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November 4, 2004

Chapter 2 ... in progress

After running McKenna Farm for 37 years, Patrick, the elder McKenna and a first generation immigrant landowner, had succumbed to a brief but deadly bout with cancer. On a dreary day in November 1947, his wife Maureen became the owner of over 140 acres of land and everything on it. Unfortunately, there were no other assets to speak of. Suddenly, Maureen, having left all of the day to day operations to her husband and her son, John, suddenly found herself alone with a huge enterprise to run and no knowledge of how to do it. She had all this land and equipment but no idea how to put food on the table.

Just days after putting Patrick in the ground, the bereft family of two was set on by tax collectors. They wanted money, lots of it, and they knew that now Patrick was gone, they could probably force his widow to sell the farm to pay. On the heels of losing her beloved husband, Maureen was faced with the enormous decision of having to either sell off the land around the farmhouse or to sell everything else they owned but the farmland to pay off the enormous debt Patrick left behind. Had he known he would have gotten sick, he probably never would have bought the new tractors and built a bigger barn, but death was never something you could plan on.

Young John McKenna had been up in his attic bedroom, thinking about everything that had happened over the past few days, when the men arrived. He had seen the cloud of dust coming down the road so he knew a car was approaching, he just wasn't too interested in who it was at first. It was probably another neighbor coming to pay their respects to his mother and wanting to leave more food. It was funny how people thought that food was going to make this all better, as if a tuna casserole could bring his father back.

When John heard the deep voices of men talking to his mother at the front door, he went to the top of the stairs so that he could listen to their conversation. The visitors had been mostly women so this was unusual. He sat in the shadows, on the third stair from the top, listening. He heard most of the family news from this position. He was there when his parents got the two telegrams from the President; he was there when his father told his mother about the cancer. This was different, though. This time his father was not there to hold his mother as she cried. This time she had to sit and hear devastating news alone and John, in his 14 year old wisdom, knew that he would have to be the one to take care of her, and the farm, from then on.

After Maureen invited them into the front sitting room, the men began telling her something about money and liens and giving her one year to pay something off. John sat puzzling over the discussion, trying to figure out what they were talking about. He knew the family business was doing well because he had been running it for the past few months but what was all this talk about debt and back taxes? How could they owe money of they had just bought new equipment and had planned to expand the business?

When Patrick had first fallen ill, John spent every day out in the fields with the workers, making sure no cotton was missed. The workers in the field listened to John even though he was only 14, probably because he seemed so sure of himself. His father was still sick when it was time for ginning so John prepared to make the trip alone, to make sure that they got a fair weight at the gin and all their seeds for the next year.

When he got home, he proudly told his father what he had done, how long they had stayed in line and how, when the owners of the gin tried to under weigh the massive bales of cotton, John had insisted they reweigh them. He had loudly complained in front of the other farmers in line that the owners were trying to cut corners and cheat a boy who was just trying to take care of his dying father. In the end, John got paid far more than the crop was worth. Pity or blackmail, the ploy had worked.

Patrick grinned and said simply "That's my boy."

That night, just a few hours later, Patrick died in his sleep. It was almost as if he knew the farm was in good hands and he could go peacefully. So why this talk about money owed? Hadn't he just gotten more money for the cotton than any other year? Hadn't his father told him he had done a good job?

After the men had left, Maureen sat for a very long time, neither speaking nor moving. The room grew darker and darker as the sun set, yet still she sat on the couch, he hands resting palm up in her lap with her chin resting on her chest as if she were studying something she held in her hands. John sat in much the same position on the stairs, having moved down a few steps so that he could watch her once the men had left. He wished his mother would move, would cry, would do something but look so hopeless. Most of all, John wished his father was there to hold his mother, to make everything right again.

Finally, when it was clear that she wasn't about to move, John slowly crept down the stairs so as not to startle his mother. She didn't even look up when he walked through the room on his way to the kitchen. He turned on the oven to ready it for a casserole from one of the neighbors. While it heated up, he made tea for his mother, something he had never tried but knew how to do from having watched her make it a million times. He brought the cup out to Maureen, who was still sitting in the now totally dark sitting room. After putting the cup on the table closest to her, he turned on a light across the room and turned around to face his mother. Drawing himself up as tall as he could, he quietly began to convince his mother that he could run the farm alone the following season, that he could take care of them.

He told her how his father had showed him how to plan at just the right time, how to groom the fields, how to pick and bale and haul it all to the gin. He also told her that, during the funeral, several of the men that worked for his father had come up to John and offered to come back the next season if he needed them. At the time, he couldn't understand what they were implying but it all made sense now. It was his job to take over for his father, to carry on the family business, to make sure the name of McKenna survived.

Maureen listened to her son, not knowing when he had grown up so much. He looked just like his father there, telling her calmly how things would work out, reassuring her that they could survive this, too. She didn't think she could survive losing two of her sons but, somehow they had and here was her surviving son, her only family, telling her that they could survive this. John suddenly had become her only hope. Maureen didn't have much choice. He always had been unusually caring and hardworking, her hopeful child so, without much protest, she agreed.

And so Big Jack McKenna had taken over the farm back when he was just 14, back when he was still called John. He was more than ready for the job. Ever since his older brothers had joined the army and gotten themselves killed in Europe the summer he turned 11, John had taken it upon himself to be his father's right hand man, to make up for his missing brothers.

For the past three years, John had helped with every aspect of running McKenna Farm; he knew probably more than his mother realized. He understood the rhythm of the planning, the plowing, the planting, the picking and, when it came to taking the cotton to the gin, John was amazingly accurate at guessing how much cotton would be weighed and how many pounds of seeds a crop would get them. His father would have him show off to the other farmers, proudly patting his boy on the back and joking that his son was a genius. John stood, basking in the praise, never more than a few footsteps from his father, never quite out of his shadow. This year, though, when his father had gotten sick, he had stepped smoothly into his shoes, filling them easily and with confidence that most other 14 year olds don't usually possess.

Over the next few years, John's work on the farm was enough to pay off his father's debt and to keep the farm growing. As the farm grew, so did John, almost a foot taller to an impressive 6'5". His shoulders broadened with the heavy manual labor and he had grown to be quite a handsome man. Suddenly, everyone started calling him Big Jack and he was building a good reputation among the small farming community for his keen business sense despite being just a teenager.

The farm had become his life to the exclusion of his other worldlier interests. He no longer spent hours reading books about famous people or exotic places. He no longer met with his friends after school to play ball. He had no time to play anymore. After missing weeks and weeks of school both during the planting season and again during the harvest, Big Jack decided that he would have to quit school to devote all his time to the farm. He knew it was what his father would have wanted, his father who had never gone to school himself, who considered hard work a good enough measure of a man's worth. Since he was responsible for his mother, he really had no choice. There would be plenty of time for him to dream later.

Maureen was proud of her son but worried that he was growing up too fast, taking on too many responsibilities at such a young age. John had always had such a wonderful sense of humor but he had grown quite serious in the days after his father's death. Many nights, Maureen had to go out looking for her son only to find him asleep in the barn after a long day's work, too exhausted to even make the walk back to the house.

Just before his 17th birthday, three years after he had taken over McKenna Farm, Maureen convinced her son that he deserved a day off. While he was out in the fields in the morning, she packed a picnic lunch for them both. By the time he came up to the house, she had the truck packed, his clothes laid out and answers all ready for his arguments. She shooed a protesting Big Jack into the shower and, when he had finished and was dressed in his Sunday best, she made him take her to the yearly harvest festival in town.

Being taken away from his work was not something that Big Jack could normally stand but, the further and further they drove from the farm, the more he began to relax. He looked across the front seat of the truck at his mother. Her head was back against the headrest and she was quietly humming to herself, a quiet smile on her face. She looked truly happy for the first time in a long time and, suddenly, he knew that this had been a good idea, that she needed the time away almost as much as he did. He began enjoying the ride more, watching the fields that they passed by, noticing with pride that his crop looked taller and fuller than most of the others that he passed.

This especially was something that he wished his father could see.

When they arrived at the town commons, Big Jack found a place to park in the crowded field. He took the picnic basket out of the back of the truck and held out his other arm to help his mother down from the truck, who took it graciously as they began walking toward the milling crowd. Once they found a place in the shade to set up the picnic, they settled down to eat a lunch of fried chicken, potato salad, butter beans and fresh vegetables from their garden together. Afterwards, Maureen settled down to people watch while her son began circulating among the crowd to work off his nervous energy. It was hard for him to be still for very long.

Big Jack wandered about the field restlessly, a good head above everyone else, unused to being around so many people without work to distract him. After a time, he relaxed into the day, greeting old friends of his father's and getting many admiring glances from young single ladies. He enjoyed talking with the other farmers, reminiscing about his father, but the flirtations of the young women completely eluded him. While he was exchanging pleasantries with Farmer Connor from across the river, though, he caught a glimpse of something that made him weak in the knees and all of the air leak out of his lungs.

Maeve Douglass, with her long, curly red hair and storm gray eyes, was that something. She had been watching Big Jack from a distance for the entire day. She hadn't seen him since they were in school together but she knew he was still farming nearby. She had hoped he would come to the harvest festival but had almost given up since he hadn't come the past few years. When she saw him get out of his truck and saw how much he had changed from when they were in school together, how handsome he had grown, she knew her wait had been worth it.

For hours she watched him circulate amongst the townspeople, easily smiling at people he knew and shaking hands with people he didn't. She paid careful attention to him, noticing that he didn't seem to be looking for anyone in particular, nor did the flirting of other girls, both the shy and awkward to the downright blatant, faze him. Maeve knew that Big Jack was a different kind of boy, different than the little boys that called themselves men at school. This was a man with a good head on his shoulders, one that would be a good catch for any girl lucky enough, and smart enough, to catch his attention. Maeve knew that she was that girl.

Instead of sitting beneath a shade tree looking coy and keeping cool like the rest of the girls, she decided she would enter the afternoon Highland games, specifically an archery contest. Maeve had been shooting a bow and arrow since she was a little girl, going hunting with her father and practicing for hours by herself in front of a target. Now she knew all the hours she had put into it would be put to good use.

Maeve was the only girl that wanted to sign up for the competition and had to talk the officials into letting her even enter her name. In the end, it seemed to her that they let her enter as a kind of joke, but she ignored their whispers with a smile, knowing who the joke would be on once she won.

Being the only girl competing made Maeve stand out from the crowd but the fact that she was an absolutely gorgeous girl who stood proudly at the line and consistently hit bulls eyes got everyone's attention. She easily won round after round as the crowd watching began to buzz with excitement.

It wasn't until the final round that Maeve began to get nervous. As she stepped up to the line, she looked up to see Big Jack staring at her over the head of Farmer Connor. She had caught his attention and now she just had to keep it. As their eyes met, she smiled shyly at him, turned back to the target, and promptly hit a bulls-eye, neatly winning the contest.

As the crowd erupted into cheers, she looked back to see Big Jack clapping and whistling for her, for Maeve Douglass, which made her smile all the more brilliant. She knew then that she had more than succeeded in catching his attention. Big Jack was smitten.

Never having been one to waste any time in doing something he wanted to do, Big Jack asked Maeve to marry him at Christmas of that same year. They planned a small wedding on the farm. With Big Jack and Maureen the only McKennas present, and Maeve and her parents the only Douglasses, the families became one on a cold day in February.

Maeve moved onto McKenna Farm and quickly became invaluable to both Maureen and Big Jack. Not only did she help run the household, she also helped Jack with the business, making sure taxes were paid on the previous crop and preparing for the following season. Big Jack was an excellent farmer with a head for making money on his cotton, but he never did know how to keep all that money straight. Maeve dove right into the mess of paperwork in Jack's roll top desk and in no time she had the books balanced and his business running smoothly.

As the season started, Maeve sat back to begin what she knew her true job to be, to become a mother. The newlyweds hoped they would begin having children right away, but this drive was especially strong for Maeve. As an only child, she had always wanted to have lot of brothers and sisters to play with instead of always having to amuse her self. She felt it was only right to have a large family so that none of her children ever became lonely.

Within a few months of getting married, Maeve found out she was pregnant but, even as the couple joyously celebrated and planned, something went wrong and Maeve miscarried. Because Maeve was young, her doctor said there would be no trouble trying again and the sooner the better, to fend off the depression she was feeling after losing their first child.

Just six months later, they were expecting again but just as the first time, this pregnancy ended tragically early. She miscarried 4 more times over the next few years, each time without warning and each time she was left her more depressed than before. Her moods had become more erratic with each lost pregnancy. She would alternate between paranoia and despair, leaving Big Jack unable to do anything to help her.

When Maeve became pregnant again at the end of their fourth growing season as husband and wife, she took to bed, afraid of doing anything to jeopardize her chance at finally becoming a mother. Christmas came and went with no problems and both Maeve and Big Jack began to believe that there would finally be a baby McKenna to carry on the family name by the spring.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Prosemonkey published on November 4, 2004 9:07 AM.

Chapter 1 ... revised was the previous entry in this blog.

Chapter 3 ... in progress is the next entry in this blog.

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