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Thursday, July 30, 2009

Living Memories

Here in the Boston area, white hair often complements a ruby face, and I’m here to tell you that while we of Irish heritage regularly bloom pinker with age, contrary to popular belief, the veined networks across our cheeks and nose aren’t always derived from drink. Many of us (including me) color up as a result of a skin condition called Rosacia that runs prevalent in those of Celtic decent.

Now that I’ve offered up that disclaimer though, the adage, “He wears the map of Ireland on his face” held true for my father. Those who knew him remember that he did, in fact, speak highly of a good glass of scotch--but that aside, both he and my mom had grey hair as long as I can remember and, for whatever reason, Dad’s face--complete with a fleshy scar over one eye stemming from a car accident when he was two--colored to a lovely shade of rose during his thirties and remained that way for life. In his last few years, his white hair receded enough that he combed it straight back, which changed his look entirely and this last piece is what I want to write about.

My Dad grew up summering in the town next door to where I live now; an area known as The Irish Riviera. His boyhood friends, Galvins and Leahys and Gahans and Cahills, in many cases married each others' friends and cousins, provided jobs for each others' children, and stayed in touch long after their heads all faded to white. My siblings and I identified the friends that came from this boyhood era in North Scituate, because the kids he swam with at Minot Beach or danced with at the Cliff Hotel had their own nickname for him. While his business acquaintances called my dad Tom and his friends referred to him as “Tuck;” these childhood buddies labeled him “Tuckie.”

One weekend several years back my dad visited from his home fifty miles away, and when we climbed into the car after church on Sunday Dad caught sight of one of these old summer cronies. Rolling down the window, he leaned far out and waving his arms yelled “Jack, Jack!!!” across a busy interception. Not knowing Jack, I looked at my father with a furrowed brow until he explained the boyhood connection. That day when Jack didn’t hear him and drove off; my father’s disappointment took on flesh and physicality in our car on the way home.

After that, I saw Jack from a distance at church regularly and though I never mentioned it, he always reminded me of my father. Not only did I picture that Sunday when my dad practically fell out of the car hollering at him, but because Jack is about the same height, with a portly build comparable to my Dad's; he wears similar wire-rimmed glasses, and shuffles slightly the same way when he walks. Most importantly, Jack inherited the Irish pink complexion too, as well as receding white hair that he combs straight back.

My Dad died on a Thanksgiving and the following Sunday my husband, daughter and I attended church. In the way that life works, for the first and only time, Jack and his wife sat next to us, and once I realized it I shifted my weight and crossed and uncrossed my legs. The obituary wasn’t out yet and I wondered how, once the service ended, I could possibly introduce myself to them and share the news without crying. I was spared that when Jack, a doctor, was summoned to the back of church to assist with a medical problem. Days later, as I stood reading a eulogy at my Dad’s funeral, I took a calming breath when I saw Jack and his wife sitting at the back. Not long after, on yet another Sunday in church, then 10-year-old Meghann leaned over and whispered to me. “See that man up there?” pointing to Jack. “He looks like Papa.”

To this day, when I see Jack sitting many seats in front of us at church on Sundays I quietly categorize his similarities to my Dad. Finally, this year upon encountering him outside of my favorite coffee shop, I introduced myself. When he learned my maiden name, Jack grinned, put his hand on my arm and began to tell me stories about my father. I left that conversation smiling softly, as I did when I bumped into him at the same coffee shop this week.

This time our words were brief, but when we finished he said, “Thank you for saying hello.” Feeling infinitesimally closer to my dad, I backed up my car, thinking: “Thank you for being there.”

When we lose someone, we reach for customary objects and pictures to bring us closer to those we love. In my case, it’s the continuity I seek--a familiar face who knew Dad long before me—someone who recalls a skinny, long-legged boy called Tuckie when he had fresh scars on his forehead and wavy brown hair that he parted on the side.

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