West Side Stories | Essay | Chicago Reader
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I've always felt that I was much loved. People loved me. My mother loved me. My father loved me. And when he sat me on his knee and blew smoke in my ear I knew that he loved me.

Didn't I tell you that one? Well, today it would be considered child abuse. But when I had an earache when I was a little kid, four or five, my father would sit me on his knee--and he would smoke his cigarette. And he would blow smoke in my ears, and my earache would heal.

That's why I don't exactly believe this thing about second-hand smoke. Of course I might still get cancer, but I've been around smokers all my life.

My father always rolled his own. One day on Flournoy Street, when I was about seven, he sent me to the corner to get him a 'red book.' So I just told the druggist that I wanted a red book, and he gave me the magazine Redbook, and I brought it home.

My father said, "That isn't what I want. I want paper to make my cigarettes." So I went back. It was a little book with an orange cover. It had a rubber band around it, and inside were all these little papers that he'd put his tobacco in. The tobacco was in a red can, Velvet Tobacco. He would put tobacco in the paper and then roll it and spit on it to seal the ends.

My mother always said that she was very grateful that he had to take time out to roll his own, because otherwise he would have smoked continuously. And he did die of cancer after years of treatments--cancer of the larynx and lungs--when he was 75, in 1948.

Anyway, what I wanted to tell you about was this idea of having a self-image or self-confidence. Self-esteem.

When I was in third grade at Our Lady of Sorrows, Christmastime, I won the prize for arithmetic. I received this beautiful crib that you could stand up. It was made out of cardboard, and the holy family was in there--the statues. They were all cardboard. You just opened it up, and there was the whole holy family.

My mother said, "Take it back to the sister and ask her to write on the back of it."

So the sister wrote, "To Josephine Ryan for the highest percentage in arithmetic, December, 1922."

Then every Christmas I would take the crib out to put it under the Christmas tree, and I would look on the back of it and see that I had the highest percentage in arithmetic. It always gave me this great feeling that I was very smart. I knew I wasn't as smart as I thought I was. Nobody is. But I always had the feeling that I was a smart kid, and I give my mother credit for that--for having me go and get it in writing.

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