There was no mistaking him for the late Sean Connery, of course. The snow-white cotton-candy beard. The quadruple-XL fireman-red jammies. A heavyweight with the taste for carbs, I presumed. A colossus whose laughter is matched only by the mammoth carry-alls he drags around at Christmastime.
The real Santa Claus—my Dad—was so rudely at odds with the imagined adaptation in picture books that, even as a kid, I hardly thought they were one and the same. The myth was nowhere near the glimmer of generosity all too common to my father, who was, biases aside, vigorously handsome, tall, argued with Nietzsche, and spent his evenings cussing the bejeesus out of Mr. Bean.
I can still recall the first time I bumped into dear old Santa one cold December evening. Or at least, the idea of Santa Claus. I was eight, alarmingly curious and such a nuisance. I asked my Mom what the socks were for, those cute little furry feet warmers with long-horned reindeers hanging on the wall like bathroom spiders.
Busy with the Christmas dinner, she explained that those were little “mailboxes” where Mr. Claus would leave his gifts for me. I remember asking why they were so small, much too small, in fact, to fit my dream toy: a Tonka frontloader.
“I’m too old to have just a handful of candies for Christmas, Mom” I defiantly said. My Mom simply patted my head and went on with chopping the onions.
I ran up to my room and sulked the rest of the day. I couldn’t get over the thought that Santa was this stingy old fella who’d probably finish all the candies even before he arrives at our doorsteps. “No wonder he’s overweight,” I snoozed with an eye roll.
I crashed into bed shortly after dinner hoping to skip the hour when Santa would arrive. Little did I know that, by half-past midnight, my Mom and Dad harried to place the gifts under the Christmas tree. I peeked because the noise got the better of me. There I saw them kiss for the first time on the lips. A long, wet kiss.
Thus, come morning, I wasn’t all that surprised to find this huge box with a blue ribbon ‘round it. My dad, with his huge smile, lost no time telling me to open it. As I ripped off the wrappings, I saw that it was a Tonka frontloader. Thought bubble: how could he have guessed?
Something else, however, was in the box. A hardbound Oxford Dictionary. My Dad pulled it out of the box and said, “Anak, this is for you.” He flipped the first few pages. “Each week, I want you to write me a one-page essay on any topic. Just one page. I want you to read this dictionary and find two new words you can use for the essay. I will check the essay each Sunday of the week. If you do well, you will get a Tonka each Christmas.”
I would be hard pressed to describe the thrill I felt that day. I was as happy as a cat with a fresh mouse dangling in its jaws. I dropped the Tonka and kicked off my readings from the letter A. I remember seeing Acute, Acrimonious, Arcane. I couldn’t for the life of me pronounce those words, but for some unknown reason, I felt good seeing them printed on paper.
I want you to read this dictionary and find two new words you can use for the essay. I will check the essay each Sunday of the week. If you do well, you will get a Tonka each Christmas.
I did what my father had instructed. After school, I would rush to my room—we lived in a small rundown apartment in Naga City—and picked two words from the Oxford. I then used the two words in the essay, which told of my day in school or the street where I used to play with my friends. Whenever I’m bogged down by a word or line, I ran to my Mom for help.
No sooner than I started, I was writing three-to-four essays each week.
The exercise was short-lived. On the eve of my ninth birthday, my Dad left my Mom and me, never to return for the next 25 years. I spent my birthday crouched in a corner of the living room, Oxford on my lap, sad as a Tonka toy without its wheels.
I was told only a decade later that he went on exile on the eve of the declaration of martial law. Little did it occur to me that my father—my handsome, larger-than-life, unstinting Santa Claus—was a wanted man by a tyrannical regime.
Those relatively short and wistful days, binging on Oxford, shaped what to me had become the bedrock of a writing life spanning a little over 30 years.
And I owe it all to that one night when I saw Mom kissing Santa Claus.