Sunday, December 18, 2011
In My Father's Eyes
My father, who was first a soldier, then a taxi cab driver, then a cop, then a security guard after he and Mom moved to California in 1954, was a stern man. He worked the swing shift because he had gone back to school, law school, and so would attend classes during the day, then leave for work about the time I got home from Kindergarten every day. I feared him, in his imposing uniform, which included the classic Sam Brown belt and side arm, and Mom and Dad never ceased to get a kick out of my intimidation.
As busy as he was with work and school and home improvements on the weekends, Dad made time to visit our local chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Dad, at forty, was a youngster compared to most of the men who stopped in there for a beer or two with a fellow comrade-in-arms. How strange and unfair that all those old men would outlive him, as my father would die three years later.
It was around that time, when I was five, that Mom, Dad, my three older siblings and I, one chilly December day, headed out to the VFW hall. Rumor had it Santa Claus would be making an appearance.
I have to confess here that I never believed in Santa, even as a very small child. I was too logical, too analytical, even back then… and too prone to hiding behind Dad’s big chair—the invisible child whom no one saw even when I was in plain sight—eavesdropping on my parents’ conversations when they thought I’d gone to bed. And yes, even at five, I was the same withdrawn, wary-of-people creature that I am today, so I had nothing but reticence and trepidation about sitting on Santa’s lap. Telling my parents I would rather not participate was not an option, unless I wanted to subject myself to their scorn and a lecture about how ridiculous it was to be shy. I kept my mouth shut, pulled my tiny cardigan around my hunched shoulders, and soldiered on.
I can’t remember whether they served us dinner at the hall that day, but I know Mom and Dad had a few beers while they chatted with people they knew, and the large group of children in attendance tried to guess what was contained within the many packages stacked beside a Christmas tree in the corner of the room. At some point, I grew concerned as I realized I hadn’t seen my parents in awhile. (They had once walked off with the other kids and left me in a strange place, and I still suffered post-traumatic-stress moments because of it.) I tugged on my big brother’s shirt and asked him where they were, but he shrugged me off as someone made the big announcement: “I hear jingle bells!”
A man in a Santa suit entered the room with a few requisite ho ho ho’s and proceeded to take a seat near the stack of presents by the Christmas tree. My sibs grabbed me and dragged me up to stand in line with them, and I stood there watching this man talk to each kid in turn, eventually handing him or her a wrapped present. Even the promise of a surprise gift couldn’t entice me; I had no desire to sit on the lap of a stranger. I couldn’t even communicate well with the people who were familiar to me.
When it was my turn, I trudged forward, and the man’s hands lifted me to sit on his thigh, one arm stretching around my back to hold me snugly. He asked me what Santa could bring me for Christmas. I didn’t answer. I couldn’t answer. There was no correct, appropriate answer. If I said a doll or a tea set, I would have been lying, something I’d learned from my strict Catholic upbringing was a terrible sin. I couldn’t tell him what I really wanted—a Tonka toy truck—as Mom and Dad had already told me that girls cannot ask Santa for a “boy’s” gift. So I just sat helplessly staring down at the floor, wishing the ordeal could be over with.
The man asked me a second time what I wanted from Santa. This time his voice was less affected, more gentle. And somewhat familiar. I found the courage to look up at his face. Thinking back on it now, I can still see his eyes through the fluffs of cotton batting glued over his eyebrows and onto his sideburns. They are the same eyes that look back at me every day when I look into the mirror… my father’s eyes.
I want to believe that something changed for him when he looked into the sad face of his little daughter, her eyes beseeching him to simply let her be the person she was meant to be.
I know that something changed for me. My father, this strict, uncompromising man who enforced God’s laws as if he were the good Lord’s cop incarnate, was capable of playing Santa, of bouncing children on his knee and asking them to share their dreams.
Oh, to have that moment back, to look into his eyes again, and this time, say exactly what I should have said.