One Christmas long ago my Appalachian father, Ralph, took his revolver, climbed on the roof, shot once into the woods, came back in and said, “Sorry folks, but looks like old Santa just committed suicide.”
It was a real hoot. The whole family got it. I was a kid, but didn’t believe in Santa Claus by then, so, no love-loss there. The joke had roots; and we were still very close to those roots.
As a boy, I didn’t know that we were poor. I ate a full meal every night. Dad built our house. It was a simple construction. It creaked in places. The electrical work wasn’t the best. But it held up. When it came to food, clothes, and a roof over our heads, there was stability.
But they struggled. Dad was born in the sharecropping world, where children ate tobacco leaves to hold off the hunger. His last job was in the coal mines. When I was a kid, he had long stretches of unemployment. He found construction work in a town three hundred miles away, and was gone between my third and seventh years. He is, whenever I recollect childhood, a vague image, the outline of a man in a fog.
Our Christmases were desultory. My mother tried. We got gifts. But a pall of sadness lay over us during the holidays. Part of it was the family illness, how it turned south during the winter, for us all. Dad suffered from depression and turned to alcohol to quell it, so the bottle played a role in the holiday.
I remember gifts and good meals. But mostly, I remember the anger, one that ripped through our fabric and turned Christmas into a cancerous thing in my adult mind. Christmas meant spending money that we didn’t have. That’s a hell of a stress on parents. Add to that manic depression and alcoholism, and you’ve got the makings of one crappy holiday.
So, the image of Santa Clause landing his sleigh on our house, dropping his head onto his chest in exhaustion and depression, then rummaging in his bag of toys for a pistol, really put us on a roll. In that moment, my father stepped out of the fog. I saw him completely, sat on his lap, smelled his Old Spice cologne and coffee breath, and relaxed in his sobriety, when he told the best tales.