Today, November 22, is the 108th anniversary of my grandparents’ marriage. What I know is that they got engaged on Palm Sunday because Tom Barrett was in a fever to have Kitty join his grocery business. Kitty had been going with Francis Barrett, but was swept off her feet by Tom. However, they didn’t actually marry till the end of November. They did get married at Holy Rosary and all the people mentioned here are factual. As their chronicler, I became their wedding planner, connecting the dots of the known with the logic of being Irish and Catholic in St. Louis in 1912. Here’s how I imagine things went, in an excerpt from the draft of “Kitty’s People,” a work in progress.
The following Sunday, Kitty stops by the store to help out. She is eager to start planning for their marriage but worries about Francis and how long he’ll be angry about her leaving him for Tom.
“Francis will come around,” Tom says, as he punches numbers from credit slips into the adding machine. “I’m more worried about keeping our customers from leaving us for Kroger’s.” He reaches out and runs his fingers down her sleeve. “You’re a vital part of that effort, Kitty. We need to get married right away.”
Kitty lays her hand on his. “If you want to be king of Easton Avenue, we have to start behaving like royalty. No rushing off to a J.P. People will talk. We’ll have a Church wedding. Small and tasteful, but an event.” She envisions herself in a white silk suit. But already the St. Louis air is muggy and she is sweating through her layers of cotton, so she adds: “We’ll marry in the fall, after the weather cools.”
Tom’s brow furrows. “If that’s what you want. I know Mother would love a family gathering. Still…”
“Still, Kroger,” she says.
He nods. “There aren’t enough hours in the day, even with Francis quitting his day job at Carroll Contracting.”
“I’ll tell you what,” says Kitty. “I’ll give my notice at Bell Telephone and start working with you. But, till we’re married, you have to pay me what I get there as a shift supervisor.”
The wedding is set for Friday evening, November 22, at Holy Rosary. Kitty and Tom intend to keep it small—a few old friends from the parish, a few congenial business associates, and family. They limit the family to those who live in St. Louis, although Kitty does want to invite her godmother Delia Walsh and her two daughters from Chicago. She’s surprised when Mrs. Barrett reminds Tom of his relatives on the south side.
First is her brother-in-law John Barrett and his wife Catherine, who gave up farming and moved to St. Louis after the old parents died. They are in their sixties and live on Connecticut near Tower Grove Park. They have six grown children.
“There’s Mayme—she must be in her mid-thirties now, a hat maker, you should see her work. Jane. Kate—she’s a dressmaker who does all her work for one single family. Maggie. And, let’s see, the baby Tom, about your age, Kitty. Those five are still living at home. The sixth is Martin. He works as a chauffeur and just married Anna. Are you getting these down?”
Then there is her brother Peter Gibbons and his wife Ellen. He’s a laborer for a chemical plant in the Carondelet neighborhood, near River DesPeres. Also in their sixties, they have three grown children living with them—Tom, Annie, and Harry. Their daughter Mary Ellen is married to Roy Dunlop and they have a four-year-old.
“Mamie will have their addresses,” Mrs. Barrett adds, as Kitty jots everything down.
To keep expenses minimal, everyone pitches in. Katie Barrett [future stenographer] writes out all the invitations in her beautiful hand. Mamie [seamstress] volunteers to make Kitty a white suit made of silk shantung, copying a pattern she saw in a magazine. For the reception, they will have champagne punch and sweet treats. Mrs. Barrett is organizing her parish sewing circle friends—nearly all widows like herself—to bake.
[Her father] Moses and [third wife] May have moved from the duplex on Athlone to a large apartment at 4241 Evans, along the Easton Avenue corridor and closer to where Kitty and Tom will be living. It is really only [Kitty’s sibs] Modie and Julie now who require adult supervision. May gets along well with ten-year-old Julie and they cook together to help Julie manage her diabetes. All seems peaceful. May commits her expertise to make dozens of petit fours for the wedding, with Julie’s help.
On the evening of November 22, old Father Lavery says a nuptial Mass, consecrating the vows between Catherine Flanagan and Thomas Barrett. The wedding is a beautiful occasion and everything goes as planned. At the reception in the church hall next door, Kitty is swept into the whirlwind of meeting Tom’s uncles and cousins and glad-handing the business associates. She hardly has a moment for her own family, except to see that everyone is fine and looking their best. May has taken special care to dress Ethel and Julie in sweet white frocks with pink sashes and pink bows in their hair.
Kitty is especially happy to see [her sister] Nellie arrive with their former neighbors Pauline and Joe Wondracheck. She has a date, who she introduces as Harry. Kitty is too flighty to hear any more. She’s walking on air.
An hour into the chatty reception, Moses surprises her with his gift of music: three Irish musicians with fiddle, bodhrán drum, and concertina. Now they have a party. The church hall quickly gets clouded with cigarette and cigar smoke, the lights are dimmed, and someone spikes the champagne punch with gin. The trio plays popular American melodies as well as sentimental Irish-American tunes, like “My Wild Irish Rose.” The guests push aside tables and chairs and begin to dance.
Kitty takes off her prim, fitted jacket and oversized hat and pulls Tom Barrett into the cleared space. He is reluctant to dance but Kitty guides him. He laughs as he tries to follow her steps. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees her father say something to the fiddler and the band starts playing “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” and Moses belts out the words.
Let me call you “Sweetheart,” I’m in love with you
Let me hear you whisper that you love me too
Keep the love-light glowing in your eyes so true
Let me call you “Sweetheart,” I’m in love with you.
Kitty has forgotten what a wonderful voice he has and chokes up. Tom pulls her close and catches the rhythm of the song. Everyone joins Moses in singing.
While the cookies and cakes dwindle, [Kitty’s brothers] Joe and Tommy Flanagan keep the punch bowls filled from an unknown and magically intoxicating source.
The musicians revert to more traditional Irish music. To Kitty’s amazement, old Ellen Barrett pulls her brother Peter onto the dance floor, lifts her skirts away from her feet, and begins a traditional step dance. The other old immigrants line up with them. Moses, Aunt Delia Walsh, Uncle Pat and seven-months pregnant Aunt Delia Keville, Peter’s wife Ellen, a few neighbors, and even Father Lavery. Their feet aren’t always dancing the same steps, but they move as one to the beat, as the younger guests clap and tap their toes. Before long, everyone is dancing their own improvised versions of the traditional sets.
It is late by the time Kitty and Tom say their farewells to the guests. Francis has given them the gift of a carriage ride and borrowed fur coats for the two miles between the church hall and their apartment over the store on Easton. The weather is fair for November and Tom asks the driver to fold back the roof. Beyond the city lampposts they can see twinkling stars.
Tom pulls Kitty close and she realizes her big hat got left behind. But nothing matters except the adventure ahead. She looks up at his face and he smiles. They kiss.