The Wonderful Wizard — In Color
By Mary W.
Our uncle Frank and Aunt Mary who lived around the corner from us were the only ones in the family to have a color TV. And every year – it was only once a year – when the Wizard of Oz came on TV –we would go to their house and watch and just be amazed when Dorothy steps out of the house and the movie transforms from black and white into color.
Our cousins got to see the color TV all year – but the Wizard of Oz was the time we all crammed into the South Philly rowhome to watch that Zenith TV. (It was more than a TV — it was a piece of furniture that had a record player and bar in it). We would look up in the TV Guide to see when it was coming on and we would walk to their house eager to see the best movie ever.
Now, with the on-demand the ability to watch whatever you want and whenever you want takes away that time. Don’t get me wrong, I still love the Wizard of Oz and am happy to have the chance to watch it whenever I want. What I really miss is that the TV was the way we shared things- it was a common thread to bond us. It captured all the events and we saw it together.
I’ll always treasure my set of Wizard of Oz ornaments and hang them on my tree every year.
By Beth C, Palmyra, NJ
Mouse ears. I love my mouse ears. They remind me of taking my kids to Disneyworld and just watching their faces. My enjoyment came from watching them enjoy themselves. We went at Christmas and what a trip. The lights. The decorations. The parades. The music. They loved meeting the characters. Riding the rides.
Everything was magical. It was the happiest place on Earth. And as soon as our grandchildren get just a little bit older, we will take them too and relive that joy and happiness again. This time through their eyes.
By Larry G., South Philly
We grew up going down the Jersey Shore. Not the one from TV, but the South Jersey Shore. Ocean City. Sea Isle City. Avalon. Stone Harbor. Wildwood. Those great resorts making our summers special as we went from little kids to as local Philly celebrity Jerry Blavat called us “Yon Teens” , through college, post college and finally married adults with kids of our own.
So we continue the tradition. And those kids are now going through the rituals and passages which take them Down the Shore.
Like pizza. Manco & Manco Pizza
Plain, with toppings, any way you want the thin crust is perfect and we love the pizza so much that people will make the hour and a half drive in the winter time from Philly to get the pizza and then bring some back to finish baking at home.
When our daughter was six months old we took her to the beach for the first time. Of course we stopped in Mack & Manco. It’s a gotta have and gotta have it at least 5 times in a vacation week in Ocean City. It was the week after Memorial Day so the weather was great and the crowds had yet to come.
We walked into Mack & Manco and sat this adorable 6 month old in a red and white outfit on the counter. Immediately all the guys working there were drawn to the baby. We took a picture of her and to this day it is one of our favorite pictures with the her smiling on the counter and the guys making a fuss over her.
A quick stop at Mia’s Christmas Gallery and we bought an ornament of Mack & Manco to hang on our tree. It wasn’t fancy, it was one of those that is kind of fragile as it has the building outlined in thin metal. It can even get lost in the branches of a tree.
To further commemorate our shore visit we purchased ceramic booties It would remind us of the great times at the Shore. They were baby shoes tied together by a pink ribbon with the words written by a sharpie on the soles of the shoes “Baby’s First Visit. 2004.” We needed to be extra careful as the shoes clank together and could easily chip or break.
But there was a change coming. Mack & Manco changed its name for the summer of 2012 dropping Macs and calling itself “Manco and Manco.” Somehow when someone calls it Manco & Manco it just doesn’t sound right and makes you want to clean out your ears to make sure your hearing was OK. Maybe to my daughter and the children who when they are grown will go to the Shore will remember it as Manco & Manco.
I mean, not only us but the millions of people who have enjoyed the pizza over the decades will still call it Mack & Manco. We had some on our visit at Manco & Manco. Guess what? The pizza tasted the same. Great as ever. And we had it five times that week.
So the booties remind us of that precious first time we went to the Shore as a family. The walking on the boardwalk with her in the stroller. Only worrying if her diaper needed to be changed. And making sure she had enough sun screen to cover her up. Having the beach and salt sea air help her to nap in a big tent. (You can never have enough cover up from the sun for a six month old.)
We recently bought another ornament – a small wooden replica of the long paddle used to put the pizza and take out of the ovens. It has a prominent place on our tree.
And the yes, we will always have the ornaments to remind us that even though names change, memories of the Shore — and great tasting pizza — will always stay.
By Abby, Havertown, PA
My favorite ornament – that’s easy. It’s the dog’s paw with my name on it – Abby.
My family put it up high on the tree to make sure that I can’t get to it. Pity. It’s really the only one I like. The only one I can reach is that silly stuffed Sponge Bob one that hangs off the bottom branch. Yeah, Bob looks real good in that Santa hat (please note the sarcasm.)
This is my third Christmas with my family. I am hoping for something more than a bone and fuzzy faux-animal that squeaks. How about a burger with my food? Or bacon? Yeah…bacon.
I like to get presents. Beside food I could really go for a nice chew toy. Or a new ball. A soft, fuzzy blanket to lie on. Or better yet — How ‘bout throwing the dog a bone!
If you don’t have a bone, then throw me a pizzelle. Yeah, a nice sweet pizzelle.
My family made these pizzelle’s this year. I heard the name when they were baking but didn’t really know what they were.
I think they added a little too much of something because the smell is driving me nuts. It’s taunting me from on top of the stove. It keeps drawing me in. Drawing me in. Drawing me in.
Hmmm. I can’t get to them, not without making a lot of noise and attracting attention.
Hey, I’m no fool. I know if they see me trying to get to those pizzelles they will put them somewhere where I have no shot to get them. At least where they are now I can leap and leap and maybe eventually get them to move a little so I could snatch them.
So I’ll wait. And plot. And scheme. But I don’t know how much more I can take before I try to get them –no matter what.
Ok. Finally. A break. I see the family getting a lot of the bags and gifts together and putting on their coats. I think they’ll be gone for a while.
Here it is — my chance.
The house is empty except for me and those sweet, sweet, sweet pizzelles.
I leap once to get to the tray. No luck. I leap again. No luck. Here comes my third leap. BAM! Got it.
Yikes! The tray went flying, some kind powder got all over me. But the pizzelle’s are MINE! No savoring them for me — just gobble them up. Pizzelle pieces flying everywhere as I dig into the whole batch. I don’t know, 10. Maybe 20 of them. Who cares!?
Hmmmm … something else. When I leaped to get the pizzelles I tipped over a bottle of something and the liquid is leaking out. Think I’ll try it.
WOW! That is very sweet. And it kinda tastes like the pizzelles.
I am thirsty. Let me go to the water bowl. Drink. Drink. Drink.
Oh, boy. I am walking around the house with less purpose than usual. Yep, around the living room. In the TV room. In the kitchen. Oops, bumped into the dining room table.
Think I’ll just settle down for a while and rest.
UH OH! I hear the car. WHAT — they’re back already! I thought that this would be a long outside visit. What am I going to do? They’ll see the pizzelles. They’ll know I got into them. They’ll see the bottle. Well, they were going to find out anyway.
I. Think. I. Am. In. Trouble. Maybe if I give them my biggest happy smile and wag, wag, wag.
Something’s wrong. I’m standing up but can’t feel my legs. Hey, there they are. Maybe. Let me walk in a circle. I think I’m in a circle. Oh no! The door is opening.
“Abby! Hello Abby!” I hear the big guy say.
“Abby!” It was a harsh screech from Mom. “Abby, what did you do?”
“What’s up?” It was the big guy again.
Concentrate Abby. Concentrate. Wag. Wag. Wag your tail off!
“Abby got into the pizzelles!”
“You’re kidding? How many did she get?”
Wag. Wag. Wag.
“Looks like ALL of them”
“All of them?!”
Busted. More than busted.
“Abby, you ate all the pizzelles!”
Of course I did — what did you expect? I’m a dog.
“Oh, no,” I heard Mom cry. “She knocked over the bottle of Anisette and the rest of it is gone.”
Anisette? So that is what that liquid was. Pretty good.
Now, I am feeling a little woozy. I slowly started walking around. My tail was wagging — slowly. V..E..R..Y S..L..O..W..L..Y.
“What’s wrong with Abby?” little blondie says. I faintly hear her.
The big guy points to me, “Look at her, she’s standing crooked, just licking her chops.”
“It looks like she’s smiling at me…but it’s not a smile…”
“She looks drunk!” It was Mom that first pointed it out.
“How could she be drunk?” It was little blondie.
Mom and the big guy looked at each other. “The pizzelles! The Anisette!”
Yep. Mom had made the pizzelles and apparently loaded them with Anisette. Then I had the good luck to drink the rest of the bottle when it tipped over.
“The Anisette should have burned off in the baking” Mom said. “I only put in enough for taste!”
Yep. Enough for taste. Great taste.
“But she also got into the Anisette. Is that good for her?” the big guy seemed concerned.
No need to be concerned – I am a very happy dog right now.
“Look at Abby — she looks like a crooked letter ‘S’”
“Oh, Abby — are you OK”
Hey, doin’ just fine. Doin’ just fine and looking to stumble on over to my blanket and lay down.
I slept. A nice, deep sleep. No visions of sugar plums dancing in my head. Just sweet, sweet pizzelles.
I was the lucky one who got to sample the pizzelles – all of them — and wash them down with straight Anisette. Pizzelles may have just taken over from bacon as my favorite food.
Another change — I am changing my mind as to my favorite ornament — it is no longer the one with the paw but instead the new one they just got.
The one shaped like a pizzelle.
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In the true spirit of telling ornament stories, Mark Casasanto from South Philly has been sharing a story a day for 25 days. Here are a sampling of these great stories. You can read all Mark’s stories on Facebook. Thanks Mark! Enjoy!
Ornament #28 on the 26th day of December…
For me not just the day after Christmas, more importantly, my father’s birthday.
He was taken from me when I was just 19 and the good years that should have been never were. Still, he remains the biggest influence in my life and there’s not a day some fiber of his personality doesn’t shine through in me. For that, I am a better person. e of humor, love of life, ability to sniff out bullshit and call you on it, walk with my feet on the ground and my head on a level plain, trusting, loyal and loving to a fault. If that sounds like me, then thank my dad.
So for today’s ornament I offer this… my father was country when country wasn’t cool. Hank Williams, Freddy Fender, Don Williams, Loretta Lynn… He walked the walk with taps on his shoes, white cotton tees, faded Wranglers, the cowboy hat, his loyal dog and the Kenny Rogers beard. The crazy bastard was cool and he would do anything for anyone. One of a kind.
I miss him everyday but cherish the 19 years that he shaped my life.
For him and my love of cowboy boots… giddy up y’all!
It’s Christmas Eve and to me, Christmas Eve was always a little bit more special than Christmas.
There was a certain kind of magic about Christmas Eve growing up. In our house you just never knew who would pop in, pop up or pop off. But it was always fun and entertaining. The Seven Fishes… the alley way escapes to your aunts and uncles on either end of the rowhome backroads… the poker games… the sing-a-longs and jam sessions… those who did midnight mass and those who did not… keeping the decorations on all night… chestnuts roasting maybe not on an open fire but definitely roasting on the stove top in a crude yet effective home made pan.
Magic I tell ya. So as for Aladdin…
By far the most naturally funny person for me to ever grace a stage or talk show was Robin Williams. I thought he was an underrated actor and an under appreciated comic. If there’s someone in the biz I genuinely miss, he’s in the top three.
When I look at this ornament I smile and sometimes laugh out loud. In many ways, it reminds me of the laughing, good humor and family fun shared by my large, crazy Italian family, especially during the holidays.
If I could rub that genie lamp and ask for one wish, I would ask for one shot at togetherness again, all of us as one, those who have gone before us and those who have come along since…
Because, we as a society need some help. We need a little magic, a little laughter, more good will towards all, we need a little Christmas now.
Today’s ornament, #21 represents the best gift I ever received.
In spring of 2000, a minor car accident left me hospitalized with MTBI (mild traumatic brain injury), vertigo and eventually post concussion syndrome. Somewhere during the early stages of about a 2 plus year recovery that included countless neurologists, ENT visits, testing, pokes, prods and Magee Rehab, my lead Neurologist at TJU, Dr Steven Mandel recommended to my then wife that if we didn’t have a dog, it might be best to get one. Apparently those with these types of injuries often feel alone, afraid and introverted during recovery. And dogs serve best as a therapy aide and companion for patients during recovery. I have no recall of any of these conversations and very little recall of that entire time period. I do know from being told, that I was capable of bizarre behaviors and crazy mood swings. It wouldn’t be uncommon to find the sugar in the refrigerator and the half n half in the cabinet, grabbing baking dishes from the oven without mitts and fun stuff like that.
What I do remember is….
The afternoon this big, black, ball of energy came bouncing out of a friend’s car. Already struggling with my balance, he damn near knocked me into the facade of my home as a permanent fixture. This was my first day with my new best friend Doc. It was perfect timing as he needed a home for this 10 month old, beautiful Lab / Shar pei mix.
He became my sidekick, companion and guardian of my home and family. Never, ever did he ever leave my side through the MTBI, and ruptured quadricep and Achilles’ tendons surgeries and recoveries. Not too mention every sports injury my children suffered and rehabbed through. He’s now 15 years old and has slowed down considerably.
I miss him terribly but made the best decision for him to let him stay in the home he knows and is comfortable in. I would be doing him a great disservice by moving him with me to a 2nd floor apartment. I treasure the few seconds I get with him when I pick up or drop off my daughter. Still with that big stupid face giving big sloppy kisses.
Here’s my boy….
In honor of today’s Feast of the Immaculate Conception(December 8), today’s ornaments are my two angels…
Ornaments #5 and #6 in the quest for 25.
The first reflects my love for seashells and purchased in San Diego, CA and the second was an ornament that originally belonged to my very own blessed mother, Mary.
On the 12th day, God thankfully created Francis Albert Sinatra.
Ornament #10 came to me courtesy of my friend Jean N Fritz who not only went up to Hoboken for Sinatra’s Centennial last year, but always remembers her friends and fellow Sinatra admirers whenever she goes or does something fabulous.
Anyway, I remember vividly listening to The Summer Wind on this wonderful new invention called a CD player. Talk about music to my ears!
Seeing Frank many times at the legendary Spectrum and of course, The Sands are wonderful nights of music, fun and friends forever etched into my musical soul.
Truly the best ever. Happy Birthday To the Chairman of the Board. C’ent Anni!
Ornament #2 & Ornament #3 in honor of December’s 25 days ’till Christmas
From that wonderful Christmas Shop on the Boardwalk in Ocean City, New Jersey:
Santa and I share a common interest… nothing like wine, the beach and a nap on the hammock. In vino veritas!
Nothin like wine, the beach and a nap on a hammock. In vino ver
From a quaint little Christmas Shop in Williamsburg, Virginia. This is one of my favorite and also happens to be one of my oldest ornaments. Not a big fan of mice, but just love the craftsmanship and detail. Something about it just shouts “Colonial” plus we all know the story of the Christmas Mouse.
And on this December Sunday morning we turn to ornament #9 on the road to 25….
My love of the piano came in high school when I was unexpectedly thrust into the choir freshman year at St John Neumann HS (an all boys school for those who know not). Initially, I removed myself out of fear but a family friend convinced me to reverse course. I did… not only was it some of the best advice I ever received but one of the best decisions I ever made. I learned that I had a voice, c.. could carry a tune, had an ear for music and picked up piano without ever really knowing how to read music, but more importantly, taught me how to go it alone or as an integral part of a team without fear or embarrassment and stand on my own two feet when I needed to hold my own for the good of a group.
With that said, on the strength of my first job, my dad took me to buy my very own piano. Three versions later, I still turn to the keys when I want to unleash, unload or unwind… #SingAlongsRule
Play It Again Santa…
Not a fan of mice, but just love the craftsmanship and detail in this ornament. Something about it just shouts “Colonial”. Plus, we all know the story of “The Christmas Mouse”!
Not a fan of mice, but just love the craftsmanship and detail in this ornament. Something about it just shouts “Colonial”. Plus, we all know the story of “The Christmas Mouse”!
Not a fan of mice, but just love the craftsmanship and detail in this ornament. Something about it just shouts “Colonial”. Plus, we all know the story of “The Christmas Mouse”!
While not “technically” an Ornament Story, this submission was too good not to post. Hope you enjoy it! — Editors
By KRCG, Merion, PA
The light blue water was waiting for me as I looked down. Laura had told me diving off the block was scary, but I did not think it was this scary. I waited for the whistle to blow. It seemed like three hours when the starter announced my name. Then I heard it. The whistle. The dreaded whistle.
“Swimmers step up,” said the starter. I stepped up on the slippery white block and looked at the pool. Why? I thought. “Swimmers take your mark,” said the starter. I bent my legs and held the edge as tight as I could. I prayed as much as I could to win this race. A six-year-old, in an eight-year-old race, and going off the block for the first time ever, this was going to be a show.
I looked down trying to relax, waiting for the loud beep, which was my cue to jump into the water. To my right, a girl jumped off the block into one of the most terrible stream lines I have ever seen. I guess I didn’t hear the beep! I quickly jumped off, not in a dive but feet first, in a total state of panic. I was trying to do the correct strokes, between the water and my cap I could barely hear anything, yet I could hear the faint screams of people saying Stop! Stop! So I quickly stopped trying to swim, kicked to the surface and there were two girls still on the block, and including me, four girls in the water. False start. Oh brother, I thought.
I hopped out, the icy cold water dripping from my bathing suit. The boys group went before my heat so we could catch our breath. Then of course that darn whistle again! I stepped back up on the block. Now, I know what to do I told myself in my head. “Swimmers take your mark,” I bent down for the second time clutching the edge of the block. Beep! Everything went so fast, I pushed off the block with all my might and tightened my arms around my head, locked my legs together (and made sure my toes were pointed), and I hit the water with so much energy I had no clue what was going on. I kicked my legs as hard as I could, brought each arm up and down, This isn’t that hard, I thought. I saw the wall coming closer and closer. Almost……there……YES! I hit the wall with my loose fingers.
As I took my head out of the water and looked up I realized: I didn’t come in first, but I did come in second! My first race ever, second place, and a six-year-old too! I climbed out happy as I could be, I was determined to win at the next JV meet. I reminisced the jumping off the block and hitting the water. I am so doing that again, at the meet and at practice the next morning. My mom came over with a towel and gave me a big hug and was asking me questions about the race. Still dripping wet (and shaking a little too), I then looked to my right and saw my coach, Laura.
“Katherine, that was awesome! Maybe you can swim in the next Varsity meet!”
By Ronnie C., Philadelphia
Lou had a glass eye. Not the best thing for a barber. But a barber who cut kids hair? Took a lot of faith to send your sons to Lou’s Barber Shop in the mid-1960s to get their hair cut.
But every boy in grade school went there. Lou’s shop was right across the street from the school. Moms would give Lou the few bucks he charged for a haircut and then directed their sons to go to get their haircut right after school.
Lou was in his mid- 50s, with a bad comb over and a gray goatee that accentuated his jowls. His chubby belly bumped up against you while he cut your hair. When he lifted his arms to trim the top of your head, a brief waft of BO hit you. It was quickly overcome by that barber shop smell of Pinaud Clubman aftershave.
Lou called everyone a “kumquat.” To this day I never had a kumqut – don’t really know what it is.
He spoke in the semi-butchered language of South Philly pronouncing “sandwich” in a way that it sounded like “sang – witch.” He also dropped the ending “g” on many words so “running” became “runnin” or “eating” became “eatin.”
While Lou was providing his wisdom, he cut hair with his one eye alternately focused on the boy’s head and then checking out what was going on outside the window. Each haircut looked the same when he was done.
If he was talking and you weren’t paying attention to his words he would get your attention by looking directly at you and tapping his glass eye with a scissor. To this day I’m still not sure how he didn’t snip more ears than he did.
The best part about Lou’s Barber Shop for us 10-14-year-old boys — was that we learned a lot of stuff at Lou’s. Learned about girls, learned about sports, learned about politics, learned about hard work, learned about pride in yourself, your family, your neighborhood.
Oh yes, there were some magazines to check out while you waited. Nothing objectionable, or “racy” as it was called back then. The heck with Sports Illustrated or The Sporting News. An Esquire magazine with a well-placed ad for shaving cream featuring a stunning blonde got everyone grabbing and clawing at it to get a look.
It was a great place to hang out and hear Lou talk about life, about the times, about the neighborhood.
Lou loved the neighborhood. It meant everything to him. He always told us how great it was and that there was no place and no people like those in South Philly. He loved to sing — poorly — most of the songs of the day, especially those by the South Philly teen idols — Bobby Rydell, Frankie Avalon, James Darren, Chubby Checker, Fabian, Charlie Gracie. I remember Lou had a small black and white TV that was tuned in to the local Philly dance party show “The Discophonic Scene” with Jerry Blavat. If the TV went fuzzy or started to drift Lou would take one of the combs resting in that bizarre blue liquid and flick the watery substance at the rabbit ears – somehow it cleared up the picture.
“Now ‘dats real music and dancin'” Lou would proclaim as he broke out the straight razor and slapped it on the leather strap so he could trim the hair on the back of our necks.
“Gotta make you boys look good. Remember to comb your hair the right way. Youse don’t want to hear your mother’s complain dat da part in your hair looks like Ridge Avenue.”
I loved going to Lou’s and enjoying the time with my buddies. Hearing Lou talk and remembering what he had to say. Lou is the reason I became a barber. When I told him Lou gave me an ornament, a little straight razor which I hang on my tree every year. It’s a shame, Lou died a few years ago. Still miss him.
One day I was talking to a bunch of my buddies who used to go Lou’s and now come to my shop. As we had a few beers, we were reminiscing about some of the wisdom from Lou. Here’s some that we remembered.
“If youse guys are goin’ on a long drive always have a full tank and an empty bladder.”
“If youse kumquats spend too much time worryin’ about missin’ somethin’, youse gonna miss somethin’.”
“Always hold the door for a broad, that way you can get a good look at her keister when she walks in front of you.”
“Every day atheists should thank God he gave dem the free choice to be atheists.”
“Don’t overreact to things. Remember, youse don’t need to go turkey huntin’ with a handgun.”
“If you have daughter, remember to chaperone her dance carryin’ a ballpeen hammer.”
“Always buy the first round. People remember who bought first and you won’t have to pay the rest of the night.”
That was Lou. That’s why we loved going there to get our haircut and learn about things. Thanks Lou.
By Larry G., South Philly
Billy Champion. That name represented the closest the 1969 Phillies would even get to being a champion. You see, Champion, a pitcher, was supposed to be one of the fantastic young talents that would carry the Philllies into major league history. Instead he was in the middle of a historically bad stretch which covered a generation from the 1950 Whiz Kids, who were swept by the New York Yankees in that year’s World Series, through the devastating 1964 collapse, up until the team’s playoff appearances in the mid-70s. That was 25 years.
For those of us who lived through that era, well, we cherish the success of the Phils knowing what the other side felt like. I have an ornament showing the Phillies 2008 World Series win. It is heavy. So heavy that you really can’t hang it on a tree — it will bring the branch down and maybe even break it.
You need to have it under the tree, or in a special place where it can be appreciated and viewed. After all, these championships come once in a generation. First one in 1980. Second one in 2008. The franchise has been around since the 1800s!
I’ve come full circle – loving baseball as a kid, playing all the time (including stickball, fastball and half ball.) Then shifting to hockey and football as sports to follow intensely. Now, as I get older, I am back to baseball again. I enjoy going to a game. Relaxing. Watching. Taking it easy. No crazy tailgating or face painting. Just enjoying a beer and a game.
It was really the opening of Veteran’s Stadium that gave me my first real pleasure of baseball. It was right there in South Philly and I could walk to the game. And don’t let anyone tell you stories about “sneaking in” to the Vet to watch games.
Everybody got into the Vet. For free. We all knew somebody. Joe selling papers outside. John at the gate to let you in. Maria the usherette finding you a good seat. Somebody’s dad selling sodas. Somebody’s mom working a concession stand. Friends on the ground crew.
It was perfect. Warm summer night. Hanging out. Harry and Whitey on the radio.
Someone says, “Let’s go to the game.” So we went.
The team wasn’t very good in the 1960s and early 70s. Deron Johnson, Wayne Twitchell (who could turn a 2 and a half hour game into a 4 hour nightmare with his deliberate work on the mound), Dick Selma, Joe Lis. (Need I go on?)
We learned to love those teams because they were ours. We ha d a nice run starting in the mid 1970s through the mid 1980s, but then tailed off again. Except for the 1993 lightning in a bottle (or maybe it was HGH in a syringe) when “Macho Row” when to the World Series, we continued to live in the baseball wasteland.
Those last few years at the Vet were terrible. No one at the games (everybody gets a foul ball), Chad Ogea pitching every time we had tickets. The Vet was crumbling. Walking around the empty corridors, you could hear the echo of your voice even if you were speaking to the person next you.
The only entertainment came from the fans that latched on to players (mostly pitchers) and formed mini fan clubs primarily for their own amusement. Remember “The Wolf Pack” for Randy Wolf? How about “Padilla Flotilla” for Vincente Padilla, a politically incorrect group that had sombreros and kayak paddles as if they were paddling across the Rio Grande. One of my all-time favorites was the self-identified “Generic Fan” who sat in the upper deck, all alone, wearing a white pants, white sneakers, white hat and a white shirt with a bar code on it.
As Phillies fans, we are anything but generic. We have passion, we have knowledge and we know bad baseball when we see it. I think it is our genetic baseball history. That feeling of joined misery that keeps us Phillies fans going. That euphoria when they finally won in 1980 and then – a generation later – in 2008.
They are our team. And I can’t wait to go the games this year.
Among the many charities and good works in the community, the Phillies organization holds an annual “Strike Out ALS” festival. Visit www.phillies.com for more information or visit www.als.org to learn more about the disease and how you can help.
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Once in Royal David’s City stood a lonely cattle shed,
where a mother held her baby.
You’d do well to remember the things He later said.
When you’re stuffing yourselves at the Christmas parties,
you’ll just laugh when I tell you to take a running jump.
You’re missing the point I’m sure does not need making
that Christmas spirit is not what you drink.
So how can you laugh when your own mother’s hungry,
and how can you smile when the reasons for smiling are wrong?
And if I just messed up your thoughtless pleasures,
remember, if you wish, this is just a Christmas song.
(Hey! Santa! Pass us that bottle, will you?)
–Jethro Tull, from the “Living In The Past” album
Story by Lenny D., Spingfield, PA
Lyrics (in italic) to “Miracles Out of Nowhere” by Kansas from the album “Leftoverture”, 1976.
On a crystal morning I can see the dewdrops falling
Down from a gleaming heaven, I can hear the voices call
When you comin’ home now, son, the World is not for you
Tell me what’s your point of view
Late summer turns to early fall. God it’s beautiful, Paul thought to himself. The colors changing, the air nice and clean (even in Center City Philadelphia), 70s throughout the day, 50s throughout the night. Perfect.
He had just climbed the steps from the subway leading him down Walnut Street to his office. He loved the city. Loved everything about it. Cared about it. He was born in South Philly and still lived there. The city nurtured him and Paul wasn’t one to forget where he came from. He had a short trip from the subway to his office building. Passed the same people every day. The same smiling faces. The same guys on bikes. Same food truck. Routine. It was comforting.
He made his trek on this crystal morning expecting his usual routine. But not today. Today Paul saw a different face. Maybe, not so different.
“Hey pal,” the face called out. “Pal. Can you pray for me?” The face was smudged. The clothes were rumpled. The hair dirty, clumped in need of a good washing. The sneakers – why did he notice the sneakers –at one time white, now wore the buildup of months and months of city grime. “Can you pray for me?’ the face asked again.
Paul averted the eyes that were tracking him and kept walking. “I’ll pray for you” the face called out. Paul went to his office, fired up his computer and waited for it to come on. As it made its way through the sign-ons, passwords, beeps and grinds, Paul thought about the face. What was his story? How did he become “the face?” It bothered him on and off throughout the day.
That evening at dinner he mentioned the face to his family. “Saw a homeless guy today on the street. Never saw him before.”
“Did he approach you for a handout?” his wife Anna asked.
“Did he want money?” his 8-year-old son asked.
“Did you give him any food,” it was his 12 year old daughter.
“No. None of those things. He seemed different. He asked me to pray for him.”
“What did you say to him?” his wife asked.
“I didn’t say anything, I just kept walking. Then he said he would pray for me.”
“Daddy, did you say a prayer for him?’ his son asked.
“No. No I didn’t.” Paul held his fork, which had the last piece of chicken from his plate on it, close to his mouth ready to take a bite. He put the fork down without finishing his meal. He didn’t say much the rest of the evening except “good night” to the kids and his wife.
Anna, seven- months pregnant with their 3rd child whispered to him in bed so the other kids couldn’t hear, “What’s bothering you so much about that homeless guy?”
“I wish I knew. It was such a beautiful day, and then I came across that face.” She knew not to ask him anything else.
Paul turned away and tried to sleep.
Hey there Mister Madman, wat’cha know that I don’t know
Tell me some crazy stories, let me know who runs this show
Glassy-eyed and laughing, he turns and walks away
Tell me what made you that way
Next day. Paul made his trek on yet another crystal morning. Same familiar pattern. Same subway. Same walk.
Same face. “Hey buddy,” the face called out. “Buddy. Can you pray for me?”
Paul kept walking. “I’ll pray for you” the face called out. Paul went to his office. He thought more about the face. This time thinking about the clothes, the sneakers, the hair. Who was the face? Again, he sat at the dinner table that night.
“Saw that guy again – the homeless man.”
“What did he say today?’ his wife asked.
“Same as yesterday — pray for me.”
“And…” it was his son. Paul didn’t answer; he just cast his eyes down and took a sip of soda. He was sure he would see the face again the next day.
“Maybe he is just a mad man,” his daughter suggested. At 12 years old they were all mad men or crazies or goofs. It was a “tweens” way of putting people in perspective.
“I don’t know if he was a mad man… or someone who just fell on bad times,” Paul told his daughter. “It’s all your point of view how you see him.”
Looking to change the subject Anna said, “I spoke with the doctor today. She said she wants to start to monitor me more closely and wants me to come in next Tuesday. She may want to put me on bed rest.” This was a high risk pregnancy for Anna who was 40 years old and needed to be careful for her heath and the baby’s health.
“When is the appointment?” Paul asked. Anna could see Paul was focused elsewhere. She repeated “Next Tuesday.” He barely finished his meal.
Later in bed Anna said “You’re still pre-occupied, aren’t you.”
“About you and the baby – yes.”
“No, about the homeless guy.”
“Yes. Him, too.”
Paul tossed and turned that night.
Third day. This time even more perfect than any other days he ever seen. A perfect crystal morning.
Same subway. Same walk.
Same face. “Hey pal,” the face called out. “Pal. Can you pray for me?”
Paul walked by – a little slower this time. He slowed enough to hear something from the face that made him stop.
“I’ll pray for you – —– Thomas. I’ll pray for you — Mr. Paul Thomas Fortunato.”
He turned to the face, but the face had turned away and was walking the other way. What in the world…How did he know my name .. what did I just hear?! He called me Thomas! Nobody had called him Thomas in years! Paul hesitated – frozen – a tug-of-war between the wanting to go to his usual way and his usual routine and finally be done with face. Or leave behind the familiar and comfortable and follow the mad man and find out how he knew his name.
He followed the face.
Here I am just waiting for a sign
Asking questions, learning all the time
It’s always here, it’s always there
It’s just love, and miracles out of nowhere
Paul turned to where the face was – but he was gone. Drifted into the morning rush of bodies in Center City Philly.
Paul stretched his neck to see if he could spot him. It shouldn’t be hard – all the suits and business attire crowding the street. He should be able to pick out a shabby Aqualung-looking homeless guy. Paul pressed against the stream of hustling humans walking toward work. Going the opposite direction as the crowd moving aimlessly toward their work day, facing friction and bumping into people. “Excuse me. Excuse Me. Sorry. Sorry.” Always polite in his manner.
Heads bobbing, sun streaming, beautiful morning. He was hustling where he thought the face was heading. Sweat starting to break out on his graying head, not so much from the heat or sun but from his anxiety and inner angst. How could he miss him? How could he let him get away? Paul let out a long breath, tossed his head back and used his jacket to wipe away the sweat from his brow.
He lowered his head in semi-defeat when he noticed a pair of sneakers. Dirty, grimy sneakers. He slowly lifted his head to see the face,
“I’ll pray for you Thomas.,” it said.
This time Paul met his eyes. With his mouth open, a semi-recognition of the face crossed over him. “I’ll pray for you too,” Paul said.
The face gave a small grin revealing a mouth of rotting teeth behind the unkempt beard and smeared face.
“I’ll pray for you too…….” Paul repeated, leaving the ending open, trailing his words, hoping the face would fill in his name.
“I recognized you right away Thomas.”
Paul lowered his eyes. “I kind of recognize you, but I’m sorry. I just don’t remember your name.”
“Thanks for your prayers.” Dulled eyes stared at Paul. “I’m Nick. I’m Nick Santa Croce.”
Oh my God! “Nick!” once he said the name Paul’s brain clicked. “Nick, my God. Nick!”
“It’s been a long time since St. Monica,” Paul babbled, suddenly remembering Nick from his grade school days. Funny guy Nick. Smart guy Nick. It had to be someone from grade school. Paul wanted to say “What happened?” but caught himself not being able to say anything.
“You want to know what happened, right?” Nick took the pressure off Paul who stood there, his mouth still slightly open, showing almost perfect orthodontist-treated teeth.
“Nick, I .. I.. it’s good to see you.” Paul fumbled.
“Walk with me Paul — I think that’s what you want to be called now — Paul.”
“Walk with me.”
Paul began walking with Nick. Two old grade school friends. One in a suit. The other disheveled. Walking on a crystal morning.
Paul wasn’t sure where they were walking. He said to Nick, “I could go for a bagel. How about you?”
Nick shook his head “yes.”
Tell me now dear Mother, what’s it like to be so old
Children grown and leavin’, seems the world is growin’ cold
And though your body’s ailin’ you, your mind is just like new
Tell me where you’re goin’ to
They had walked in silence. Paul bought the bagels while Nick waited outside the bakery. Nick headed toward one of the skyscrapers and sat down on the pavement, leaning against a building. Paul sat down next to him.
Nick took the bag with the bagel from Paul. “So, when did you become Paul and drop the Thomas?”
“I dropped the Thomas after St. Monica’s. I guess I just felt more comfortable with Paul. — that and I didn’t have Paul Joseph Fortunato in my class anymore to confuse our names.”
“I forget which nun decided to use your middle names to tell you two apart. Two guys named Paul Fortunato in the same class. What are the odds?”
“I can still see them pointing their fingers and calling, ‘Mr. Paul Thomas Fortunato. Mr. Paul Joseph Fortunato. Come here to me!'”
“And then you knew you were in trouble,” Paul smiled.
Nick took another bite of his bagel.
“How is your beautiful mother doing? She worked at the bank, right?” It was a half question, half statement.
“She passed a few years ago. Thanks for asking. She worked at that bank for years.”
“My mother always talked about her. How nice she was and pleasant she was. They talked about us.”
Paul hesitatingly asked, “And your mother?
“Gone. Long. Long time ago.” Nick took a bite of the bagel. “I miss her.”
“I miss mine, too.”
“I remember your family named you Nicholas after St. Nick because you were born on Christmas.”
“Funny, things people remember.”
Paul finally blurted out. “Nick. What happened?”
“Things. Things happen.” He took a bite of bagel. “Fresh bagel. Thanks.”
Paul took a bite. “I kinda lost touch with you after grade school.”
“Yeah. Things changed in high school. Changed a lot. People, too.”
“I remember bumping into you now and again..”
“We ran in two different circles. Paul, you hung with the SMART guys. Me. I started hanging with the WISE guys.”
“Oh,” Paul wasn’t sure what to follow up with once that was out in the open.
“It’s the way things worked out.
“I lost my way. That’s what happens when you look outside your soul to find happiness and peace.
“It started with my mon. I saw my mom suffer and die with that cancer. It broke our family. It was like a crane picked me up and kept dropping me, smashing me to the ground.
“My dad couldn’t handle it. He just shut everyone and everything out. Railed and cursed at God, the doctors, at us. That cancer killed him as much as it killed her.
“He died a year or so after her. And I hated him ever since. I could never find it in my heart to forgive him. I carried that hate for a long, long time.”
“Nick, I’m so sorry. I had no idea…”
“Don’t give me your pity Paul. It could have happened to anybody.” As Nick talked he had a strange wheeze which morphed into a cough. A nasty sounding cough which caused him to start and stop sentences.
“How old were you when she died?’
“I was 16. Just when I could have used my mom .. or dad.. and I had neither. My sister was older and she was already in college building her life. So I wanted a life. Any life. To take away the pain. Fill the void. People promised me things Paul. Said they would take care of me. So I followed them. Followed them and listened to them.”
“What did they tell you?”
“Promises. They made me promises.
“I sold drugs. And took them. Beat up guys who didn’t pay their gambling debts. And bet anything I had. Sold my body. And paid for others bodies. Had a disregard for life. Most especially my own.” Nick had a fit of coughing followed by more wheezing and more coughing.
Paul reached to help him but Nick shooed him away. “I’ll be OK.”
“I had no idea..” Paul was stumbling for anything to interject.
“And I loved that life — I was invincible. I was a king. No one could touch me. But really -it was hollow. All a front. I know that now.
“But you know who knew it was a bad life? My mother. She died before I got into it, but it was like she could see into the future — my future. She was laying in her bed. Full of pain. Full of agony. But she knew and she tried to warn me. Tried to keep me on the straight and narrow.
“Funny, how life’s stories come full circle. Remember the story of Saint Monica — our school’s patron saint — she was in agony for her son —
“St. Augustine, right…,” Paul chimed in.
“Right. The nuns hammered that story into us, how St. Monica prayed for St. Augustine to turn his life around– and how she shed tears for him.. he became one of the greats.
“My mom wanted me to be one of the greats. She was dying but she was channeling St. Monica, crying for me. She said something profound — something I now remember — something I should have embraced. You know what Paul?– she said that people say Satan always comes when you are most vulnerable. But she warned me that he also comes to you when you are at your strongest.
“And I was both at the same time.”
Paul sat there, on the pavement, listening to this homeless mess of a man, speaking like he was a $25,000 a speech keynoter. He couldn’t eat his bagel.
“The worst part, Paul. You know the worst part?
“Nobody cared. No one wanted to see me or reach out a hand. I was garbage to everyone and treated that way by anyone. Paul, I am beyond saving physically. I am loaded with disease. My body is broken and there is no way that I will last much longer.
“That’s why I want you to pray for me. Maybe my soul can be saved. It’s what my mother told me. That no matter what happens – your soul can always be saved.
“That’s also what the good sisters taught us.”
“Nick, I don’t know what to say.”
“I have something for you to say — Say the ‘Our Father’ and a ‘Hail Mary’ with me.”
The two grade school friends, sitting on the pavement then said the two prayers together.
“You better go Paul – you have a job to get to.”
“But Nick, where will you go?”
“To the place I always go – Bethesda Project– off South Street.”
“I haven’t heard of it.”
“It’s home for me – when I want to be there. Days like today are good for the soul to get out. You probably think I couldn’t get lower than this – but I was –my mom came to me and guided me there.”
“Tell me the story, Nick…”
“Not now — I want to go home — you need to go to work. Visit me sometimes — and pray for me old friend. We can talk some more then.” Nick got up — didn’t bother to dust himself off. Just turned and walked away. Turned toward his home.
Paul stood up, bagel in hand watching him walk away, wondering if he would ever see Nick again. Paul passed on going to work and headed home.
It’s so simple right before your eyes
If you’ll look through this disguise
It’s always here, it’s always there
It’s just love and miracles out of nowhere
“I’m heading to Bethesda,” Paul said to Anna grabbing a bag of Primo hoagies to bring with him. “Maybe I’ll see Nick again.”
“You’ve only seen him a few times since that day when you two first sat down.”
“When he called me ‘Thomas’ that just shook me.” This was conversation they had several times in the months that passed since Nick and Paul shared their bagel. Anna knew that something was driving her husband, something more than just a concern for an classmate that he really never knew that well.
Anna took a deep breath and gently felt her belly. Her first two pregnancies were fine, but this one was tough.
“Nick never opened up like he did that first day. I can’t just let him rot away.”
“Paul — I’m sure those men at the shelter appreciate you helping and volunteering and bring the food like you’ve been doing these past few months. But it’s December now and I am not feeling good. I need you.”
“Only for a short while — just to drop off the hoagies and try to talk to Nick.”
“You don’t even know if he’s there. The guys that run it don’t know when he’ll show up.”
“I’ve been praying for him. I can’t get it out of my head how he just disintegrated. The pain he was in, the hurt.”
“You have been there so much lately that you seem distant to the whole family and are focused on Nick and the shelter.”
“I don’t know — I can’t figure anything out. Everything in life was so good — running so smooth until that day I saw him. Now, I just don’t know who I am or what I should be doing.”
“What, things are not good anymore? All of a sudden you see an old classmate who has hits the skids and it’s our fault you couldn’t do enough for him?”
“No. No. That’s not it. I mean — what should I be doing? Am I doing enough in this world?”
“You’ve always been a good husband and father and person. You’re doing all you can.”
“But is it enough?”
“It needs to be enough to keep this family going and together. We are here — we are your family and we need to be your priority!”
“You are my priority..”
“Lately, I’m not so sure..” Suddenly Anna went pale. “Oh, Paul,” she held her belly and dropped to her knees. “I feel sick.”
Paul dropped the bag of hoagies. “I’ll call the doctor.”
Within minutes the ambulance arrived to bring Anna to the hospital. She still had about 5 weeks to go before the baby was due and now she was in the hospital, in pain and getting all the attention from the doctors and nurses.
Paul paced the ER. He left the kids at home and his brother Gabriel came over to watch them. He heard the call from the nurse. “You can go back now — room 12.”
Shaking, he pulled the curtain back and saw Anna resting. A bag hanging; intravenous in her arm, some oxygen being pumped through her nose. The doctor was sitting with her, holding her hand.
“Just some dehydration,” he said to Paul. “She’ll be fine. But we want to have her in the hospital until the baby is born. She can be fragile and we want to make sure your wife and baby are safe.”
Paul began to cry. Anna began to cry.
“I’m sorry,” Paul said. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry. Hold my hand. Then go to the shelter.”
“I belong here with you.”
“Yes, you do. But there is someone at the shelter that needs you too.”
“He may not even be there.”
“You won’t know unless you go.”
Paul was tired. Very tired. “Not tonight. Tonight I am with you and will be with the kids when I go home.” He skipped going to the shelter. Exhausted he dropped into his bed after picking up the kids. He slept — a deep sleep, the first time he had slept that well since he met Nick Santa Croce and heard part of his story.
He didn’t wake up at his usual time. His daughter had to wake him up. “Dad. Dad. You’ll be late for work.”
“Dad, you’ll be late for work?” she said.
“Oh, no work today. I’m going to see your mother.” He got up, got dressed, dragged himself to the hospital. Anna had been transferred to a regular room –a room she said she would be in until delivery.
“How you feeling today?” he asked Anna, stroking her head.
“Much better. But you know that I am going to have to stay here until I deliver.”
“I know. Me and the kids will be with you all the time.”
“There is nothing else you can do here Paul.”
“I belong here.”
“Yes. You also belong other places.” Something deep inside Anna told her to reassure her husband that going to the shelter was good and that she would be fine.
He smiled wearily, leaned over and kissed his wife. “I’m going to the shelter.”
Anna smiled — she knew he would go — she knew he had to go.
Paul walked through the doors with two bags of groceries. “Hey, Paul good to see you,” said Peter who ran the shelter. “Whatcha got there?”
“Oh, just some supplies.”
From behind he heard the wheezing voice and the cough. “Good to see you Paul.”
Nick! It was Nick! Paul turned to see Nick; physically he looked like a wreck, emaciated, beard unkempt — it was what you would expect. Something was different today, he seemed a mess — except for his eyes — his eyes were glowing. There was something going on with him.
“Good to see you too, Nick.”
“Can we talk?”
“Sure Nick. Sure, we can talk.”
They walked toward the room where Nick stayed when he was in the shelter. Paul noticed a tattered book that sat on Nick’s bed. Paul reached for it. “Is that what I think it is?”
“Yep. The Baltimore Catechism book!”
“Every Catholic school kid in America had to know everything in it. I have been reading and re-reading it.”
“Geez, they pounded that into our heads.”
“I find solace in it, Paul. Reminds me of our days in grade school and the happiest times of my life.”
Nick coughed a little and pointed to Paul and patted the bed.
“Sit Paul. Sit with me.”
“You look different today, Nick. Your eyes. What’s going on?”
“I’m going home soon Paul.”
“Yep.” A wheeze and a cough. “Home. The call is coming. I know it and I’m not afraid.”
Paul understood what Nick was saying. “Tell me Nick. Tell me how you got here. To this shelter. Tell me so that I can help others. Tell me.”
“OK. My mind doesn’t always remember. But today. — today I feel good and can remember. I can tell you.”
“It was summer. I was sweating. That’s what I remember most. Sweat. I was sitting right where we were sitting when we had that bagel. I had pretty much been living on the street. I had lost everything material that I had. I had just done some drug, I don’t even know which one. I was moaning, and sweating. Moaning and sweating. And sitting all alone. A pain shot through my eyes and I yelled and screamed — that my eyes were on fire.
“Sweat pouring into my eyes — I rubbed them, and rubbed them. All I could see was haze. They were burning and the sweat was pouring. Then pain in my head and my ears burning — my whole head was burning. Somebody has to help me — somebody has to help me. I don’t know if I was yelling it out loud or thinking about it.
“I needed help. And no one was there. No one Paul. No one. People walked by, stepping over me, ignoring me, afraid of me. Shaking their heads, and going on about their work. I remember reaching up. This was bad. The worst I had ever felt.
“Then I did shout out loud — not sure why these words came out but they did. I yelled out ‘I am sorry for my sins. I am sorry for my sins. Lord, forgive me.’ I started to cry and the tears washed away the burning in my eyes. The haze lifted, the blurring cleared up.
“And you know who I saw? I saw my mother. My mother and another beautiful woman — must have been a saint but I don’t know which one. They each took a hand and lifted me up. The held me up and walked me to this shelter. Each step they said, “We are here with you Nick. You will be saved. Your work here isn’t done. And God loves you.”
“My work? My work? What work did they mean? Me. Work? I plopped myself into this doorway. The guys here helped me. Cleaned me up as best they could. Got me food and gave me the bed. I’ve been here on and off since then. Living as best I can.”
Paul said nothing. Just looked at his old classmate. “I’ve got something for you.” Paul reached into his pocket and pulled out a small, plastic bag. In it was a scapular.
“I haven’t seen one of these in forever,” Nick said. He looked at the plastic bag. “Heh, it says ‘Made in China.’ Guess the Vatican needs to get stuff on the cheap as well.”
Nick took the scapular out of the bag and unwrapped it. Nick held the familiar strap connected by two cloth patches. He draped it over his head, the thin, brown strap resting on his scapular bones which allowed one of the scapular patches with images depicting Mary and infant Jesus, to rest over his heart. “Made in China; Blessed in Rome. This is probably the greatest export from China to Italy since Marco Polo brought back fireworks and spaghetti.”
“Wear it Nick. You’ll never be alone with it on. The Blessed Mother will be with you.”
“Paul, I also heard that if you die wearing this that you will go straight to Heaven.”
“That’s what they claim,” Paul said with a non-committal shrug. Nick kissed the picture and made the sign of the cross.
“You know Paul. We all are going to die — but not before our work is done.”
“I’m not sure what my work is or what it is supposed to be?” Paul said.
“We may never truly know. We just need to trust in Him. And remember the words of the creed ‘In what I have done and in what I have failed to do.’ Paul, it’s not just actions but inaction can be just as important.”
“I’m going to go now Nick. My wife is in the hospital. They are worried about her and the baby. She’ll be in there the rest of December. Right through the holidays.”
“Go to her and your family,” Nick said touching the scapular. “You can come back tomorrow.”
Paul left the shelter thinking that Nick was some type of modern-day prophet/philosopher. How could one so broken speak like one who has it so together?
I sang this song a hundred, maybe a thousand years ago
No one ever listens, I just play and then I go
Off into the sunset like the western heroes do
Tell me what you’re gonna do
“I’ll be home later tonight after I get the meals set up at Bethesda and visit your mother,” Paul told his kids. “You’ll enjoy Christmas Eve with your Uncle Gabriel, Aunt Elizabeth and cousins. There doing the 7 fishes dinner, just like Grandmom and Grandpop used to do.”
“But dad, we hate those fish!” it was a simultaneous objection from both his son and daughter. “Can’t we go with you to help and see Mom?”
“You’re going to Uncle Gabriel’s house. Besides, it’s nasty cold and the snow is piling up.”
Paul took the subway and got off a block from Bethesda. He slipped and slid as he walked through the Philly streets. The Christmas Eve weather had turned nasty. As nasty as one could imagine. The wind was whipping ice and snow all around.
He shook off the cold as he entered the shelter. Immediately he knew something was wrong. “What’s going on?” he asked Peter who was running the dinner that night.
“Bad news. The truck bringing the meals skidded on I-95 and hit a barrier. It’s not going to make it here.”
“Can we go get the food?”
“No, police have closed the road — too icy and dangerous.”
Paul looked at the faces of the men milling about. Sad faces, looking forward to a Christmas Eve meal, now another disappointment in their lives.
From among the faces Nick Santa Croce walked forward. “Paul. Remember the first time we talked to each after all those years?” Nick was wheezing and coughing. “We ate bagels. We talked. We prayed.
“A little prayer right now would be good for our souls, it will take away the hunger from our bodies.”
Paul knelt on one knee and made the sign of the cross. He held Nick’s hand and began the “Our Father” and followed it up with the “Hail Mary.”
When he finished with the “Amen” a knock came on the door of the shelter.
Peter answered the door. “Yes.”
“I’m John. I am the manager at Natalie’s Place — the restaurant around the corner.”
“We had a lot of cancellations because of the weather. We have all the food but no customers. My staff is bringing over the food. I hope you can use it?’
“That’s wonderful. Oh, my that’s wonderful!” Peter smiled.
“C’mon in guys,” John told his staff. “Here it comes — we have shrimp, calamari, clams, mussels, baccala, smelts, flounder. All this wonderful fish. And tons of bread to dip in the juice.”
“Fish?” Peter said. “Bread?”
“Yeah, from the Feast of the 7 fishes. Christmas Eve tradition.”
“It’s like a miracle out of nowhere,” Peter said.
As John and Peter handed out the fish and bread, Nick smiled at Paul. “Can we talk in private?”
Nick grabbed Paul by the hand as they walked toward his room. Nick felt the scapular hanging around his neck that Paul had given him. “I want to give you something old friend,” Nick said. He reached under his flattened pillow and pulled out a small, tattered star. “This is for your Christmas tree. I hope you can find a place for it.” Nick was wheezing and coughing.
“It will be the first ornament we put on the tree and the last to come off.”
Paul’s cell phone rang. “Excuse me a minute Nick.”
“Uh huh. Yes. Yes. Sure, I can walk from here and will be right there.”
Paul looked at Nick. “It’s my wife — she is going into labor — I need to get there.”
“Before you go I want to tell you one thing. I didn’t know what my life’s work was. Now I know.”
“Yes. I know.”
“What is your life’s work?”
“You Thomas.” He used Paul’s middle name. “You were my life’s work. The unfinished business that I was kept here for. You have been here to support us. Help us. Show us love and compassion. It was your prayers that helped bring in those fish and bread. Because you are a good man.
“Think about this. As you look to find out what your life’s work is — remember that the lives you touch confirm your life’s work. In all you do and all you fail to do!”
Paul reached for the star in his pocket. “How can I be your life’s work?”
“It’s simple. I’m a homeless guy. A man with a dark past, a lifeless now and no future. I’m a madman. No one will listen to me. They say I’m crazy. But you — you —Paul — you have it all — you have believability. If I say ‘Love each other’ it gets ignored. If you say it, it gets attention because people trust you. Believe you. You are the good neighbor, the good father and husband.
“Maybe your life’s work is just to be you and tell people to love each other and to ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ It’s really simple Paul. Be yourself, tell people to love each other. A good man like you can make a difference.”
“So, just be myself?”
“Be yourself, and continue to spread the good news and show mercy.”
“When the Pope was here he talked about mercy and taking care of those less fortunate.”
“When good people do that – when they show mercy – they are His living miracles.”
“People are wrong Nick,” Paul said wiping away a tear. “You’re not a madman. You’re Nick. A beautiful friend and person — and you are loved.”
“You’re loved too Paul. Your good works will live on long after you body gives up its soul. God bless you Paul. God bless you and your family.”
Paul hugged his friend. “God bless you too Nick.
“And Happy Birthday.”
Paul tucked the star back in his pocket and headed out the door as a 5 minute walk worked its way into a much longer adventure as he trudged and slipped and slid his way toward the hospital to be with Anna.
Nick Santa Croce decided to grab a taste of all the different fish, eating heartily and thanking God for what he had and for saving his life. Nick lay in his bed and prayed on this most holy of nights. He lovingly touched his scapular and as he did he heard a voice far off. “Nick,” it called. “Nick.
He didn’t recognize the voice. “My tears and prayers helped me bring back my son from spiritual death to life. I was with you when you were in school, watching over you. Your mother’s tears and prayers were your strength when you had nothing left. I was with your mother when you were at your lowest and I took your one hand as she took your other.”
“Saint Monica. Is that you?” The beautiful woman smiled. “Come home Nicholas so my son Augustine can greet you.”
Nick was wheezing, coughing and breather harder.
“Thank you Nick for wearing that scapular.” Another voice, this time a bright light, a flashing radiant light of blue. “You and all who are here are my children. I love you Nicholas Santa Croce.”
“Mary. Blessed Mother!” Nick called out grasping his scapular.
“Nicholas,” Mary said. “My son is waiting for you — He is always here,” she tapped her heart, “He is always there,” she opened her arms to represent the world. “He is love.”
Nick reached out and felt a hand grasp his. “Come home Nick. Time to come home. Your work is done here.”
“Mom! Mom is that you?!”
“Yes Nick. I never stopped loving you.”
“Mom, I love you.” Nick reached out to embrace his mother. She hugged him, then he felt the warmth of another hug — this one from someone he didn’t expect — it was the warmth of his father’s hug. “I always loved you, too Nick. I just didn’t do a good enough job of doing it. Forgive me Nick.”
“Dad, oh dad! I love you — I love you!” Nick was fully weeping.
He felt the embrace of his mother, father and countless souls, comforting him, wiping away years and years of pain.
As their embrace ended, Nick saw through the mist of his eyes a man glowing in a brilliant light, a sensational, brilliant light. He was smiling a warm smile. He tapped his heart and said in a gentle voice, “Your work is done Nicholas. Your heart is healed and your soul is pure. You are with us now. Welcome home, my son.”
“I’m home,” Nick exhaled as tears washed down his face for the last time.
Paul and Anna held hands – he had made it in time. The doctor and nurses were encouraging and prompting Anna as the baby was making its way into the world. Paul felt tightness in his whole body — he felt faint and lightheaded and briefly lost his breath.
He knew. He knew the fate of his old friend. He knew. Paul held Anna’s hand with one hand reached into his pocket with his free hand and felt the star. He started to cry ever so quietly. “Nick. Nick.”
He shook himself and refocused on his wife when he heard the doctor say “Keep strong Anna, keep strong.”
“How’s her signs?”
“Stable,” he heard one of the nurses say.
“You’re doing fine Anna. I’m not so sure about you Paul,” the doctor said.
“I’m fine,” Paul said.
“Here we go. Here we go.” It was the doctor giving a play-by-play. “Baby is coming. Here comes the baby.”
“It’s OK honey, it’s Ok. You’re doing great” Paul encouraged Anna.
“Here comes baby” the doctor said.
“It’s a ….. GIRL! It’s a GIRL” the doctor called out.
As Paul and Anna’s third child breathed her first breaths, Paul looked at the clock — 12:45 am. Christmas Day. A Christmas baby. The miracle of life. She was beautiful and healthy and all anyone could ask for.
Paul called his brother’s house to talk to the kids. “Hey guys. I know it’s late – but we wanted to get to you as soon as we could.” Anna held the baby up so Paul could use his phone to show the kids.
“We welcome into our family — our Christmas miracle.
“Say hello to your sister Nicole.”
Paul reached into his pocket to touch the star and at the same time he put his little finger in her tiny hand and she grasped it. “It’s like a miracle out of nowhere,” he thought to himself.
As the kids and mom were smiling and crying Paul looked to Heaven, thanking the Lord for his blessings and for loving him and his family. Always.
Here I am, I’m sure to see a sign
All my life I knew that it was mine
It’s always here, it’s always there
It’s just love and miracles out of nowhere.
Miracles Out of Nowhere copyright Kansas, 1976
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According to its website, “Bethesda Project began in 1979 when Reverend Domenic Rossi and members of his prayer group from Daylesford Abbey in Paoli, Pennsylvania, reached out to a group of women experiencing homelessness in Center City, Philadelphia.” Now, more than three decades later, “Bethesda Project serves more than 2,500 homeless and formerly homeless men and women each year at 13 sites throughout Philadelphia.”