As a child, I always associated Santa with my father. Pop, being a pretty big guy, seemed the right general size and shape for Santa. The right amount of strength to lift those heft bags of presents. But, the way I saw it, Santa had to have some of my Grandfather Briegel thrown in somewhere. My Grandfather was older, first of all, as Santa was likely to be. He was a character, and he tended to smell a lot like the beer we'd leave out for Santa on Christmas Eve, along with some cookies and a carrot for the reindeer. Given that the beer was empty every Christmas morning, I knew I had Santa's scent pegged. So there he was in my mind, a weird chimera of my Dad and Grandpop Briegel.
Aside from the gifts under our tree, there was little actual physical evidence of Santa save for a handful of scrawled letters thanking us for the beer and cookies that my older sisters insisted were written by my left-handed father using his right hand. Because the FBI was too busy dealing with more important things, and our own handwriting tests were inconclusive, there was never any real proof of the jolly, old elf's existence. Except one year. A year that will live on in infamy.
That year, there was snow on the ground — a rarity for Christmases in Morrisville, Pennsylvania — and my father made a point of opening the front door so we could take in what was likely our first white Christmas. The front door of our house looked out onto a small porch, and sitting there on that small porch were boot prints, sled prints, and a pile of feces. Now, I must confess that I can't be sure about the boot prints being there, or the sled prints. I find that my mind often fills in blanks, or augments stories from time to time. It is entirely possible that the boot prints and sled prints weren't there, or were from a different Christmas, entirely. But I do know for certain that there was poop on our front porch.
My father, upon seeing his besmirched porch began ranting and raving about Santa's reindeer relieving themselves on his property. He cussed Santa and vowed revenge, promising to greet Santa next year with a shotgun! His theatrics sold the ruse, and that Christmas is one that none of us will ever forget.
I admit to you, dear reader, that it was a fraud. A fake. What had actually happened was that one of the neighborhood cats had gone to the bathroom on the front porch, and not being junior woodsmen, my sisters and I could not tell the difference between cat and reindeer scat. Knowing about the poo, my Dad used it to sell the magic of Christmas and the existence of Sana to his children. So, it would seem to me that my association between my Dad and Santa Claus was more astute than I could have guessed at that young age.
But there is more to this story that I don't wish to burden everyone with, for it is sad. If you want your happy Christmas story, stop reading now and enjoy your holiday. Otherwise, read on.
You see, I associate the cats in our neighborhood with two of our neighbors. Mrs. Liwacz and Mrs. Phillips. At this point, I want to focus on Mrs. Phillips. Mrs. Phillips lived across the street from us. Her daughters and my sisters grew up together. She was the keeper of the spare key to our house. She was a good friend to my parents, and she was kind of a backup Mom. In case of emergency, break glass and Mrs. Phillips would be there to tell you if the cut you got from breaking said glass required stitches. She was good people.
Mrs. Phillips passed away a few days ago after battling cancer. I've been trying to find a way to mention her without shoehorning her into some unrelated post. Christmas with the cat crap on our front porch was my way in and I kind of think Mrs. Phillips would have appreciated that. It may have been her cat, it may not have been. Either way, the association is there.
It was also on this porch that Mrs. Phillips and my Mom would spend long summer evenings with wine glasses in hand, talking and laughing, a bottle of Carlo Rossi sitting between them. I think of their laughter in the still, humid air and I smile.
Outside it is cold. Once again, there is snow on the ground. I am a long way from where her memorial service will be held, my heart aches and I wonder who will be my backup Mom, now? Still, she is at peace. She is at rest.
Merry Christmas, Mrs. Phillips.
Merry Christmas to you all.