Bad Irish Santa
“He has charm, that Dad of yours,” a nice, smiling old lady told me one day after Mass. We stood on the steps of Sacred Heart Church and my father, at six feet, four inches, towered above a group of grown-ups who laughed at one of his stories. I remember this day chiefly because he had slipped into an Irish brogue that was, since he was born and brought up in Sacramento, entirely synthetic. This was the day one of his listeners, a priest, asked him to play Santa Claus at the St. Patrick’s Home Christmas party.
At home I told my mother that a lady said Daddy had charm.
“Was she young or old?” my mother said.
“Really old, and she was going to have a baby pretty soon.”
My mother’s laugh was delicious and came from her deepest being.
St. Patrick’s home was an orphanage, run by the Sisters of Mercy. My mother said it was a place for children who had no parents or whose parents were too poor to care for them. My sister Kathleen and I, the two eldest, knew what orphans were but didn’t like the idea. It was scary to think of being cast early into the world. Little Orphan Annie in the comics was a spirited girl who always had heartwarming adventures, but that was small comfort when you placed it alongside No Mom, No Dad, no Sisters and little Brothers, no Grandpa, no Aunt Mae, no Aunt Marie, nobody.
Our father thought it would be a good idea for Kathleen and me to accompany him when he went to the Home. He explained that he would be helping the real Santa, and we could help him help Real Santa by passing out gifts to the orphans. I don’t remember if I still believed in Santa or not, but was fascinated and alarmed by the prospect of seeing real orphans. “I’m going to be soooo nice,” I told Kathleen. “I’m going to be sooo, soooo, soooooo nice,” she answered.
The night of the party was foggy. Our father carefully backed the station wagon with the wood sides out of the driveway, and told us to look alert. The fog was exciting and it was fun to see the gray, moving mist envelope the houses on 42nd and D. Kathleen and I wore coats with matching mittens. “Be careful in this fog, Mike,” our mother said to our father, and she kissed us and said we were to remember our manners.
When we got to the Home I looked in vain to see if orphans peeked longingly out any windows. But it was too foggy to tell. A priest came to meet us and we went to his office. The priest said, “What pretty little girls, and I’ll bet they’re good, too.” He gave us the kind of chewy peppermint candies that dissolve in your mouth. Then he poured a whisky for our father and himself. This priest was a real Irishman with a real brogue, and he and our father hit it off. More whiskeys were poured. Our father, often jovial, was now excessively jolly and spoke in a brogue as thick and authentic sounding as that of the priest.
Finally he left to change into his Santa suit and the priest led us into a room filled with chattering kids. It was a large, carpeted foyer and a tall, decorated Christmas tree sparkled in a corner. There they were—the orphans, standing around or sitting in folding chairs. They looked completely ordinary. They didn’t look sad or hungry or have big haunted eyes. In the beginning Kathleen and I stayed close together, and I felt nervous. We were the whole children, with two whole parents, with sisters and brothers all living in the same house, and these orphans looked just like us. So maybe it could happen to anybody.
Sisters of Mercy glided about in their long black habits with trays of cookies and orange slices, Santa Claus is Coming to Town played on a phonograph somewhere. One of the sisters came through the door, clapped her hands, and everybody quieted down. “I think I hear something,” she said, and we all listened and heard a chinking of bells from the other room. “I do believe that Santa’s here,” she said, and opened the door. Our father burst through, a bulging canvass sack on his back. Adroit padding had expanded his middle to a believable fatness, and he shouted, “Ho Ho Ho, where are the good little children?”
The younger kids squealed, “Here, Santa, here,” and the older orphans laughed and clapped. “Now where’s me wee helpers?” Santa bellowed and Kathleen and I realized that the brogue had come to stay. This happened sometimes.
The presents were marked with a B or G for boy or girl, and the first batch were for the smallest kids. Kathleen and I helped the Sisters of Mercy to pass them out. When it came to presents for the older kids, I handed one to a boy about my age. “Thank you,” he said, looking right at me.
I answered, “Thank you,” because I couldn’t think what else to say to an orphan.
It was a good party, and the priest, now fondly called “Father Don,” and “Father Donnie Boy,” by Santa, brought Santa more drinks in a brown coffee mug. Santa asked a nervous, shy little girl, “What is furry and has four paws and will bark when it grows up?” and when she said, “A puppy?” he made everybody clap for her and said to the nuns, “Ye’ve done good work with this one, Sisters,” and even the nuns clapped and laughed. The girl grinned and looked like she shone from within.
The party ran long, but eventually the Sisters led the orphans away, our father changed clothes and Father Don walked us to the car. We could hardly find it in the fog. Kathleen and I got in the back seat. Our father told me to look to the right, Kathleen to the left, and if we saw any car lights coming through the fog to scream, Daddy, stop! It took him a long time to get the heater on. He drove so slowly it felt like the car inched down the street. “Bastard fog,” he muttered at one point, but then the brogue returned. I stared fiercely at the fog, ready to shout if I saw car lights. But I wasn’t really all that frightened. Santa was driving.