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MARCH 21, 1923
“Come on, come on.” After rushing from New York to Chicago in twenty hours thirty-four minutes, a record the conductor told me, the 20th Century Limited seemed to be panting its way along the last yards of track into LaSalle Street Station. I was desperate to get off the train. I’d left Paris two weeks ago in response to Rose’s telegram, “Mame dying.” Mame McCabe Kelly—Rose’s sister, my brother Michael’s wife, and my pal since we were girls. She was still alive, but weak, Rose had told me on the phone last night when I called from New York as soon as the Normandie had docked.
Mame’s doctor had told Rose there’d been some complications after “the operation for female problems.” He’d been vague, Rose said. A hysterectomy, probably an infection. Mame was not recovering. The prognosis was not good.
“What can you expect,” I’d said to Rose. “Mame had five children in seven years and she was thirty-one years old when she gave birth to the first. I mean, dear God.…”
“Nonie, please,” Rose had said. “She and Michael wanted a family and…” Rose had stopped. She and her husband John had tried so hard for a baby. Three miscarriages before I’d left and probably more since.
“Your sister Henrietta won’t let me see Mame,” Rose had said.
“I’ll handle Henrietta,” I’d said.
“I just think if the three of us were together again it might give Mame strength,” Rose said.
Finally the train stopped. The doors opened. I was down the stairs and onto the platform and there was my cousin Ed waiting, wearing a bowler hat and spats. Always dapper was Ed.
“Welcome home, Nonie,” he said. After ten years of being Nora, I was Nonie again. My nickname in the family. Ed was bringing me back into the fold.
He tipped his hat. Not much gray in his red hair. Three years older than me, so forty-seven. No bulge of fat under the double-breasted jacket of his pinstripe suit. Does he still run along the lake in the morning? He’d picked up the habit when he was boxing champion of the Brighton Park Athletic Association. His start in politics. I opened my arms but he stepped back. No hug. Not in public with a uniformed railway official next to him.
“Any word?” I said.
“No change as far as I know. We’ll pick up Rose and John Larney and go straight out to Argo.” Ed’s mother and Rose’s mother-in-law, Kate Larney, were sisters. One more strand in the web that bound us all together. “Let’s go,” Ed said to the official who led us off the platform.
A Red Cap followed behind with my Gladstone bag. “No other luggage?” Ed asked me as we walked through the station.
“No,” I said, “just this and my camera bag.” I planned to return to Paris as soon as …
Ed took the bag from me and gave the Red Cap a dollar. “Thank you very much,” the Negro man said.
“You a South Sider?” Ed asked.
“Yes, sir,” he said. “Bronzeville.”
Ed nodded. We walked toward the LaSalle Street exit.
“He probably voted for Thompson. The colored people in Chicago will support any Republican running because it’s the party of Lincoln. But we finally beat Big Bill Thompson. We’ve elected a good man, Nonie. Our first Irish Catholic mayor. Bill Dever. Decent Dever.”
“Well, that’s good,” I said.
We were out on Canal Street now. “More people and cars in the streets than I remember, Ed.”
“Chicago is growing,” Ed said. “The population has doubled since you left. The city limits are expanding. That’s why we have to get a respectable government. Change our reputation.”
“I know, Ed. Even in Paris when I said I was from Chicago someone would do this…” I made a tommy gun with my hands and pointed. “Ack, ack, ack.”
Ed shook his head. “Thompson took millions from Capone. Gave him the run of the city. Dever has already forced the Outfit’s headquarters out of Chicago into Cicero. It’s a start. With Dever in office, we’re moving ahead,” he said.
Ed walked up to a long expensive-looking black automobile. Took keys from his pocket and unlocked the door.
“Nice,” I said to him. Ed had been doing alright for himself when I’d left—a good city job as an engineer—but this was a rich man’s car. Not the time to ask questions, but I wondered.
“I started buying Packards because Mary liked to take drives out to the country on Sundays,” Ed said.
Mary. Ed’s wife. Poor girl. Only twenty-five when she died in the 1918 flu epidemic. Pregnant. Terrible that women who were expecting were the most susceptible. Both she and the little one gone.
“I’m so sorry about Mary, Ed,” I said. “I should have mentioned her right away.”
“Nothing to say really. Everyone tells me time will help. But it’s been five years and I miss her every day.”
“So sad,” I said.
“I wonder would the baby have been a girl,” Ed said. “Mary wanted a daughter and Ed Junior was looking forward to a little sister.”
I reached out and squeezed his forearm. “Oh, Ed,” I said.
“She’s buried in Calvary. A Celtic cross in Connemara marble. She’d be pleased.”
“I want to visit her grave,” I said. Some comfort to know the one you loved was tucked into a lovely grave, I thought.
Ed held the passenger door open for me. I got in. He put the bag in the back seat. Sat in the driver’s seat. I pulled the skirt of my suit down over my knees.
“That’s pretty short, Nonie,” he said. “And is that a man’s jacket you’re wearing?”
“It’s the fashion, Ed,” I said. “Haven’t Chicago women turned up their hems?”
“Not ones your age,” he said.
“In Paris, forty-four is not old,” I said.
“But you’re not in Paris now,” he said.
I’d spent ten years as Mademoiselle Photographie, a woman with a profession who earned her own living and was friendly with artists and writers. I’d been part of a group of Irish rebels clustered around the Collège des Irlandais near the Pantheon.
Honora Bridget Kelly was my baptismal name. I’d been called after my grandmother, Honora Keeley Kelly, but I preferred the more modern Nora. Granny’s name connected her to Ireland and a history I’d only recently discovered. Now I would be Nora, Nonie in the family, on my way to my brother’s house to look after his sick wife. Doing my duty. I was a Kelly of Chicago. A meat-and-potatoes town where grown men did not paint strange pictures or write obscure books and women lived for their husbands and children, of which I had neither. I had to wonder would the Biblical father have slaughtered a calf for a prodigal daughter? Probably would have told her to get into the kitchen and start the dinner.
Ed turned west on Jackson Boulevard. Though the Kellys and Larneys were South Siders, he told me Rose and John had broken with tradition and were living in a bungalow on the West Side.
“It’s closer to police headquarters, at Twenty-Sixth and California,” Ed said. “John’s working out of that station now.” Excusing the defection.
I’ll see Rose in a few minutes, I thought. Rose, Mame, and I. My brother Michael called us “The Trio.” Three young women marking the century’s turn with a vow to live our own lives and support each other. We would not marry at sixteen as our mothers had. We would have jobs that used our intelligence and skills. We would march and demonstrate until women could vote. Until our rights were recognized.
And we had won. The three of us had started at Montgomery Ward’s as telephone operators, taking orders from all over the country. We were required to sound like proper American ladies. Another trap. But we’d burst through the restraints that the anti-Irish Miss Allen had put on us and moved up. Mame became the private secretary of the vice president of Montgomery Ward, mastering that new machine, the typewriter. Rose and I set up our own Ladies Fashion Department. Twenty-five-year-old successes. The new women. Confident and unafraid and then, well … Rose fell in love with John Larney, married him. Not proper for a married woman to continue working. Not when she wants a family. And Mame was secretly in love with my brother Michael, the forty-five-year-old bachelor who didn’t dare declare his love for her openly for fear of our sister Henrietta. Henrietta, nearly seven years older than I am … she was just fifteen when she married a cousin of ours called Bill Kelly and moved with him sixty miles south of the city to a small Illinois farm town. I remembered visiting her in the little house surrounded by fields. Bill worked long hours farming and in a local food processing factory. Henrietta had three little ones in six years and then suddenly she and the children were back home with us. Bill Kelly dead in an accident at the factory and Henrietta a widow at twenty-two. Granny Honora had tried to explain to me that Henrietta was cranky all the time because she was mourning her husband. But I don’t think Henrietta gave Bill Kelly much thought. She’d only known him such a little time.
No, Henrietta was mad because she didn’t have her own house. Never occurred to her to get a job and work for the money to go out on her own. Henrietta had been a maid in one of the Prairie Avenue mansions when she was fourteen.
“I’m never taking orders from some prune-faced woman again. I married Bill Kelly so the only floors I’d have to scrub were my own,” she’d told me when, after a year of living with us, I repeated what my friend’s mother, Mary Sweeney, had said, that Henrietta could get a good job as a housekeeper.
We pulled up in front of John and Rose’s bungalow. Rose came running out. I hurried up the steps to meet her. We stood on the porch hugging, and I started crying. I’d missed her, missed Chicago, missed myself, really, the Nora that should have been. I loved my life in Paris and would be back there soon, but …
John walked out. “Good to see you, Nora. Hello, Ed.”
“And Mame, Rose?” I asked.
“Very sick, Nonie. That’s what Stella Lambert, their neighbor in Argo, says. She calls me. I haven’t seen Mame in a month. Your sister Henrietta is like a woman possessed. She won’t let me in when I go there. Poor Michael is in such a fog, spends hours just sitting next to Mame’s bed. The kids are terrified. And Henrietta’s, well, she’s hard on the little ones.”
“Don’t tell me,” I said. “Spare the rod, spoil the child. Her favorite saying. I’m home now, Rose, and I’m well able for Henrietta.”
An hour later we arrived at Michael and Mame’s big corner house, surrounded by trees and grass. A very small town and very pleasant-looking Summit was, even if the huge corn starch factory made everyone call Summit “Argo.”
Copyright © 2019 by Mary Pat Kelly