My dad turned 90 the day after Christmas. My sister and brother and I wanted to do something special for him. These days he’s mostly content to sit and sleep in his recliner. Nothing else is of much interest to him. He’s getting ready to go home to God and to be with my mom.
About six months ago, I presented him with the idea of making a pilgrimage to a dozen important places in his life. We would do this on his 90th birthday. I’m indebted for this idea to my friend, Notre Dame vice president and general counsel Marianne Corr ’78, who did this for her dad when he turned 90.
On December 26, my sister and brother and his wife met up in my dad’s apartment. We celebrated Mass together at the kitchen table. After Mass we left for the pilgrimage in and around Easton, Pennsylvania. We made 13 stops. At each stop my dad told us something about that place. My sister recorded it all on her phone.
Like most people born in 1929, my dad was born at home. That house is no longer there. But he knows exactly where the house was. So we stopped there. He told us what the house looked like. All but one of his seven siblings were born there. Just down the block was a corner grocery store where my dad worked bringing up boxes of canned goods from the basement when he was 9 or 10 years old. He told us that it was Ralph Regina’s store.
Then we went to my dad’s elementary school, Asa Packer. The building has been torn down and now it’s a park. He recalled his first day of first grade and was able to name all six teachers in elementary school, grades 1-6. No kindergarten in those days and certainly no preschool. It was great to hear him talk about each of his teachers.
On the way to where my dad went to middle school, Stevens Middle School, we passed where Sue’s Candy Store and a movie theater used to be. All three — the candy store, the movie theater and the middle school — are no longer there. At each place my dad told a short story. He was not distressed at all that those places were torn down. Perhaps when you’re 90 years old you’ve become reconciled to the truth that everything on this earth comes and goes.
After the middle school we drove by my dad’s high school. Now it’s a junior high, but the building is still there, educating the children of Easton. We drove past Woolworth’s where my dad had his first job with a paycheck. He filled jelly and crème donuts and did lots of other jobs at Woolworth’s. I forget what the store is now, but the name Woolworth brings back lots of memories.
Then we drove past the place where my dad took my mom on their first date. It was the State Theater and it’s still there. It’s not a movie theater any longer. It hosts other kinds of events. He told us the name of the movie, A Boy Named John. It was released in April of 1952. He took my mom there on May 15, 1952. Then we drove to the place where they had ice cream — the Paradise — after the movie. The Paradise is now a jewelry store.
From there we drove to the church, St. Phillip and St. James, where my mom and dad were married, exactly 66 years ago to the day, December 26, 1953, his 24th birthday. He told us who drove him to the ceremony and how lovely my mom looked on their wedding day. Then we drove past the house where my mom grew up on Lincoln Street in Phillipsburg, New Jersey, just a few miles away across the Delaware River.
Then we drove past the first apartment that my mom and dad rented. My dad told us of the other renters in that building who became their lifelong friends. It’s almost directly across the street from the funeral parlor where my dad wants to go when his time comes. Then we drove to the second apartment where they lived. My brother and I lived there until I was 6 and he was 5. I asked my dad if one story I had always heard was true: that he was late with the rent by one day and the landlady gave him a hard time, so he paid in pennies.
“But they were wrapped,” he told us.
I’ll always be grateful for that apartment because it was only one block from St. Anthony’s Catholic Elementary School where we all went to grade school. Truth be known, we went to that school because it was the closest school to where we lived. That school, not really chosen because it was a Catholic school, has marked and formed my life forever. God is always up to something.
We drove past the only house my parents ever owned at 120 South 14th Street. They bought the house — a half double — in 1960 and my dad moved out of the house in 2004 after my mom died. It was the house that my brother and sister and I grew up in. That stop brought back so many memories for all of us. My brother and sister and I had lots of stories about that house and the neighborhood where we grew up.
Our final stop was at St. Anthony’s cemetery where my mom is buried. We prayed, as we always do, that her soul would rest in peace. Following the visit to the cemetery, we went back to my dad’s apartment.
Our End of Life Pilgrimage was filled with laughter and tears, with lots of memories, with lots of storytelling, with lots of “remember when-ing.” I have a game that I play with my dad based on Jeopardy!. It has many categories: “Names of Corner Stores for $20.” “Names of Neighbors for $20.” “Names of Alleys for $20.”
Engaging in this sort of event is not a desire to return to what was. Rather it is an expression of gratitude to God for his countless gifts and blessings. God can never be outdone in generosity. I always say that the main reason I will go to heaven is because I will need all eternity just to thank God for his goodness and kindness and generosity to me.
As Meister Eckhart, a medieval German priest and theologian said, “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.”
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
Fr. Joe Corpora, C.S.C. was on sabbatical for the Fall 2019 semester and renamed his regular “Being Mercy” column “Doing Mercy” to chronicle his experiences around the world during his active leave from campus.