children we have. Some day, Lizzie, we might all be here together with more children and grandchildren. Wouldn’t that be something now?”
Family and Irish community, Mary thought again. With those two things, we’ll be fine. Lizzie squirmed in her arms, and Mary gazed down at her daughter and held her tight. Could there ever be anything more wonderful than holding your own child in your arms? she wondered. No, there could be no other feeling like it. She looked into her daughter’s blue eyes and said, “Thank you for coming into my life. I love you with all my heart and I will take care of you and love you forever.”
Little Lizzie did not respond. Neither mother nor daughter could know then that twenty years later Lizzie would break one of her mother’s and her grandmother’s cardinal rules — “Never marry outside your clan.” In doing so, Lizzie would greatly test her mother’s love.
- Continue to Chapter 5.
- 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.