1993: Santa’s Sleigh

Dad flops an issue of Better Housekeeping on the table. “Daddy stole that from the doctor’s office a couple weeks ago.” I raise my eyebrows, disapprovingly.

He responds, in a way, to my silent protest. “Listen, I only took it because I want to bake a recipe they have in here. Besides they don’t need this anyways. They have fifty magazines laying around that office.”

He fans the pages successively, back to front, until he finds our new quest. He spreads the magazine in front of his chest and points to a gingerbread Santa Claus, complete with eight reindeer, Rudolph, and a sleigh.

I try not to roll my eyes, but it’s too late.

“Daddy’s serious about this. We’re gonna make this today. You know your father loves a challenge…but we’re not gonna use their gingerbread recipe.” Of course not. So why did you need the book?”

“Go get Daddy my father’s book. You know…the grey one.”

Now I know he’s serious. Grandpa’s grey cookbook only comes out when he means business. As I feel for Dad’s box in the cavernous credenza, I wonder about my imaginary grandfather. Dad always says that he was a cheap Greek who only gave Grandma a dollar a week to feed sixteen kids—stern, a chef, a gambler, and dead from smoking unfiltered cigarettes before I was born.

I hand over the tattered book with care. I watch as one of the hand-stitched threads breaks free from the cover—while Dad makes his way through—the individual pages sliding in opposite directions. “Good. This book is eighty years old, you know? My father was lucky he didn’t come over on the Titanic because he came around that same time. Early 1900s.”

Dad shakes his head. “Of course. You might know it’s Daddy’s bad luck. I always find the recipe I want, last.” I scan the lined ledger; marked with a dark blue numeral 55 and the title, Ginger Bread, the recipe contains few ingredients. Let’s hope this is simpler than the baklava.

“So you’re probably wondering why I needed the book if I wasn’t going to use their recipe, right?” I don’t dare give him the satisfaction of a nod.

“Daddy just needed to see how they assembled the sleigh and what they used to make the road and the reins. I’ve been thinking, and I have a great idea for all of it. Come on. Get your coat. We’re going to the mall.”

What’s at the mall for baking?

When we arrive, Dad makes a beeline for the coziest confection shop in town, The Candy Kitchen.

While we wait our turn, Dad scans the cases. “Okay, Jenny, this is what I want. Three pounds of that rocky road candy, and then I’ll get some of that shoestring licorice for the reigns…”

I look at the prices, confused. $10.95/pound? Did he win a horse? The smell of sugar and chocolate wafting into my nostrils makes my mouth water. Well at least we can eat this crazy gingerbread Santa! Merry Christmas!

He nudges my shoulder. “Daddy hasn’t told you the best part yet. We’re not going to eat this, naturally…” I feel my heart sink. Then, I’m out. We better not be giving it away.

“We’re going to mount the whole thing to the coffee table for show.” Someone call a doctor. My father has officially gone off the deep end; he’s not going to eat candy—his favorite food in the world.

“But that doesn’t mean we can’t get a couple chocolate covered marshmallows while we’re here—for ourselves.” I instantly forgive him a little.

After the clerk bags all of Dad’s goodies, she informs him of the $54.07 bill.

What in the fuck? That’s seriously a month’s worth of food!

Dad pull out his rubber-banded money wad and forks over the dough.

At least you’re getting two marshmallows out of the deal. Be thankful.

After getting out all of the ingredients, flour, baking soda, ginger, molasses, butter…and four more hours of labor, Dad is ready to assemble the whole thing on the coffee table.

He approaches the job as if he’s been called in for open-heart surgery. “Goddamn mother fucker. Rudolph’s leg snapped. Quick, Jenny, hand me the confectioner’s glaze. Dad uses the white substance to mend Rudolph and adds his red button nose.” Pheww, that was a close call.

I roll my eyes again, and smile too. Santa’s sleigh and reindeer look even better than they did in Better Housekeeping.

After two weeks pass, school dismisses early for Christmas break.

I see crack marks where the gingerbread has dried out. Gross. What are we going to do with this thing after Christmas?

Dad doesn’t seem to notice. “Come on. Dad got us some cheap candy at the dollar store. Let’s watch some Christmas movies or some shit.” For real? Is this like a trick, and we’re going to end up at OTB? Why is he so happy? It’s Christmas. He hates Christmas.

After Dad powers on the T.V., I wait for him to adjust the rabbit ears. But the picture broadcasts completely clear. Where am I? I pinch my arm. Oww. Not dreaming then?

“Haha. Daddy tricked you for Christmas! The cable company had a special for new customers signing up. No money down. Free HBO. We probably won’t pay the bill and they’ll shut us down in a couple months, but who cares!”

My mouth drops open as Dad changes the channel to reveal Dudley Moore dressed as Patch, the elf. The Santa Claus. Yes! While we watch John Lithgow float into space, the chyron reveals that Home Alone is next! Woohoo!

Dad catches me eyeing the gingerbread sleigh while Kevin sleds down his stairway. One day, you’re going to have a house just like that. “Hey, Jenny. You can eat that if you want to. We had it up long enough.”

I sniff Santa’s reindeer, realizing that they don’t smell like gingerbread anymore, and the once cherry red reigns have turned a cotton-y pink. Gross. Aw, screw it! Probably the best meal you’ve ever had on Christmas. Go for it.

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1987: Retirement Home

The bus stop drops us off a short walk from the retirement home.

While Dad surveys the parking lot, December’s wind punctures through my pink ballerina flats. I wriggle my Popsicle toes, hoping they won’t snap off. Ouch. Why can’t we just go inside? I turn toward the door and consider making a run for it, but I know Dad will backhand me.

He eyes my shivering legs. “Jenny. Poppa knows it’s cold out here. But I wanted to take a look around this parking lot. These old ladies have all these beautiful cars.” He stops to peer in the driver’s side window of a light blue sedan. Buick. “And your Father bets ninety percent of these old hags don’t drive them anymore. Why couldn’t I be lucky enough to find me a rich old wife?”

I picture my new mother—a hunched woman with curly silvery hair. I shake my head left to right—right to left. I already have a mom. Except that she lives really far away. And Dad says that she might try to kidnap me someday.

The elevator ride up to the fifth floor partially thaws my limbs. In the long hallway, I notice a woman wheeling a metal cart filled with round silver discs. Flying saucers? Why do old people need those?

After the woman passes, Dad leans over and whispers in my ear, “Meals on Wheels. That’s a good service because a lot of these people can’t cook for themselves, but your Father is sure the food is horrible.” Dad knows because he’s a chef.

Dad uses his secret knock—Dun da dun dun…Dun dun—when we reach 5B.

“Rose. Hello! Just Tom and my daughter, Jenny, again. Madeline’s friends.”

Rose ushers us in. I immediately notice the same musty odor from our first visit. Dad called it, old people smell. Said he’d never live in a place like this. He’d go off into the woods like a real man when it was time for him to go.

As I return from my blank stare, Dad stands in Rose’s kitchen, feverishly chopping ingredients. He calls over his shoulder, “Jenny, why don’t you ask Rose what you can do to help?”

She instructs me to set the table pointing to the silverware drawer with her bony finger. I arrange the forks, knives and spoons on three napkins and set the scalloped plates in the center. The small painted flowers run alongside the golden rim. I trace the pattern over and over in my mind.

Dad requests, “Rose, I’m wondering if you have anything that might help me chop these nuts faster?” She looks at him quizzically. He offers, “If you don’t mind, I could just take a look through your cupboards and see what you might have.”

She nods, “That will be okay, Tom.”

Dad opens all the cabinets on top first. Nothing. He kneels, leaning forward, to reach all the way back into the lower corner cupboard. His eyes grow wide like a leprechaun who struck a pot of gold.

“Rose, this is a first class food processor. Did you know that you had this back in this cupboard?”

I watch as Dad pulls out all the bits. He takes a careful look at the shiny blades and grins.

She narrows her eyes slightly to focus on the bulky contraption. “Yes, Tom. You may use that. I’m afraid of it, actually. My son and daughter-in-law bought that for me one Christmas, but it’s too powerful.”

Dad grins again. “Oh, that’s really too bad, Rose. I mean this is a professional machine. I bet they paid a couple hundred for it. If you’d like, I can show you how to use it.”

Rose takes three steps back from the counter. “No thank you. It’s not something I really need. I don’t know why they bought that for me, come to think of it.”

She pauses, watching while Dad pushes stalks of celery through the plastic chimney. “You know what, Tom… you should take that food processor as a gift from me.”

He looks up at Rose through the top of his eyes. “Oh, I couldn’t take this from you.”

“No. Go ahead. Really. It’s almost Christmas, and besides, I really appreciate you coming over here to help me out. I’m glad Madeline introduced us. Oh, and why don’t you take that electric juicer I saw you use last week, too?”

Dad goes silent for a moment. We wait for his utterance.

“Thank you, Rose. God bless you! I’ll take great care of them both. They won’t go to waste.”

Is he supposed to take gifts? Godmother Madeline told Dad last week you’re not supposed to get thanks for community service…

I stand at the sink, drying what he washes with a strawberry embossed hand towel when I hear Rose shriek from behind.

“No! No! No! This is not how you set a table. The spoons go on the outside like this! Who taught this child how to set a table?”

Dad and I spin around to a tight-lipped Rose, stooped over each place setting, rearranging silverware. She shakes her head. Dad’s face becomes red while speaking out in defense, “Actually, Rose, she’s never—

He stops mid-thought. And gives me a certain look. The one I know means that it’s right to obey Rose—no matter how silly her request—because this is her house. And the food processor. Rules. Order.

“I apologize, Rose. I guess Jenny should know better as the daughter of a chef, but she’s not even seven years old yet, so I guess we should giver her a break.” She doesn’t seem moved. Instead she points at all the silverware while moving her hands back and forth. I wonder why he doesn’t give you a break? Like last week when he lost his keys and he blamed you?

I wait for Rose to deliver each stern gesture. I try to record the specific order in my mind. But it doesn’t make sense. Who cares where they go? Instead I count the petals on each of the tiny hand-painted pink flowers. Seven. Plus seven. Equals fourteen. Pay attention to the knife, stupid. Rose was very upset about the knife. What did she say again? I quiver in fear. Don’t talk back to elders. Except bad people.

When we finish dinner, Rose offers some us some chamomile tea.

Dad says we’d best be off to catch the bus back home. Rose protests, “Oh, I was hoping that you and Jenny could stay and watch my favorite show with me.”

He agrees, reluctantly, observing the bag of kitchen thingamajigs near the door.

Rose sits in a small pink reclining chair while Dad and I sit on the couch. He picks at his thumbs, impatiently, while we wait for the show to begin. Thank you for being a friend. Traveled down the road and back again. Your heart is true…

The Golden Girls. The eldest looks like Rose. I can see why she likes this show so much.

Bored at first, I begin to bite my thumbnail. Stop. You don’t want him to try and get the poison again.

By the end, I secretly grow to like the show. I glance at Dad’s profile in the flickering screen light after the group hug. He winces.

Before the end credits finish, Dad rises from the sofa. “That was—uh—real nice, Rose.”

“Oh isn’t it just the most wonderful show?”

“Well, actually, it’s a little mushy for me. I like more action movies—myself—but I guess it was okay. Everything except that stupid group hug.”

Rose laughs.

She made him do something he didn’t want to. And got away with it. Like Madeline and her rainbows.

2005: Cutting Ties

Bzzt. Bzzzt. Bzzzzt. The phone’s ominous vibration knocks me off balance. I lurch toward the wall scratching our fresh paint job with the hammer’s claw as my left foot slips off the stepladder. Shit.

I regain my balance. Sort of.

Missed call. Dad. Double shit.

Why is he calling today? Oh triple shit. It’s Tuesday. It’s your day to talk. How can it be Tuesday already?

Bzzzt…Bzzzt…Dad, again!

Jesus. Now what are you going to do? You know how you left things with Dr. V. But what if you can’t do it? You didn’t think out the logistics, did you? Last ring…

My index finger, detached, taps the green call button.

“Dad?”

“Jenny. Where were you?”

“Oh. Sorry. I was just in the ummm…bathroom. Couldn’t get to the phone in time.” At least that explains why you’re out of breath.

“Oh. Well, I heard on the news that you guys are getting some really bad storms there.”

“No.” Oh fuck. Yes there. Maybe they are? How would you know because you’re not there, are you? You’re here. But he doesn’t know that. Nice way to blow your cover. Just buy yourself a little more time…

I nervously laugh off my error. “Haha. Oh yeah, we’re getting tons of rain, but it’s no big deal, Dad.”

“You okay, Jenny?”

“Who me? Yes I’m fine…” Christ. Why would you say ‘fine’ when you know that will tip him off more than anything?

“…I mean I’m great. How are you?”

“Huh. You sure you’re ok? You know you can always tell Daddy anything. I can always tell when something is wrong—just like I could with your Mother.”

“Thanks, Dad. No it’s good. I swear.”

“Oh okay. Well did I tell you that I think my neighbor is selling drugs?”

“Umm no.”

“Yeah, I mean who has thirty cars come and go all day long. You know your Father, I watch out for everything like a hawk.”

You’re not going to get away with this. He’ll send a police squad. He’ll find you.

“Uh-huh. That’s good, Dad. Listen, I have to go. I’m sorry to cut our call a little short. I think I ate something bad…” Don’t just leave it like that. He’ll worry. Fake worry.

“Huh. See I knew something was up. Hey you want Daddy to come there? I haven’t seen you in going on two months now!”

“Oh…ummm…uhhh…no, Dad. It’s a bad week at work. But I’m going to call you tomorrow. I promise. First thing. I’ll be better by then.”

“Well, okay. But I hope I’m going to get to see you soon. Everyone here always asks me ‘How’s Jenny doing?’ Nothing about your poor old man. Nothing about my heart. Just Jenny. They all want know how you are…”

“Jeez…that’s really great, Dad. Huh? Strange, too. Well, talk soon. Love you. Bye. Love you.”

I see the plan disintegrating like a bad batch of plaster. You better figure out what you’re going to do? What if he just shows up there and finds you gone? How can you keep this a secret? Mom already knows, anyways.

1989: Catholic Charity

My white patent leather Mary Jane’s clip clop as I dash down the marble steps. Each dazzling granite speck stirs me to sing a Christmas jingle. I’m dreaming of a White Christmas…just like the ones I used to know…well you’ve never actually known any, but it’s still a good song.

Christmas vacation. Let’s hope the landlord doesn’t kick us out for not paying rent, again.

Last week, I pretended to play with my Barbie dolls while Mr. Loomis, the motel owner, yelled at Dad. “Sir, you need to pay your rent, or I am going to call the police.” Dad pleaded, “Please, Mr. Loomis, I have a daughter. It’s winter. I’ll have that money to you next week—I promise—just as soon as my next unemployment check comes. I’m waiting for a big settlement from the government, too.” Mr. Loomis’s grumble rings in my ears.

Dad told a lie because the unemployment checks dried up two months ago. Mr. Loomis will be back, just like the Terminator.

I spy Dad standing at the main door, right under the saintly carved archway. He beams with pride. “You ready, Daddy’s little girl? No school for ten whole days!” I smile but I’ll miss the place. I glance back at the Great Hall one last time. Ten days is a long time not to see your teachers. What if Dad just sleeps the whole time?

Before I turn back around to face him, Mrs. Henshack runs towards us with a box. Struggling for breath, she bellows, “Mr. K…so glad to have caught you!” Dad grips my hand tighter. Ouch. What’s did I do?

Mrs. Henshack lowers her voice to a whisper, “Mr. K. some folks in the church community put a few gifts together for you and Jenny.”

Dad’s grip tightens. I squirm my fingers loose. “Thank you, Mrs. Henshack, but Jenny and I don’t need the charity.” She gives him a confused wide-eyed look. I scream, yes, we do need the charity! We’ve never had a Christmas before.

 Mrs. Henshack extends the box toward Dad. “Don’t worry, Mr. K. there’s no shame in taking a gift from the Lord.” Dad takes the box sheepishly and says thank you while making a run for it.

He clomps hastily without making eye contact with anyone. Hey, Joe and Moira’s mom just waved to us. I wave back, timidly, hoping he won’t clobber me when we make it to the red and white Malibu.

Will we have to throw this box out on the Northway like we did with Madeline’s knickers?

“See, Jenny, your Father hates this shit! I’m not raising you to take charity. It’s not because we’re better than anyone else. I just want you to have respect for yourself and I don’t want anyone feeling sorry for us, either.” But I feel sorry for us. Please let us be able to keep the gifts.

As he shuts the back door Dad says, “I’ll probably just throw all this shit in the dumpster when we get back to the motel.” My eyes well up. They were so kind to us. Why can’t we just have one thing?

 We pull in the lot in front of our door, 12B. The brass numbers shimmer against the orange door in the late afternoon sun. 12B. Your prison cell for 10 whole days. And we could have had gifts this time.

 I turn my head away as Dad opens the back door. I can’t bear to watch him carry the box to the trash. “Ahhh, shit, Jenny! I guess they got us all this crap. You and Daddy can at least see what it is. And if there’s any good stuff. But Daddy decides what stays and goes. You hear me?”

I nod profusely while fighting back tears. Will you ever understand him?

Sitting cross-legged on the brown and orange shag rug, I wait while Dad slices the box open.

A winter sweater for Dad. “You know your Father doesn’t wear sweaters, so that’s going bye-bye. Would have been okay when I was skinny and young…”

A decorative tin of butter cookies. “Now that’s what Daddy’s talking about. He rips through the plastic seal and grabs a round wreath shaped cookie. “Yummy. Here, take one.” I pick the brown and white tic-tac-toe square.

A squishy wrapped gift with a red bow. Oh can I open it, please? I’ve never opened a wrapped present before. Dad hands the package to me. I carefully peel all the tape off. “Jesus, Jenny! Open that, today. The cookies are getting stale.”

I tear through the last bit to reveal a bear. A Snuggle bear. No wait he’s a puppet! I wait for Dad’s approval before inserting my hand through the slot. He looks it over to make sure the bear is new. He has his tags. No odor. My very own fuzzy puppet. This is the best Christmas ever.

“Alright, I guess you can keep the puppet, and we can eat these cookies. The rest of this shit is garbage. You know when Daddy was growing up; we never had Christmas, either. It’s kind of hard when there are sixteen kids. We were lucky to get a coloring book and crayons some years. Cold lettuce and salt for dinner most of the time…”

Snuggles and I hear Dad, but we don’t care.

1993: The First Noel

Thursday, December 2. Today Dad turns 53. He always picks me up precisely when the bell rings at 2:15 pm. No dilly-dallying. No talking in the hall. Today’s no different.

I hop in Mrs. Smith’s old Plymouth Reliant. At least this car has reverse and two working brakes.

“Well, what do ya’ say, child of mine…it’s December 2…your old Man’s birthday! I look pretty good for a 53-year-old man, don’t I?” Dad uses both hands to jiggle his stomach already resting against the steering wheel. “All’s Poppas gotta do is lose this friggen giant gut!”

I grin, “Happy Birthday, Dad.”

“By the way, Daddy’s got a big surprise for you when we get home.”

“What is it?” Shit! No more surprises. It better not be another dumpster find.

 Coyly he says, “You’ll see soon enough impatient child.”

The last snowstorm makes it impossible to avoid every pothole in the apartment complex’s gravel driveway. The stones don’t pop beneath the tires this time of year. The car just makes lots of thuds. “Goddamn landlord. They gotta fix this driveway!”

Dad unlocks the brown steel door to our apartment. Like he’s now unlocked a gateway to a new universe. What the–? A tree? A Christmas tree stands in the corner of our living room. Right in front of the water-heater closet.

My mouth hangs open. We never had a Christmas tree. We’ve never had Christmas. No family. No gifts. No Santa Claus. No chocolate chip cookies and milk. No caroling. Nothing, except for a 99-cent canned ham.

“Well what do you think, Jenny? Do you like it?”

“Wait, I’m so confused. Where did it come from?” You’re no expert in these matters but something’s off. No lights? Why is it so high? I spy a clay pot. Dad propped our tree up in an old planter?

“Scott and Mary bought it for us. They knew it was my birthday, and that you never had a tree so they took me earlier. I didn’t want a tree, but they wouldn’t take no for an answer. They spent good money—they really treat you and Daddy like gold.”

Come on, why aren’t you more excited about this? First Christmas tree! Woohoo! Nope. Nothing there. Sigh. What now?

“Jenny, the tree needs ornaments. Poppas broke until tomorrow, but I know you have that fifty dollars that I gave you last month.”

My face and ears grow hot with fury. You just gave me that money so we would have a savings plan. I’m the bank and I say no withdrawals! No more starving and searching in our coat pockets and couch cushions for pennies to buy expired pot roast.

“No, Dad. We need to save that money!”

“Jenny, Jesus-mother-fucking-Christ! We are not going to have a tree with nothing on it. Don’t you dare tell your Father, ‘no!’ Now come on, let’s get in the car and go down to Fay’s and see what they’ve got there.”

Fuck you, pig-headed bastard! And I’m not going to starve because someone wanted to be nice and buy us a tree. I’ve gone this long without Christmas. Who the fuck cares anymore! I really wish that child-services took me away when I was seven—when some mystery person turned you in for being a total asshole!

Resigned, I hunker into the car. At Fay’s we pick up a few packs of gold and red ornaments, twinkly lights and a tree topper for twenty-five dollars. Half the savings dwindled.

After we decorate the tree, Dad exclaims, “See! Now isn’t that better? You know when Daddy is right. Oh, and I think the tree looks okay in this planter that Daddy put it in, don’t you? We don’t need a stupid tree stand. That’s what everyone has and you know how Daddy hates to be like everyone else.”

Fucking planter looks stupid, but a tree stand would have eaten up the rest of the savings. So I nod in agreement.

As I step back to admire our trimmings, I tear up. Is this a sign? Like a defining moment when our luck might change forever? Don’t hold your breath, idiot.

The glossy reflection that has formed on my eyeballs has to stay in place. Don’t let a single drop fall unless you want this decorating party to turn into a scene from Psycho. I clench my corneas to prevent the tears from draining down my cheeks.

I wish for Dad to hug me, but instead he jabbers on…

“Jenny, do you remember when you were eight and we lived at that scuzzy motel in Lake George?” I roll my eyes up to meet his. “Well, I always knew that you were a very strange child when I found you singing Christmas carols by yourself in the corner of our bedroom. We only had one can of soup to last us for 3 days. No presents. No mother. But you stood there singing goddamn Silent Night! I said to myself, this is one fucked up kid you had, Thomas!”