(A novel by Susan Overturf Ingraham)
Atwood, Kansas, September 1964
[Janie McAlan Cullen dies, and her three sons get together to divide up the estate.]
Al spoke clearly but softly to the congregation before him.
“Janie Byrne McAlan Cullen,” he began, “was totally devoted to her family. Every day when I came home from school, there she would be, wearing a simple but immaculate housedress covered with a white starchy apron, good sturdy shoes, and her hair pulled back into a bun. She would greet me with a hug and a smile. She never failed to ask if I wanted a piece of pie — although she always complained that her pies never lasted ten minutes! — and she would cut the piece for me as though I were the only person in her universe. I would eat it — sometimes with ice cream added — and we would talk. I would tell her about my day and she would listen without judgement, yet her thoughtful wisdom would often be expressed to me in a simple sentence or two.”
Al stopped and looked at the group of people sitting before him in the small Presbyterian Church of Atwood, Kansas: his wife, Kate; his two brothers, James and Simon Jr., and their wives; and his Uncle Charles, his mother’s widower. There were other faces, strangers, but people who had known his mother. Uncle Charles had asked him to speak at the funeral, but he was finding it hard to find the words. He didn’t think that anyone could have had a better mother, but he was not sure he could express that. Still, he carried on.
“Janie Byrne McAlan Cullen was born in February of 1889 in Illinois. She lost her mother when she was only a child of five, and she was raised by her maternal grandmother and her maternal aunt. In school, she achieved academic success and was the first to earn Grade 7 status in her county. She took her teacher training at Dixon Normal School in Illinois and returned to the same schools she had attended to be a teacher.
“In 1909, my mother went to Hastings to live with her aunt and attend Hastings Business College. It is there where she met my father, Simon James Cullen. In 1911, they married and settled down in Hastings where Simon was a businessman for forty years. They were both active members of the First Presbyterian Church. Janie gave birth to three sons.
“Janie was an efficient homemaker, a loving and devoted mother, and a faithful and affectionate wife. She always made callers welcome, and her culinary skills were legendary to family and visitors alike. In 1950, Simon was taken away suddenly and, although grieving, Janie was resourceful in supporting herself. She was employed in Hastings for five years and then married Charles E. Cullen, the brother of her first husband, and moved to her new home here in Atwood.”
Al could see his mother’s coffin just to the right of the podium, a beautiful bouquet of lilies resting on top of it. He avoided looking at it; he could not bear to think that his mother lay inside.
“Death came too suddenly, and all of us will miss her,” he continued. “She’s survived by her husband, three sons, six grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. I'll miss her, but I know that she’s gone to a higher calling.”
Tears came to Al’s eyes. He turned and stepped to his right, returning to his seat beside Kate.
Heads bowed as the minister said a final prayer, and the congregation stirred as the prayer ended. Al and his brothers, his Uncle Charles, and two churchmen, picked up and carried his mother’s coffin out of the church and into the waiting hearse. There would be no graveside burial. His mother’s body would go to Hastings to be buried beside her first husband and Al’s father, Simon Cullen.
Three hours later, most of the mourners and the family gathered at the farm, the house filled with those who had known Charles, Janie, or both. When Al had received the call from his uncle that his mother had died, he had wept tears of sorrow and regret. His mother had been a loving and kind woman, and he could not imagine life without her, even though he was now forty-seven years old. She had always been his mentor through the rough waters of his marriage. Al sat in a chair in the living room and looked at the people around him: his two brothers, their wives, his wife, Uncle Charles, and many strangers. Kate sat in a far corner alone, the tell-tale signs of stress around the corners of her mouth: she slowly moved her lips and talked quietly to herself. Occasionally she shook her head as though relating something quite unacceptable to her ears. He decided he’d better join her.
He crossed the room and sat down beside her. “Kate. How are you doing?”
Kate looked up and momentarily snapped out of her private thoughts. “I’m fine. How much longer do you think we’ll be here, Al?”
Al shook his head. “I can’t leave now. I have to talk to these people. Charles will need some help. And there’s some discussion that we‘ll be dividing up some of mother’s things this afternoon — James, Simon, and I. I know you’re troubled by this, Kate, but perhaps you could go in the kitchen and help with some of the food.”
Kate grimaced. She was not interested in helping in the kitchen; however, her years as a hostess at her mother’s parties and then at her own gave her confidence to carry on. “All right, Al. I’ll go. But, please, can we be out of here by five o’clock?”
“I’ll try, Kate. I’ll try.” When Kate frowned, he added, “I said ‘I’ll try.’ That’s the best I can do.”
Al watched Kate retreat to the kitchen, hoping that she would be happier washing and cleaning up than trying to make polite conversation with strangers. Since Kate’s breakdown just five months before, Al had been more nervous about her behaviour, particularly in public. She was less inclined to hide her unhappiness when she was with others, and that could make for some very awkward moments.
The next two hours sped by as Al spoke to numerous people, thanked them for coming, and reminisced about his mother. Now and then, out of the corner of his eye, he would see Kate talking to someone or picking up empty tea cups and plates. Late in the afternoon, Charles approached him. “Al, your brothers and I would like to meet together in the parlour. I have some things that belonged to your mother, and I’d like to have each of you take them. If you go on in, I’ll get the others and join you there.”
“Of course, Charles.” Al immediately turned and went into the small parlour where he knew his uncle often sat at a small desk and wrote his fundamentalist Christian tirades for the newspaper. I don’t like even being near the desk where Charles writes those articles, he thought. I’ll be very glad when this is over.
James opened the door first and broke the silence with a question: “So what are we doing here, Al?” He did not extend any warm greetings. “Dividing up the spoils?”
“Don’t be crude, James.“
James raised his arms in mock surrender. “Sorry, little brother, I can see we still get on each others’ nerves.”
Al cleared his throat and gained control of his emotions. “Charles has some things for us to look at that belonged to Mother.”
“It’s more likely that Charles has some junk of Mother’s to give us, isn’t it?”
“It’s not junk!” Al felt his temper rising. “Mother had some nice things. She wasn’t rich, as you know, but there’s the diamond engagement ring and the amethyst ring Dad gave her. I think it’s important to keep these things in the family. With three of us, we should divide things as equally as possible.”
“Ha!” James laughed. “You just want what you can get, little brother.”
“That’s not true, James, and you know it.”
Both brothers glared at each other, but neither spoke. As soon as their younger brother, Simon, walked into the room, an ill-defined but unspoken truce was in effect. Simon looked at his two older brothers and thought, Nothing’s changed. They still hate each other, and they always find a reason to disagree. He attempted to be cordial. “So, how’s it going? It’s good to see you two. You both look really well.”
Al and James acknowledged their brother’s presence and the conversation became light and ordinary. Then Charles entered the room and things returned to a more businesslike atmosphere.
Charles went to his desk and sat down in his chair. Janie’s three sons remained standing — there was only one other chair in the room. “Gentlemen,” Charles said, “your mother asked me to be sure that some of her jewellery — she didn’t have much, as you know — went to you three boys. She loved all three of you and she had a tough time deciding what to do. She left it up to you. You’re going to have to look at all of it and come up with a decision about how to divide it up.”
As he had spoken, Charles had pulled open a bottom drawer of his desk and withdrawn a large roll of velvet. He unwrapped it and displayed several pieces of jewellery, and then took two more rolls and unwrapped them. Laid out before the three sons of Janie Cullen were the few pieces of jewellery she had owned: a small diamond on a gold chain, her diamond engagement ring (she had been buried with the matching gold band), an amethyst ring, a few broaches, and several small necklaces.
“I don’t want any of this,” James said. “Let’s just sell it all and divide up the proceeds amongst us.”
Charles cleared his throat and shook his head. “Your mother would not have wanted that, James. She wanted you boys and your wives and children to have it.”
“I want to honor Mother’s wishes,” Al added. He picked up an item, took a cursory look, and then put it down and looked at another.
“Me, too,” Simon Junior replied.
Charles looked at his second wife’s three sons. “I think you can probably make these decisions without me. All I know is that your mother wanted you to have these things. I’m sure you three can work out an equitable agreement. I’ll go back out to see how everyone is doing.” He stood up, came from around the desk, shook the hand of each of his step-sons and then left the room.
Simon Jr. spoke first, once they were alone: “Mother wanted us to have these things. We all have wives who might like them, and Al and I have children we can pass them on to.”
“Oh, yeah, I know,” James said. “You have kids. I don’t. That’s not the point. This belongs to the three of us equally — no matter how many children we have.”
“I agree,” Al said. “But I don’t think Simon was trying to suggest that you did not have your right to one-third of this.”
“Of course not,” Simon Junior said. “Why don’t we divide up the inexpensive items and then consider the more expensive ones separately — which is mainly the two rings?” He looked at his two brothers, waiting for signs of agreement.
“All right,” Al said. “I’ll put the two rings over here,” and he placed them at the corner of the desk. “Let’s look at the other things first.”
“I told you — I don’t want any of it!” James shouted.
“Oh, come on, James. Look at these things. Isn’t there something here that Julie would like?” Al asked.
“There might be, but I’m still not interested.” James crossed his arms and turned away, pretending to glance at some books in a bookcase. Al and Simon each chose a few pieces — a small necklace, a broach, a bracelet — to give to their wives.
“Are you sure you don’t want anything, James?” Al asked James.
“No,” James retorted, as he turned around to talk again to his brothers. “Let’s talk about the rings. They should be sold and the proceeds divided among the three of us.”
Al smiled and tried to be cordial but firm. “No, I don’t want to sell Mother’s rings. They should remain in the family. With us. With our wives. With our children. The only problem I see is that there are three of us and only two rings.”
“That’s easy to fix,” said James, “if we sell them, and then divide the proceeds.”
Al’s patience was beginning to wear thin. “James, will you get it through your head that we’re not going to sell Mother’s rings?”
“Why not? It seems like a perfectly good idea to me.”
Al looked at his younger brother and rolled his eyes. “I told you, James, we’re not going to sell Mother’s rings. We’re going to decide who gets them. Simon, do you want to be in on this, or are you like James and just want to sell them?”
Simon shook his head. “I don’t want to sell them, Al, but I don’t know how we’re going to decide who gets them. Mother loved us all; she wanted the rings to stay in the family — with her children and her grandchildren.”
“I agree, Simon.” Al turned to his older brother. “James, it’s two against one. You’re outnumbered.”
James scowled and raised his voice several decibels. “Blast! How come my opinion in this family never counts? You’d never know I was the oldest here.”
“It’s not a case of who’s the oldest, James. We’re just three brothers and two of us have voted against you.” Al spoke for both he and his younger brother.
“Yeah, as usual,” James grumbled. He reached over and picked up the rings and held them high above his head, considerably higher than his shorter, younger brothers could reach. “Well, here they are. Come and get them,” he taunted.
Al shook his head. “Don’t be so childish, James! Give me the rings. If you don’t want them, Simon and I do.” Al reached up but James held the rings too high. Al’s years as a basketball player came back to him and he jumped, but James’s six-foot-two-inch frame had a considerably longer reach than Al’s five-foot-seven-inch frame, and Al was not as young as he used to be. “James, stop being an idiot! Give me the rings!” Simon Junior watched this conflict between his two older brothers without comment, merely shaking his head at their stubborness.
“I don’t think so, little brother,” James jeered. “I kinda like the situation the way it is.” He laughed and Al forgot his age and his dignity. He swung at James and hit him in the shoulder. “Ow,” James laughed. “That hurt!” Al swung again, this time at his brother’s chest. “Stop it!” James said, returning blow for blow but missing Al as he was the more agile of the two brothers.
The whole thing began to seem like a scene from a three stooges movie. “Hey, stop it, you two!” Simon Junior yelled at both of his older brothers. “This is ridiculous. For heaven’s sake, we said good-bye to our mother this morning! Stop it!”
The words seemed to register in the brains of James and Al. They stopped swinging and James brought the rings back down to a level where all could see them. “Ok, I’ll stop if Al stops,” James said. “This whole thing is pointless, as far as I’m concerned. I’ve got an idea. I don’t want these rings or the money for them. They’re for the two of you. Let’s toss a coin and see who gets them.”
Silence ensued. No one enthusiastically endorsed James’s idea. Al hated gambling of any sort and he was not of a mind to agree to this ridiculous idea. It seemed more fair to just have each of them get one of the rings, especially now that James had relinquished his right to them. On the other hand, if he won, Al would have both rings, and momentarily, he forgot that he might lose. Still, he hestated at the idea of tossing a coin to see who would get his mother’s rings and he voiced his opinion. “What a ridiculous idea, James. Why should we agree to that?”
“Because it will settle this once and for all,” James added logically. “You’ll have Mother’s rings in the family and I won’t be arguing with you about it any more.”
“I think it’s a good idea, Al,” Simon Junior finally admitted. “We all agree that the important thing is to have the rings kept in the family. Or at least the majority of us agree to that. We don’t know the value of the rings so one might be worth a lot more than the other. You and I both have wives and children who might like to have these rings — and you even have grandchildren. Let’s just do what James suggests and get this over with.”
Al frowned. This was not, in his estimation, a good idea. He did not see how it was fair to anyone, yet he had to acknowledge that he could not see another solution unless they took the time to have the rings appraised. But, if they found that one ring was far more valuable than the other, they would still have a problem of how to divide the inheritance equally. He was already embarrassed by his fight with his brother on the day of his mother’s funeral, but perhaps agreeing to this coin toss would settle things and end the bickering. “All right,” he said reluctantly. “I agree.”
James dug into his pocket and came out with a nickel. “All right, who’s going to call it?”
“I will,” Al said.
“Ok, here goes,” and the coin was flipped up into the air. As it came back down, Al called, “Heads!”
James caught the coin in his right hand, flipped it over on the back of his left hand, and uncovered the coin. “Sorry, Al, you lose. It’s tails. Here are the rings, Simon, and I hope your wife and children love them.” Al looked on, stunned.
“Thanks, James,” the youngest brother said. “I know that we will treasure them.” He did not look at Al.
Al suddenly felt a need for some fresh air. He placed the items he had chosen from his mother’s jewellery on one of the velvet squares and then tied together the opposite corners so he had a secure bag. Without saying a word to either of his brothers, he left the room.
Several hours later, when Kate and Al prepared for bed in a small bedroom in the upstairs of his uncle’s farmhouse, Al told Kate what had happened. He untied the velvet square and showed Kate the jewellery he had managed to get, but he could not get over how he had lost his mother’s rings.
Kate stared at him, amazed at what had happened. “Al, how could you have agreed to such a plan? Tossing a coin for your mother’s rings? What got into the three of you?”
Al shook his head. “I don’t know, Kate. There’s something about that brother of mine that just brings out the worst in me. He shows no respect and he has no sense of dignity. We’ve never agreed on anything. When he suggested the toss, it seemed like a good way to end a nightmare. I just hoped that I would win.”
Kate shook her head. “How ridiculous, Al. Honestly, you are still a bunch of silly boys. Imagine! Tossing a coin! That had better not ever happen to my rings, Al Cullen. I know exactly who is to get what and my children will never do such a thing with what I leave behind.”
Al acknowledged with a nod his obvious stupidity. He knew he would get no sympathy from his wife, but he had hoped that she might at least understand the dilemma he had faced. No such luck. She pulled back the blankets on the bed, fluffed her pillow, and crawled in. As she did so, she ended with one final parting shot. “Tossing a coin! How silly! Men! You’re all such fools!”
Al put on his pyjamas and crawled into bed beside his wife. He lay on his back, staring at the ceiling. It had been one of the most miserable days of his life, second only perhaps to his father’s death or to the day he took Kate to be committed to the psychiatric ward. Throughout his life, his mother had been a mainstay, a beacon, a ray of hope, dependable, reliable, someone he could turn to in times of trouble. Memories of apple pies, hymns played on the piano, secret marriage certificates, phone conversations — all whizzed through his head. Finally, he re-lived the carrying of his mother’s coffin into the church, and he wept. The tears flowed down his cheeks while Kate slept beside him, obviously oblivious to his grief. His mother was gone — and he would miss her always. Mother, he asked himself, why did you have to go? I still need you.
- Continue to Chapter 31.
- 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.