Remembering Aunt Nell | Essay | Chicago Reader

Remembering Aunt Nell 

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In 1919, when I was five years old, I got whooping cough and almost died. I remember my mother sleeping with me every night. We lived in--well, we called it an English basement. Now they'd call it a garden apartment. And my mother used to go to the window in the pitch dark and lift up the window to take the milk in, and the milkman would say, "How is she today?"

I remember that. I mean, you knew when people were saying you were going to die. And somehow or other you knew what that meant.

My aunt Nell Hennessy brought me a doll buggy when the spring came so that I could put my doll in it, and I would go outside and walk around the yard, because they couldn't get me out of the house and I was supposed to have fresh air. And I would walk around with it once and want to go back inside.

Aunt Nell was always bringing gifts. And my mother would say, "Nell, save your money."

She'd always say, "When I have no money, I'll go to the poorhouse." And that's what she did.

Whenever she gave us anything, I always got the top one and my sister Marge got the second-rate. This is from the time we were real little.

Aunt Nell gave us a lot of things. She bought my First Communion dress for me. It was all ruffles, just beautiful. But my mother bawled her out for spending so much money on it.

Aunt Nell said, "Well, I think she should have the best."

And ma said, "Who do you think is gonna iron all these ruffles?" Because you didn't just wash things and hang them up back then. Everything you wore you had to iron. You ironed every ruffle.

So Aunt Nell said, "Well, Maude, take it back and get what you want."

So my mother took it back to the Fair Store and she bought two dresses alike. They were beautiful white dresses. I wore mine for my First Communion, and then Marge and I each had a fancy dress to wear on Sunday. On Sunday, when you got dressed up, you stayed dressed all day. You didn't take your fancy clothes off because you came home from church. It was still Sunday.

Aunt Nell also gave us these beautiful dolls. I remember that mine had blond hair and Marge's had black hair. Of course, blond was much better than black, so I got the better doll.

When we grew up a little bit, she gave us brown leather purses. They were kidney-shaped and they were genuine leather, not brown but sort of a tan, a pretty leather color. We each got one.

Aunt Nell was a cook. She worked the night shift at Effinger's Restaurant in the Loop. I have a picture of her standing behind the counter. I remember her singing "Baa, Baa, Black Sheep" to me. That was her favorite song.

She used to come visit us in the morning on the way home from work. She would sit at the table with her hat on. My mother would say, "Nell, take your hat off."

And she'd say, "Well, it's about time, I gotta be going."

So one day Aunt Nell's sitting there and Marge, who's only a year older than me, said, "Aunt Nell, don't you think it's about time you gotta be going?"

She said, "Your mother put you up to that!" And she left. She didn't come back to our house for two years.

Now, I didn't know anything about Aunt Nell's past. I just knew that she was somebody who loved me and I loved her. But one day when I was about 13 or 14, we were all gathered around, talking about this and that, and I said, "I've always thought it was such a shame that Aunt Nell never had any children."

Then ma told me the story about Aunt Nell's children, and I was just devastated. I couldn't believe that this woman I loved so much had given her children away.

See, Aunt Nell had had three husbands. They all died. Sounds funny, doesn't it? People didn't divorce in those days. They died and you got another one.

When her first husband died she had four children, and there was no way she could support them. Her sister had a rooming house and she said, "You can come and live and work in the rooming house but you can only bring one child."

So Aunt Nell put three of the kids up for adoption and my grandfather, Patrick Hennessy, my mother's father, adopted the oldest boy and sent him to school in Canada. Later he flipped a train coming back to Chicago, fell under the wheels, and was killed.

Aunt Nell kept one child, a girl named Olive. But Olive got sick and died when she was 17. So all Aunt Nell's children were gone.

I had another Aunt Nell, Aunt Nell Havern on my mother's side. She was sort of a fancy lady. Aunt Nell Hennessy was the exact opposite.

One day about 1920, Aunt Nell Havern saw an ad in the Tribune from a man who was about to get married. "I know I'm adopted," the ad said, "and I'd like to find my own mother." Aunt Nell Havern looked at the picture that was with the ad and recognized it. She called him. He was living in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and she told him if he could tell her something about himself she thought she knew who his mother was. His name was Bobby V--. So she gave the information to Aunt Nell Hennessy.

I don't know if he came down here and met her first, but I do remember when Rosemarie was about a year old, the whole family, ma, pa, us four kids, and Aunt Nell all took the train and went to Kenosha to meet him and his adopted family. But I didn't really know who he was until years later when my mother told the story.

Aunt Nell always threw her money around. She was famous for that. She bought Rosemarie a quilted jacket and blanket set for the trip. I remember it as the most gorgeous thing.

Anyway, I know Aunt Nell kept in touch with her son for a while. I have some letters that his adopted mother wrote. But I don't know what happened with him. I know he knew who his sister was. They'd been adopted at the same time. He went to his sister and told her, "I've found our mother." And she said, "No, you haven't. My mother is right here."

One day Aunt Nell lost her job at the restaurant. "I'm going out to the poorhouse," she said. And she did. The poorhouse was in Oak Forest. We used to take the train out to visit her. She sat out there for quite a few months.

Then Cousin Nancy came to our house and she said to my mother, "Maude, where's your Aunt Nell? Father Reynolds at Saint Finbarr's lost his cook and he needs a cook. Now she's a good cook."

"She's sitting out in Oak Forest."

"Well, you go out there and tell her that this is a job for her."

We all went out on the train and she was sitting in her rocker. When we gave her the news she jumped up and got her bag and her clothes and got on the train and came back. It was a big day.

Saint Finbarr's was at Harding and 14th Street. Aunt Nell worked there for quite a number of years. We used to love to go and visit her. Marge and I would go on the streetcar. She'd make chocolate cake and she'd make more frosting than she could possibly put on the cake.

When Father Reynolds went duck hunting, she would call us up and tell us to come over, she had a couple of ducks for us. She'd have 'em stuffed and all ready to cook. My mother loved those.

Aunt Nell made all kinds of friends working at Saint Finbarr's. They had carnivals galore in those days, and there would be big baskets of food, big hams, lots of handiwork, and beautiful dolls in the booths. You'd put your dime or quarter on a number and they'd spin the wheel and you'd stand there, everybody'd stand there, waiting for the wheel to stop to see who gets the prize. It was great.

I still go to church carnivals but they don't have fun like that anymore. Now you pick tickets out of a bowl. Who cares who wins?

Eventually Father Reynolds died and a new pastor came and he brought his own cook with him. Aunt Nell got a job taking care of Cassie, who lived on Jackson Boulevard. We used to walk out there to visit.

Cassie always carried a purse with her. She was an old lady, a little senile. She was nice but she didn't know what was going on. She carried her purse in the house.

That job lasted for several years and then Cassie died. So Aunt Nell went to the Little Sisters of the Poor. It was on Harrison Street, down near the French church, Notre Dame, two blocks east of there down near Racine.

The old ladies used to wear black dresses, almost like uniforms, and little bonnets on their heads. These were the residents. That's how Aunt Nell looked when I would go visit her. Sometimes I would be the only visitor in this large room.

During the summer I would go every Thursday, and the rest of the year I always went on Sunday. That was my job in the family, go visit Aunt Nell.

I would get on the Harrison streetcar and go down there. I think she was there by the time I was 13. She died there.

She worked in the laundry. She ironed all those stiff white things that the nuns wore, in the hottest days of summer, no fans or air conditioning. That's what she did for years. The last year of her life, she spent a whole year making capes, white woolen capes. She was knitting them for these sisters that were coming from France to visit. They knew a year in advance that these nuns were coming so they put her to work making these capes for them.

She worked there. She didn't get anything for free. It wasn't like the poorhouse, where she sat in the rocking chair.

She died about 1932. On Thanksgiving Day I went down to visit her and I brought her a plate of food. Now, Aunt Nell loved to eat. She was quite a chubby woman. But this time she didn't want to look at the food. She was lying in the bed there. It was like a dormitory with curtains between the beds.

Aunt Nell was holding on to the curtain, and she said, "Do you realize that I'm dying and you're the only person in the whole world who cares?"

When I got home and my father heard that she wouldn't look at the food, he said, "She must be dying."

They called the next day, Friday, and said she was very sick and that if we wanted to come visit we could, even though it wasn't a visiting day. So my mother went down to see her. I think I went down at the same time. That was the last time I saw her.

A few days later they called and they said she had died, and that they had to get her out of there right away. So they called the undertaker, and he picked her up and then called us. He said she had blown up so big that she couldn't be embalmed. "So we'll make a box this morning and we'll have the funeral this afternoon." She was probably in her 70s by this time. I was about 18.

Ma called all the relatives, and we all met at the undertaker's in the afternoon. This was at Ogden and Harrison. The building is still there.

They had her in this plain wooden box, and they'd put some fancy white stuff inside to try and make it look like a regular casket. Aunt Nell looked gigantic, just gigantic. A lot of the relatives hadn't seen her in a long time. Her son wasn't there. I think she must have lost touch through the years.

They closed up the box. They nailed it up and we went out to Mount Carmel Cemetery and she was buried in a lot that belonged to the Little Sisters of the Poor.

Ed was in the seminary at the time, and ma had called up over there and Father Srill and two or three of the boys came in their cassocks to bless the grave and say a prayer, since we couldn't take her to church or anything.

Anyway, the grave was too small. So we all stood there while they redug the grave. There were all these people standing there, and I knew that none of them, or very few of them, really cared a heck of a lot, and I absolutely refused to cry. I said, I'm not going to make a...out of this and my mother wasn't crying. It didn't seem like anybody was crying, and I wasn't going to cry.

After the funeral we went home and I went down to the basement to be alone. So I could cry where nobody would see me. I found my mother down there and she was doing the same thing. So there's the two of us bawling over Aunt Nell down in the basement, crying on each other's shoulders.

When she went to the Sisters of the Poor, before she left, Aunt Nell bought us each a lovely watch, Marge and me, "so that we would remember her." I still have it somewhere, one of my souvenirs.

She always wanted to be remembered.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Nell Hennessy, left, archive photo uncredited.

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