By Marian Brennan Pratt
Helen Brennan Butler was my dad’s sister. She was born at home in Kenockee Township, on November 17, 1913. Aunt Helen and dad had one sister, Catherine, who was 5 and 6 years older than the two “babies”. They called her “The Queen”. Helen said: “The only time Tom and I got to go anywhere was if she didn’t want to go; then they took one of us.” There seemed to be a little animosity there. Her dad was a nice looking Irish guy who usually wore a suit and his hat tipped just a little to one side. The word dapper comes to mind. Her mom had a sense of humor that was infectious. Kind of like getting the “giggles” on church. Something would strike her funny and before long innocent bystanders would all be laughing – not that they knew why, they were more or less just laughing because SHE was so into it.
The family traveled in a horse and buggy in summer and a sleigh in the winter. Ice skating and sledding were the two most fun things they got to do. They made ice cream with their own fresh eggs and cream and they pulled the ice off the tree branches and used snow to pack it. The children attended Bryce School on the corner of M-136 and Bricker about 2 miles from their home and, yes, they walked. Helen attended school until 8th grade and then she had to quit and stay home with her mother who had a stroke.
A typical day meant that the outdoor laborers (Helen and Tom) had to feed cattle, haul water, milk cows. “As soon as we got home from school,” she says, “We got our good stuff off and we’d hop to it.” Sometimes the well was dry, so they had to take a stone boat to the spring in the gully to get water.
The best times when she was a teenager was going to dances. Her brother (my dad) had a car and he would take as many as the car would hold. “We went everywhere in groups and we were all friends, boys and girls together,” Helen related. They all went to the President’s Ball on 8 Mile in Detroit. The roads were so muddy that they had to go into the dance and scrape the mud off their shoes and their dresses. “We looked like country hicks, which we were, but we had a grand time!” she sighed.
Helen’s grandmother, Catherine Mackey lived there too. Helen said they were all scared to death of her. She was the keeper of the eggs. She had a key to the parlor where she kept them because it was cool. “You didn’t get an egg for a cake unless you dealt with her.” She was a little wiry, leprechaun of a woman with about 6 petticoats and all kinds of sweaters on. The parlor and one spare bedroom were kept clean and untouched for company. They hardly ever had any. The kids didn’t even know what it looked like in there because the door was kept locked.
When I asked Helen about our Irish ancestors, she said that grandpa, “Paddy” Brennan was from County Cork and Grandma Bridget Fogarty was from Nenagh in Tipperary. Part of the family seemed to have “escaped” from the Old Sod. There was a story about a horse and somebody hiding under the neighbor’s bed. Then they all piled out from under the bed in the middle of the night and got on a boat for America. There didn’t seem to be any more to that story. Too bad! That might have been a good one.
Helen talked about a feisty little woman called Missy Wixon. “If we had trouble, here would come Missy running down the hill to help us. We were all safe and sound if Missy was on the job.”
Helen was married to Gerald Butler in 1936. When I asked her if marriage and motherhood was what she expected, she said, “Well, I guess it was, I was a big dummy and I didn’t know anything. My feet were always cold as stones and his were like big blast furnaces, so I would climb into bed and plant those stone-cold tootsies on his warm legs and he never complained. So, marriage was good as far as I knew.”
Besides their daughter, Sue, there were two other children born to the Butlers and they both died at birth. She told me that her son was “killed by the doctor” is the way she put it. He had used forceps on the baby’s head and had injured him. Helen said he looked like a perfect little angel; that you wouldn’t have known there was a thing wrong with him. Her daughter had a spinal problem and died in the hospital. One of Helen’s big regrets is that she left her in the hospital. She wished that she had brought her home if she was going to die anyway.
Helen worked at Dodge Truck in Detroit during WW II because Gerald was sent overseas. She had to go live with “The Queen” and her husband Tom Flannigan, who lived in Detroit. At Dodge Truck, her job was to drive the big Army Trucks off the line and park them about a mile away. Then she had to “hitch” a ride back to the plant. “Those were pretty big trucks,” she said, “And I wasn’t a very big girl at the time. I really had to stand into my work.” After the War, Helen came home because her father had broken his foot and they needed her once more, at home. She said that she had done a man’s job and she would have liked to continue but she had to come home.
D-Day was the historical event that she remembers most because Gerald came home from the war a few months later. His brother, Leo had been killed so she was really glad to get Gerald back home. It had been hard on her living in Detroit. Uncle Gerald was a Navy man. When asked why the Navy and not the Army, he said he felt safer on a boat; the enemy couldn’t sneak up on ya’. Helen was very proud of being a Post Office Clerk for 28 years when most women did not have the opportunity to do anything but clean houses and sew for outside money. She considered herself lucky to have had her job. When I asked her if there was enough money, she said,
“It had to be. You just stretched that old money to the squealing point.“
Helen was president of the VFW Auxiliary and Regent of the Daughters of Isabella.
Even with her job and all her community activities, her family was first. If Sue or I needed help with our babies, she was always there. After hearing her tell about her neighbor, Missy Wixon, I think that our family could see her in the same light. “If Helen was on the job, we were all safe and sound.” Whenever we are whiney and feeling sorry for ourselves, we think of her and we get up out of that bed and get going because that’s what she always did. – No complaints!!
When Aunt Helen was younger, she was not a huger, but she was different later. I kissed her one day when I was leaving. She held on tight and said, “Sometimes a person just aches for somebody to hold them.”
One final story about what she was like:
One winter night Helen and I were coming home from town on I-69 and my car spun around on the ice. We whirled around, up and down, around and around several times like a roller coaster going nowhere. After many hair-raising minutes, while trying to avoid ditches, trying not to lose control, I finally got the car stopped facing the wrong way on the side of the road. We looked at each other and she started to laugh and said, “Wow! That was a fine piece of work!” We sat there for a good two minutes laughing and being grateful that the truck that passed us soon after we stopped had not come by sooner. She had not said a word, not uttered one sound that would have distracted me.
My Auntie, The Trooper!
In honoring our service men, this is my Uncle, Gerald Butler. He was a member of the United States Navy. In the story above he gives his reason for wanting to join the Navy and not the Army or other branch of the service.
Marian Brennan Pratt held the position of Church Secretary at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Parish in the Village of Emmett, Michigan for 24 years. She has four grown children: Barbara, Suzanne, Bernie and Steve, seven grandchildren: Daniel, Kaitlynn, Emily, Ashley, Taylor, Brennan and Benjamin, one great-grandchild: Paislee and another on-the-way. While a member of the community, she joined the ladies of the parish in a Book Club, was a member of Daughters of Isabella #452 and a past member of the Village Council. Marian lives in Port Huron now and has always been interested in Journalism which led to her joining the staff of St. Stephen’s High School newspaper, the Stephecho. She has written several articles for the Emmett News and has had a book published, entitled “Emmett Township”, part of the Images of America series by Arcadia Publishing which plays a large part in the preservation of local heritage.
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