« Chapter 3 ... in progress | Home | Chapter 5 ... in progress »

November 9, 2004

Chapter 4 ... in progress

Katelyn McKenna's birth had been the biggest thing to happen in the McKenna family for a long time. As the only surviving McKenna, Big Jack knew that it was up to him to have children, specifically boys, and Maeve had certainly been game to try. By the time this pregnancy had held, though, Maeve had become paranoid and skittish, considering it her own personal failure that she couldn't carry a baby to term, couldn't be the woman she thought Big Jack had fallen in love with. Since Maeve had taken to bed, Maureen had taken over the household. While this could have caused even more turmoil for Maeve, she found Maureen to be such a kind soul, so understanding and accepting of her flaws, that the two women had formed a deep bond through the winter. As Maeve watched the winter slowly turn to spring and her due date come closer, her mood had begun to come out of dormancy, to warm and unfurl itself, to relax into the infectious promise of the spring. Big Jake could once again make her laugh like he used to, delighting in the crinkling of her nose when she smiled, reveling in the light that was once again burning in her mercurial eyes.

It was his last chance to get his cotton seed in the ground before feeling losses and Big Jake was out, Seeding with his mechanical planter, taking 8 row chunks our of his fields at a time and feeling very positive with the progress. Usually, he would let one of his men ride the planter so that he could supervise the seed in the hopped and walk behind, making sure the sandy soil had been tamped down correctly but, this morning, he had felt anxious to be in charge of the machine, unable to hear his own thoughts past keeping the planter straight on the rows and making smooth passes over the rows he had just plowed the week before. There was no threat of frost now, nothing to stop them and Big Jack and his crew were pushing to get all 140 acres of his land planted today.

As Big Jack maneuvered his huge machine around a low spot that always collected water, skillfully stopping the seed from being planted where it would just drown so as to eliminate any chance at waste, He thought he heard his name above the rumbling machine. Not wanting to stop, he shook his head and continued until he was suddenly being pounded on the back and his name was being shouted in his ear. He turned, startled, about to knock his foreman, Will, off the planter for interrupting him at such a critical place in the field when what Will was shouting began sinking in.

"... time ... says come home ... doctor ..."

Big Jack turned sideways in his seat, beginning to hear what Will was shouting when Will took hold of the wheel and jerked it a bit to the right, avoiding a hole left by a tree stump they had blown this winter and never come back to fill in. "Just go!!" he yelled, "I'll finish up here, Poppa!"

Big Jack didn't need any more encouragement. He clapped Will on the back and jumped down from the planter, neatly landing ankle deep in the edge of the boggy soil and nearly falling face first. His crew was laughing, pulling him along, helping him slog through the muck to the truck that Will had left for him to drive back to the house and Big Jack, his work-worn hands trembling, said a silent thanks that Will had left the keys in the truck because he just knew that he wouldn't have been able to handle anything that delicate. He ground the gears as he pulled away from his crew, his planter, his seeds that needed to go in the field, driving toward home where his wife was making him a Poppa.

When Big Jack pulled into the yard, he saw two new trucks near the side of the house. The Connor's beat up, ancient red Chevy was parked next to a newer black Ford that could only belong to the doctor; the fine layer of dust it wore probably come from his own driveway. He pulled up near the front of the house, throwing on the brake and jumping out of the truck before it even had a chance to come to a full stop, and charged up the stairs. He was met on the porch by Mrs. Connor, Maureen's friend from down the road, who made him take off his boots, which were absolutely caked with now hardening gray muck. As he was trying to kick them off, unable to even find the laces under all that dirt, she filled him in on what had been happening while he had been out riding his planter.

Maeve had taken to bed after he had left, complaining of a backache, and had left Maureen to put away the rest of their breakfast and start the chores. Mrs. Connor was on her way over, bringing her sons to help out with the planting and a cinnamon coffee cake for the women to visit over, so Maureen wanted to make the house presentable. Suddenly, Maeve had called out sharply from the upstairs, as if she had been stabbed. Maureen ran to her daughter-in-law's side to find her on the floor in the bathroom, a widening pool of fluid spidering out along the grout lines of the tile floor with Maeve in the middle, in pain and in a panic that she was losing the baby again.

Maureen cleaned her up, reassuring her that this was normal, that her water had broken and that it was time for the baby to come. She was just drawing a bath to help calm Maeve when Mrs. Connor and her sons arrived. Maureen met them in the kitchen (which, she was embarrassed to notice, was still a shambles) and told them what was happening. Mrs. Connor offered to call the doctor and her sons both set off to find where the crew was working. Maureen went back upstairs to stay with Maeve, washing her hair, scrubbing her back, reminding her to breathe when the pain got too intense. The elder McKenna felt every contraction with Maeve, remembering her own labor with her three boys in these very rooms, how frightened she had been, how alone she and Patrick had been through it all. How she wished Patrick were here now.

Refreshed and calmer, Maeve dressed in a clean gown and climbed into the bed she shared with Big Jack, suddenly remembering that she wanted him there. Outside, she heard a truck pulling into the yard and she hoped that was him but knew it wasn't but the calm crunching of boots across the gravel drive, the slow plodding steps up to the porch, the methodical knocking at the door. "That must be the doctor," said Maureen and, reading Maeve's face, she added "Jack is on his way, darlin', he wouldn't miss this for the world."

Sure enough, it was only a few more minutes before Big Jack's truck pulled into the front yard. Maeve heard the brakes squeal, heard the slamming door, his hurried clumping boots and immediately relaxed. Her Jack was here. He would make everything better. She wasn't alone anymore.

Maeve's labor was long but it went well, at least that's what the doctor said. HE was worried for Maeve, though. After so many miscarriages, this had been a delicate pregnancy to watch and if anything went wrong now, the family would be devastated. He watched Big Jack with his wife, how he hovered near her pillow, his booming voice turned down to a gentle whisper as Maeve looked to him for reassurance, and he knew that this couple could stand anything that came their way. The McKennas were a strong family.

Big Jack was asked to leave when it was time for the baby to be born so he went to sit on the stairs, on the third step from the top, to wait. It was after midnight when he heard a small cry from the bedroom and Big Jack leaned against the wall, tears of joy streaming down his face. The doctor came out of the bedroom and came over to him, clapping him on the back, congratulating him on the birth of a healthy, beautiful baby girl. He told Big Jack that he could come in to see her in a little bit, once mother and baby had a little rest and, with another clap on the new father's shoulder, turned and went back into the bedroom to check on his patients.

Big Jack sat on the stair, his arms around his knees. His smile had disappeared. A girl? All this time he had just assumed Maeve was carrying a boy, a McKenna that could carry on after him on the farm. What on earth was he going to do with a girl? HE put his head in his hands and sat in the dark until the doctor came to let him know he could come in to see his family.

When Big Jack stepped into the doorway and saw Maeve, looking so small and pale in the bed, his heart caught in his throat. She put out her hand to him and, as he drew closer, he saw a tiny fist poke out of the blanket on her lap. He took Maeve's hand, looking into her expectant face, and tried to smile but she had already seen his disappointment. The fist poked out again, this time accompanied by a strong cry and Big Jack reluctantly turned his attention to the baby, who, it seemed, wanted his attention.

His daughter, Katelyn Maureen McKenna, red and alert, was crying. She had a thick cap of dark hair and looked for all the world like a carbon copy of his beloved Maeve. He had to laugh at her crying. She had his lungs, that's for sure, his spirit. He let her waving fist graze his hand and it reflexively grabbed onto one of his fingers. For all his disappointment, Big Jack had to fall in love with this defiant, strong, gorgeous, helpless little creature.

The next morning, Big Jack kissed both mother and child as they slept before he went back out into the fields to finish planting. They looked so beautiful there that he felt guilty for his initial disappointment at hearing that his first born was a girl. The doctor had reassured them that Maeve had done so well, he didn't see why they couldn't start trying to have another child within a few months. It helped him to know that they could have another child and, perhaps, this time, it would be a boy.

Big Jack didn't have much time to rest that spring. As Katelyn grew, she kept her defiant nature, stubbornly refusing to sleep at night, preferring to sleep during the day. She was a bright, alert baby, though, and everyone that met her could see that she was a McKenna, through and through.

The crop that year was one of the most profitable ever on McKenna farm and Big Jack decided it was time to buy more land. He and Maeve had been talking about how nice it would be for Maureen to have her own home so they began plans to build one for her on the lot next to their house. Big Jack was going to build it himself so it would take a few years but that only meant that Maureen would continue living with them and help Maeve adjust to being a mother.

Big Jack also found a cabin on a nearby lake for the family to go to for weekend getaways during the summer. The cabin was small but cozy, with its knotty pine paneling and clapboard exterior. It sat in a stand of birch trees on the edge of a quiet lake just over the Virginia border. Somehow, it felt cooler here, far away from the flat blazing heat and humidity of the farm during the summer. The drive from the farm would never take too long but it was just far enough away to feel like they were in a new world. The cabin had a dock and a boathouse, and, when Big Jack first brought Maeve and Maureen to see the property, to see what he had just bought, he told them of his vision for the McKenna family. He painted a picture of their kids all bunking in the boathouse, learning how to swim, fish and canoe in the lake. Big Jack and Maeve could sit under the trees and relax together, while their family played around them and, if it got too warm, Maureen could sit inside in shady coolness, and watch the family play through one of the two picture windows that looked out over the lake.

Maeve loved everything about the cabin except the lake. She was deathly afraid of water and refused to go out on the dock or in the canoe with Big Jack so they spent their weekends separately, the female McKennas in the house while Big Jack canoed around the lake fishing to his heart's content. He planned to take Katelyn out exploring as soon as she was old enough and, hopefully, she would be joined by brothers soon.

As summers came and went, though, no more McKennas were born. The doctor didn't have an explanation for them, except to point at how hard it had been for Maeve to have a baby in the first place. Maeve, for her part, took all the blame on herself, believing she was a failure and, over the years, her moods would darken to deep bouts of depression. The only person that could ever reach her during these times was Maureen, someone who knew something about lost dreams. The friendship between the women grew and most times Maeve felt closer to her than she did her own mother.

Maureen fell ill one winter day, when Katelyn was 6. The bright little girl would sit by her Grammas bed, reading the newspaper to her, while Maeve brought her soup and tended to her. Maureen's cough worsened, though, and by the time the doctor was called to see to her, she had a bad case of pneumonia. She couldn't bear to be confined to bed, to feel so helpless, and she deteriorated quickly, her spirit broken. On a cold February day, Maureen passed away, leaving the remaining McKennas to mourn her.

None mourned more than Maeve. Not only had she lost a girlfriend and confidant, she felt as though she had lost her mother. Absolutely nothing Big Jack did could bring her out of the depression she fell into following Maureen's death. She went through the motions of being a mother and a wife but she felt that she had failed, not only as a mother but as a woman. She didn't understand why she didn't have more children and, while Maureen had always been there to remind her that it was God's will, she now felt that she was being punished by God for not being good enough.

As soon as the weather got nicer, Big Jack took the family to the cabin, thinking that it might do Maeve some good to get away from home. On their first day there, he talked her into letting him take Katelyn out in the canoe to go on her first fishing trip. He was hoping that Maeve would be encouraged by seeing father and daughter doing something together and that might make her feel better in some way. Maeve fussed over Katelyn, making sure she had a lifejacket fastened securely around her and that there were plenty of floating seat cushions. After putting a lunch of sandwiches and fruit in the canoe, Maeve stood on the shore watching her husband and daughter row slowly away from her.

Appreciating how hard Big Jack was trying to make her feel better, Maeve decided to make a big dinner for her family when they came back. She got busy in the kitchen, setting potatoes on to boil for potato salad and shelling peas. She thought she might try to make Maureen's recipe for cornbread before the day got to hot. She turned on the gas oven, a tricky, ancient thing that always scared her, and decided to let it warm up while she shelled peas by the picture window. Maeve could see her husband and her daughter in the canoe and felt reassured that they were fine. She kept her eye on them while she went through the bowl of peas, her fingers moving quickly through the bowl. When she had finished, she stood up to go back into the kitchen and felt a sick wooziness come over her. She dropped the bowl of peas on the floor and steadied herself on the doorframe leading into the kitchen. She tried to walk to the door, to go outside, but stumbled into the table, falling heavily on it and pulling it over on herself as she collapsed on the floor. She lay there, her cheek pressed to the linoleum, unable to cry out as she lost consciousness.

Big Jack and Katelyn had caught several trout while they were out. Katelyn was a quick learner and not squeamish at all, having no trouble putting worms on hooks or taking the hooks out of the fish she had caught. Big Jack was proud of his little girl, who sat at the head of the canoe like a little lady, her fingers trailing in the water. Her hair was getting long, just like her mother's, though she wore it in two braids. Big Jack could see Maeve in her profile. Her personality was all him, though. She was shrewd and stubborn, serious and hardworking, even at 6. She asked Big Jack endless questions about everything she saw, from the lily pads that grew on top of the water to the birds she saw diving under the water. Big Jack explained as much as he knew about these things, promising her that when they got back to the cabin, they would look the rest up in the encyclopedia.

When the sun was at its highest in the sky, they pulled the canoe to the opposite shore to have lunch. Katelyn dutifully spread out the blanket her mother had packed and put floatable cushions on the ground for them to sit on. Then she took out their lunch and set up a nice little picnic, making sure both she and her father washed their hands in the lake before eating. They make quick work of the sandwiches that Maeve had packed for them, saving the fruit for a dessert a little later. Tired from being out in the sun all day, they both settled down for an afternoon snooze. Once the sun began to go behind the trees, they packed everything back into the canoe and prepared to push off. Big Jack asked Katelyn if she knew which way they should go and, after putting her hand to her forehead and scanning the horizon, she picked out their cabin and pointed toward it, proud to be able to show her father the way home.

They rowed slowly back, Big Jack not in any rush for this day to end. He felt as though he and Katelyn had connected and hoped that, when they got home, Maeve would see the new relationship between father and daughter. Most of all, he wanted his wife to stop blaming herself for not having sons, though he knew that he was partly to blame for that. Now he knew that Katelyn could do anything a boy could do. Who was to say that she couldn't run the family farm when she got older? Big Jack had taken over the farm when he was just 14 and made it work and he knew that his daughter would break tradition and do something amazing, just like he did. She was a true McKenna.

As the canoe got closer to the cabin, Big Jack kept expecting Maeve to come to the window, to come out of the house. Surely she had been watching them out on the lake and was anxious to have her baby girl back in her arms. There was no movement from the cabin and the inside was eerily dark, even though the sun had begun to set. Katelyn noticed something was wrong, too, asking "Where's Mommy?" several times as her father rowed more urgently toward the cabin.

Big Jack pulled the canoe close to the dock and, as he was trying to tie it off, Katelyn jumped out and began running toward the house, calling for her mother, eager to tell her about the fish she had caught. Big Jack struggled to finish tying up the canoe and climb out, sensing something was wrong. He called to Katelyn, who looked over her shoulder as if she was racing him and continued on into the dark cabin.

Following her footsteps, Big Jack felt a sense of dread as he approached the door that Katelyn had left open even before the overwhelming odor of natural gas that was coming out of the cabin washed over him. He charged into the kitchen to find his daughter lying on the floor, shaking her mother's arm, saying "Mommy, wake up! I have a story to tell you!".

Grabbing his daughter and tucking her under his arm, Big Jack quickly took Katelyn out of the house, away from her mother's lifeless body. Running to the neighbor's cabin, Big Jack told them what had happened and asked if they could call for help and watch his daughter while he tried to rouse his wife.

When Big Jack got back to the house, he tried to air out the house the best he could, opening all the windows and doors. He gently lifted the table off of Maeve, his darling Maeve, and pulled her into his lap like a child. He sat with her, stroking her hair, telling her all about his day with Katelyn and what fun they had, rocking her gently back and forth as tears rolled down his face. That was how the police found them when they arrived half an hour later.

The police asked Big Jack question after question. Was his wife unhappy? Had she tried anything like this before? Was there anything he wasn't telling them? Big Jack was distraught. He knew his wife could get depressed but he never even considered that she might try to take her own life and he told the officers that. Then they began asking if he knew that the pilot light on the stove was faulty? Hadn't he taught her how to light it? He explained that, in years past, they had come here with his mother, who had shown Maeve how the appliances worked, but that his mother had died just a few months ago. He admitted that she was melancholy and distracted when they had come up here but he insisted that she would never do anything as selfish as taking her own life, which would hurt both her daughter and her husband. He also pointed to the fact that she seemed to be in the middle of making a big dinner for her family, leaving potatoes cooling in the sink and cornbread batter mixed in a bowl on the counter. Big Jack was distraught but he was determined to defend his wife. He just could not believe that Maeve would do something like that on purpose.

After a lengthy investigation, Maeve McKenna's death was ruled an accident. Unfortunately, because of the dramatic consequences surrounding her death, rumors of every sort began circulating, rumors that Big Jack couldn't always protect Katelyn from. Back home on the farm, he tried to explain why Mommy wasn't coming home any more and that she still loved Katelyn and would always be watching for her, but the little girl's endless questions eventually began to wear on Big Jack. He didn't have all the answers she seemed to want and he was having a hard enough time dealing with her death himself without being asked countless questions that he couldn't answer. His temper worsened with the strain of raising the inquisitive little girl and running the farm by himself. Katelyn learned when to stay out of her father's way and tried to take care of herself as much as she could, just to make her father happy.

Big Jack struggled through the days but the nights were even worse for him. When he tried to sleep, he was haunted by dreams of his dead wife, blaming him for not saving her, for not fixing the stove, for leaving her alone in the cabin. When his dreams became to difficult to bear, he would sit in the dark, drinking whiskey, until he passed into a dreamless stupor.

When Katelyn started school that year, she got herself dressed, brushed her own hair and packed her own lunch. Her teacher started off the year by asking the children to stand up and, one by one, tell the class about their family. When Katelyn stood up and told the class that her mother had died and that she had found her body, her teacher quickly stopped her, but not before most of the other six year olds in the class were visibly upset. At recess, one little boy from her class came up to her and said that his dad had told him that her mother had stuck her head in the oven to kill herself and that he should feel sorry for her. That was all Katelyn needed. While she sat in the principal's office later that afternoon, explaining to her father and the principal why she had punched Tommy Collins in the nose and wrestled him on the ground, she could see her father getting angrier and angrier. He was embarrassed that he had to come down to school on the first day because his daughter was fighting but he was angrier that people would be telling their kids that they should pity his daughter. Sure they had a rough time of it but he was a good father and he tried to give her everything she needed. He told the principal that he would discipline her at home but, after Katelyn was sent back to class, he asked that they take under consideration that Tommy Collins maybe deserved what he got for what he said. The principal looked at Big Jack, at the deep sadness in his eyes and his work weary face, and nodded.

"Your little girl is a scrapper. She'll be fine." He said. "If you could just explain to her that, in the future, she should keep her brawling off of school property, I'd appreciate it."

Big Jack shook the principal's hand gratefully and left the school, his resolve turning into rage. He climbed into his truck and turned onto the road, heading straight to the Collins farm. He had a score to settle.

Later at home, both McKennas sat together at the chrome kitchen table, Big Jack with a cup of coffee, Katelyn with a cup of milk. Both had their hands in bowls of ice.

Big Jack looked over at Katelyn, wondering how he could explain this, why people felt they had to be mean just when you were at your lowest, why some people had to pull you down to their level, for whatever reason, just so they would feel better about themselves. The Collins family was just that kind of family. Big Jack had gone to school with Mick Collins and he knew that little Tommy was just like his father without even meeting him. Mick had been smaller than most of the other boys his age and he had a mean streak a mile wide. He seemed to have no compassion for anything living, usually taking out his frustrations, which were considerable, on anything that could not fight back.

When they were in fourth grade, one afternoon Big Jack noticed a group of boys gathered under a tree at the far end of the schoolyard. He wandered over to them to see what was happening and found Mick at the middle, a bird on the ground in front of him, still alive but barely. He had been plucking its feathers and handing them out to the other boys around him. Big Jack had picked Mick up by the back of his shirt and thrown him several feet away while the other boys laughed. Their laughter turned into shocked silence when Big Jack turned to pick up the bird and, after mumbling a few words suddenly twisted its neck. Big Jack had left the schoolyard, walking home to bury the bird in his mother's flowerbed. From that day on, Mick avoided Big Jack but he was never out from under Big Jack's watchful gaze.

And now his daughter had to endure ugliness from his son, something that he hadn't even thought about in his grief. He looked at his daughter as she drank her milk and wondered how in the world he was going to make it without Maeve to take care of them. Lost, they were lost, and it was all he could do to stop himself from walking out the door. Maeve, how could you leave us, he thought as he stood and brought his cup of coffee to the counter by the sink, the sink where Maeve had spent much of her time cooking and cleaning and taking care of them, where Maureen before her had done the same for Jack his whole life. The sink was full of dirty dishes; they were beginning to spill over the counter. He needed to do something, hire someone to help. Maeve wouldn't like this. He began refilling his coffee mug but stopped at only half full. Then he opened the cabinet over the sink and took down the bottle of Bushmills he kept hidden there. He filled the rest of his mug with whiskey, took a big gulp and turned to begin washing the dishes. Tomorrow. He would get some help tomorrow.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Prosemonkey published on November 9, 2004 9:05 AM.

Chapter 3 ... in progress was the previous entry in this blog.

Chapter 5 ... in progress is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.