West Side Stories | Essay | Chicago Reader

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My grandfather, Philip Ryan, died in November 1924, when I was ten. He was 89. I remember going to visit him when he was sick. He was wrapped in a blanket sitting in his chair.

He was waked at home. They had these red candles on either side of the casket, and we kids--there were six of us--we stayed all night. We laid crosswise in the bed so there was enough room, and I was on the end and could look out through the brass rails of the bed and see the lights flickering on the open casket. In the morning we got up early, and all the kids went in and we said the rosary.

People were in the kitchen smoking and eating and drinking. An Irish wake.

This was the first funeral I remember. He was buried from Our Lady of Angels Church on Hamlin Avenue. The funeral procession went out Archer Avenue to Saint James the Sag near Lemont. The trees were all covered with snow and ice.

When we got to the Sag, the Ryans from the farm were there--Philip's nieces and nephews who lived out that way. They opened the casket so they could say good-bye.

So when I go out to the Sag and I think of where these people are buried, I can picture just where Philip Ryan is because that's where the casket was opened. Strange.

My great-grandfather, Thomas McLaughlin, is also buried there, alongside his two wives, Mary and Margaret.

Margaret was Irish, and the story was that her family had fixed her up to marry some English nobleman. But he wasn't Catholic, and he wanted her to join his church. So she fled to America, where she holed up in this little church near Lemont thinking she'd be safe--and along came Thomas McLaughlin.

Now sometime after his wife died in 1855, Thomas McLaughlin went to get the priest for his son, who was dying. Margaret, who was the housekeeper at the rectory, answered the door. She told him the priest wasn't in, and he told her why he was there. She said, "Well, wait. He'll be back soon." She took his coat and his hat and all that stuff. The fire was on, and he sat in front of the fireplace.

And she went out to the kitchen and made him a plate of bread and eggs--fried eggs--and whatnot.

Well, 45 minutes later, when the priest came back, they asked him to marry them. So before he went to see the dying son, the priest married them.

Margaret got in the wagon with them and went to the farm. And as she was getting out of the wagon, it occurred to her to wonder if the dying son was the only child, and then she found he had all these other children.

Anyway, cousin Nancy said she was a wonderful mother to all those children. She never had any of her own. And she was a wonderful grandmother.

Now Thomas McLaughlin died in 1873, and Margaret lived on quite a long time. They're all buried at the Sag--Thomas McLaughlin and both wives, Margaret and Mary--right in front of the church.

About ten years ago somebody smashed Thomas McLaughlin's tombstone. The historical society out there paid to put the stone back together. They put a new front on it. It was beautiful. And then a few years ago the vandals were out again, and this time they smashed Mary McLaughlin's stone too. I should really do something about getting them repaired.

Why do people do these crazy things?

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