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West Side Stories

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I don't know how many times the priest came. He would anoint ma and give her the last rites, but then she'd revive. They don't call it the last rites anymore. Now it's called the "blessing of the sick."

She was in bed for all those months. At first I stayed home from school and did what I could for her. I did everything. I washed her up, fixed her bed, changed her nightgown, fed her breakfast. I worked all the time.

I got up early in the morning and got my father's breakfast--two soft-boiled eggs in a big cup, a couple of pieces of toast, and coffee. Then I made his lunch--two sandwiches, a piece of fruit. Wrapped 'em in newspaper, tied it with a string or a rubber band.

Christmas Day my father made stewed chicken with potatoes. It was nothing like having a turkey. We must have gotten something for Christmas, but I can't remember.

He brought my mother out--carried her out--and put her on the couch in the dining room so she could see the Christmas tree. She was there maybe a half hour or so, and then he carried her back. She was so weak.

This was Arthington Street. About the middle of January we got Mrs. Ahern, who lived two doors down, to stay with ma, and I went back to school, to Our Lady of Sorrows. But I couldn't leave until after Mrs. Ahern came, and she had her own kids to get off first.

Now wouldn't the sisters know that my mother was sick? The priest used to come. Every time she got real bad we'd call the priest. But they never said a word to me about that. And I can remember twice when I was embarrassed in class.

One day we came back from lunch. We came in and sat down, and the sister said, "Josephine Ryan. Stand up." I stood up. This is eighth grade. She said, "Sister Mary John was in here at lunchtime, and she was looking at the work on the board. She asked me who the third panel belonged to. I told her it was Josephine Ryan. And she said, 'Why, she wrote better than that when she was in my class.'" Sister Mary John was my first-grade teacher. So then I sat down. That was the end of the conversation.

Another time: stand up. So I stood up, and she said, "You know, you used to be a good student. But you're sloping on your oars."

Lunchtime, as soon as I got in the door, Mrs. Ahern ran to her house to get lunch for her kids. I would fix the lunch for Ed and Rosemarie. Marge was in high school. She didn't come home for lunch.

And then I'd always be running back to school. I couldn't go until Mrs. Ahern came back, and she wouldn't come back until maybe she straightened up the dishes or something. Then I would run to school, and sometimes I'd be late. I could have told them my mother...I know I never said outright that my mother was sick, but they must have known. I mean, every time she got bad the priest would come. And us four kids would kneel at the foot of the bed, and the priest would be saying the prayers in Latin.

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