Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Flashback: After Father’s Death, What to do About Mother?

[Reminiscences of more than fifty years in politics for my kids and grandchildren].

After forty-three years of marriage, Father’s death removed from Mother the heavy responsibilities she had to keep him well, fairly optimistic and occupied with diversified interests. She had done extraordinarily well. Born Frances Catherine Cleary on the North Side to an Irish Catholic Democratic family, she was religious but not scrupulous in literal observance as was Father; endowed with a sense of Irish fatalism, she had decided long ago that most finger-pointing solemn theologians—except divinely inspired ones—were just like everyone else including weather prognosticators: often wrong but never in doubt. They were daily Mass-goers in addition to attendees of the Mother of Sorrows novenas conducted seemingly everywhere but which originated at Our Lady of Sorrows church on the West Side that was so popular during times of trouble—like the Depression and World War II. In addition, his self-prescribed regimen of prayers would have been fitting for a Trappist breviary); she prayed daily, mornings and at night, enjoyed a Martini on occasion (he never drank), loved to dance (her one disappointment was that Father didn’t and wouldn’t learn), loved to watch Ed Sullivan on TV winding up with “What’s My Line?” and had a suspicion that all politics was essential hogwash.

Like Father, she had a limited education—no college. But hers was skimpy even for the times. He finished DePaul Academy which was a very good prep school where he took typing and Gregg shorthand (the latter equipping him to keep up with a speaker as fast as he could go, producing an accurate transcript of his words); she did not finish public high school (Robert Waller H. S.) before she decided that she was more interested in going to work. She was probably the most practical person I’ve ever known. Father would come home with these terrible dilemmas—everything but the FBI whose operations he kept strictly to himself: if I do such-and-such at work this will likely happen; yet, if I fail to do such-and-such, this could possibly happen. Yet if I do nothing, who knows what will happen? The choice she once picked was to do nothing because since he didn’t know would what would happen, it may well be of less danger than what he was sure would occur with the other two alternatives—ergo the prudent thing would be to see what would happen: maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. Her relentless logic appealed to me but never to Father. She was a compulsive doer; he a compulsive thinker and ruminator, then doer with some trepidation he would be wrong.

Her marble-layer father, Thomas Francis Cleary, born here, was as a young man involved in the Democratic party in what is now the 47th ward. As a young man he heard William Jennings Bryan make the “Cross of Gold” speech at the 1896 Democratic national convention held at the old Coliseum and was passionately moved by it. He became a precinct captain at the time when Republicans were in the ascendancy and slowly turned his precinct around. He was the one who enlisted an Irishman in politics generations ago by the name of Joe Gill.

Some long forgotten controversy led him to run for Democratic ward committeeman unsuccessfully and Gill sided with the establishment against grandfather. Gill later became rich in the party…combing real estate and insurance kickbacks which were winked at in his day…and served as Cook county Democratic chairman until he retired, being replaced by a young ambitious county clerk named Richard J. Daley. When my grandfather died, full of years, in 1939 the wake was held, as many were, in the family home (and was, indeed, a “wake” with my mother and her sisters staying up all night to pray and sit with the corpse).

On the second night of the wake, when most celebrities come…when the best stories were told in the kitchen pantry where bereaved family members went for a drop of the grape…I was then eleven and participated with my parents in the front parlor with recitation of the rosary over the body when suddenly the crowds parted like the Red Sea. In came a man who caused a hush and a lull in the rosary, who knelt down, nodded and signified that the prayers should not be interrupted. It was Joe Gill, one of the real powers of the Democratic party and a pal of Mayor Edward J. Kelly. “Ah,” whispered Mother, “Joe Gill is moved by guilt to pay tribute to the man who started his career.” That said it all. Like the city luminary he was, Gill moved up through the crowd to the casket, knelt down and said the obligatory prayer. Then, standing, he reached down, touched the hands of the corpse which (as all our hands inevitably will) held a rosary between its stiff fingers.

Gill said in a soft voice but reverently audible: “I’m sorry, Tom. Goodbye.”

My Mother said to me just as softly, “Sorry indeed.”

Inside, however, she was a good enough pragmatist to know that Gill had originally made the right decision of sticking with the Democratic regulars rather than siding with “the Bolshevik” (which is what challengers of the Old Order were called then) Tom Cleary. Pragmatism she knew. If there was anything that turned her completely off, it was involved theoretical philosophical speculation. I would come home from college at Christmas, Easter and for the summer and bring things up at the dinner table--things I had read or heard in lectures on campus.

Like—questions which bothered Aquinas.

She’d say, “He was bothered, was he? What questions bothered him?”

Oh, the fact that God’s power and divine omnipotence raises questions about the possible and impossible.

She’d say, “God can do everything—that’s all, that’s it.”

Father would object: “Just a minute; let the kid talk. What bothered Aquinas?”

This question: Is it like Mother says—is nothing impossible for God or are there things which not even God can do, like reverse the order of time or create a world as infinite and perfect as God Himself?

“Nothing’s impossible for God,” said Mother. “That’s what you learned in the Baltimore catechism. No questions needed. That’s all, that’s it.”

“But turn time backward?” asked Father. “What does Aquinas say?”

He says, the impossible does not come under the heading of divine omnipotence—not because there is any defect in the power of God but because it has not the nature of a feasible or possible thing. So he says it is better to say that such things cannot be done rather than God cannot do them.”

“Interesting,” said Father.

“Not interesting. Nuts,” said Mother. “He means God can’t do it. This guy—Aquinas?--mustn’t have had enough things to do wherever he worked.”

In a monastery.

“It proves that when you think too much you get goofy,” said Mother and wanted a change of subject.

Father mildly disagreed. “No,” he said, cutting his steak. “These questions should be studied.”

All it is, I said, is probing the mystery of God.

“Wait,” she said. “The mystery of God, you say? What’s the mystery? This world was started by Him just like what happens when I go bowling with my league. The kid who spots the pins sends the ball rolling down the gutter of the alley to the return and when it rolls up it hits the other bowling balls and they rap each other, one-after-another. You have to get your fingers out of the way because they’ll get pinched. But that’s what God is and does. He starts things moving. What’s the mystery? My God, we’re sending this kid to school to get a good education but all that happens is he comes back with these goofy questions about the mystery of God. “

“Well,” Father said diplomatically, “maybe it’s okay to think about it for a little while. But then think about something else.”

“Well, I don’t think it’s of any practical use,” she said, “so if it isn’t why worry about it? My philosophy, if you want to call it that, is this: If you can do something about it, why worry? If you can’t do something about it, why worry? Why is that school we’re sending you to worrying about something it doesn’t know more about than we do—and can’t do anything about. Far better to study math and how to express yourself when you look for a job.”

“Well,” Father said, “but college tackles those questions. That’s what college is supposed to be.”

. “How can you put stuff like that to any good use? You and I survived the Depression and now we’re just out of World War II. How would it be if we had gone to school to think about this stuff? Would you have gotten a job at the North German Lloyd or me at J. Walter? Not if he thought about this all day. My advice to you is not to bother yourself with it: God can do whatever He wants. End of statement.”

I continued: Aquinas said the inability to do the undoable constitutes no violation of infinite power…

“Interesting,” said Father.

“Look,” she said, “this is also my table and I don’t have time to hear that stuff. Moreover, I don’t want to hear it because there’s no use in talking about the airy stuff. I want to know what you’re learning out there in Minnesota that will enable you to get a good job.”

That was a canny, practical—very practical—woman. She left high school on her own volition because, as one of six in her family, they had to divvy up and help support her parents who would be going through a period of economic difficulty whenever grandfather’s job as a marble layer hit a lag period due to recurring recessions. Sometimes he’d have a lot of work, such as laying marble in the Palmer House and working to install a new floor in the barber shop that was paved—believe it or not—with silver dollars. At other times there’d be a lag, such as before the first World War for a time. It was at one of those lag times that she decided she wanted to go to work and help pay rent to her parents who had three smaller children to support. Also she was fed up with school.

She also wanted better clothes and independence—not having to ask her own Mother for money to buy nice things. And for that she needed a good job and she didn’t want to fool around with school after she learned—to a great degree—the rudiments of practical affairs: math, English writing and pronunciation, Munson shorthand, typing and the ability to get along in polite conversation. The year was 1913 when she was 17 (she was born in `96, almost three full years before my Father) and she was eager to get out in the world, get a job and earn a good salary so she could have the things her older sister and brother were having. Any hard-headed practicality I have, any cynicism about politics and doubt about the efficacy of idealism (and I suspect I have more of the philosophical from Father than the practical from Mother), I received from her; any sentimentality and faith in the boundless good within human nature I have from him.

In the genre of the time, she was a fun-loving but abstemiously moral in tune with the tone of the times for Irish Catholics…but with a tolerant for most human frailties except sexual promiscuity which she abhorred. She was a pre-flapper. She was observantly, obligatorily religious but loved to dance, loved to go to stage shows, including the very best to be seen: Jolson at his peak (she didn’t think much of him, actively disliking his masquerading as a black man, preferring Eddie Foy), the Ziegfeld Follies (which she adored) and Fred and his dancing partner sister Adele Astaire whom she repeatedly saw over and again in the same show. All of these luxuries was paid for because she was quick and witty and had landed a job immediately as a beginning worker in the steno pool at J. Walter Thompson the big ad agency downtown on Michigan avenue.

There is no doubt that for a girl of her youth and lack of education, she hit it what would be called “big” by the time she was 18…being promoted quickly from the steno pool up to assistant office manager position…eventually earning more than her father, her big brother, earning more than my father when they met: enough to have left the family and taken her own apartment if she chose…but she did not choose since in those times it was not acceptable—and her contribution to the family income through “board” would be sorely missed and cause hardship.

She paid her “board” to her parents—weekly coverage of rent and food and laundry which was de rigeur for the time, saved some money and bought nice clothes and went to the big shows with the remainder. In my room is a photo of her at age 17 when she was on the upward ascent even at that age at J. Walter, leaving the steno pool for an assistant manager’s job. I enclose the photo her: she’s in a large hat, very frivolous, a kind of hat one wouldn’t buy unless you had a kind of overage of money from a good job. She’s not smiling; she was dark-haired, serious with the Irish eyes that later totally captivated Father, and posed with a thoughtful gaze as though she had just decided the serious mission of her life.

Probably at that time it was the decision to ditch one Alexander McQueen, the dilettante college boy son of the Chicago head of the agency, who occasionally dated her, hanging around her desk and making a love-sick fool of himself. McQueen later went on to become a fixture on WGN radio with a program of sharp-toned quips and sassy, smart-talk sayings. Alexander McQueen was, to her, superficial and boring; when she broke it off he was heartbroken but it didn’t affect her job with his father who promoted her and told her she was smart to dump his kid. I heard McQueen much later on the radio and she did the right thing.

The big “fun” thing she did after a hard week of work at J. Walter was this: With her two sisters she would go every Saturday night on an excursion boat on Lake Michigan which would go to Milwaukee and back, with dinner served while a band played and young men in their Saturday best would ask them to dance. The boat would return at about 11 p.m. and the young men would ask to take the girls home on the street-cars. They would travel in a group—the three Cleary girls, Frances (my Mother, then from 17 to 20), Marie (a year older) and Alice (a year or so younger)—and earnest young men would volunteer to take them home on the street car. Some of the young men wanted to take them home alone on a street car without the others along so as to talk personally. After they were dropped off at home, if the young men were interested further, they would ask for a date with their favorite. If not—or if the girls didn’t like them--the Clearys would snap their fingers and meet other young men the following Saturday. A beatific life and so it went.

One hot afternoon, on July 14, 1915, she and her sisters were getting dressed in their finery preparatory to going downtown to catch the excursion boat when their father—my grandfather, fifty-three-year-old Thomas Francis Cleary (after whom I’m named)—asked them to join him in the parlor. When the girls trounced in, in their finery, he said: “You might as well change back to your regular duds because you’re not going. Not going ever again on an excursion boat. I’ve never liked that excursion boat idea and it’ll end now.” He had just hit a stretch of employment where the wages were very good with little or no stretches of unemployment apparent and he and my grandmother were thinking of buying a two-flat: renting one out and they living on the first floor—the culmination of success in their Irish neighborhood. He was, in fact, laying down the law and recovering his domination over his working daughters.

Two of the three Cleary girls seemed to accept the dictum.

My mother said, “Well, I want to go.”

“Listen,” said Grandfather Cleary. “You’re not twenty-one yet and you’ll listen to me. There’s just been a tragedy downtown with an excursion boat which was tied up at the dock—full of young people like you who worked for Western Electric. They were all set to go to a Western Electric picnic at Michigan City, Indiana and the boat was pulling out from the pier. They all ran over to one side to wave goodbye and the combined weight caused the damn thing to tip over and hundreds of them are lost—hundreds, drowned. What do you think of that?”

“So?” Mother said. “How often has that happened? That can happen but not very often. I don’t know about them…” nodding to her two sisters, “…but I’m going.”

Just then the oldest Cleary progeny came bursting in the door—Maurice, 21 years old, a fully-grown adult, a draftsman at Emerson Electric in St. Louis, who was in the city getting acquainted with Emerson’s regional office and going with a girl who would become his wife.

“Pa, I passed by the Tribune building on the way to catch the streetcar downtown and they were posting a big sign about all the news of the day with headlines and all and a big crowd was gathered. Do you know how many were drowned today when the boat capsized? Eight hundred! Then I went to the south bank of the Chicago river between LaSalle and Clark and saw them fishing bodies—dead bodies—out of the drink. They’re still doing it! That’s enough for me. Well, I’ll tell you, Lucy and I will never go on one of those excursion boats again.”

“Well, you and Lucy can do what you please,” said my Mother, “but I will. Marie and Alice can do what they please.”

“Well damnit, we’ll see who runs this place!” Grandfather said. “When I say you’re not going you’re not going!”

Grandmother, Ann Kenny Cleary, looked fearful because of all of them, my Mother was doing the best financially—by far.

“Well,” my Mother said, “I’m working and paying board here and with the greatest of respect, I think I’m of age to decide that. I’m nineteen. ”

“Not as long as your under my roof!” grandfather shouted.

The other two sisters were undecided.

“Listen,” their mother, my grandmother who was a peacemaker, said: “Why doesn’t Father take you all down on the street car to downtown right now and show you—all of you—where the boat is. And then make your mind up.”

“Right,” said Maurice. “I’ll go with you. It’s called the `Eastland’ and is supposed to be one of the biggest disasters in Chicago history after the Fire. I guarantee when you see them fish up the bodies out of the river, you won’t want to go.”

They all agreed to see the wreck. They took the streetcar down and there on the river was the boat, lying on its side on the river. It was night but things shone as bright as if it were day with the rigged lights. There were police, the mayor and the politicians: Lieutenant Governor Barratt O’Hara who was put in charge of the effort by Governor Edward F. Dunne, the only governor to have been mayor of Chicago

. They walked up to the river’s edge and watched the grappling hooks hauling up the bodies.

“Now, what do you think?” asked grandfather.

Maurice said, “Isn’t it awful? Eight hundred dead.”

My mother said: “I’m going.”

My grandfather flew into a rage.

“All right,” he said in his brogue, inherited from his neighbors although he was born in this country. “But I’ll tell you this, Frances! You die and drown or whatever and I’ll not shed a tear nor will I ever mention you again nor will we mourn—nor will there be a funeral mass or prayers because you were a stubborn girl--but you go do what you want!”

There was silence.

Then Marie and Alice said, “Pa, we’re going too!”

He exploded “goddamit! You all drown and go to hell and I won’t care! In fact, I’ll whoop and holler because I won’t have such disrespectful girls to mock me!” and stormed down the pier with his son Maurice to the streetcar. .

They all went. Nobody drowned. After the excursion boat ride to Milwaukee and back, they came back home on the streetcar. When they rang the front bell their brother let them in; Grandfather stayed in his bed, sulking.

More about Mother, how she met Father and how she fared after he died.

1 comment:

  1. Your blog is great......I don't always
    get to read it and sometimes I don't
    understand all of it - but it's great.
    The picture of your Mom is terrific -
    what a lovely young woman she was. We
    all loved her. Keep up the good work,
    Tom. Mary Ann