My 13th year wasn’t the easiest for my family. Every few months, the company Dad worked for would send him away for two or three weeks to inspect pipes in submarines. Sometimes it was Spain. Other times it was South Carolina, Scotland or Guam. Every time he’d leave, Mom would tape newspaper sheets over the three little windows in the front door and watch TV long after Johnny Carson was over.
As Christmas neared that year, Mom was busier than ever. She did all the shopping, all the wrapping, all the signing, addressing and stamping. Right around the time she finished, she’d start a week-long string of nine- and 10-hour workdays through Christmas Eve. Taking a day off was out of the question. The ladies who relied on her to cut, color and curl their hair would have committed mass suicide if she deserted them at Christmastime.
Her reward came on Christmas day, when she knew she’d be home, celebrating with her family.
She and my father, Syl and Prime, had hosted Christmas dinner since I was born. Aunt Claire and Uncle Armand had Thanksgiving. Aunt Rachel and Uncle Normand had Easter. Christmas naturally fell into my parents’ hands because they had the youngest children. Nobody wanted to deny my younger brother Paul and me the chance to play with our new toys.
That year, my newlywed cousin Pauline and husband Don started a new tradition. They invited the family to their apartment on Christmas Eve. I didn’t remember Mom ever passing up a party. But she couldn’t see how she’d work all day, party at night, then have enough time the next day to whip up a feast for 12. So she said no, never imagining she’d find a reason to spend Christmas Eve anywhere but her kitchen.
She was so sure we weren’t going that she didn’t mention the party to me until that evening, when our plans abruptly changed. I had never heard Mom cry, but that night was the closest I came. She locked herself in the bedroom and told Paul and me to leave her alone. We held our breath as we pressed our ears against the door. She called Pauline, and in a low, faltering voice, told her that Dad had just been called away to Guam. She said it must have been a serious emergency to send him away on Christmas Eve. She didn’t want to spend the evening at home without Dad and asked if the three of us could go to the party.
Mom always cared about making the right impression. That night, she was especially insistent. She drilled Paul and me on what to say and what not to say, how to behave and how not to behave, as if we’d never spent a holiday with the family before.
Honestly, Paul and I could have slurped our punch and wiped our noses on our sleeves. Nobody would have cared. All they wanted was to make us feel better. Don got down on the floor with Paul to show him the electric train he set up around the tree. Pauline pushed hors d’oeuvres on Mom and me. Cousin Terry’s eyes filled with tears as she listened to Mom talk about Dad’s unexpected trip. My normally raucous family was so subdued I felt guilty that I really didn’t miss Dad. I wondered if Paul felt the same.
We’d been in the apartment about 20 minutes when a knock came on the door. Pauline wasn’t expecting any more guests. She peered through the peephole and then smiled as she opened the door. In walked our salvation from gloom. Suddenly, everyone was yelling. “Look, it’s Santa.” “Hi Santa.” “Merry Christmas.”
Santa obliged with three or four rounds of “ho, ho, ho.” Beyond that, he seemed at a loss for words. The guy clearly was no pro. Of course, nobody else in my family noticed; they were all too busy shouting. It took them a couple minutes to quiet down. Pauline had assumed Santa must be the landlord. Now she wasn’t so sure. Her smile disappeared as the stranger behind the white beard took a couple steps closer to all of us.
Aunt Rachel finally broke the awkward silence. Something about Santa looked a little too familiar. Maybe it was the thin, runner’s build a pillow couldn’t hide. Maybe it was the Buddy Holly glasses. Most likely, it was the long, aquiline nose. Aunt Rachel jumped up from her seat, or came as close to jumping as a 250-pound woman can, and yelled, “It’s Prime.”
Uncle Normand’s jaw dropped. Don looked dazed. Cousin Terry realized immediately that Aunt Rachel was right and exactly who had come up with this hoax. She pounded her fists into Mom’s shoulders shrieking, “You, you, you…” As for myself, I was just relieved to end the sad-sack act.
For years after that memorable night, someone in the family would host a gathering on Christmas Eve. They all knew that no matter how hard Mom worked that week, she would come. Dad would too, as himself.