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Kathryn McCullough Headshot

Redemption in a Santa Suit

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Our dad taught us early on that the Godfather and Daddy Warbucks have a lot in common.

White-haired and handsome, my father was a bookie with organized crime connections. Though several grand juries had indicted him, and the FBI had raided our home a number of times, according to us kids, federal agents were the real evil. It's true, Daddy had a door whose top had been hollowed out and lined with tin -- the same size needed to hold the folded papers on which he recorded in carefully drawn columns the bets his clients called in, who had placed how much on which games. But this didn't concern us much. Our lives revolved more around Lego and Lincoln Logs than search warrants and wiretaps.

Still, come December, Dad made up for these legal liabilities, for what my siblings and I imagined were minor infractions.

Sure, he gave gifts throughout the year -- World Series tickets to my sister when she turned ten, for example.

But Christmas morning was Daddy's center stage. There, with one wardrobe adjustment, he morphed, red-suited, into wise guy among wise men. A Savior who Jesus-ed us with gifts and trips, he would have outfitted himself in elf couture, if that's what the occasion called for. I'm convinced of it. He was Superman in a Santa suit -- at least in our minds.

You see, my father didn't stuff our stockings with apples and oranges, underwear and socks, but with destination gifts, the most amazing vacations -- one year Mexico -- another, a Caribbean cruise. He made sure our stockings bulged bigger and sagged deeper than any others in the neighborhood, in all of Pittsburgh, for that matter.

One Christmas morning, he'd already showered us with Barbie dolls and Tonka trucks, GI Joes and Easy Bake Ovens. But pj-ed and pony-tailed in a roomful of presents, we knew the best was yet to come. It was time for Daddy's annual encore, his curtain call, if you will. He'd lined the four of us up, oldest to youngest, on an orange couch in the living room, our stocking feet twisting, little fingers twitching -- so hard to sit still -- so much anticipation.

"Are you ready? Dad rubbed his hands together, drawing out the moment, making us wait longer. We held our breath as he approached the stereo, positioning the needle on a song he'd preselected. The record played clue number one.

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.

"New York," we squealed. "We're going to New York City!"

"Are you sure?" he tried to throw us off, get us to second-guess ourselves.
"Yes, yes," we insisted.

"I don't know," he said. "Listen." And again he set the needle down -- this time on clue number two.

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!

This was the ironic twist we never understood as kids. It was a hard life we led in legal terms, but not always, and not forever. My father's joke to himself and Mommy, I imagine.

But then he finally confessed the destination.

"Okay. You're too smart for me," he said. "You guessed! We're going to New York City."
With that he turned and picked up tickets from the mantle, fanning them in his hand like playing cards, the theater's royal flush.

"We're going to the Big Apple, so we can see 'Annie' on Broadway."

We hooted. We hollered, high-fiving one another as only happy kids can, my 3-year-old brother still wondering what apples had to do with anything.

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

Our father 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 three.

The sun'll come out
Tomorrow.
Bet your bottom dollar
That tomorrow
They'll be sun.

"Tomorrow!" We screamed -- up off the couch. "We're going tomorrow?" This was too good to be true.

Then as the music continued, he turned to Mommy -- gesturing simultaneously toward the pj-ed peanut gallery.

"The tickets, please." And she placed the confirmation in each of our hands--airline tickets. And the date -- December 26.

"You better get packing!"

So, we packed every year. That is, until my dad died in 1981, too young, too soon.
After that -- no Christmas passports, no ports of call.

It's been more than 30 years now since Daddy passed -- no curtain call.

And I wonder sometimes what he does these days on December 25. I don't know if Broadway musicals play a place like heaven in the end -- if that's their final run. But if they do, I bet my father has orchestra seats. I bet he's hanging out in bookie paradise, a promised land of legalized gambling, perpetual ESPN, and the best Broadway has to offer.

What's your best Christmas memory?


Kathryn blogs at "reinventing the event horizon," where an earlier version of this post appears. She's, also, writing a memoir, whose working title is "Kids Make the Best Bookies," about growing up in an organized crime family. She is currently seeking representation.

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