I was named after my mother—my single, working mother who provided for me while we lived with her parents and sisters at a time when most women didn’t work outside of the home. And every time she left for work as a bookkeeper at the Independent Life and Accident Insurance Company, I pitched a fit, inconsolable that she was leaving me behind. Little did I know that I would spend my entire adult life as a working mom. I guess there’s just something about hard work that runs in our Irish blood.
My maternal grandfather, Michael Dalton, left County Tipperary at age twelve in 1863. He crossed the ocean alone to live with his eldest sister, Emma, who worked as a domestic helper in New Orleans. When he arrived, he found that Emma had died from yellow fever, which had ravaged the state. The twelve-year-old boy managed to support himself by working at a bakery. When he turned fourteen, he lied, claiming to be sixteen, so he could enlist in the Union Army. His aim was to punish the British (who were allied with the Confederacy), whom he blamed for the great hunger that caused the death of many of his countrymen, including his beloved parents. Given his preoccupation with food, after the war he owned and operated a grocery store to care for and feed his wife and twelve children.
My mother, Agnes, was the eleventh child of the twelve born to Michael and Katherine Dalton. The Irish Catholic couple lived with their children in a spacious apartment over their grocery store in Nashville. As was typical of the time, my grandmother Katherine Ryan Dalton had married at age sixteen, and her three eldest daughters were assigned the care of the new babies. So it was that my mother’s sister May, who was eighteen years her senior, reared her. When May married and had three children, Agnes thought of the girls as her younger sisters and spent much of her time at her sister’s home.
My mother had a very happy childhood. Most of her time and social life were dictated by her years as an A student at St. Cecilia’s Dominican prep school. She went to secretarial school, and after graduation, she worked as a secretary at several insurance companies, eventually becoming a bookkeeper.
My aunt May told me more about my mother’s life than my mother ever did. Through her, I learned about my parents’ courtship and early marriage. My mother was a beautiful girl with alabaster skin and wavy golden hair that framed her face. According to Aunt May, many young men were infatuated with the beautiful Agnes, but only one interested her: my father, Harry Eckhardt.
Harry’s father, Henry, had lived in Nashville and was always partial to it. However, in his early twenties Henry had moved to Chicago to try to find a better job. He was still in love with Nashville and, because he had several brothers residing there, often returned to visit. On one such visit, Aunt Kate’s friend Maynie Eckhardt introduced her cousin Harry to Kate’s little sister Agnes. My father was instantly infatuated with my mother and began a relentless pursuit that she found flattering. His courtship was very different from the docile wooing of the Southern gentlemen who were attracted to her.
Harry came to Nashville from Chicago for a temporary job and lived with his cousins. Young and brash, my father was full of moneymaking schemes that, according to him, would soon render him a wealthy man. None of my mother’s family liked him, and soon after they began dating, Harry became extremely possessive. His professions of love and total devotion seemed to impress my mother, but he was also intensely jealous of any other young men she knew. This caused many arguments, and Aunt May told her that she should break it off. She had such protective feelings for my mother and never felt that Harry could make her happy. She encouraged my mother to see other men who courted her. But Harry was always able to convince Agnes to forgive him for his outbursts.
After twelve years of pursuit, she agreed to marry him and moved with him to Chicago. My mother’s early letters to my aunt from Chicago conveyed a happy, yet busy, tone. She took a position as secretary to a lawyer, and the marriage seemed felicitous. But after a few months, there was a worrisome change. She became pregnant and wrote that Harry was disappointed at the new responsibility. But she believed he would be overjoyed when the baby arrived.
When I was born, I weighed seven and a half pounds, but three weeks later, I had lost four pounds—more than half my weight. I had pyloric stenosis, a gastric ailment that made me spit up any nourishment I received. In a panic, my mother called Aunt May, who immediately got on a train to Chicago. Fortunately, my mother insisted on taking me to a pediatrician, who prescribed a formula. My health improved, but the same couldn’t be said for the state of my parents’ marriage. Although my mother tried to hide the discord, Aunt May could hear their arguments through the thin bedroom walls. When May boarded the train back to Nashville, my mother went with her, holding me in her arms. My father’s furious attempts to keep us with him had finally fallen on deaf ears.
Back in Nashville, the household consisted of my mother, my grandmother, my grandfather, and my four unmarried aunts—Emma, Catharine, Albertha, and Rose. Out of kindness and concern for me, the three elder sisters decided that, together, they would support us for the first year so that my mother wouldn’t have to work. However, it wasn’t long before she took a job at the Independent Life and Accident Insurance Company. As my mother dressed for work, I would begin to cry. My whimpers crescendoed into screams until my grandmother entered, hustling Mother out of the room, warning her that she couldn’t be late. Grandma would then close the bedroom door to shut out my screams, leaving me in agony until I fell asleep, exhausted.
A dollar store now fills the lot at 713 Russell Street where my grandmother’s home once stood, so I can’t be sure that the house was as cavernous as it seemed when I first toddled across its wide-planked floors. During my first five years, I became accustomed to my mother’s daily departures, but I was still lonely. I was left with my grandma Dalton, but after rearing twelve children of her own, she didn’t relish the idea of babysitting another small child. She made sure I was fed lunch, took my cod-liver oil, and had a daily nap, but her exchanges with me were limited to a few aphorisms, such as “Children should be seen and not heard,” and “You’re eating your white bread now.” The latter meant that I was spoiled. As a result of Grandma’s pronouncements, I rarely spoke in her presence, and to this day I prefer dark bread to white.
The backyard of the Russell Street home was unusually large. Deep flower beds were dominated by purple irises, Tennessee’s state flower. Tall trees with low-hanging branches offered shade from the relentless summer heat. In the rear, bordering a dirt-and-gravel alley, was the chicken yard. Its occupants furnished eggs all week long, and every Sunday dinner was provided by two hens smothered in dumplings and revoltingly thick gravy.
Saturday was judgment day, with Grandma as the Grim Reaper. I was convinced that the chickens knew when it was Saturday and what Grandma’s mission was when she approached the pen. Running in terrified circles, the chickens began a deafening cackle. Grandma used only her hands to accomplish her ghastly task. She grasped an innocent victim by the neck and wrung it around and around until its head came off. Then the body continued to whirl about wildly, seeming to be searching for its missing head. I was appalled but also fascinated by this weekly drama. From the safety of an upstairs window, watching Grandma perform her danse macabre, I wondered if one day she’d eliminate me as efficiently as she did those chickens.
After the Saturday massacre, I always sought the comfort of my cherished paper dolls. These were not the conventional paper dolls from a booklet containing clothes to be cut out. The source of my dolls was the daily comics, or “funny papers,” which I much preferred to the commercial kind because of their lifelike mobility. Cutting the characters out of the newspaper’s small squares was tedious work for a four-year-old who only had dull, blunt-tipped scissors. But I had a lot of time on my hands.
When I was a little older, I devised a complicated filing system for my dolls. I took several of my grandmother’s discarded telephone books and began cataloging my dolls by the names I’d given them. A separate phone book formed a subfile according to the clothes they wore and their physical positions—standing, sitting, walking, and running, even dancing, if the comic-strip artist drew such a figure. Every Sunday, I couldn’t wait to start cutting out the characters in the funnies, an activity that would preoccupy me all week long. When my beloved aunt Emma read the comics to me, I didn’t find the stories very absorbing. But sometimes she offered what she thought the characters in the strips might do or become, and those ideas caught fire with me.
These characters were my “open sesame” to a special make-believe world. While preparing the stage, my mind was busy planning scenes involving my characters. Plotting their lives gave me a sense of control. They allowed “little Aggie” to believe her life could change as dramatically as the lives of her dolls—like Little Orphan Annie, who had Daddy Warbucks waiting to rescue her from loneliness. My most frequently used characters were the well-known Etta Kett, Moon Mullins, Blondie, Dagwood, Daddy Warbucks, and sometimes Annie. I created one doll whose father went to work but would be gone for four days. I named that doll “me.” That doll asked me, “Why don’t you have a father?” Then the doll said, “You don’t have a father because he doesn’t love you.”
But my favorite, by far, was Tillie the Toiler. At one point, Fred, my ten-year-old neighbor, mentioned that he had kept the Sunday funnies since he was five and had three years of comics I had never seen. With bated breath I asked him, “Do you have Tillie the Toiler and Etta Kett?” When he said yes, I offered to polish his father’s shoes for ten weeks in exchange for his collection. And while polishing away, I came up with some starring roles for Tillie.
In the Nashville Banner, Tillie was a working girl like my mother and aunts, but that was where the similarity ended. I much preferred my own scenarios for Tillie to those in the funny papers. To me, Tillie was a young, beautiful career woman determined to get what she wanted, and she proved to be smarter than the men in her life. Yet the men seldom resented her. In fact, very often Tillie became the object of their affections. My star paper doll was a femme fatale who got what she wanted—unlike my mother, who slaved away at a nine-to-five job, largely ignored and unappreciated, and with no men in her life.
Only now do I see that my Tillie was the predecessor of Erica Kane.