mad in pursuit learning history: RADIO AMBITIONS
3.2.04 Progress Report
This is turning out to be not a revision, but a rethinking. If it is my grandmother's story, then the fate of the Barrett cousins (her dead husband's lineage) in WWII is less relevant than the background of her own family, the Flanagans. Maybe it is less about "the Irish" and more about what this tough woman brought to tough times.
"Kitty Curran" Transcript
By the time World War II rolled around, Kitty Curran was no stranger to heartbreak. She’d seen it all.
She was 12 in 1903, when her mother Maggie died. The demise of her siblings is like a summary of the times she lived in. Her sister Nellie died of a botched abortion in 1911. In 1919, it was probably Spanish flu that got sister Julie and brother Modie. Her youngest brothers Tommy and Joe became gangsters and met their Maker during the gang wars of Prohibition. The remaining sister, Ethel, was sent to grow up in the Missouri State Hospital, because she had epilepsy.
But Kitty survived. In 1912 she married Tom Barrett, who owned Barrett’s Market on the corner of Rowan and Ridge in north St. Louis. As luck would have it though, in 1926, shortly after her fourth child was born, Tom Barrett went into the hospital for gall bladder surgery – and died of infection.
That fourth child was Kathleen – my mother.
I’m giving you this litany of misery, not to impress you with my grandmother’s hard life, but to say how impressed I am that she carried on. Her father Moses Flanagan fell apart when his partner died. His children drifted among relatives or were beaten by a stepmother. Kitty wasn’t about to let that happen to her family.
So Kitty took charge. She raised her four kids in the apartment above Barrett’s Market and, Depression be damned, she made the grocery business profitable. In 1936 she married her handsome young store clerk Ewald Curran, who loved her till the day she died.
But I digress.
The basement below Barrett’s Market was sometimes a tavern, sometimes an after-hours joint, but always a party hall. There was a player piano and, just for fun, slot machines for pennies and nickels. The Barretts all loved to sing, but Kitty’s son Bob was turning into the real musician of the family. He played both piano and saxophone.
Then the war came and Bobby had to go.
While he was gone Kitty brought home the most amazing machine – a tabletop phonograph with a microphone. Flip the right switches, turn the right knobs and you could watch it cut voices onto heavy shellac platters. The tape recorder of its day. Wouldn’t this be a great surprise for her talented boy when he came home from the war?
My mother, who was a teenager by then, figured out how to make the newfangled machine work. And she’s the one who saved the two dozen 78s that captured the voices of her family and friends. They put on mock quiz shows. They got boisterous and silly. And they sang all the old songs.
But there was never any music to go with the songs. You see, Bobbie, the musician in the family, the one Kitty bought the machine for, had been killed in May of 1942.
When his body was laid out in the front room of their apartment, a neighbor found Kitty alone with him after everyone else had gone home. Kitty was singing “Danny Boy.”
The point of this whole piece is that, when darkness once again descended upon Kitty’s family, she sang. It’s the Irish blues, I guess. Sing at the wake. Keep singing.
Throughout all those homemade recordings, you’ll find Kitty Curran singing “Danny Boy.” With no music, it always veers off key, but it never sounds sad. There is always a great cackle of laughter somewhere in the piece.
I knew that cackle. And I knew her to sing “Danny Boy” off key at the end of long parties. As kids we thought she was a funny old lady. I know now that her favorite Irish song was forever connected with the death of her son. But, as I listen to those old recordings of my grandmother singing “Danny Boy” and hear her cackle of laughter, it always reminds me that, no matter what life hands them, great dames keep on singing.