MY FATHER VISITS every year about this time.
Arriving a few weeks before Christmas, he stays until a week or so after the New Year.
He's his old self, a meticulous record keeper and list maker, protector and preserver of family traditions.
Preparing the house for the holidays, I go upstairs to the hall closet, next to the children's empty bedrooms, and carefully take out the old cardboard box marked ''Lionel Electric Trains, No. 267 W. Streamliner with Remote Control Railroad Whistle.''
It's tied with the heavy string he probably used when he first put away the box after Christmas in 1939.
Yellowed with age
The string is yellowed with age and care must be taken lest it break.
Except for a tender cardboard hinge, the box is just as he bought it form French' on Baltimore Street in the depths of the Great Depression. The price is recorded on the side in his handwriting; $17.50.
Although he's been gone for 11 years, each year as I open the box, Dad reappears, missing only the corncob pipe jauntily set to the side of his mouth, curling his lip with a smile.
Inside the brown box, black and orange boxes holding the individual cars appear.
On their tops, Dad has written in bold, clear script ''engine,'' ''Car #1,'' ''Car #2,'' ''Diner.''
Except for bits of rust flecking the three-railed track, it's the same train set he brought home 57 years ago.
He and I assembled it, sprawled on the floor, while my mother and sisters fussed over where to place each Christmas ball on the pungent tree.
After removing the individual car boxes, Dad diagrammed their location in the big box with rectangles noted by ''ENG,'' ''#1'' and so on. ''A place for everything and everything in its place,'' he would observe.
I suspect the train no longer runs. The boxy old transformer has a dangerously chewed wire and some of the track connectors are missing. Some young boy tore out important pages from the orange instruction manual.
Six sections of straight track are joined together, and after placing them on the mantle, I position the gray and silver train on the track.
It was a modern train in its day, diesel-powered with shiny stainless-steel cars and a whistle with a low, wistful moan like a real one.
Each year we debate whether the train should face to the right or left.
An FDR Democrat
Dad was an FDR Democrat, so we head the train left.
There the train presides, resting on a few feet of track and surrounded by some small figures, the remnants of Christmas gardens past, until it's time to put it and Dad's happy ghost away until next Christmas.
Charles A. Wunder writes from Baltimore.