(A novel by Susan Overturf Ingraham)
Minden, Nebraska, September 1914
[Lars Jacobsen confronts his father’s scorn with a plan for his future.]
“Lars.” His mother’s voice echoed in his head, yet sounded many miles away. “Lars,” she repeated again. “Wake up. You must wake up. It’s 4:00 in the afternoon and your father is coming home early for dinner. He expects you to be here. He wants to talk to you.”
Lars's head pounded. He rolled over while his mother walked to the window and pulled open the drapes. The late-afternoon September sun shone through, and Lars blinked. “Mother, close the curtains. It’s too bright!” His mother said nothing. “Mother, close the curtains!”
“Lars, listen to me.” Katherine sat down on the side of the bed and stroked his brow and hair. “I love you, Lars. You know that. I gave birth to you in that bedroom across the hall almost nineteen years ago, and I have loved you ever since. But you have continually disappointed your father. Your return from Chicago last spring was a terrible blow to him. Coming home late and drunk last night has only made things worse. Your father wants to talk to you.”
Lars shook his head. “Mother, I can’t. I can’t see him now. I can’t see him ever.”
“Lars, Lars. Listen to me. You must listen to me.” Katherine stood beside the bed, her arms crossed, her face a picture of distress.
Lars struggled to sit up but the room spun. He pulled himself up on to his elbows and propped himself against a pillow and the headboard. He reached over to the night stand and grabbed his glasses, putting them on over his ears, and turned. His mother looked beautiful, as always. She wore a simple blue skirt and blouse, suitable for doing her daily household chores. For as long as he could remember, his mother’s long hair had always been braided and either piled up on top of her head, or hung loosely down her back. This morning it was up.
“All right, Mother,” he groaned. “I’m listening. I’m listening.”
Katherine Jacobsen looked at her first-born son and her heart melted. Such a handsome man I have for a son, she thought. My first born. I went through much to have you, my son, but you have been such a disappointment to your father. “Lars, what am I going to do with you and your father? You are like oil and water, never mixing. I don’t understand, Lars. Why? Why did you do this thing last night? You promised you wouldn’t do it again. Your father is so angry! It will be hard for me to help you!”
Lars knew that his mother’s love was unconditional. He could do anything and she would forgive him. What can I possibly say, he thought. I am what I am. And that’s an end to it.
“Mother, there‘s no reason to be upset. It’s me that Father‘s mad at, not you, and Father will never be pleased with what I do, so I don’t worry about what he thinks.”
Katherine sat down on the edge of the bed. She reached over and touched Lars’s shoulder. “Lars, you know that whatever happens between you and your father affects me. He will come home tonight, as he always does, drink his sherry and eat his meal, and then he will want to talk to you. You must be prepared to talk to him and to take your punishment, whatever it will be.“
Lars pushed his mother’s hand away. “I know that, Mother, but you also know that Father will never be satisfied with what I do. He doesn’t love me! Punishment? I‘m nineteen years old, and I will not let my father mete out any punishment! That time is over!”
Despite his bravado, Katherine knew that her son feared his father. She placed her hands in her lap, avoiding contact. “Oh, Lars, don’t say that. Your father loves you but he wants something better for you. He wants you to do well and he wants to be proud of you. You have responsibilities as the oldest son!”
Lars flinched. What a joke, he thought. That is so unfair and illogical. “Mother, Lance can be the golden boy in this family, not me. Father always loves what he does.”
“Don’t talk about your brother that way, Lars. Lance is a good boy.” Katherine remained sitting beside her son, rigid straight but melting inside.
Lars rolled his eyes. “Mother, you always defend Lance, and you always defend Father. You say Father loves me, yet I’ve never heard those words from him! You always say he wants what’s best for me, yet all he ever does is criticize!” He slammed his fist into his pillow. When his mother’s face looked hurt, he shouted, “Oh, forget it!”
“Lars, please. Give your father a chance!” She stood up again and crossed her arms.
“A chance?” Lars shouted. “All Father has ever done is criticize and complain. If he does care about me, he has a funny way of showing it. If I get a B, Father wants to know why it isn’t an A. If I do ten-push-ups, he wants me to do twenty. If I swim half way across the lake, he wants me to swim the whole way. If I come first in a race, he wants me to run faster the next time. If someone fights me at school, he wants me to fight him back. Mother, I’ve known for a long, long time that I will never be good enough for him. Just don’t talk to me.” Lars turned over and covered his head with the blankets.
While Lars sulked, Katherine tidied the room, picking up the clothes Lars had thrown on the floor when he had come home so late. “Lars,” she said quietly, “I know your father is tough on you. But things might have been different if you hadn’t started drinking.”
Lars groaned from under the blankets. “Oh, Mother, please!”
“Lars, don’t be like that. You must think about what you will say to your father about your behaviour last night. What will you say?” She touched him again, poking gently through the blanket.
Lars turned over again, came out from under the blankets, shook his head, and sat up, lifting his knees to his chest. He rested his head on his knees and closed his eyes. “Oh, God, Mother, I don’t know. It’s the same old story and he’s heard it a million times. This is no different.”
Katherine winced when her son used the Lord’s name in vain. "There must be some reason why you did what you did. Can you not think what that would be?"
“I like to spend time with my friends. I like to drink.”
Lars stared at the ceiling, head still pounding, and tried to put a memory to the happenings of the previous night. He had gone to his one-year high school reunion — the 1913 graduating class of Minden High School. After his return from Chicago, he and Lizzie Donohue had started seeing each other again, even though his parents disapproved. Lizzie had insisted that he come, and she swore that she would never ask anything of him again. That was a lie, for sure, he thought. Women never tell the truth. Anyway, he could never resist putting a smile on Lizzie’s face, so he had agreed to go. It had turned out to be a good party. Out of twenty-four graduates, eleven had been there, including Lizzie and himself. Most of them were girls, of course, and Lizzie’s friends: Lynn, Esther, Grace, Agnes, Margie, and Harriet. But three of them had been his pals: Freddy Carlson, Ben Wells, and Ray Long. In fact, Freddy, Ben and Ray had driven to Heartwell in Ray’s dad’s car, a brand-new 1914 Ford Touring car. The party had been at Lizzie’s house, and they had spent the day picnicking and reminiscing.
Lars ended his thoughts and looked at his mother. He simplified the evening to her: “It was fun, Mother. It was just a party. On the way home, I got together with some old high school buddies and we spent some time talking.”
“Yes, and drinking.”
Katherine stopped her tidying, shook her head, and tapped her foot. “Lars, Adams County is dry! If you had been caught, you might have gone to jail.”
Lars closed his eyes. “Mother, please. Don’t be so naive. You know that anyone can get alcohol, including Father, if they want it.”
Katherine frowned. “Lars, please tell me you didn’t take anything from your father’s liquor cabinet.”
Lars rolled his eyes. “How stupid do you think I am, Mother?”
Katherine shook her head and started straightening the room for the third time, but she had no words to say.
Lars tried to gain his mother’s confidence again. He raised his arms in a show of giving up. “Mother, there is no point in going into all of this again. Father will never be satisfied with me and I’m not going to justify my behaviour to him. Not any more. I’ve made a decision. Lizzie and I talked about it last night and my mind is made up.”
Katherine stopped moving. What, she thought, has he planned with that dreadful Irish Catholic girl? “What have you decided?” she asked cautiously, afraid to hear the answer.
“It’s a long story, Mother. Don’t worry. I’ll be ready for Father when he comes home. You’ve accomplished what you needed to do. I’m awake and I’m up. You go on now and do whatever it is you have to do.”
Katherine could tell when she was being dismissed by her son. At times, he had many traits similar to his father, yet Lars never saw this. “All right, dear, I’ll leave now. But, please be dressed and ready to see your father at six-thirty. Dinner is at seven o’clock this evening, an hour early at your father’s request.”
“Yes, Mother. I’ll be ready. Thanks for getting me up.” As he spoke, his mother headed for the door; she opened and closed it quietly and Lars found himself alone in his room once again, beginning to think about how the conversation with his father would go. He knew what the big question would be: Why had he been drunk? His father might be disappointed that he had returned from Lake Forest a failure, but Lars knew that what his father most detested in his son’s behaviour was his excessive drinking.
In school Lars had learned a little verse along with his classmates: “I promise not to buy, sell, or give/Alcoholic liquors while I live;/From all tobacco I’ll abstain;/And never take God’s name in vain.” While school taught him that little rhyme, and society bitterly debated over the issue, Lars’s father taught him that the prohibitionists were anti-Lutheran and anti-immigrant. For Jacob Jacobsen, prohibition was an infringement on his freedoms and beliefs. He had taught his young son, “It’s not a sin to drink, Lars, but it is a sin to get drunk.” Alcohol had been served to Lars at all special family occasions — Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, birthdays, anniversaries. At age ten, his parents had allowed him to have a glass of wine with dinner, a family custom which had continued despite prohibition.
Lars discovered when he was about eleven that alcohol gave him a pleasant, relaxed, warm feeling. It took away his fears and his shyness and helped him face his tormenters, including his father. When one glass of wine at dinner was not quite enough, Lars returned to his father’s wine cabinet at night and had a little more. When he was about fifteen, his father discovered Lars’s night-time raids and that was the end of that, but Lars never had difficulty finding other sources. When he first came home drunk, his father was almost apoplectic with anger, but the cycle repeated itself. During moments of contrition, Lars would promise to change. He would concentrate on his studies, assist his father at the shop and his mother at home. He might not drink excessively for several weeks, but by the time he was seventeen, Lars knew that he both needed and wanted alcohol, and he didn’t see any harm in it.
During Lars’s senior year in high school, there were four major conflicts between Lars and his father: grades, drinking, “that Irish girl”, and school pranks. Lars did his best (but never enough) with his school work; he hid his drinking as much as possible; he really liked Lizzie Donohue. As for the pranks, Lars had discovered that he enjoyed the power of watching someone suffer who was unaware of who had caused it. However, sometimes he got caught, and he was suspended from school several times for his antics.
Since dinner at the Jacobsens was always formal, Lars dressed carefully. Minutes before six-thirty he left his bedroom. He passed both his mother and grandmother who were preparing dinner in the kitchen. He went into the living room and sat down, but he could not sit still. Instead, he stood up and sat down several times. He glanced through the titles of books on his father’s bookshelves, but remembered nothing of what he read. He paced, waiting for his doom. But remember, he thought, this is almost over. This could be the last time I have to listen to him.
Lars had once seen himself as a lawyer, defending the rights of the small businessman against the tyranny of monopolies. He had followed Teddy Roosevelt’s career carefully, and both Lars and his father had supported Roosevelt’s quest to control the huge trusts, to regulate railroads, and to end political corruption. After Lars’s failure at Lake Forest College in Chicago, however, he had known that his dream of becoming a lawyer was over. Instead, he and Lizzie had come up with another plan.
The door opening interrupted Lars’s thoughts.
“Good evening, Father.” Lars put his heels together and bowed his head slightly.
“Good evening.” Jacob removed his hat, which he always wore, and set his case of papers down on the floor, in the precise spot where he always put them. He crossed into the living room and over to the small locked cabinet where he kept sherry, wine and some hard liquor. He unlocked the cabinet with his key on his chain, withdrew two glasses and a crystal decanter of sherry, and poured two drinks.
“How was your day, sir?” Lars asked.
“It was good. Thank you. A new shipment came in, and we had several customers looking seriously at our new wagons.”
“That’s good,” his voice distant and uninterested.
Silence enveloped the room. Lars wanted to get it over with, but he knew it would not happen that way. The pre-dinner sherry was never to be hurried, and Lars’s father would not bring up unpleasant topics now. That would come after dinner. They drank together in silence.
Only a few formalities were spoken at dinner. As the women cleared the table, Jacob invited Lars to join him in the living room. Lars knew it was not an invitation but an order. His father took a seat in his favourite chair and beckoned Lars to sit down. He pulled out his pipe, tapped it a few times, and lit it. As soon as he achieved his first puff, he spoke: “Well, Lars, explain yourself.” And when Lars did not immediately respond, Jacob added: “You know, I will never understand why you did not succeed at Lake Forest.”
So, there it was. Before they would talk about last night, Lars would first have to explain his failure at Lake Forest. Lars sighed in resignation. “Father, I hated it there.”
Jacob looked puzzled. “That’s no excuse, Lars. We have many things we have to do in life which we do not like to do. We just do them.”
“Yes, I know,” Lars answered defensively, “but things at Lake Forest were — hard. I was lonely. I didn’t fit in. No one liked me.”
Jacob shook his head stiffly. “No, Lars, these are the excuses of a little boy — not a man. Lake Forest is a liberal arts college with a fine reputation and high standards for excellence. I got you in there by calling in some favours with some powerful friends. I expected you to do well, to make me proud. I must ask you again: Why did you not succeed?! Do you realize how much you have disappointed me and your mother?!”
Lars remained quiet. Lake Forest College was all the things his father had said, and it had not occurred to him when he first went there that he might fail. However, there were plenty of drinking buddies, attractive women, and targets for his pranks. Studies simply took second place to the social life, which was magnetic, time-consuming, and exhausting. By the time Lars realized how disastrous his academic status was, it was too late. First, he was put on probation; then, he was suspended for a year. Lars knew his father would not understand or approve. “I don’t know why I failed, Father. I was homesick. I missed Nebraska and my high school friends. I wanted to come home.”
“It seems unlikely to me, Lars, that you would have been unable to make friends there. And, besides, your goal was not to make friends. You were there to learn.” Jacob glared at his son. “You wasted your time and my money!“ He continued to puff on his pipe.
Lars tried to remain calm, but his heart pounded. His palms felt sweaty and he heard a ringing in his ears. “I tried, Father.“ Lars’s voice rose. “I truly did! But the dorms were full of people who wanted to do other things. I wanted to join them.”
“Do not try to blame your failure on others, Lars. You had a job to do, and you failed. And keep your voice down, young man!”
Lars swallowed and took a deep breath. “Yes, I know I could have studied harder, Father, but it was hard to do so in those circumstances.”
Jacob waved his left hand in disgust. “Lars, why do you insist on blaming others for your failure? The Dean said that you were always involved in childish pranks. Why did you waste your time with these things?”
Lars shook his head. “I guess I just wanted to forget how lonely I was. I didn’t want to study.”
“Lars, you make no sense at all!” Jacob’s voice now rose in volume to match his son’s. “Your job was to excel and return and work beside me in the store. What is wrong with you? Why do you fail at everything?” He glared at his son.
Lars looked into his father’s eyes and felt the contempt. There was no excuse which would justify his behaviour in his father’s eyes. He looked at his father and said quietly, “I don’t fail at everything, Father. You just think that I do. I’ve received good grades and some of my teachers have spoken to me of my talents. For instance, I’m very good with numbers!”
Jacob laughed with scorn, Lars cringing at the sound. “Lars, what are you talking about? You‘re not capable of adding five numbers in a row accurately.”
“That’s not true!” Lars shouted. “I rarely make a mistake and you don’t know whether I’m good at something or not because you never take long enough to listen or watch.”
Katherine stepped into the room. “Lars, Jacob. Please keep your voices down. Mother Jacobsen will hear.”
Jacob glared at his wife. “Leave, Katherine. This is none of your concern.”
Katherine frowned at her husband and looked pleadingly at Lars. She then left the room, as ordered.
Jacob’s tone became officious: “Lars, do not take that tone with me. You are in my house and I am providing you with food to eat. You will do as I say as long as you live under this roof.”
“Then I will soon be leaving.” This time he did not raise his voice, remembering his mother’s wishes.
“What are you talking about?”
“You heard me, Father. I will soon be leaving. I‘m going to go to Hastings Business College; I’m going to be a bookkeeper. I'll get a job in Hastings, and I’ll not return to Minden.”
Jacob stared at his son in disbelief. “Hastings Business College? Where did you get that idea?”
“I’ve been thinking about it for a long time. And Lizzie supports me.”
Jacob sat forward in his chair. “Lizzie? That young Irish woman? Lizzie Donohue? What do you mean that she 'supports you'?”
“Just what I said, Father. She supports me. She understands me. We talked about this, and we agreed that this is a good future for me. I intend to apply for admission in September.” Lars’s voice was strong, but he looked down at his hands and realized they were shaking.
Jacob scoffed, “They won’t accept you, Lars, especially with your record from Lake Forest.”
“No, Lizzie says I don’t have to show them my Lake Forest records. I just take a test.”
“It is doubtful that you will pass such a test!”
Lars had expected his father’s lack of faith in him, but he was not going to let it deter him. Not this time. He glared at his father. “You always think the worst of me, but I’m not stupid.”
Jacob’s mood suddenly changed. He set his pipe down and adjusted himself in his seat. “Very well, we will leave that for now. How do you explain your drunkenness when you came home early this morning?”
“I don’t explain it in any way, Father. It just happened, and I enjoyed myself. My friends and I had lots to catch up with after a year of separation.”
“Yes, I can imagine that you had much to tell,” his father sarcastically replied.
“We talked about many things. The discussion about my failure at Lake Forest was not of interest to them.”
“Lars, you are fooling yourself if you believe these people are your friends. They are merely taking advantage of you.”
“That’s not true, Father. I know when someone cares about me and when they don’t. For instance, I know that you don’t care about me at all.”
Jacob looked surprised and shook his head. “That is simply not true, Lars. You know that I care, but I am continually frustrated by your behaviour. Drinking, pranks, and women. That seems to be all that matters to you. When are you planning on growing up?”
“Right now! Today, Father! I’ve made up my mind. I’m going to see Lizzie.” Lars stood up and moved to the front door. His father’s words stopped him: “I have not excused you yet, young man. You will leave when I tell you that it’s time to leave.”
Lars turned to look at his father. “No, Father. That’s not how it’s going to be any more. I don’t require your permission to leave, just my own.” He turned and reached for the door knob, and then hesitated. He had never spoken to his father this way before. He might decide to hit me, like he did when I was a kid, Lars thought. No, he wouldn’t dare try now. He stared back at his father and waited.
Jacob remained in his seat, and chuckled slightly. “Lars, I think you have much to learn about life. You're young and foolish and completely irresponsible. If you go to Hastings, it will be entirely on your own and with no help from me.”
“That’s just fine with me, Father. You’ll see. I’ll do it on my own.”
As Lars opened the door he heard his father’s last words: “Yes. We’ll see.”
Lars walked briskly down the street, heading for the home of Lizzie’s aunt. Lizzie had told him the night before that she would be in Minden to do some shopping with her mother, and they would stay overnight. He had promised her that he would stop by that evening. He reached the door of the house and knocked.
“Why, hello, Lars.” Lizzie’s Aunt Helen greeted him warmly and welcomed him into the house. “I suppose you’re here to see a certain young woman named Lizzie,” she said as she winked at him.
“Yes, Mrs. O’Reilly. I am. Is she here?”
“Oh, she certainly is, and I suspect quite anxious to see you. You go sit down in the parlour, and I’ll go get Lizzie.”
Lars had been in this parlour many times while he and Lizzie were in high school; he felt more comfortable here than he ever did in his parents’ home. Lizzie had been more supportive than his own parents, and he liked her a great deal.
His thoughts were interrupted when Lizzie arrived. “Hello. How are you?” In her hands was a tray with a teapot and two teacups.
“I’m just great, Lizzie. How ‘bout you?” Lars rose to help her settle the tray on a small table.
While Lizzie poured the tea, they spoke of the reunion the previous day and then Lars told her of his argument with his father, conveniently omitting the late-night drinking party. Lizzie only knew that he had told his father about his plans to go to Hastings Business College and his father’s disapproval of that plan.
“Oh, your father,” Lizzie said, as she gave Lars a cup of tea and sat down beside Lars on the sofa. “He is so mean! Why doesn’t he show you his support? I just don’t understand!” Lizzie reached over and picked up her cup of tea.
“He’s never been happy with me, Lizzie. He wants me to take over the family business. He has my life planned for me and whenever I choose a different direction, he hates me for it. He doesn’t like you, he doesn’t like my drinking, he doesn’t like my career choices, he doesn’t like my friends. He will never like anything I do. I’m going to quit trying to please him.”
“Well, Lars Jacobsen,” Lizzie said coyly. “I think you’ll do just fine, and that father of yours will some day regret all the things he’s said to you. You mark my words. He’ll live to rue the day that he was so mean to you. You have lots of friends, every young man likes to take a drink now and then, and you will be an excellent bookkeeper. Last but not least, you have me, correct?”
Lars smiled. He put the cup of tea back down on the table and leaned over and kissed Lizzie on the lips. “I believe I might just be falling in love with you, Miss Lizzie Donohue.”
“Lars!” Lizzie fluttered her eyelashes and put her cup down as Lars as done. Mockingly, she said, “What will happen if someone sees us? My reputation will be ruined! Sir, I demand that you take that back!”
Lars moved closer to Lizzie. He put his arm around her and kissed her again. Lizzie said again, “Sir! My reputation!”
Lars stood up and, taking hold of Lizzie’s hands, he helped her to stand up as well. Then he wrapped his hands around her back and fondled her derriere.
“I will do all that I can do, Miss Donohue, to spark your reputation!”
Lizzie closed her eyes and kissed him again, reputation be damned.
- Continue to Chapter 9.
- 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.