The Mafia does Christmas (Daddy Warbucks Style)


My father may have been a criminal, but he was a generous one, at least—a mafia man who loved fun, loved to laugh, to give, to share his illegal gains with family and friends.  He was a big-hearted, handsome mobster, a good friend, a daddy who adored the kids who stood guard against the FBI on winter weekends.

True, he was indicted by a number of grand juries, convicted of conspiracy—but he possessed a sense of humor among the best and a generosity to be reckoned with.

His big heart was especially manifest at Christmas. 

Christmas was amazing even when I was little.

Yes, he gave gifts throughout the year—World Series tickets to Lynn when she turned ten.  Yes, he had a habit of making a special occasion out of even the most mundane of Mondays.

Yet, Christmas was his crème de la crème.  Then he reached the highest, shone the brightest, achieved the greatest feats of gift-giving this side of heaven itself.  He was Superman in a Santa suit.  Robin Hood outfitted in elf couture.

One year, he gave our mom a full-length mink coat; another Daddy decided to have a portrait “painted” of us kids for her. 

Daddy bought us matching outfits and tricked our mom into hemming Baby Tyce's overalls.

But, as with all things Daddy did, there was lots of planning, scheming, and secret-keeping involved—as each year my dad tied to out-do his gifts from the previous Christmas. 

Yet every Christmas I can remember Daddy also gave huge travel gifts to top off our morning of gift unwrapping and last-year-surpassing.  This was his encore performance, if you will, his curtain call. 

This part of the morning was especially well-staged and always included musical clues and chances to guess what the big gift might be. 

On Christmas morning of 1977*, the gifts had been opened.  Showered with Barbie dolls and Tonka trucks, GI Joes and Easy Bake Ovens, we sat pj-ed and pony-tailed in a roomful of gifts, piles of board games and building blocks. 

Kathy (holding baby brother Tyce), Susan, and Lynn (1973)

There we sat, stocking feet twisting, chubby, little-girl fingers twitching.  So hard to sit still.  So much anticipation.

It was time for Daddy’s annual encore.

Susan, Kathy, Tyce, Mom, and Lynn (1979)

“Are you ready?” he asked rubbing his hands together, drawing out the moment, making it last longer.  We held our breath as he approached the stereo, positioning the needle on the precise song he’d pre-selected .  He’d clearly spent time planning his presentation. The music played clue number 1:

NYC
I go years without you
Then I
Can’t get
Enough
Enough of the cab drivers answering back
In the language far from pure
Enough of frankfurters answering back
Brother, you know you’re in NYC
Too busy
Too crazy
Too hot
Too cold
Too late
I’m sold
Again
On NYC

“New York,” we squealed.  “We’re going to New York City.”

“Are you sure?”  He asked, trying to throw us off—get us to second guess ourselves.

“Yes, yes,” we insisted.

“I don’t know,” he said.  “Just listen.”  And again, he set the needle down—this time on clue number 2:

It’s the hard-knock life for us
It’s the hard-knock life for us

Steada treated,
We get tricked
 Steada kisses,
We get kicked
It’s the hard-knock life!

Got no folks to speak of, so
It’s the hard knock row we hoe
 Cotton blankets ..steada wool

Empty bellies ..steada full!
It’s the hard-knock life

 

This was the ironic twist we never quite understood as kids.  It was a hard life we led.  Daddy’s joke to himself, I’m sure.

But then he finally fessed up.  He confessed the destination.

“Okay.  You’re all too smart for me,” he said.  “You guessed—CORRECT!  We’re going to New York City.”

He turned and picked up tickets from the mantle, displaying them like a perfect hand, the theater’s royal flush—

“And we’re going to see Annie on Broadway.”

We hooted.  We hollered, high-fiving one another as only happy kids can.

“But when?”  Lynn squealed what we all wanted to know.

But Daddy silenced us—holding his index finger in the air—one moment please.

Again, Daddy approached the stereo.  Again, the music played.  This time clue number 3:

The sun’ll come out
Tomorrow
Bet your bottom dollar
That tomorrow
There’ll be sun!

Just thinkin’ about
Tomorrow

“Tomorrow!”  We screamed—up out of our seats.  “We’re going tomorrow?”  This was too good to be true—

Then, as the music continued, he turned to our mother—ceremonial gesture toward the pj-ed peanut gallery.

“The tickets, please.”  And Mom placed the confirmation in each of our hands—the airline tickets.  And the date—December 26th.

“You better get packing!”

And so it was packed each year—

Our stockings weren’t stuffed with apples and oranges, underwear or socks.  They packed larger punches, bulged bigger and sagged deeper with destination gifts and vacation elation—one year Mexico—another, a Caribbean cruise.

We may have watched for the FBI on Christmas Eve—sentries against the federal Scrooge who’d try to steal the special Daddy instilled in us.  And Christmas morning may have been produced and underwritten with mafia money, but it was also a Christmas choreographed and staged by a red-suited mobster who Santa-ed us with tickets and Jesus-ed us with trips.

My sister Susan, Daddy, and I (Christmas 1967)

Christ may have been the greatest gift ever given, but when we woke up on Christmas morning it was Daddy Warbucks who made it shine.

(* I believe the trip to New York City was in 1977, but it may have been ’78.) 

 If you are new to my blog, you might like to know that I’m writing a memoir about growing up in an organized crime family.  This post is one among many that explores that childhood.

41 thoughts on “The Mafia does Christmas (Daddy Warbucks Style)

  1. This is such a great post, full of details and of thoughtfulness. And, for the first time I realized something. His choice of career, his criminal ways, have both nothing and everything to do with the fact that he was actually a great dad. What do I mean? It seems to me that people who choose life in the mafia (from my outsiders perspective) do so for a few reasons 1) they get trapped by their own mistakes or 2) they really believe in the importance of family and don’t give a damn about what other people think of them. It seems to me that the Mafia itself is a big, very dysfunctional, somewhat dangerous, family. Your dad, it sounds like, was in ti because he was who he was, and he wanted to be able to give his family anything they could dream of. That’s pretty incredible.

    Another fabulous post Kathy. I am so jealous that you got to see Annie, live.

    Lisa

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    • Yeah, the original Broadway cast of Annie was amazing. Wish you could have seen it, too.

      Thanks for this reflection on what might have motivated my dad. And actually, I think you are RIGHT ON TARGET! Sometimes your ability to read people and situations amazes me, Lisa. What a gift! I was a good dad. Our family was HUGELY dysfunctional, but, gosh, he was fun, not to mention creative.

      Thanks for your insight, Lisa! Your reading always helps me so much!

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  2. It’s easy to look at the “misdeeds” of a person and forget that he is still capable of good. I love this line because it is exactly the awe and larger-than-life way I viewed my dad as a kid :”He was Superman in a Santa suit. Robin Hood outfitted in elf couture.” Awesome, awesome post, Kathy!

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  3. Your dad, despite his shortcomings, gave you one of the greatest gifts: Knowing for a fact that the man loved and adored you. Great post.

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  4. Your writing keeps getting better, Kathy – even your titles!

    The fact that your father was involved in organized crime does not diminish the love he felt for his children, or the joy his family brought to him – that much is obvious.

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  5. Kathy, the opening moments of NYC explain why your mom was madly and passionately in love with you dad.

    Btw, my fave pic of your parents is the one on a rooftop. Your mom leans her legs into his to touch him as though she can’t get enough of him. He’s got his arm around her, leg jutted out toward her. Their body language speaks volumes about their love.

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    • Fascinating. I didn’t see any of that until you mentioned it. But then you don’t notice those kinds of things about your own parents, I guess. But yes–about NYC. You are so, so right, my friend! Tell your mom I said hello and hug the cats for me. Good night, dear heart. Hugs to you, also———————-

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  6. Great post Kathy! It’s really clear to me how much fun your dad was and how much you love him … and what parent could ask for anything more? I’m sure that’s part of what motivated him to do some of the things he did.

    It may sound a bit odd, but I’ve gotten caught up watching Sons of Anarchy. I don’t watch because I like bikers or am OK with criminals, I watch because the writers have made the real story about a group of people who fiercely love their families and just happen to be bikers who are criminals. It strikes me that mob families are similar and (as Lisa so astutely pointed out) that what they do is only a very small part of who they are.

    People are complicated and you’re doing a wonderful job portraying the complexities of the people in your life. 🙂

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    • You have mentioned something here that thrils me to no end. Namely, that I am conveying the complexity of who my father was. He was so much more than one might think. I am delighted to actually succeed to some degree in sharing that. Thanks so much!

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  7. Really enjoyed this post Kathy, your father had a flair for drama! No wonder he was in the Mafia 😉
    I loved seeing the photos of your childhood, you were such a cute kid!
    And what an interesting past. Keep writing….

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  8. Hey, I’m from the south in a place known as Moonshine Capital of the world and birthplace of Nascar – required vehicular high speed engines when outrunning the revenuers. I’m not throwing stones. How many of us grow up without knowing someone who may have been a great person except for that one little ‘fill in the blank’. Your dad loved his family and showed it so that you felt it. I’ve known preachers who ignored theirs. Just saying.

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  9. Wow, the suspense and knowledge of something fun and mysterious, that you had to guess at, sounds like almost too much. I love the idea of musical hints! On another note, I can’t help but wonder whether your dad needed the love of his family more than he was able to otherwise express.

    Finally, I love dated photos for all kinds of reasons, but in this set, your slippers in the third photo are my favourite part! Almost every woman I knew had a pair or two when I was little.

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    • What a great comment, Rose. I was struck by the slippers, as well. Isn’t that a hoot? And I think you are on to something here. My dad needed the love of his family more than we might ever know and more than he knew how to articulate in any other way than this great, gift-gving behavior.

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  10. Wow– you had me feeling like a kid on Christmas morning, so excited to find out where *we* would be traveling to next! Great writing in this post, Kathy– the pace and the excitement/suspense work very effectively here.

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  11. It makes me think–again–that life is always a rainbow of colors. It’s just not one way, black and white. Your dad seemed to love you so much. He was in organized crime. It makes us wonder how we merge the different parts of ourself, make them palatable, understand them. We are all good and bad, made of Annie and Daddy Warbucks and what was the name of the evil ones running the orphanage and trying to cheat everyone? Yep, we’ve all got these inner characters inside us. Thanks, Kathy, for your memories.

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