The just-released Bridie’s Boy is a memoir filled with the rascalious travails of our Boy Sean and the resourceful solutions of his Irish immigrant mother, Bridie, who reads tea leaves and applies the “sourcery” of her magical touch to try and straighten out her errant son. Each episode draws us closer to a cure.

Bridie’s Boy began as a series of short stories that tell of my emigration from the rough-and-tumble West Side of Chicago to “Pleasantville” Oak Park. An aspiring Seanachi, I was urged to put my stories down on paper. Four years ago, I began with “The Paper Boy,” a tale of bringing the early morning news to the south end of Oak Park, along the cold and abandoned Oak Park Avenue. It was the morning that the Brennan boys owned, a hard-working crew with few resources but much determination. “The Paper Boy” led to “The Altar Boy” and subsequently 12 serial short stories that tell of mischief, mayhem, and merriment and take the reader from tears to laughter — sometimes in the same sentence.

Tom Brennan, the patriarch of Cloonmore, our home, nicknamed in honor of Bridie’s home in Ireland, insisted on essays anytime we had an outing. It was in the dining room, where Pops embraced his sewing machine, designing annual Easter outfits for the Brennan clan, that I started my writing career. “Look it up,” “This is spelled wrong,” “You’re using the wrong tense.” Each directive served to hone our skills because you sure weren’t getting released until your essay was perfect. Years later, it all paid off when I sat down to tell my tale of growing up in 1960s Oak Park. 

We had no TV, no toys, no parks … only our imaginations, the alley and the 60-some kids who lived on the block. There was baseball with coverless balls wrapped in electrical tape and football with a sock stuffed with marbles as a football, and basketball with a chair with its seat cut out for a hoop, and kick-the-can and hide-and-seek, and knocking over garbage cans, and hopping garage roofs, and throwing snowballs at cars, and kissing girls in the abandoned garages, and boxing matches with each combatant using only one glove, and hopscotch with your dad’s flattened beer cans, and on and on. 

It was a world of creation and serendipity where all the solutions and cures were found in Bridie’s kitchen. Here modern convenience was unknown. Where cups, knives, forks, spoons, and plates were matchless and as independent as the souls at the table. Where teapots couldn’t whistle and toasters couldn’t toast. Where Bridie served up sandwiches and wisdom like no other, told stories of Irish mysticism with unmatched wit. And soothed every sore and tear from her own kids and every refugee, who strode through the battered screen door. And it all shows up in the pages of Bridie’s Boy

In 1977 when I was 25 and Bridie a widow, I take her back to Eire where she sees the whole of Ireland for the first time. It was in 1929, just two weeks before the stock market crash when she emigrated as a poor 17-year-old farmgirl in search of a better life. We travel from Donegal to Derry to Dublin and Dunloe, each a new experience and end up in Kiltimagh, her hometown. We visit gravesites and hilltops and glens and farmhouses with dirt floors and thatched roofs and finally the train station, now overgrown with weeds and grass where once the rails ran, which Bridie left from. It’s here, with her arm around her sister Molly’s waist and a tear in every eye that she imparts the woeful sadness of leaving home for America. The steam from the train engulfing each soul on the platform, the ding ding dings of the bell erasing each final moment. Knowing that she was leaving … maybe forever.

Bridie’s Boy is a story of having very little, yet having everything … only because of Bridie.

Sean Brennan, the 10th of 11 children (the first five were girls, the next six boys) grew up in St. Edmund Parish and graduated from Fenwick High School. He now lives outside Michigan City, Indiana.

Join the discussion on social media!

One reply on “Growing up, the hard way, in Oak Park”