(A novel by Susan Overturf Ingraham)
Hastings, Nebraska, February 1950
[Al Cullen says good-bye to his father, Simon Cullen, and talks with his mother, Janie McAlan about her future.]
People stood in nearly every available space of his parents’ living room. Some had cups of coffee or tea in their hands; others had small plates with bits of food — cake, pie, casserole, salad — whatever the person had chosen. Most — both men and women — wore solemn black, fitting for the occasion. A few children held their mothers’ hands and others were outside where they could be more boisterous. Al looked across the room and noticed his mother speaking to someone. Just as he thought he might go over to talk to her, a voice from behind him said, “I’m so sorry about your dad, Mr. Cullen.”
Al responded, as he had already many times that day: “Thank you. I appreciate that.” He did not recognize the man.
The stranger extended his hand and shook Al’s. “Your father was a great man. You can be proud to be his son.”
Al nodded. “Thank you. I am. And you are?” Al’s eyebrows rose to end the question.
“Oh, I‘m so sorry. My name’s Fred Turner. Your father and I enjoyed membership in several organizations together, but I’m relatively new to Hastings. My family and I moved here in 1946, right after the war.”
“Oh, I see.” Al smiled warmly. “It’s good to meet you. I’m glad you knew my father.”
“I am, too. I enjoyed your eulogy for him this morning.”
“Thank you. He was a good father and a good man. He taught me what his father had taught him — to be fair and honest with other men — and he was always a strong supporter of my academic and athletic endeavours. He always said I should be the best I could be.”
Fred Turner nodded his head and took a sip of his coffee. “Sound advice, I’d say. Your dad told me a lot about you. He was very proud of you. Did your parents always have this farm?”
“No, actually, my parents lived in various homes within the city during the years my brothers and I were growing up. But after the war — which must have been about the time you moved here — Dad really wanted to get back to his roots: farming. So he bought this small farm on the outskirts of Hastings. He was born and raised on a farm near Howe, and he loved tilling the soil. He was a Nebraskan through and through. Did he ever tell you of his travels as a youth?”
Fred Turner smiled. “Yes, he did. Your father could tell a story well. But, his stories about growing up on the family farm were some of the best. I always liked the one about the mule.”
Al chuckled and could see his father in his mind, telling that particular story — always with perhaps a bit more embellishment every time he told it. “Yes, that’s a famous one in our family.” Al looked around the room and then turned to Fred. “Mr. Turner, I’m glad to have met you, but I should talk to some other people. Thank you for coming.”
“Of course, of course.” Fred Turner moved on, and so did Al. He noticed that his mother had disappeared into the kitchen, and he found her there, fussing with pies and casseroles — his mother’s way of dealing with her grief.
“Mother, how are you doing?” he asked. “Is there anything I can do for you?”
Janie turned and gave a small smile to her favourite son. She sighed imperceptibly. “No, No, I’m fine, Al.“ She looked down at the table, covered with many plates full of food. She extended her hand over all of it. “My goodness, look at this! So much food! I can’t believe how generous people have been.”
Al, too, was amazed at the quantity of food and the numbers of people who had come. The food seemed symbolic of just how much people had cared about him. “People thought a lot of Dad, Mother. You know that. He did a lot to make Hastings the great place it is — all those years on the school board, the city council, and the Chamber of Commerce. Yet I don’t think he ever missed a single one of my games.” Al paused, memories of his father flooding through his mind. “He did so many good things, and helped so many people. What do you think he considered his greatest achievement? The Museum, perhaps?”
Janie smiled, remembering her husband’s love for that particular project. “Yes, definitely. Your father wanted Hastings to be a good place to live, where Christian values were taught and families felt safe.” Janie paused a moment, staring into space. “Al,” she said, “I can’t believe he’s gone.”
“Mother, you look exhausted. Why don’t you sit down?” Al pulled a kitchen chair from under the table and gestured to his mother to sit down. She didn’t argue with him. Al pulled out a second chair and sat down beside her. A soft muttering sound came from the living room — the sound of many people speaking in low tones — but Al and his mother remained alone in the kitchen. “I can’t believe he’s gone either, Mother, but it obviously happened fast, and at least we know he didn’t suffer.”
“Oh, it happened so quickly,” Janie told her son.
Al looked at his mother and asked, “Will you tell me about it?”
Janie leaned forward in her chair and placed her elbows on the table. “Of course.” She paused for a moment, considering what to say. “We‘d talked about what we might do for his birthday which is coming up in April. He never liked to be fussed over, you know, but he always liked a cake or a pie. He joked about having to put sixty-three candles on his cake, and he figured it might start a fire. I asked him if he wanted to have some people over — some of his closest friends — and he said that he thought he might. But we made no specific plans."
Janie rubbed her left eye and stretched her arms. She leaned back in her chair while Al sat ramrod still, listening to his mother’s every word. “Then he said,“ Janie continued ”that he was going out to weed the garden. I don’t know why I didn’t carry on with my chores, but for some reason, I watched him step out and cross the yard. Maybe I knew somehow, deep inside, that something was going to happen.“
Janie closed her eyes, as though she were imagining the scene all over again. “He leaned up against the fence post while he lighted his cigar, and then he just suddenly fell to the ground. I called out to Simon Junior and he ran out ahead of me, but your father was already gone. It was that quick. I guess that’s something we can be grateful for.” Tears filled Janie’s eyes.
Al reached over to his mother and gave her a hug. “It’s all right, Mother. It’s going to be all right. We’ll take care of you.” Even as Al said the words, he could not imagine how he would help his mother. At almost thirty-three, he was trying to build his career while struggling with a continually difficult marriage. He knew that his mother would not want to live with Kate, and Kate would never tolerate another woman in her home. Yet Al had no faith whatsoever that either of his brothers could take care of his mother either.
Janie shook her head and smiled. “Oh, Al, don’t you worry about me. I’ll be fine. I have dealt with loss all of my life, beginning with my mother when I was only five.”
“I know, Mother, but I want to be here for you now.”
“You have a wife and children. I’m not the one you should be looking after.” Janie paused and then stood up and crossed to the window over the sink and looked out at the open fields of the farm. “The farm is here and if Simon Jr. doesn’t want to keep it, I’m sure I can sell it. I wouldn’t dream of interfering with your life with Kate and the children.”
Al stood up and walked over to stand beside his mother. “I’m sorry, Mother, that I wasn’t here for you when Dad died. I’m glad that Simon Junior was. How is he? Do you think he’ll be all right after finding Dad like that?”
Janie smiled. “Yes, of course, Al. He’s a good boy, a strong boy. He loved his father a great deal, but he took over immediately. He’s young to have to lose his father, but I lost my mother when I was much younger, and I managed. Your father would have said that these events build our character and make us who we are. Simon Jr. isn’t a child, you know. He’s twenty-three!”
Al laughed. “Yes, of course you’re right, Mother. Simon Jr. will be fine. I always think of him as just a kid. What about James? Have you talked to him yet today?”
Al’s older brother had always been the son who worried his parents the most. Artistic and sensitive by nature, James had fought against traditional careers. He had served unwillingly in World War II, and he had returned home with symptoms which he believed were remnants of malaria. Al and James had fought like cats and dogs as youngsters, and they didn’t get along much better as adults. James considered Al to be the perfect goody-two-shoes; Al considered his older brother to be a no-good drifter. To Al’s query about James’s current status, his mother replied, “Oh, he seems fine. He still shakes a lot, and he says sometimes he can’t hold his brush still. But I know that Julie is taking good care of him. I wish they had children.”
Al knew that his mother would never see grandchildren from James and Julie’s marriage because James had once told Al, in a rare moment of brotherly camaraderie, that according to the doctors, he and Julie would never be able to conceive. Keeping his older brother’s confidence, Al ignored his mother’s comment. “Well, I guess I’ll go mingle in the crowd now, Mother. Will you be all right for a while?”
“Of course I will.” She grabbed some hot pads and opened the oven door and removed two apple pies.
“Oh, those smell so good,” Al mused. He resisted the temptation to remain and eat a piece, however, and he wandered back into the living room. Al calculated that fifty to seventy people stood in small groups, filling up the small living room. The doorbell rang often and his brother, Simon Jr., greeted people.
“Al,” someone said behind him, and Al turned to see his Uncle Charles.
“Uncle Charles. Nice to see you.” Of all of his uncles, Al disliked Charles the most. Right-wing and fundamentalist, he tended to push his ideas on everyone else.
“It’s quite a Cullen reunion, isn’t it? Your father would have loved to see all his brothers and sisters and their families here.”
“Yes, he would have,” Al agreed. Out of the corner of his eye, Al could see his father’s chair, where he always sat every evening to read the newspaper. He noticed that throughout the day it had remained empty, almost in honor of his father.
“Are any of your mother’s relatives here? I haven’t met anyone,” Uncle Charles asked.
“No, not many. Mother was an only child, of course, and her mother died when she was young. She was raised by her aunt and her grandmother, and her grandmother died several years ago.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Is her aunt here?”
“No, she wasn’t able to come. I know Mother is disappointed.”
“Your mother is a fine woman, Al. She’s strong and stoic. I’m sure she’ll be fine.”
The remainder of their conversation was idle chatter, and Al found a way to slip away from his uncle as quickly as he could.
Before mingling, Al checked with Kate who was sitting in the living room with her mother. Kate’s parents had come to pay their respects, but Al knew they were not comfortable in the Cullen home. Al walked over to them and spoke. “Kate. Mother. Is there anything I can get for you?”
Al’s mother-in-law responded first, “Oh, no, Al, dear. We’re just fine. How are you doing? I’m so sorry about your father. We always liked him, you know. And how is your mother doing?”
For a moment, Al’s thoughts hung on his mother-in-law’s words: “We always liked him, you know.” What a laugh, he thought. Kate’s parents never approved of my parents any more than they approved of me. What a silly thing to say — and especially to me. But he was not going to be drawn into an argument with his mother-in-law today. Anyway, he thought, I’ve always liked Lizzie, even if she does wear too much make-up and allows her husband to dominate her. And Lizzie was more supportive of our relationship than Lars had ever been. I’ll give her that. “Well, thank you, Mother,” he said to her. It had always been hard for Al to call Kate’s parents “Mother” and “Dad” but Kate had been insistent, believing that by merely using the words the strain between them would evaporate. “I’m doing just fine.“ He completely ignored his mother-in-law’s second comment. “I thought I should circulate a little and talk to our guests. Kate, are you all right?”
Kate lowered her eyes demurely. “Yes, I’m fine, Al. You go ahead and mingle.” Despite Kate’s insecurities, she knew the proper decorum for any social event. Although she might not be comfortable with Al socializing, particularly with women, this was not the time nor the place to mention it. If she observed anything inappropriate, Al knew well that Kate would mention it later. Kate continued, “The kids are outside, playing with some of the other children. They‘re fine, I’m sure. I told Katrina to keep an eye on Allison.”
“Okay, I’ll talk to you later, all right?” Al looked at his wife for reassurance.
“Yes, fine.” Kate smiled and demonstrated her best co-operative, friendly persona.
Al turned away and immediately ran into Judge Swanson, an old friend of his dad’s who had also been an honorary pallbearer.
“Al,” Judge Swanson said. “It’s good to see you. How are you doing? I don’t think I’ve laid eyes on you since your last basketball game at Hastings College.”
Al had always liked Judge Swanson, who had been a frequent visitor to their home. He and his father had shared many a political debate with each other while Al listened. “Yes, it’s probably been that long,” Al said. “Thank you so much for coming. I know Mother appreciates it.”
“Al, I had to come here and pay my last respects to your father. He was the greatest man I ever knew — a man of principle, courage, and intelligence. I shall miss him.” Judge Swanson reached out and shook Al’s hand.
“Thank you.” Al could not imagine what else he could say to such praises of his father. “Can I get you something to eat or drink?” he asked the judge.
“Oh, no, son, I’m fine. It was so good to see you. I see someone across the room I must speak to. Will you excuse me?” Before Al had time to utter a word, the judge was gone.
“Al,” a voice from behind him said.
He turned to see Dr. Silas Spence, the current minister of the Presbyterian Church. “Dr. Spence. It’s good to see you.” Al did not know Dr. Spence well, as he had come to the church after Al and Kate had moved from Hastings. He had met him for the first time that morning at the funeral.
“I hope you and your family were pleased with the service this morning. I wanted it to be something elegant and befitting your father’s stature.”
“It was fine, Dr. Spence. I know my mother was very pleased with it.” Al didn’t really know if his mother was pleased or not. He had not had time to ask her.
“Oh, that’s good, Al. Your father would have loved the duet by Mr. and Mrs. Davis, don’t you think? It was such a lovely choice.”
Al could barely remember the duet. “Yes, yes, it was beautiful. Thank you so much.”
“It’s my pleasure, son.” And, as he grabbed Al’s hand to shake it, he said, “I hope your mother does not mind, but I must leave soon. I’ve got a call to make to another grieving family.”
“Of course. Of course. We understand. And thank you so much for all that you have done.”
And so it went throughout the afternoon. Numerous conversations with old friends and business partners, each reminding Al what a great man his father had been and how much they would miss him.
All day, Al avoided having a conversation with his father-in-law. The animosity between them had not softened with the years. For the sake of Kate and Lizzie, they rarely argued but neither had respect for the other. Al considered his father-in-law a bombastic, arrogant man. Lars never forgave his son-in-law for managing to marry his daughter without his consent. Late in the afternoon, the two men found themselves among a group of several other men. Condolences were extended and, since everyone knew that Lars and Al did not get along well with each other, the conversation seemed stilted and contrived. I’m just waiting for the bait, Al thought. It always comes, sooner or later.
“So, Al.” Lars’s words were slurred and indistinct. “Ya think your father ever forgave me for the railroad car bill?”
Here we go again, Al thought. Al knew what Lars was referring to, but only Lars Jacobsen and his father knew the details. The “railroad car incident” — as it was referred to in the Cullen home — had permanently changed his father’s opinion of Lars Jacobsen. Al bit his lip, and swallowed. Don’t rise to the bait, he thought. The man is drunk and ready to make a scene. He spoke clearly and with no hesitation: “I’m not sure to what you are referring, sir. What railroad cars?”
Even though he wasn’t sober, Lars Jacobsen was also not so drunk that he had lost all of his senses. It was a state he was often in — enough buzz to take away the discomforts and pains of life but not enough to cause him to make foolish mistakes. He looked at his son-in-law and smiled. You know exactly what I’m talking about, you little prig, he thought. Trying to play it coy with me, are you? He was not willing to let it go, not quite yet. “Oh, you know what I mean, I’m sure.” Lars looked Al straight in the eyes and dared him to carry the conversation further.
“Perhaps I do, Mr. Jacobsen, but we’re not going to discuss it here. Not while my mother and brothers and I are grieving. Not while my wife and your daughter are in the same room. And not while your wife and my mother-in-law are here either.”
Al had laid down the gauntlet. It was up to Lars to pick it up. No one said a word. Lars inwardly chuckled. Well, maybe you’ve got more guts than I thought you had, he thought. With a swift change of mood, Lars laid back his head and laughed — a huge roly-poly laugh like Santa Claus gives on Christmas morning. “That’s good, Al. Oh, that’s very good. I admire you. Yes, you’re right. We’ll not talk about that now. But some day we will, won’t we?”
With the challenge left hanging in the air, Al turned from the group and crossed the room. I wish I never had to speak to that man again, Al thought. The tense moment was over, and the afternoon soon disappeared.
By eight o’clock, many guests had left, and the children were tired and weary. Kate and Al had agreed to stay with Kate’s parents who had plenty of room for their large family, so they gathered the children together and got them into the car. Each said good night to Al’s mother and promised they would return in the morning for a final good-bye, but they would have to leave for home by noon the next day. Al had to get back to work, and the children, except for Allison, had school.
When they got to Burlington Avenue, little was said. Al did not tell Kate about his conversation with her father. They bathed the children and got them into bed. Afterwards, they spoke briefly to Lizzie and went to their own bedroom — which had once been Kate’s bedroom as a child — and wearily crawled into bed.
“That was quite a day. Are you all right?” Kate asked her husband, as she lay on her side with her hand under her pillow.
“Yes, I’m fine. It was a rough day, though. I’ll miss my dad, you know. He was a good man.” Al lay flat on his back, staring up at the ceiling.
“Yes, yes, he was.” Kate began to drift off.
“A lot of people told me today what a good man he was.”
“Yes,” Kate mumbled, and then she seemed to be fast asleep.
But Al couldn’t fall asleep. He wondered if he could ever be the man his father was. God knows, I’ve certainly tried. I’ll miss him for the rest of my life. Images of his father raced through his mind, and he went over again the many stories his father had told him when he was a child. In the early hours of the morning, he finally fell asleep.
- Continue to Chapter 26.
- 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.