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.
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.
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.
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.
“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:
I go years without you
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
“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
We get tricked
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
Bet your bottom dollar
There’ll be sun!
Just thinkin’ about
“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.
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.