Wednesday, October 11, 2006


I was standing in the Long Island Railroad section of Penn Station the day before the night before Christmas, talking on a pay phone while waiting for a train to take me out to the Island. I was trying to carry on a conversation over the noise and confusion, trying not to think about who might have handled the particular phone I was holding so close to my face, when the person on the other end of the line gave me a phone number. I fumbled around for a pen, and, pressing the bacteria-laden phone against my cheek, rapidly jotted the number across the upper margin of The New York Times.

We talked for another moment, said “Merry Christmas” and “good-bye” and hung up. Then, looking down at the Times, I felt a strange little shudder, for a ghost had moved through the train station. The spirit of someone long dead had passed very near me, perhaps on his way to get a pretzel, recognized me, but seeing I was engaged in conversation didn’t want to interrupt so he decided to leave a message.

I looked down at the Times in my hand and there was the phone number I’d just been given, but it was written in my father’s handwriting. I would have recognized it anywhere, but especially in this context: crowded into the upper corner of a newspaper. My father doodled, and many was the copy of The Daily News that sported blue ballpoint illuminations at the margins.

I looked closer. It was my handwriting, but done like that, quickly and off-balance and on newsprint in blue ink, it looked less like mine and more like my dad’s

All these years and I had never noticed the similarity. Now I look at a page of my particular hieroglyphics with its fat-looped t’s flowing directly into skinny h’s, the tails of the y’s and g’s slashing down to the bottom of the line below, or the line below that depending on how excited I am, and the resemblance is quite clear. They’re two very different ways of writing, but you can see the family resemblance the way you can spot the ghosts of your parents’ features behind your face in the mirror as you grow older.

My father died more than thirty years ago. He was the youngest of four children, a high-school graduate, and worked most of his life at menial jobs. He was a janitor, a laborer. He died doing that. At sixty-nine he dropped dead at work wearing the last in a succession of gray or blue or green coveralls.

He was a veteran and a member of the Volunteer Fire Department, which took care of the funeral, There was no will, no estate, I kept his Volunteer Fireman’s badge and some photographs, and in the years that followed, believed that my father had left me no legacy…except a tendency to answer questions about what I want for Christmas with my father’s request: “Just some peace and quiet.”

And now I see he’s in every word I’ve ever written, riding along, speeding the pen lightly over the page. He is in what I write like a drop of blood distributed evenly through a painter’s pigment.

How strange to notice this now. How remarkable to have the obvious revealed to me as I wait for a train to take me out to Holy Rood Cemetery for the annual Christmas visit and running of the rosary at my parents’ grave. Once again, the universe acts like a Zen master: answering questions with riddles, then sitting back and smiling as we figure things out for ourselves.


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