Every year my father donned his Santa Claus outfit and headed out. First he visited the small children in our home. Next he went to the neighbors, and finally he delivered cookies and gifts my mother had made to widows and shutins. One year a woman called the house saying she heard the knock, saw the gifts and then saw Santa Claus disappearing around the back of her house. For a minute she almost believed.
That accomplished, he came home and started the turkey with his famous oyster dressing. He never went to bed before 4 AM on Christmas Eve and was always up early Christmas day with his camera or video camera on. He was on some kind of Christmas high at Christmas.
But he didn’t stop at Christmas. He didn’t wear the suit but he was still Santa Claus. He bought things by the dozen (they’re cheaper that way) and then gave half away. Hair dryers, electric shavers. He shared everything, even his home.
We always had extra people living in our house. Usually troubled teenagers since he had a special rapport with them.
When I was 18 and off to college, he bought an old farm house on 40 acres and moved the family out to farm country in NJ. He wanted a place for my five younger brothers who were becoming teenagers to have a place to run and to work hard. He put an old construction trailer on part of the site and put an extra family in there, turned a small shed into a charming two room cottage and put an older couple in there and still stuck a couple extra teenagers in the house. So much for my sister’s hope for a bedroom to herself.
We often set the table for 20 for meals. There were always friends visiting or workmen working on part of the house as he renovated it.
It was the same way everywhere we were. For years we spent our summers in Nova Scotia. He’d buy 2-3 dozen lobsters at a time, build a huge fire outside and use this monster cauldron to cook them. Then invite the neighbors over for a feast. I thought that was how everyone ate lobster. The first time I saw the price of lobster in a restaurant.. and then found out they only served the tail which I didn’t even think was the best part, I was stunned.
While my dad was cooking lobster, my mother was doing all the rest of the meal, organizing the children to set the table, clean the house, and be polite. We used benches at our table so we could always squeeze in one more person.
Back in NJ, he turned part of the 40 acres into a baseball field complete with steel fenced backstop for the boys and then let the town leagues use it as well. He liked to buy fireworks and shoot them off. Huge, commercial size ones. The town said he could if he let them park a fire truck there. So he bought a used fire truck and invited the town to the fireworks.
True. We had a fire truck in our driveway for years. He gave little children rides in it just for the joy of it.
He and my mother served together. They made a good team. He saw needs, she cooked, and made calls and visited with him. He and my mother would be out driving together when he’d say, “Let’s stop in and see Neighbor Y” Invariably Neighbor Y was in some kind of need. Once they walked in on a single mother with 5 children. She had half a box of crackers in her cupboard and a small jar of peanut butter to feed all those children which included one 13 year old very hungry boy. They bought her bags of groceries, offered her a part time job with my father’s business, and helped her enrolled in school so she could learn some skills. People said he always just seemed to show up when they needed help.
He just liked to give. He loved people and life. He was one of those work hard, then play hard people. My grandmother said he wasn’t always like that. He contracted Lou Gehrigs disease when he was 32 and expected to die a slow, ugly death. The elders placed their hands on his head and promised him he would live to raise his children. There were five of us then, eventually 11 in all. And the disease stopped. He still had it but it stopped progressing.
Because of that disease, he lived with the thought of death daily. He began to live life to the fullest. To do everything he thought to do immediately. For him, there might not be a tomorrow to do it.
He lost the use of part of his hands and still had quite a bit of pain. That didn’t stop him from serving though. When he was 48 he developed a particularly virulent form of leukemia. At the time, the survival rate was about 5%. Most adults contracting this died within 6 months. Everyone who went to the clinic with my father did die. Since he’d made friends of them all, this was a hard time for him. Once again he was blessed that he would live to raise his children. My youngest sister was 3 at the time. The cancer went into remission. He lived but the fight cost him his business and his home. Still he had his Santa Claus suit and he’d always liked to travel anyway.
He worked in Alaska, Idaho Falls, Boise and Cincinnati making friends everywhere. He organized a lunchtime cribbage tournament, and had lobsters flown in from Maine. When my youngest sister turned 18, both the cancer and the Lou Gehrigs disease returned. He retired to the Shenandoah Valley.in Virginia.
We gathered in Shenandoah that last Christmas but instead of being Santa Claus and making oyster dressing, he went into the hospital. Christmas night my mom was leaving to visit him when I found her in the kitchen packing up cookies and cakes and filling a stocking. I said, “What are you doing? I thought you were going to see Dad.” She said, “I am. Your dad called and said his room mate has had nothing for Christmas. No visitors, no calls, no gifts. Your dad asked me to bring him some things.”
Even as he was dying my father was being Santa Claus.