My father must have bought the cheapest Santa costume he could find. He’s frugal, never cheap, but this getup broke the rule. Maybe the Santa costumes with luxuriant white whiskers curling halfway to the floor and plush red jackets cinched by real leather belts were just way out of his price range. The original beard wasn’t so bad, but my father loaned it to another Santa in need, and a rogue Rudolph, unfortunately, ate it. The thin feathery replacement did not offer much of a disguise, especially with the elastic tucked behind his ears like the temples of his wire-rimmed reading glasses. I was in college when this elaborate game of dress-up began, so it wasn’t for my benefit. I played along for my little cousins, his great-nieces and great-nephews, as I examined the rather svelte Santa before me.
Santa’s face mirrored my own, though he had a broader nose, some pockmarks scattered across his face like a light dusting of freckles, and a mustache that had not budged since the late 1960s. From at least the time I primped for my senior prom, I routinely paid a trained and licensed aesthetician to wax off any vestige of hair growing above my lip, thank you very much. But the deep dimple in his chin, the cheeks that crinkled whenever a wisecrack passed through his thin lips, were all reflected in his daughter’s face.
“Ho ho ho!” he huffed, each syllable as staccato as the sound of the elevated subway cars rolling through the Brooklyn of his youth. Santa climbed the short staircase of our split-level family home in New Jersey, the Garden State, an hour’s drive and a world away from those streets.
As I watched Santa at Christmases over the years, I shuddered to think how he and my mother had paid for that house. For seven years, we had lived rent-free in my grandmother’s townhouse in Staten Island, the New York City borough packed tighter than a tray of eggplant rollatini. My parents sweated and saved, sweated and saved for the down payment. They labored in such a manner because that’s what you do in the dry-cleaning business. Customers would drop off hundreds of dollars’ worth of clothes at the stores my parents once owned with a business partner, who sat out of the way of the pressing machines that blasted steam on even the hottest summer days. The parade of well-heeled professionals would sift through the mounds of suits and slacks, pointing out the stains that my father would make disappear like a magician.
Some customers, invariably the wealthier customers, could not be satisfied. They tried to haggle over the button-down shirts that my father charged only 99 cents to spot and launder and press. He would abandon his signature charm for his signature edge in such scenarios. Curled up in a laundry basket on wheels as a little girl, or curled up with a book far, far away once I could no longer fit inside the cozy canvas space, I avoided these spectacles. I imagined my father sounded much like a young, angry Robert De Niro. “You talkin’ to me?” he would have ranted, searching the clean white collars for nonexistent stains.
My mother, the conciliator, would take over whenever the Brooklyn in “Brooklyn Tommy” came out swinging. She helped the more difficult customers carry half their wardrobes to the BMWs and Benzes that returned to houses not far from our own. By 2000, my parents and their business partner had sold all but the last New Jersey store, a fifteen-minute drive from our house and even closer to my middle school and high school. I was left to ponder what the proximity could mean. Did the BMWs and Benzes that filled those driveways and parking lots belong to some of the same customers? Of course, there were plenty of perfectly nice folks who gave my parents their business. It’s just hard to shake the stories of the customers who climbed into their air-conditioned cars as my father withdrew, and my mother advanced. Long plastic garment bags stuck to her moist arm. Wire hangers cut into her chapped hands like sickles through a field of unyielding grasses. Still, she rarely complained as Brooklyn Tommy kept to the back of the store for twelve hours a day, an upgrade from the sixteen-hour shifts he used to work before we moved to New Jersey. He always sent my mother home to me much earlier.
Growing up, I wondered if my parents, particularly my father, would ever get ahead. I wanted more for him than what he struggled to provide. There was always food on the table, but dining out was a real treat, even if it was at the usual pizza joint again. My father nevertheless tipped well after relishing the moozadell-mottled crust of a brick-oven pie. Double the tax, he would say, handing me the check to see if it amounted to a respectable sum. If it didn’t quite reach 20 percent, I would bump up the figure to get there.
Maybe people with a few extra dollars held onto it. They earned the right to pinch their pennies, after all. But there was something to be said about my father’s willingness to share his modest means. Such acts of generosity were never more on display than at weddings in the greater New York area. No self-respecting brother or cousin or paisan would ever give a gift from the registry at a wedding. The registry provided a selection of tasteful kitchenware and bedding for the engagement party and the bridal shower, for the events leading up to the big day. The wedding called for a more extravagant scene straight out of Goodfellas: a bunch of Italians stuffing their faces with cannoli and stuffing envelopes with a big fat check or cold hard cash into a gaudy money box on display for the occasion. Luckily, enough guests gave cash instead of checks at my parents’ wedding because that was how they paid the balance on that special night more than thirty years ago, counting bills in the back room of the banquet hall in all their finery.
Decades later, as Santa Claus, my father paid it forward the best he could. He commandeered the cream upholstered chair next to the Christmas tree, surrounded by the wise men of the Costco nativity and a festive miniature train set that certainly didn’t puff past the manger in the little town of Bethlehem. These were not the only anachronisms. The costume did not come with a rucksack for presents, so he had to make do. One year, he pulled gift after gift from tall kitchen garbage bags as the under-six crowd observed him with skepticism.
The small faces could not be fooled. The black-brown mustache poking through the beard, the gold chain buried under layers of red felt, were dead giveaways for Brooklyn Tommy. Maybe my father could have sold himself better as Guido, Santa’s Italian-American elf. Even the children who still sucked their thumbs raw recognized the jolly charade, especially since the underlying holiday required a suspension of long-held religious beliefs. On Christmas Day, my parents hosted the Jewish branch of the family tree, and so Uncle Tommy as Santa Claus raised the stakes on the myth. My older cousins had slipped presents to Santa for the younger ones, fully embracing the holiday. Well, almost. The blue paper was emblazoned with white letters, over and over: “Happy Hanukkah!” The experience might become fodder for therapy in a decade or two, but it beat Chinese food and a movie. Who could resist the heaping, steaming plates of Tommy’s homemade lasagna, a mere appetizer before the main meal even emerged from the kitchen? Or Tommy’s homemade struffoli, popcorn-sized balls of deep-fried dough drenched in honey and sprinkled with toasted almonds? Forget Santa Claus. Tommy’s skills would put the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker to shame.
Santa creaked under the weight of my towering cousin Craig and his son, the only little boy of the bunch; he asked the little girls if they had been good. Then he opened his lap for Mrs. Claus. Behind every good man, there is a good woman. No exceptions here. My mother had helped Santa get dressed in the unfinished basement, tugging the red jacket into place as a wife would firmly knot her husband’s tie before he left for another day at the office. But my father’s not that kind of man. My father only wore ties to weddings and funerals.
At the drycleaners, my father wore tee shirts and jeans, tee shirts and cutoffs, depending on the season. Spring breaks and summer vacations were unheard of. We didn’t do vacations. We did work, my father at the cleaners and me with my books so I wouldn’t end up with a job I had no choice but to endure. I no longer believed in fairy tales when my parents tried to create their own, taking up a friend’s offer to let us borrow his timeshare near Disney World when I was eleven or twelve years old. It marked the first and only family vacation of my formative years. Still, the magic took hold as we boarded a flight in the cold and landed a few hours and a tropical playground away.
“I can’t believe we’re here!” I said as we stood in line for a ride. We had never been to an amusement park in the middle of a weekday. We all must have repeated our good fortune, clinging to us like the moisture that accumulated on the skin in the damp Florida air.
The couple behind us seemed perplexed at the sight of our incredulous little family.
“Excuse me. Did you win this trip?” the husband or the wife asked.
“No,” my father answered.
No. He had just worked for it. Mornings, nights, weekends. That lesson was the memory, the souvenir I packed away, not the sight of Cinderella Castle or the feel of my stomach twisting inside Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. I unpacked it every Christmas when my father dressed up as Santa Claus and deepened his voice to approximate what Santa Claus must sound like. He must sound as old as time, wind-whipped and hoarse.
Shouldering the weight of the world, the family, will do that to a man.
So will owing a debt to another man. My parents could only invest so much money upfront in the dry-cleaning business. Their partner had the money, and he had a little cubby in the back of one of the stores. He did not hunch over the pressing machine like my father. He did not scrub the rings of perspiration out of other people’s shirts. Instead he sat at the desk in his cubby under a picture that I had drawn for him as a little girl. I think our crayon doppelgangers held hands. Childlike handwriting definitely proclaimed that he and I were “best friends.” What did I know?
Nothing. I knew nothing then, nothing of how much my father paid to this man in sweat and chemicals for some fifteen years. Finally my father left the fourth and last store in New Jersey with the knowledge that debt is a trap. Any debt. To him there would be no difference between owing a friend a twenty and paying down a car loan. He would always grab for the check on those pizza nights with family or friends, and he would never skimp on some fried gahlemad, or calamari, to start. He would never owe nothing to nobody again.
What was worse for my father at the drycleaners, the dead of winter or the deadly summer? The winter brought no work. Customers hibernated under the wool sweaters he had cleaned for them before the start of the season. The partner kept the business afloat. For what? My parents would not draw a full paycheck for a week. Two weeks. At least in the summer, they both sweated until there was no doubt that they were alive, glistening like workhorses about to keel over from the heat but plodding onward, onward, onward. Only the man with the money retreated to greener pastures. Only the man with the money sat at his desk.
My father was nowhere near as relaxed despite his upholstered perch. The remnants of holiday cheer littered the floor, and still he had more presents to deliver, more promises to fulfill. He squinted at the labels on the Hanukkah-themed wrapping paper.
“Santa forgot his glasses!” he said. “Someone help Santa read the names!”
Santa’s eyesight had waned, I supposed, as much from age as from the sting of chemicals powerful enough to vanquish oil splatters from silk dresses and wine stains from suit jackets. Then there were the fine wood particles that flew into the air and into his eyes from the blade of his table saw. After he left the dry-cleaning business, he gave home improvement work his best shot. The calls became less frequent as the economy worsened. Who would want to hire him to install crown moldings or French doors in a home that had dipped below market value? And so he found work teaching dry-cleaning in a vocational high school where at least the hallways were air-conditioned and the chemicals environmentally friendly. He continued to advertise his home improvement skills, finding work in other people’s houses whenever school let out. He built a two-tier deck in the middle of a July heat wave, sweating almost as much as he had in the back of the dry-cleaning stores. There seemed to be a surfeit of physically demanding ways to support our family.
Somewhere along the way, my father stopped believing in Santa Claus. He ceded his Santa duties to my cousin Adam, and thus commenced the dawn of the “Mazel Claus” era. Ho ho oy. Although I’m open to new interpretations, I still wish my father had some of jolly old Saint Nick left in him. That Santa cap softened any lines in his face. It hid the receding hairline, the graying remains. It’s not easy for me to relinquish this image, this ghost of Christmas past, this mythical man of unlimited means, unburdened by generosity. If I’ve learned anything from my father, I have to. There’s no going back. There’s only plodding onward, onward, onward for the ones you love.
Christine Grimaldi is a writer and former congressional reporter in Washington, D.C. She recently published a feature story in Slate on "straight spouses"—straight men and women who used to be married to gay partners—and has written essays on the language of sexual assault for DAME Magazine, schadenfreude for The Morning News, homesickness for Washingtonian.com, and the craft of writing for Talking Writing magazine.