I was the second to last child, and always begging for attention. “Mommy, watch this”, “Mommy, listen to my song”, “Mommy, listen to my story”. But Mommy was always busy with her work, with her church, and theater, and politics, and all the other children. Mommy never had time to listen to my stories and songs. She never had time to watch. She never had time to answer questions, or didn’t know the answers, so pretended the questions weren’t important.
Daddy was there, but he wasn’t. And I never felt like he cared that much, at least when I was little. Mommy was out a lot at night at rehearsals and church functions and political meetings. When she wasn’t home, I felt so uneasy. I thought that if someone broke in the house, Daddy wouldn’t care enough to protect me. I needed her there. She would save me.
Much later, I finally realized that Daddy’s way of loving was to go to work and buy what we needed, and what we wanted. For a family of twelve, we were very lucky. They were thrifty, for sure. But they made sure each of their children had a childhood.
We went on vacation to a large Victorian in Cape May for the entire month of August. Daddy came the first two weekends, taking public transportation to Atlantic City, where Mommy would pick him up and bring him back on Sunday nights. He stayed at home during the week, but those weekends were nice with our Dad. He couldn’t totally relax. He did a little though, and you could tell he needed it. The last two weeks he vacationed with us. He was so much fun then! He was the Dad I always wanted him to be. The one I dreamed he would be every day! The Vacation Dad! Approachable, impulsive, smiling. I miss that Vacation Dad.
I got new clothes three times a year; when heading Back to School, on my birthday (which conveniently is in May, so my mother could get me summer clothes and call them my presents), and for Christmas. Christmas brought garbage bags filled with clothes. It was wonderful and we always did a fashion show for each other. We would also get one or two other presents besides that.
When I was nine and the youngest, Karen, was seven, we both got hot curlers that were made for children. They made a lot dangerous children’s toys when we were little, like Chemistry Sets and Power Tools for kids. One year we got a popcorn popper to share. We’d load it up with kernels and oil, wait for the popping to begin, then use the lid to aim scorching hot kernels at each other. It really hurt when they made contact. Then, yeah, yeah, we ate the popcorn that was still in the popper. But the most fun was the act that could have maimed us severely.
In 1967 I was seven, and Christmas was approaching, Kathy from down the street told me that Santa wasn’t real. She had just moved to our block. She was different from the kids at school; like she was much older than me, but she wasn’t. She was the coolest kid I had ever seen. I had no reason to doubt the validity of her declaration, but needed proof.
On Christmas Eve, our parents went to Midnight Mass as always, and we went to bed and waited for Santa. I got Karen up when I heard their car drive pull in the driveway and we looked outside. “Kathy said that Santa is Mommy and Daddy”, I told Karen, but I wasn’t too sure about it, and my five-year-old sister did not believe it. So, we poked our heads over the windowsill and watched our parents get out of the car. They walked to the trunk, and took out a bunch of garbage bags that were stuffed in there. They both slung them over their shoulders and carried them up the driveway to the front of the house. We watched them walk until we couldn’t see them anymore, then ran for bed and got under the covers, so they wouldn’t know that we knew about the bags, and that the man in the red suit was a fairy tale. Karen was crying; I had devastated her. I was worried that Mommy would hear her and come up, but she and Daddy were too busy setting up our Merry Christmas surprises. I didn’t know why it bothered Karen so much; I wasn’t that phased by the revelation. Were seven-year-olds so much more mature than five-year-olds? Or had I been suspecting for a while, anyway?
I was a very nosy child. I wanted to be a spy like Emma Peel or a detective like Honey West when I grew up, so I tended to snoop in my parent’s things. I was practicing! Having gleaned this information from my spying made me feel a little smug. And I was fine with it. The creepy tiny old guy whose stomach shook like a bowl full of jelly was not sliding down our chimney while we were sleeping. It was just my parents. And presents. The presents were still there, and they were the important thing!
But we didn’t just love the presents we got, we loved the presents we gave, too. We had a present allowance to buy presents at Sears when we were very young. “We got you paints’ was a line that was often used as a joke about not being able to keep a Christmas secret. We all laughed about it as if it was a shared memory, but I didn’t remember it. Apparently, one of my brothers told another what they had bought for him while they were still in the Sear’s store, “We got you paints.” A few years later, our Mom started taking us younger kids and Kathy from down the street to the Job Lot in New York. Mommy loved the Job Lot. It was one of the first of the deep discount stores. Among so many other gifts, I remember buying a lot of Yardley Soap products there, and Aziza make-up. Make-up for me, because I wanted to be a grown-up forever (until I was one), and Yardley Lavender Soap for Daddy. He always used it. Yardley began making Lavender soap in the 17th century, which was way before Daddy was born, so I assume he had always used it.
When we were ten, Kathy and I decided to buy each other boxes of chocolates while in New York. We got them cheap, and got cheap presents for everyone in our families too, using the money that our Moms had given us, along with babysitting money. When we got home, we wrapped our boxes of candy, put each other’s names on our gifts, and put them under my parent’s tree. Then we went to Kathy’s house and watched the premiere of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”. We pretended to each other that we were too old for such baby shows, but secretly I loved it. I bet she did, too.
I got home two hours later, to find our presents were opened and eaten by an Irish Wolfhound. Our Irish Wolfhound. There was slobbery wrapping paper and candy cup liners everywhere. You would think after years of living in the same house that a girl of ten would know her dog had a penchant for Christmas candy. Well, all candy. Well, all food. WELL, everything he thought might be edible.
Some years were better than others in our lives, but no matter how much money we had, every Christmas was lovely. In the early years, my parents had big family parties with about 100 relatives and friends, and the adults would all drink and tell stories and sing carols and laugh and sometimes cry. It seemed like most adults smoked back then, and a barroom fog would fill the first floor while these parties carried on. Our parents didn’t smoke, but in the ‘60s so many did, and second-hand smoke was not a thing.
One such party, we had a piñata right in our hallway. There was a wooden bat that we children were supposed to swing at the piñata with. A wooden bat. In a house with 100 people. That was the ‘60s. We swung and swung that heavy bat, but every child missed every time. The adults took over; they were impaired and had a hard time of it also. Then came Mr. Regan’s turn. Mr. Regan was my hero. What a wonderful man. What a character! What a drunk! He began swinging wildly and everyone had to run out of the way. He gave it a huge whack, and all the candy went flying, but we had to wait a minute for him to stop swinging to run and grab it all up.
When we were older and Mommy had passed away from ALS, my father continued Christmas in in similar fashion. One year when Karen was in college, she filmed a Christmas morning, and inquired what each of us thought Christmas was all about. She came up on Daddy making coffee, and asked, “What is Christmas all about?” He spun around and shouted, “GIVING! Christmas is about giving.” Christmas was when Daddy was his very, very best. I miss my Christmas Daddy most.