West Side Stories | Essay | Chicago Reader

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I don't know where Aunt Anna met Uncle Percy. Probably down along Printers Row. The bookbindery where she worked as a forelady was on Plymouth Court near Harrison. And he was a printer.

She went with him for 17 years. He used to write her postcards. You know, you'd put 'em in the box in the morning, and she would have them the next morning, asking her to meet him at a certain spot after work--and they'd go to a show.

One day in 1918 one of my mother's cousins came to our house and said, "I see your sister-in-law got married yesterday."

"Which one?" my mother asked.

"Anne. I saw her in Saint Finbarr's, walking down the aisle."

Now at the time, Aunt Anna was helping take care of her father, Philip Ryan, my grandfather. So when my father came home he went over to the house where his father and sisters lived.

He said, "So you married him?" She admitted it. "Well, dammit, go live with the man. You don't have to stay here."

So Aunt Anna and Uncle Percy moved to a place of their own.

Percy's real name was Patrick. He was a great guy. We loved him. He was so good to us. And he could sing like John McCormack. He had all of John McCormack's records. They had a beautiful home, beautiful furniture, everything nice, and they treated us royally.

My father gave him the name Percy. This man was very tall and skinny, about six foot three inches. You'd think you could knock him over with a feather. My father would say, "He doesn't drink, smoke, or chew." This was intended as an insult.

Percy went into a bar on a hot Sunday afternoon and found the bartender asleep behind the bar--he used to love to tell this story himself. He tapped on the bar, and the bartender finally woke up. "What can I do for you?"

Percy said, "I'd like a tall glass of ice-cold milk."

The bartender said, "Sonny, the day nursery is right around the corner." And he went back to sleep.

After a couple of years they bought a house in Maywood. There were no sidewalks, no streets. It was a white stucco house, and it was beautiful. It was just like a dollhouse, and that's where he got sick. He had consumption, TB.

They weren't in the house six months and he got sick. She had ultraviolet-ray machines, and nurses day and night, and all that sort of stuff for him. But he wasn't getting any better.

She had a cousin living in California. She had a great big back porch in Pasadena, lots of fresh air. She told Aunt Anna, the thing to do is come to California. So they closed up the house and gave my mother and father the key to take care of it for them.

They stayed in California for maybe two or three years, but Percy wasn't any better. So they came back, opened their house in Maywood, and Aunt Anna got her job back at the bookbindery.

She used to take the Toonerville Trolley from 17th Avenue in Maywood to Austin and Madison, and then she'd get the streetcar downtown. The trolley was a single car with straw seats, and it had a big coal stove in the back. That's how they kept the car warm in the winter.

We went out to Maywood for every holiday. They couldn't go anywhere, so every holiday we went there. If you went out the door you'd hear her: "Don't slam that door." Or if you closed it quietly, she'd say, "Don't let the flies in."

She was always tough like that. But she was a very responsible person. She worked and took care of people all her life.

I used to try to make her talk about when she was young. "Tell me what it was like when you were young." And I would like to have gotten some answers about Uncle Percy, why she went with him for all those years. But all she'd say was, "I found out a long time ago that you never get in trouble if you keep your mouth shut." And that was all she'd tell me.

Uncle Percy sat and read his books and studied Latin and chatted with the minister who lived across the street. They used to have wonderful conversations. Percy was Catholic. This minister was Presbyterian. One day he said to Percy, "You know, I'd join your church, but I'd be out of a job if I did."

I think that's what got my father in the end. Uncle Percy sat there and read his books and talked to the minister and studied this and that while my father ran to Maywood and fixed the roof and fixed the windows and put up the storms. And Percy did nothing. He just sat. He was so skinny that you couldn't tell if he was really sickly.

My father was kind of a comic, but he was a critic too. He always said, "When Percy dies it won't be from TB." And it wasn't. He died in 1945 of stoppage of the heart. He was about 62.

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