The stonecutter walked along Row F of a section of Mount St. Mary Cemetery in Flushing, Queens, and stopped at Grave 108, marked with a modest gray granite headstone.
He held a stencil bearing the words “Loving Wife Mary” and the years 1897 and 1979, which frame the life of Mary McGahan, loving wife of George McGahan.
The couple was childless, and according to cemetery records, both were buried here. But for whatever reason, Mary’s name was never added to the headstone under that of her husband when she died three years after him.
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This bothered Peter Mattaliano, 67, an acting coach and screenwriter, who is not related to Ms. McGahan and never even knew her.
The connection came by quirk of a poignant letter to Santa he found in the fireplace of his Hell’s Kitchen apartment 17 years ago. It had been written by Mary nearly a century earlier, when she lived as a child in the same apartment, and became the impetus for an article in The New York Times a year ago about serendipity and Christmas.
Mr. Mattaliano visited the grave at that time and was upset to see the gravestone lacking her name. He murmured a graveside promise to Mary that he would be back to remedy this.
Last week, he was back, with the stonecutter, who laid the stencil across the headstone and used a sandblaster to carve her name into granite permanence, 37 years after her death.
When Mr. Mattaliano moved into the fourth-floor apartment at 447 West 50th Street in 1999, the fireplace had long been bricked shut. Renovating it, he found Mary’s letter, along with one from her little brother, Alfred.
Alfred had written to Santa asking for a drum and a hook-and-ladder fire truck. Mary’s was more touching, hinting at the family’s poverty and her selflessness even at age 10.
She wrote asking Santa for a wagon for her brother “which I know you cannot afford,” and for herself “something nice what you think best.” She signed off with the request: “P.S. Please do not forget the poor.”
Mr. Mattaliano was haunted by that reminder from a poor girl who requested a wagon for her brother first and nothing specific for herself.
“For somebody to show that kind of humanity at that early age,” he said. “I just could not stand to see her be forgotten.”
He would later learn from historical records that the siblings’ father had died abruptly and that they were being raised by their mother. She was a dressmaker who, records indicated, had given birth to three other children who did not survive infancy.
He found that Mary was born Mary McGann and wound up marrying the similarly named George McGahan, and that both of her parents wound up buried in Calvary Cemetery in Queens, in unmarked graves.
All of this hit home for Mr. Mattaliano, a bachelor with no children. He was 12 when his own father died. He and his three brothers saw some lean Christmases along with their mother in their Jersey City apartment.
He had the letters to Santa framed and began displaying them year-round above the fireplace. Every December, he honors Mary and Alfred by putting up Christmas decorations and laying out their presents: a fire truck for him and a doll for her.
“I’m sharing their space,” he said, of their continued presence in his apartment.
The story is well known among his friends, neighbors and even his acting students, who have included the likes of Jill Clayburgh and Javier Munoz, who now plays Alexander Hamilton in the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton.”
Over the years he wrote and polished a whimsical Christmas-themed movie script based on the letters. He has assembled a production team and is speaking to investors to finance the film, which he calls “Present From the Past.”
Visiting Ms. McGahan’s grave last December, Mr. Mattaliano planted a small tree near the grave and then patted the grave and promised that, “I’ll be back.”
Cemetery staff members told him that to add her name, he needed permission from the buyer of the plot (who is deceased) or a relative (he could find none).
Then he heard from a distant cousin of Mary’s, a man living in Ireland who read about Mr. Mattaliano’s story in an Irish newspaper article.
The cousin, Brian Dempsey, 56, a schoolteacher from County Kildare, agreed to send Mr. Mattaliano a notarized letter granting permission to add Ms. McGahan’s name. He also sent a bag of soil he scooped from a field near the small farm in Lullymore where Mary’s mother grew up before emigrating.
Even with the letter, Mr. Mattaliano still had problems getting the cemetery’s permission. For help, he contacted Michael Lewis, who owns an established monument company in Queens, but by early December, it still seemed that yet another Christmas would pass with Ms. McGahan’s going unacknowledged in her grave.
Then, a bit of holiday magic happened: the Metropolitan Cemetery Association held its annual holiday luncheon in a catering hall on Jericho Turnpike, a few miles from Ms. McGahan’s grave site.
A board member of the group, Jan Neuman, had enjoyed The Times story and had invited Mr. Mattaliano to the meeting to share the story with his members.
Mr. Mattaliano attended and, with the timing of a seasoned acting coach, told the story of the little girl’s big-hearted letter to Santa and where that girl wound up. Then he paused, and decided to plead his case in the room filled with cemetery officials.
A hand shot up. It belonged to Stephen Comando, executive director of Catholic Cemeteries, associated with the Diocese of Brooklyn, which includes Mount St. Mary Cemetery. The group was unaware of the difficulty, Mr. Comando said.
The necessary approvals were obtained and within two weeks, Mr. Mattaliano was smiling as the stonecutter finished engraving “Loving Wife Mary” into the granite.
Mr. Mattaliano knelt at the gravestone and sprinkled the small bag of Irish soil in front of it.
“Even if there’s no family to visit,” he said, “at least she’ll be acknowledged.”
By COREY KILGANNON