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JUNE 23, 1903
"We'll have to run for it, Ag." I can see Johnny Murphy forcing his old nags into the traffic on Archer Avenue. Miss the horse tram and I'll be late for work-again-and my niece Agnella for class at St. Xavier's High School.
"Come on," I say to her.
"Oh, Aunt Nonie. He's pulled away from our stop. We'll never catch up," she says, panting.
"Ah, now," I shout, "what God has for ye won't go past ye," imitating my Granny Honora's brogue. I start running.
"You shouldn't make fun, Aunt Nonie!" Agnella says, but begins trotting along beside me. One block left to Archer and Arch, where the brown brick bulk of St. Bridget's chides us. Should have left earlier.
Full summer now and the sun, finally serious about Chicago, turning our few trees green. A warm breeze too but from the west. So all clogged with the smell of the Stockyards.
Now Agnella and I pound along faster. I'm too old and too corseted to be running hell for leather through the neighborhood, as I'll be told by somebody I'm sure. Maybe my hobble skirt's a bit too tight around the ankles. Fashionable though. We're almost to Archer Avenue. I'm twenty-four, Agnella's fourteen, but she's already up to my shoulder. Her pleated black serge school uniform makes for easy running. Another tall Kelly woman. Though she's a blue-eyed blonde, and I have ginger hair and greenish eyes.
Johnny Murphy, the driver, sees us. I wave, but what does the amadán do but slap the reins on his swaybacked horses, making good his threat of yesterday morning. "I've my schedule, Miss Nora Kelly, and I can't be waiting for you every day." Leaving us, when it's not my fault we're late.
A big row at the breakfast table started by my sister Henrietta, Agnella's mother. Some nonsense about my not wringing out my shift properly and who but her had to wipe up the drips on the bathroom floor. You'd think she'd be grateful we have an indoor privy-all thanks to our big brother Mike, the master plumber. Henrietta railed on about me to poor Mike, who was trying to enjoy a second cup of coffee before heading to his job site. Supervisor now. Doesn't have to go out at the crack of dawn like my other brother Mart, who meets the fellows delivering newspapers to the little candy store Mike bought for him. Or James the youngest boy, who works for the railroad. My sister Annie's out early too. A policewoman, if you could feature it, but then we're four years into the twentieth century and we women are coming into our own, though Henrietta's too busy feeling sorry for herself to see any opportunity. Not easy for her, widowed at twenty-one from a husband called Kelly, would you believe? She and her three children having to move back in with the family. Still that was years ago. Mam spoke up for me at breakfast but Henrietta got all offended and asked Mam didn't she appreciate her and the way she runs the house and maybe she should leave and take the children with her though how they'd survive, she didn't know. And that stopped Mam because it's looking as if Henrietta's kids might be the only grandchildren she'll ever know, what with Mike coming up to forty already and not married, and the rest of us four stair-steps the same.
Only my brother Edward has a wife, and they live away in Indiana with her people. Mam always says her greatest sorrow is that her own mother back in Ireland never knew any of us. And Granny Honora had agreed. Bad enough to have to say farewell to your children but to never set eyes on grandchildren ...
I remember Mam talking to Granny Honora right before Granny died, the two of them wondering why we didn't find mates when even in the worst times in Ireland and the early days in Chicago people couldn't wait to pair up. Better chance with two working together, Mam said, and now with plenty of good jobs going and her children blessed with work, they stayed clustered at home.
Granny said, "Ah well, maybe they're only taking their time. I'd say young Honora won't be lollygagging."
But that was then. Granny's gone four years now and me still not married. Granny was the only one called me Honora. Named after her. But I was always Nora in school, and Nonie in the family, which seemed right because she, Granny, was the true Honora Kelly. Henrietta held my name against me. Said she should've been called after Granny. "You carry the name of two women who helped this family," Granny had told her which shut Henrietta up. Still, there'd be no bickering at the breakfast table if Granny Honora were still alive.
Nor would we be rushing out at the last minute and have to run for our lives to catch Johnny Murphy.
"Johnny!" I shout. He's trying to maneuver the tram past-of all things-a Model T Ford bumping along leading the parade. Rare enough in Bridgeport. I'm trying to talk Mike into getting an auto. Now that would be the bee's knees.
"Wait! Wait!" I yell.
So close now-if I can get a grip on that pole-I stretch out my right hand, pulling Agnella along with my left. Suddenly I'm flying, swinging up onto the platform with Agnella beside me, just like that. And each of us held by one big hand of this fellow. Now I stumble into to him and doesn't he hug me to himself, laughing.
And that starts it, God forgive me. A kind of enchantment. In Granny Honora's stories, women in Ireland are whisked off to fairyland where they dance and feast through the night, only to come home the next morning to find a century has passed. Is that what's happening to me?
"Thank you," I say when I get my breath. Agnella and I stare at this giant of a fellow. She nods and hurries toward the back of the car, but I smile right into his face. "One in the eye for Johnny Murphy," I say, "but I'd best pay my fare now."
"No, no," he says. "All taken care of. When I saw you and your sister..."
"Niece, then-but the both of you running flat out, you reminded me of this game filly I own who can't bear to lose so I had to lend a hand."
"Game filly? A horse?" I say, ready to get mad but he laughs again and raises his straw boater hat. Wearing one of those new cream-colored suits that show the dirt.
"I'm Tim McShane, miss. Or is it missus?"
"Miss," I say, "Miss Nora Kelly," and stick out my hand. And doesn't he take it in both of his and wink at me. Much too bold for the Archer Avenue tram at eight in the morning with every eye on us.
I pull my hand away and walk back to where Agnella waits with our friends Rose and Mame McCabe in the seats they save for us every morning since they board the tram earlier at the Brighton Park stop near where they live in a boardinghouse run by my Aunt Kate. The sisters work with me at Montgomery Ward, telephone operators too, taking orders for the catalog, the three of us, which my sister Henrietta finds suspect.
"Nattering away to strangers all day? Not what I'd call proper." But my brother Mike loves to get us telling stories about the orders we get. He calls us "the Trio"-me the oldest at twenty-four. Rose with her big hazel eyes and round, sweet face is twenty-two. Mame's just twenty-one but regal somehow-dark eyes, high cheekbones, straight nose ... mine turns up a bit. All of us old to be unmarried, as Henrietta reminds me often. "Old maids, the lot of you," she'll say to me.
"Better than being a crabbed widow like you," I say back to her. Cruel, I know, but that tongue of hers sets me off before I even realize it.
Henrietta loves to tear down the McCabes. Jealous because we three are always so well turned out thanks to Rose's skill as a seamstress. Any outfit I can draw Rose can make. Mame's wearing one of mine now-deep brown skirt with a burnt-orange fitted jacket. Though Rose copied her own navy blue cotton from Woman's Home Companion. I had offered to design a dress for Henrietta that Rose would sew. She'd only laughed.
But now both McCabes shake their heads at me. Rose clicks her tongue.
"Oh, Nonie," Rose says. "That's Tim McShane."
"I know," I say. "He introduced himself."
"No decent woman in Brighton Park would even speak to him." Agnella nods along with Rose and then Mame speaks up.
"He is a bit of a bad hat, Nonie. Trains racehorses at the track in the Park."
"So? What's wrong with that? Mike and my cousin Ed go to the track all the time."
"But they don't spend their time with gangsters. They say Tim McShane does all kinds of things to the horses to make them win," Mame says.
"Or lose," Rose puts in. "And he's Dolly McKee's fancy man."
"The singer, Dolly McKee? But she must be years older than he is," I say.
I was twelve years old the first time Mam took me to the McVicker's Theatre to see Dolly McKee perform and Dolly wasn't young then. Still gorgeous though up there under the spotlight in that sparkly dress, singing "Love's Old Sweet Song" with Mam crying next to me thinking of my father, who died so young. Still able to fill a theater all these years later is Dolly McKee, and living like a queen in the Palmer House. So she picked out Tim McShane. Interesting.
"Dolly is always at the track, and they say she owns the horses Tim trains. Took up with him years ago," Rose goes on.
"You two have his seed, breed, and generation," I say. "Why haven't you talked about him before?"
"There's a new boarder come to Aunt Kate's who works at the track. A little runt of a Cavan fellow. He's been telling us all about Tim McShane," Mame says.
"And now he's very kindly rescued Ag and me. I wonder, did I thank him properly?" I stand up but Ag and Rose pull me down.
"Maybe I'll ask him for tickets to Dolly's show," I say.
"Oh, Nonie! You wouldn't!" Rose says.
"Not like you two to be so skittery," I say.
"A man to stay away from," Mame says. "According to the little Cavan fellow."
"Look there, he's getting off anyway," Rose says.
The tram stops at LaSalle right near the new City Hall. Tim McShane steps off then looks up to see the four of us pressed against the window. He tips his hat and gives a half bow. The McCabes and Ag lean back, but I wave at Tim McShane and incline my head. He smiles. Oh!
And, of course, our supervisor Miss Allen is annoyed as the three of us come sliding into our chairs and clap the headphones over our ears just as the nine o'clock start bell rings. Mad at us for cutting the time so close and madder still that we'd made it and she couldn't scold us. Not a bad sort really, Miss Allen, but not from Chicago, unmarried, no family here, a neat, well-dressed woman. Devoted to the company.
"You are Montgomery Ward to the world," she says to us now as she does every morning. "Your voice, your diction, your cool professional manner creates confidence in our customers. They need to trust you."
I take out the dog-eared script she's written for us and begin. Twenty of us in a long row push the plugs into the switchboard, then say in the clear, unaccented voice that Miss Allen demands, "Good morning. I am a Montgomery Ward operator, ready to take your order." No deviation, as Miss Allen walks along behind us, listening.
We start together. The Good-Morning Chorus, Rose calls us, but with each call and order the pace changes. "What sizes? What colors? How many?" we ask.
"How much?" they come back. "How long before my order gets there?"
My first caller's new to the telephone. I imagine him standing next to the cracker barrel at a country store, shouting into the round black receiver. Had to be heard in Chicago, after all. He repeats his name and address twice, sure I wouldn't get it right the first time.
"I'll send your seeds out COD on the next train," I say to him three times.
"Nora," Miss Allen says to me, "keep it short."
My voice tangles with the others as words twist up and down the rows.
Miss Allen moves to the other end of the row and I hear Mame, beside me, say, "Thank God your wheat is growing well!" She pauses and then says, "Yes, rain is a blessing. Though when I was a little girl in Ireland I thought God blessed us too well!" Another pause. "Oh, Sweden? How lovely. We have a large community of Swedish people living right here in Chicago. My sister and I buy the best rye bread there." A pause, then, "Your wife makes rye? Wonderful," and, "Yes, please send me the recipe. Address it to..."
Rose hisses at Mame but it's too late. Miss Allen is standing behind them.
"Not again, Miss McCabe! How many times do I have to tell you, we do not engage the customers in private conversation?" Miss Allen leans over Mame and speaks right into the telephone: "Thank you, sir, for your order ... Yes, I'll tell the sweet little Irish girl." She chomps out the words. Mame still has a hint of the lilt that came with her across the ocean.
Miss Allen ends the call, turns to Mame. "That's it, Miss McCabe! You have been warned innumerable times. Now come with me to Mr. Bartlett's office. You are fired."
Rose stands up. "She was only being nice, Miss Allen."
"You are here to take orders, not to be nice."
I get up then.
"Now, Miss Allen, be honest. Doesn't Mame get bigger orders than any of us? The customer starts talking and remembers something else he wants to buy."
"That's true, Miss Allen," Mame says. "Why, yesterday this fellow had completely forgotten his wedding anniversary until I asked him how he met his wife and then..."
"You what?" Miss Allen says. "This is beyond anything I can even imagine!"
"Oh, for God's sake, Miss Allen," I say. "I chat a bit, too, if the customer is willing. So what?"
"Time, Miss Kelly. Time and money. Come with me, Miss McCabe."
"If you're firing her, better fire me too," I say.
Rose has already taken off her headset.
"And me," she says.
The switchboard buzzes away, but no one is answering the calls. Every one of the girls is watching and listening to us.
I remember my great-uncle Patrick's story of the strike he led of the fellows digging the Illinois and Michigan Canal and wonder if I say, "Girls, rise up!," will they follow me?
Mame smiles at Miss Allen.
"I know why you're upset with me," she says. "You think I'm being disrespectful, that I ignore all your teachings and don't deserve the money Mr. Ward pays me. But say that fellow does send his wife's recipe to me, and I maybe write a note saying thanks. Wouldn't he be more likely to think of Ward's instead of Sears when he wants a new tractor?"
"That's beside the point," Miss Allen says.
She realizes the rest of the girls are ignoring the ringing phones. "Girls! Man your stations!" she shouts, and the "Good morning"s start up.
"Mame won't do it again," Rose says.
"Why not?" I say. "Miss Allen, take all three of us to Mr. Bartlett. You make your case, and we'll make ours."
Just then Josie Schmidt calls out from the end of the row. "I've a man here wants to give his order to the Irish girl who spoke to him in Polish. He and three other farmers have pitched in to buy a harvester, and he wants..."
"Tell him she doesn't work here anymore," I shout back.
Miss Allen doesn't like that one bit. "Go and take the order, Miss McCabe," she says, and to us, "You two get back to work."
* * *
"Let's go to Henricci's for lunch," I say when noon finally comes.
"Oh, Nonie," Rose says, "that place's wildly expensive."
"So? We're celebrating!"
"Celebrating?" Mame asks.
"A victory over Miss Allen. Hurrah for the working woman."
Usually we duck into one of the tearooms or cafés around Ward's that have discreet signs in the windows-LADIES WELCOME-because ladies aren't welcome in most of the bars and restaurants downtown. Still a novelty for women to be out and about working. Lady shoppers could eat lunch at Field's Walnut Room, but not in the establishments along LaSalle or State Street where the businessmen and politicians of Chicago gather to do their deals and slap each other's backs. Henricci's is the back-slappingest of them all and right near City Hall.
The headwaiter stands near the door, one of those starched white aprons covering him from his chest to the floor.
"His wife must spend half her days washing it," Rose whispers to me as the man frowns at us and starts a lot of blather about a nice tearoom around the corner-not a Bridgeport fellow, not Irish even, but luckily Rick Garvey, a big-shot lawyer, is coming in right behind us and he says, "Hello, Nora," and to the waiter, "You must know Nora Kelly, Mike Kelly's sister, Ed's cousin. Her uncles are Dominic and Luke and Steve and..."
I smile at Rick and say to the waiter, "I've loads of relations. Do I have to name them all for us to get a table?"
"No," he says, and with a kind of snotty nod to Rick, he leads us past the tables with Reserved signs to the very back of the restaurant.
I can just about see the entrance from my seat. We order and eat chicken pot pies and drink two glasses each of root beer. "Let's have sundaes," I say. Not ready to leave. Keeping an eye on the door as I scoop up the last of the hot fudge taking my time. "For heaven's sake, Nonie. Come on," Rose says. "We have to get back. Can't be late after all the bother this morning."
"Bother?" I say. "What we should do is organize the girls into a union and march right out of Montgomery Ward's. Why can't Mame chat to the customers and make them laugh? I'm tired of all the rules and regulations they put on us! Jesus, that last memo Miss Allen pinned to the bulletin board-'Operators should not adjust their underwear while at the switchboard'-all because Janie O'Brien loosened her stays. When women get the vote we won't allow such nonsense!"
"There she goes," Mame says to Rose. "She'll have us standing on our chairs denouncing Mr. Henricci for putting us back here in the ladies' section."
"Not a bad idea," I say, and pretend to climb onto my chair. And then I see him ...
Tim McShane coming right through the door as if I'd conjured him out of the air, much taller than the headwaiter. Taking his hat off. Blond curly hair, big shoulders, those massive hands. And that cream-colored suit.
The headwaiter is laughing. Not so uppity now, bowing and scraping to a fare-thee-well.
Tim McShane doesn't see us. The waiter leads him to a table by the window, and takes away the Reserved sign.
"Look," I say to Rose and Mame, "it's Tim McShane. What's to stop me from going over there and saying, 'What a coincidence!' and 'Thank you again for your rescue!'"
"We'll stop you," Rose says, pulling me back into my seat. "He's a scoundrel, Nonie. Please."
"Oh, Rose, you're too good for this world. So he's not a saint. So he's..."
But the rest of the sentence sputters because who's sailing into Henricci's, flags and feathers flying, but only Chicago's most famous soprano Dolly McKee herself. A woman who looks as if she doesn't give a snap of her fingers about goodness. Lunchtime at Henricci's, and she's dressed for dinner at the Palmer House. All in black, with jet beads sewn over the front of her dress and the neckline cut so low her white bosom shines across the room.
I remember how, as a lone figure in the spotlight, she reached Mam and me high in the balcony of the McVicker's Theatre. Now she overwhelms Henricci's, moving toward her table and Tim McShane, who stands up. She offers him her hand, and doesn't he kiss it.
I sit down. So does Dolly.
"Jesus, Mary, and Joseph," I say.
"He's devoted to her. That's what they say," Mame says.
Awfully bright at that window table, the light ducks under the brim of Dolly's hat, hits her across her face. Wrinkles under all that powder and rouge. Fifty at least, I think. But every fellow in the place is looking over at her. Now the county clerk, the assesor, and two aldermen walk over to her table. She says a word or two to each man and then, with a lovely half wave, sends him on his way.
"Well, that's that," I say to Mame and Rose. "Let's go."
How I wish for a back door. None in Henricci's. So the three of us have to walk right past Queen Dolly and her courtier to get out of the place.
He won't see me, I think. Too dazzled. I have my hand on the first panel of the revolving door when his voice catches me.
"Well, if it isn't the nearly late Miss Kelly." Calling out to me while he lounges in his chair. Laughing. Making a show of me in front of everyone.
I turn-with Rose and Mame on each side of me-stand very straight, and nod. "Good afternoon, Mr. McShane, Mrs. McKee," I say.
"Come over," Tim says, waving his cigar.
Drinking, I think. The table full of beer steins and not two o'clock. I know I should leave. But don't I walk right over with Rose and Mame following. Is this what happens to the women in Granny's stories of enchantment? Do their minds melt away and their bodies pull them forward?
"Dolly, here's the girl I told you about," Tim McShane says.
"The damsel in distress," Dolly says, nodding her head to me. "And Tim saved you."
The feathers on her hat point straight at my heart. "Well," I say, "I could have caught the next car."
"What you should have done," she says. "Long ago I stopped running. I stand still and draw good things to myself."
"Fine for you," I say, "but I'll keep sprinting while I'm able."
A snort from Mame-suppressing a laugh.
"These are my friends, Rose and Mame McCabe."
"Ah, sisters," Dolly says. "I was never blessed with sisters. Born in a trunk and raised on the Orpheum Circuit, me and Georgie Cohan growing up together." Now she spreads her arms wide. "Warmhearted show people my only family! And you are unmarried women, earning your own way in the world, I understand." She bows her head and sighs, and suddenly we three are characters drawn into a melodrama.
"I see someone's been inquiring about us," I say, looking at Tim McShane.
"City Hall is a great place for information," he says. "And, of course, I've had the pleasure of seeing the McCabe sisters at Mass at St. Agnes in Brighton Park." He inclines his head toward them.
Jesus, are we in some kind of play? The big phony. I'd say it's far from Mass at St. Agnes Tim McShane is on a Sunday morning.
Rose, of course, takes him at his word and says, "Strange. I've never seen you."
"Well, I stand at the back," he says.
But Mame isn't letting him get away with such palaver. "Very far in the back, I'd say. The street, even," she says.
He laughs at that.
"Or, do you just tip your hat as you go by?" I ask.
"I do, indeed."
Rose speaks up. "When I pass a church, I always make a visit so when they roll my body up the aisle the Lord won't say, 'Who is it?'"
I laugh, but Dolly McKee lifts up her eyes, aiming for heaven I suppose, but hitting Henricci's ceiling. She touches some imagined moisture under her eyes. "Ah yes, that day will come for all of us. My late husband was a strapping, healthy young man one day and gone the next."
Very quickly gone, I think. Most people assume Dolly's "Mrs." is a title she's given herself as some women performers do. Lends a bit of respectability. Silly, I think. Sarah Bernhardt doesn't hide behind an imagined husband, nor did Jenny Lind or Lillie Langtry, but Dolly's dabbing away at the memory of great sorrow, her eyes closed.
How in the hell does Tim McShane put up with her? I wonder. But then Dolly opens her eyes and looks right at me.
Whoa. The mind behind her histrionics shows itself. Applaud and move on if you know what's good for you, those dark eyes say.
Now she stares at Tim, who stands up immediately and says, "So nice to see you again, ladies," and then to Dolly, "We must give these girls some tickets for your appearance at the Lyric Opera."
She smiles. "Best if they wait until I'm in a vaudeville show at the McVicker's again. I've agreed to appear with the Cohans next month. More pleasurable for you than my opera repertoire," she says, still looking at me. "What's your name again?"
"Kelly," I say. And right there in front of God and man and the headwaiter I sing:
"Has anybody here seen Kelly?
Has anybody here seen Kelly?
Have you seen him smile?
Oh, his hair is red and his eyes are blue
And he's Irish through and through
Has anybody here seen Kelly?
Kelly from the Emerald Isle?"
And don't the fellows at the next table start clapping, Mame and Rose along with them.
Dolly doesn't applaud. "I'll remember the name," she says.
Tim McShane says nothing as we leave.
We wait until we get around the corner to State Street, and then slip into the doorway of Marshall Field's and kill ourselves laughing.
"Oh, Nonie!" Rose says. "Singing like that right in the restaurant!"
"I just couldn't take another minute of her looking down her nose at us," I say.
"She is beautiful," Mame says. "Maybe theater people are just different from regular people."
"You mean members of the great family of show business?"
"Nice to see the Cohans," Rose says. "Do you think she'll really give us tickets?"
"Now Rose, you're the one warning me off Tim McShane, and you'd take tickets from him?"
"No, I guess we can't," she says.
"Well, that was a waste of a dollar," I say.
"Why?" Rose says. "It was a lovely lunch, and we met Dolly McKee!"
"And you did see Tim McShane, Nonie," Mame says.
"Oh." Rose catching on. "So that's why we went."
"Pathetic to see a grown man at that woman's beck and call," I say.
"Maybe he loves her," Mame says.
"I'm sure he loves training her horses," I say. "Do they live together?"
"Nonie," Mame says, "they're not married. Even Dolly McKee wouldn't dare."
"No decent person would ever attend another one of her shows," Rose says.
"Whatever their relationship is, it's no concern of ours, is it, Nonie?" Mame says to me.
"None at all," I say.
* * *
We have to run the last three blocks to Ward's, keeping our eyes on that golden angel on the top of the building. He's blowing his horn right at us. "Late again," he trumpets.
Miss Allen leads the three of us right up to Mr. Bartlett's office.
"Miss Allen tells me you three girls have had quite a day," he says-new to Ward's, a short, plumpish man with black hair, the color of his very serious suit. "You've disobeyed every one of Miss Allen's rules, and are one hour late coming from lunch." He opens a file folder.
"I have quite a number of complaints from Miss Allen." But then he smiles. Strange.
Now, any other two girls working there would've put blame right on me, wouldn't have been able to help themselves, but the McCabes are two of the best, and say nothing. Not a word from any of the three of us.
Fire us, fire us, get it over with, I think.
"Miss Allen says you three are insubordinate and undisciplined," Mr. Bartlett says, paging through the folder.
"Irish," Miss Allen says.
"That's it," I say. "I quit!"
"Now, just a minute," Mr. Bartlett says. "I believe in listening to my employees."
All right ... What did I have to lose? So I start. "First of all, don't blame Rose and Mame for being late. It was my fault."
Mame interrupts. "We went to lunch because Miss Allen was cross with me. And Dolly McKee was in the restaurant and she spoke to us. So how could we rush out? That would be very rude."
"Dolly McKee?" Mr. Bartlett says. "Yes, she would be hard to break away from."
Miss Allen holds up her hand. "You see what I mean, Mr. Bartlett? These girls are always full of some story or another. Distracting, that's what they are, and this one," she points at Mame, "goes on and on to the customers and promises to send them recipes and all kinds of folderol."
"What about the Polish farmers and the harvester, Miss Allen?" I say.
"What harvester?" he asks.
So I tell Mr. Bartlett about Mame making friends with the farmer, and how he joined together with his friends to buy a harvester from us instead of at Sears or John Deere, and Mr. Bartlett nods so I go on. "You don't understand. Mame is not just a good talker, she's a great writer and understands people."
"I hardly think..." Miss Allen starts but now she is the one gestured into silence by Mr. Bartlett's hand.
"Go on," he says to me.
"Well, you know how the Tribune has an essay contest every year for students, 'Why I'm a Patriot'?"
"I do. A good promotion," he says.
"Well, Mame won it when she was thirteen. First prize! And she didn't write it about the Founding Fathers or wars or the Constitution. She wrote about coming to America. Her mother and sister-Rose here-had gone ahead, so Mame was a ten-year-old girl traveling alone with only a neighbor to watch her on that ship during the long, long voyage. What was the name of the ship, Mame?" I ask her.
"The Compania," she says.
"Oh, Nonie, Mr. Bartlett isn't interested," Rose says.
"No, go on," he says.
"Well, when the ship sailed into New York Harbor and Mame saw the Statue of Liberty, she thought it was a giant statue of Our Lady, the mother of Jesus, holding up a light and showing Mame the way to America and her own mother. Isn't that right, Mame?"
"I did," she says. "You see, Mr. Bartlett, I was very young and I'd been so lonely, knowing my mother and sister only through letters, and here was the biggest Blessed Mother I've ever seen saying 'All will be well.'"
"Tell him about the train trip, Mame," I say.
"Well, our neighbor from Cavan, Mary Clarke, took care of me on the ship then traveled with me to Chicago. Loads of people on that train, sharing all kinds of different food with each other-German sausage, Polish pierogies, mozzarella on Italian bread-things I'd never tasted. As I ate, I stared out the window. So many trees! In Ireland only the rich have trees but in America trees cover the place and anybody can stretch out under their shade. We came to Union Station and then my mother and Rose were rushing up to me, hugging me close. So I wrote that America was a generous mother sharing her love with the whole world, taking you into the family, setting out a picnic under shady trees, serving food from all over the world and saying, 'Eat. You're home,' and that's why I'm a patriot."
"And won first prize," I finish for her.
"Interesting," he says. And then to me, "And you, Miss Kelly, are you a writer too?"
I shake my head, no, but Rose speaks up. "Nora's an artist. She can draw anything and anybody. See the dress she's wearing? She designed it."
"And Rose made the pattern and sewed it for me," I say. "Not easy to get a hobble skirt right and..."
"Really, girls," Miss Allen says. "I apologize, Mr. Bartlett. I didn't intend to waste your time this way. I just can't have such flibbertigibbets among my operators. They are a bad influence. And this one," she points at me, "is always talking to the girls about how women should vote, and all kinds of socialist nonsense."
"Yes, these three are a challenge," Mr. Bartlett says. "I see your problem and agree with you, these girls are not suited to be order takers. Would you three wait in the outer office please."
I hear Miss Allen let out a breath and say, "Thank you, sir, thank you. Two weeks' pay in lieu of notice would be fine," as we leave the office.
"Why is he making us wait," I say. "Fire us and be done with it."
But a few minutes later Mr. Bartlett calls us back in. Miss Allen's slumped down in her chair, silent.
"Miss Allen and I agree that her department is not the right place for you three," Mr. Bartlett says, "but Montgomery Ward doesn't want to lose such talented young women. Miss McCabe, I could use a good writer to answer the questions and suggestions customers send me. Do you think you could handle such correspondence?"
At first I don't take in what he's saying. But then I blurt out, "Mame has lovely handwriting."
"Montgomery Ward just has purchased typewriters, Miss Kelly," he says. "We feel women with their smaller fingers and ability to endure repetitive motion might be well suited to the typewriter. Miss McCabe, do you mind being part of such an experiment?"
"Not at all, Mr. Bartlett," Mame says.
"And you two," he says, "might collaborate on women's fashions. Montgomery Ward has wanted to add such a section to our catalog. But our customers would not be interested in European styles or even New York imports. We want nice dresses with easy-to-follow patterns. Turn around, Miss Kelly ... Yes, plain but fashionable garments like your dress will do very nicely. Don't you agree, Miss Allen?"
She barely lifts her head. "I suppose so," she says.
"I'm thinking of setting up Miss Kelly and Miss Rose McCabe as our new Ladies' Fashion Department. We'll try, say, seven different pieces illustrated by Miss Kelly's design sketches in the catalog, then duplicate and sell Miss McCabe's patterns. We'll raise your salaries by one dollar a week."
This shocks Miss Allen. "But," she says, "they'll be making five dollars a week, and that's what I'm paid!"
"And you're worth every penny."
Then Mr. Bartlett says to me, "Montgomery Ward will own the designs and patterns outright, you understand that Miss Kelly?"
Wow. Is he really offering to pay me to make sketches of clothes when every teacher I've ever had has reprimanded me for doodling? And isn't my sister Henrietta death on me for "littering the house with useless scraps of paper"? Mr. Bartlett will put my sketches in the catalog with Rose's patterns for women to buy? I can do seven sketches in a day, so many ideas rattling around inside my head. Let Montgomery Ward own them. What am I going to do with them? Not likely Rose and I would ever set up as dressmakers. I can't see myself passing a tape measure around some lady's hips with my mouth full of pins. If I'd imagined a perfect job, drawing would be it, and for five dollars a week! Wait until Henrietta hears about this.
"Why not take the rest of the day off," Mr. Bartlett says. "Miss Allen will find some space for the Fashion Department, and put a desk and a typewriter in my outer office for you, Miss McCabe. Thank you, girls. Good afternoon."
We three can't move. Stunned is the least of it.
Finally Rose says, "Thank you, Mr. Bartlett. Thank you very much."
Mame adds, "We're very grateful."
And I say, "We will do a good job for you."
"I believe you will," he says, "and Miss Kelly, please give my regards to your brother Mike."
"You know him?"
"I do. And your cousin Ed, too, a fine boxer."
"You, you don't go to the Brighton Park Athletic Club, do you?" I ask.
"Sometimes," he said. "On Saturday when I visit my grandmother, Kate O'Connor."
"Of the shop?" says Rose. "Are you her daughter Mary's son?"
"Yes," he says.
"But Aunt Kate Larney says Mary O'Connor married a rich Protestant and left the neighborhood."
"Not entirely," he says, and then, "Miss Allen, close your mouth." He smiles at us. "I married a McCarthy from the Patch. My wife and I are at Faith, Hope and Charity in Winnetka. I've had my eye on you three for a while."
"Oh Jesus," I say. "You had us shaking in our boots, not knowing you were one of us."
"I am first and foremost an employee of Montgomery Ward. I am offering you these jobs because I believe you have talents that will benefit the company. But there will be no favoritism, and certainly no disruptions of our labor force by troublemakers of any denomination. Is that understood, Miss Kelly?"
"I'm a Democrat, not an agitator," I say. "But I do want women to vote and workers to be treated fairly. What's wrong with that?"
"Nothing," he says, "as long as you do a good day's work."
"Oh, we will, we will," Rose says.
"Come on, Nonie," Mame says, "before our afternoon off is over. We'll be back promptly at nine, Miss Allen."
Our former supervisor stands up, straightens her back.
"Eight-forty-five," she says.
"But..." I start.
The McCabes take my arm and push me out the door.
"For Lord's sake, Nonie," Mame says to me when we are safely down the stairs and in the hallway. "Were you trying to talk the man into changing his mind?"
"What do we tell the others?" I say as we stand before the door to the telephone room.
"They're probably sure we've been fired," Mame says. "They'll be happy for us."
"Will they?" I say. I'm thinking of Henrietta's begrudgery and wondering how I'd react to such a tale of good fortune. Jealousy and Envy-two of the deadly sins according to the catechism.
I want to hold on to the good news, to protect it, but Mame's through the door saying, "Girls! Girls! We didn't get fired! We have lovely new jobs! Isn't that wonderful?"
All of them look at us, surprised, and I see some of that deadly sinfulness on a few faces.
But then Alice Jennings, who sits next to Mame, gets up, comes over, and hugs her. "I'm so glad!"
And then from the others, "Good on you! Good girls, yourselves!"
Well, I think, Tim McShane should know that Dolly McKee's not the only professional woman going. What God has for you won't go past you.
Copyright © 2015 by Mary Pat Kelly