A condensed version of some well-known family history, revised for my current project & always worth retelling. I continue to be inspired by Kitty Mom.*
Sometimes there is no way out, no exit, no picking up and announcing I’m outta here. Sometimes, as Robert Frost wrote, the only way out is through.**
In 1926, my grandparents Kitty [Flanagan] and Tom Barrett were hard at work, running two grocery stores and raising four children.
Tom had ambitions for a chain of grocery stores, but in September he had a gall bladder attack and went into the hospital for surgery. Kitty was alarmed that he’d chosen the same physician who had operated on their seven-year-old son for pneumonia and left a sponge inside, leaving the boy bedridden for months. Tom insisted his surgery would be different, but infection set in and on October 1, he died.
Kitty was 36 years old. Now what?
Kitty had two roles models to draw wisdom from: her father and her mother-in-law, who had both lost their spouses, with a house full of children.
She had seen her father, Moses Flanagan, become overwhelmed with the task of both earning a living and caring for his seven children. In her teens, Kitty had witnessed a prospective step-mother crack her sister Ethel in the head with a frying pan, which triggered a lifetime of seizures. Someone then persuaded Moses to put the two youngest girls, Ethel and Loretta, in an orphanage, where they lived out their short days. And her three brothers drifted aimlessly, also destined for early deaths. Moses had been helpless to keep his children safe and Kitty got out of there to seek her own fortune.
On the other hand, Kitty’s mother-in-law Ellen Gibbons Barrett was a powerhouse of maternal mojo, who had badgered her husband Frank into leaving the family farm in Catawissa, Missouri, because she couldn’t put up with the tyranny of his mother. But within a few years of moving to St Louis, Frank dropped dead. Left with four children and without means, she instructed her elder son, Tom, to give up his high school scholarship and go to work. Tom made a success of himself and dutifully supported his family, but it left him with a bitter streak.
Kitty would have nothing to do with either path. But damn if she’d be poor again. Looking out from their apartment above the Rowan Avenue store, she saw a neighborhood bustling with working class families — Catholics and Jews; Irishmen, Germans and Italians — people who relied on Barrett’s Market for their groceries.
There were certainly no role models for women-run businesses back in 1926, but Kitty didn’t have the luxury to consider this. On a chilly October morning, she packed her three older children off to St. Barbara’s grade school around the corner, picked up the baby, walked down the long flight of stairs and opened the store for the first time without Tom.
Kitty ran both stores and rented out the back room of her building to Maizey Braun for a little confectionery. Her large basement was cleaned up and available for party rentals. When Maizey gave up her lease, Kitty turned the space into a small bar and grill.
One of her store clerks was the 22-year-old Ewald, who fell in love with the baby Kathleen [my mom] but didn’t think that her crawling around behind the cracker barrels all day was healthy. He persuaded his mother (who had raised twelve children by then) to provide day-care for the toddler. Then he focused all his energy on helping his mentor Kitty run her business.
As Kitty prospered, so (by fits and starts) did her relationship with Ewald. But she did not want a business partner. Ewald moved on to work in his family’s printing business.
The Great Depression devastated St. Louis and Kitty’s children were fed concoctions of whatever she couldn’t sell in the store, but she had enough money to send them to Catholic schools and fill their apartment with fine second-hand furniture. In 1936, Kitty and Ewald got married and pitched in on a weekend clubhouse in Castlewood, where the good times rolled. Shortly thereafter — about age 50 and with Ewald in his working prime — she was able to retire from the grocery business and pass it on to her sons.
She did it. She made it through.
*There are lots of facets and wonderful details to Kitty Mom’s story, but I had to round off the edges to squeeze it into a few paragraphs. The story of my other grandma is here>>>
**“The only way out is through”: from “A Servant to Servants” by Robert Frost, in North of Boston, 1915.