It was Christmas morning 1978, and I was at the grandparents on my fathers side for this one, they were in my life even though he wasn’t, carrying the guilt that their deadbeat son was wishing away with alcohol somewhere in the midwest. I didn’t mind too much though, I got spoiled rotten for these abandonment issues.
It was still dark when I woke up, and I was still young enough to hope to catch Santa eating the cookies I had left out the night before. I creaked down the spicy mustard colored carpet that lined the narrow and chilly hall, shuffling my Winnie the pooh footy pajamas, and waking up my grandparents. Fuck, Santa was gone, and didn’t even eat all the cookies… I wondered if he didn’t like them, and immediately started to worry about gifts being affected because of shitty Foodtown cookies.
Grandma sat at the kitchen table, lighting up a Marlboro Gold 100, while Grandpa brought me a present from under the tree in the living room. It was a small box wrapped in shiny gold paper, with a green and red plaid bow tied around it, I flipped open the tiny card taped to the box that said, “Open Me First!"
I remember thinking how weird it was that the color of the wrapping paper and ribbon were an exact match to that shitty yellow rug and the plaid couch covered in plastic in the living room.
They watched me rip open the box, smiling nervously, Grandma looking over me with smoke rippling out of her nose like an old Italian dragon, while Grandpa patted his hands on his lap eagerly anticipating my reaction, while unknowingly dying of lung cancer.
I peeled away the gold paper like a Willie Wonka chocolate bar and saw the words “POLAROID” across the top of box. My eyes popped open like the sound of someone opening a can of Coke, and my mouth dropped so far that I almost got cigarette ashes on my tongue from the loaded ash tray on the kitchen table.
The card on the inside said "TO MY SON, LOVE DAD, I MISS YOU!!!”
Finally… finally, finally, finally, I could tell my mother what I had been hoping all along, that she was wrong. I knew my Dad wasn’t a drunk, deadbeat, douchebag, sperm doning, loser, fuckface, while she worked two jobs and went to night school to give me a better life. I knew she was wrong about my dad! Maybe the child support checks she never received were just going to the wrong address? Maybe he had the wrong number when he tried to call on my birthday every year… maybe…
I was more excited to get this shitty Polaroid camera from my father than I was about any gift I had ever gotten from anyone on any holiday ever before this.
I quickly changed out of my pajamas, and into my weird, brown, corduroy, church outfit. We took pictures to send to dad, wherever he might have been shoveling cow shit for beer money that month, and went to church. It was literally the best Christmas I had ever had.
It was now the summer after, and I had been wondering why he never called to say he got the pictures, or why I could never call him to thank him for my camera. My mom and I were walking through the mall and passed a shoe store, she started snickering and said, “Hey, you wanna see your father?" and low and behold, there he was… in a cheap blazer, down on one knee, measuring some old man's foot, just like Al Bundy.
His face dropped when he turned his head and looked directly into my eyes. Mom rushed me out of the store, laughing the words she always had for him under her breath, I remember feeling empathy, anger, and embarrassment for him, this whole time I thought he was far away, but there he was. He had been in NJ all along.
I was well into my teens before I figured out that my grandparents had bought that camera themselves and signed my father's name on it.