It’s mid-December on a snowy Saturday, 1970-something, in Madison Wisconsin. My sister Valerie is home from boarding school. She’s blind, so I remind her that there is a Christmas tree in the corner of our small living room where the hi-fi normally is kept. Sometimes when she’s home we listen to audio books sent by the Lion’s Club. Together we have shared the Laura Ingalls Wilder catalogue, the Wizard of Oz and Charlotte’s Web. I keep hoping a Jacqueline Susann book will be sent by mistake.
Born very prematurely Valerie is a young 16. I’m an old 7 but I already know one thing. Nothing stops my sister. My dad named her for the valor she showed as a baby. Her will and determination to survive. She is kind, gentle and bossy as hell. An auto harp playing, hymn loving, miracle.
My dad isn’t drunk, but he’s not sober either. He’s in-between, like twilight. Poor dumb Don is with him.
Poor. Dumb. Don. That’s what I call my dad’s sidekick. Not a kind nickname to be sure. Nor is it apt. Don isn’t dumb. He’s weak. The nickname betrays Don’s sweetness. He’s a good guy, but desperate. He’ll lie or steal to feed his addiction, but that’s not his nature.
It’s the consequence of something much bigger. He can't help it.
My dad loves making children. Once they’re born, he doesn’t quite know what to do with them. My mother expects only the minimum, small things like taking the boys for a haircut. Instead my dad throws Don 5 bucks to play nanny. I come home with a David Cassidy shag and my father yells, “Jesus Christ Don, his hair is longer than before he went to the barber!”
So, Don loses a battle of wills to a 7-year old and suddenly there’s an excuse to drink. My dad joins him. Everybody wins. I just toss back my feathered hair and laugh at the folly of it all. Certain that when it’s in my control, life will begin to make sense.
This particular Saturday, Don and Dad are drinking whiskey in our half-finished rec room. I’m skating around framed in walls, monitoring the situation, when they decide Santa Claus should visit our house today. Evidently I'm also invisible as they're discussing Santa Claus in a manner no child should hear. No worries. As it turns out I never believed in Santa Claus. There were no illusions shattered.
Eventually a sweet, manic, booze filled plan is in place. Neighborhood kids are called over. Dad puts on a Christmas album, passes out some 15-cent half sized Nestle Crunch bars out and plays host in the living room.
I’m the only one looking out the kitchen window. I can see the wobbly wooden ladder normally kept on the rack of my dad’s Badger edition Ford pick-up, propped up against the house.
Poor dumb, drunken Don dressed in a Santa costume is climbing up the ladder. He makes a big show of stomping across the roof.
Laurie, Julie, Cindy & Jim and all the others track the footsteps and follow my dad to the picture window. They’re just in time to see Don slip off our roof. His fall is broken by a springy pine tree and a forever since that day dented aluminum awning. He lands on a mattress of shrubs just before a pile of built up snow lands on his head.
Don brushes himself off, straightens his beard and heads to the front door which my father answers. Like the rest of us he knows to narrate the action for Valerie’s sake. “Look kids. It’s Santy Claus!”
Somehow those two sweet guys have little presents for all the kids. I get a Buster Brown shoehorn. My little brother gets a toy truck that I’m pretty sure is already his. I don’t remember Valerie’s gift, but I can still see her normally closed eyes growing wide, hugging Santa Claus, her finger eyes running through his beard. Her voice filled with wonder.
It’s a special moment designed by 2 guys from whom the world doesn’t expect all that much. Somewhere there’s a polaroid picture of all us kids standing next to that blood shot, bruised, 2nd hand smoke meets Canadian Club infused Santa.
Lost to the ages just like Don and my dad.
That night when it’s time for bed my mom says, “What a day. Meeting Santa Claus!” I notice Valerie pondering her reaction. In the end sharing a secret, the classic sibling conspiracy, wins out.
Valerie’s head cranes to make sure the grown-ups are out of earshot and then whispers, “Greg, you know that was Don, right?”
And suddenly the story has another unexpected hero.