West Side Stories | Essay | Chicago Reader

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Ma's first cousin, Nora, got married on Christmas Day. She was a Catholic, but she married Jim, who was not. My mother was horrified. It was bad enough that she got married in a Protestant church, but on Christmas Day--how could you do that?

My mother lamented that forever, but it didn't break their friendship. When Nora's first child was born, my mother was the godmother. Nora went on and had six children, and she insisted that they all be baptized in the Catholic church. In those days they didn't ask a lot of questions, like they do now.

When Nora got sick my mother went out to see her, and they talked about seeing a priest. Nora wanted to go to confession, get her marriage straightened out, and have a priest come when she was sick. So my mother called up the parish--I think it was Help of Christians--and a priest came over. Nora told him she had been married outside the church. That was her big worry. The priest said, "I could marry you right here in this room."

Nora said, "Well, I'll talk to my husband."

Now Nora had all these cousins that were coming to help her. She was completely bedridden. My mother was one of several who came every day. Cousin Mary came too. She brought clean sheets and pillowcases.

Anyway, Nora talked to her husband about getting married in the Catholic church, and Jim said no. He couldn't do that. He couldn't say that he wasn't married to her before. He couldn't say that their six children weren't legitimate.

My mother had always been very friendly with the children, who were grown by now--they were teenagers or older. But now they seemed to resent her very much, and she decided that she was causing trouble for them. One of the sons said, "I wish you'd quit talking about priests and religion to my mother."

So then, for maybe a week, ma didn't go at all. And then she gets a call that Nora has died. She was really upset. She should have been there. She could have done something.

Ma told us all before we went to the wake, "If there is no kneeler there, we will all kneel down on the floor." There was a kneeler, but there was no priest. When she died they hadn't called a priest.

So the next time the cousins got together--they always talked over all the family business, who did what, and who said what, and all that--ma said, "What I cannot understand, Jim was always so good to Nora. He would give her anything she wanted. Why wouldn't he give her the only thing that was important to her?"

Cousin Mary spoke up. She said, "I told him not to. I said, 'Jim, why should you marry as if you had never been married when you have all these children?'"

Ma said, "Mary, it would have been much better if you had stayed at home with your clean sheets."

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