Scotty's Diner, in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, photographed in 1989 (John Margolies)

In mid-March, four months after my father died, my son got married. My father had been in declining health for a few years, during which time my mother took on the role of full-time caretaker (as a lifelong partner might be expected to). Resisting entreaties to accept regular outside help, she also stubbornly and preemptively ruled out any kind of travel, even for a grandson’s wedding. That she was able to be present after all made everyone happy, including her. The ceremony was joyous, the reception a party for the ages: a happy marriage, if you will, of Russian-Jewish and Italian-Catholic tradition. But the reality of what allowed my mother to be in attendance—and the fact that she was attending on her own—was never far from the surface of things.  

“May his memory be a blessing,” my son’s soon-to-be in-laws said to me in the days and weeks following my father’s death, as together we helped plan the wedding. It’s hard to express the comfort that their words—the English translation of the traditional Hebrew zichrona livricha—brought me. “A Blessing too Good for Jews Alone,” as a headline at the Tablet once memorably put it, and I can now personally attest to that. “It wishes not only that when the living think about those who have died, they do so with warmth and joy,” the article’s author wrote. “It also [marks] the ways those lives have mattered and continue to matter in this world, even if they are no longer in it.” At the reception, when it came time for toasts, my son’s new mother-in-law asked guests to remember family members who’d recently died. She spoke of the “void” the departed leave in the lives of those still living. Until then, I’d experienced my father’s death more as an absence than a void—a difference of degree, not of category, but still a difference. Yet what, if not “void,” best describes that state when someone who was so much a part of this world is no longer in it?

By coincidence, the wedding took place in a part of New Jersey where I’d lived as a child. It’s a densely populated conglomeration of suburban towns and small cities linked by a network of highways, state roads, and commercial strips as tangled and complex as the circulatory system. I feel as if I spent most of that childhood in the car with my parents and brothers traveling these roads—trips to visit family and to see New York City; to gas stations and furniture outlets and appliance stores. Over the course of the wedding weekend’s mandated journeys—airport, bakery, reception hall, hotel—I got to relive some of those earlier drives. The roads still hew to their long-ago plotted routes. Even some of the old landmarks remain, stores and restaurants and malls that have withstood the passage of years.    

“May his memory be a blessing,” my son’s soon-to-be in-laws said to me in the days and weeks following my father’s death, as together we helped plan the wedding.

This includes a roadside diner we always used to pass without ever stopping to eat at. But once it offered a place of rest. Late on the night of Holy Thursday in 1982, I accompanied my father to our parish church to sit vigil before the stripped and barren altar, one shift in the long line that would carry on through the next afternoon. We stayed for our assigned hour until being relieved by the next parishioner. But our night wasn’t over. Out in the station wagon were boxes of donated food to deliver to a sister parish several towns away in time for Easter weekend. It was getting late by the time we arrived at that church and began to unpack the car. We left the boxes near a row of refrigerators beneath the basketball nets in the gym, as instructed by the parish priest. Then we began the ride home. At that hour traffic was light, but it still felt like a long drive. I’d been in school all day, and my father had been at work. Usually one to push all the way through, he uncharacteristically this night pulled off the road and into the parking lot of that diner we’d always sped right by. I thought he wanted coffee, but he said he just needed to sleep for a few minutes. I sat there watching people go in and out of the diner while my father dozed. The clock ticked past midnight into Good Friday, and a few minutes later, he was awake and ready to drive on.

I’ve often thought about that night, sitting by my father on a hard pew bench in the empty church and, later, in the car while he slept. But it wasn’t until the weekend of my son’s wedding that I actually saw that diner again. I was sixteen in 1982, a junior in high school. My father was forty-six: old to me then, enviably and unimaginably young from where I stand now. Other well-wishers in the months since he died have used the word “imprint” in describing a parent’s lasting, indelible mark on a child. This image, too, has caused me to think. Photos of me from the wedding capture a man bearing unmistakable and not entirely welcome resemblance to his late father—don’t we all want to escape such easy and reductive linkage, so obvious an “imprint”? And yet, beyond what’s visible within the borders of a photograph, there is other evidence of his imprint, perhaps known only to me, that I’m not always so hesitant to acknowledge.

“The mystery / that there is anything, anything at all, / let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything, / rather than void,” Denise Levertov writes in her poem “Primary Wonder.” There are days that force us to contemplate the void more directly than we might like to. We cannot be sure that the emptiness will be filled; we understandably doubt the very possibility of it. But if a memory can bring blessings, and if we bear the imprint of those who preceded us, it’s a little easier to imagine emptiness becoming fullness, absence becoming abundance, life being renewed. It might even stir that joyful hope: that there is not just anything, but everything, rather than void.

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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