This holiday season, I've felt my father's loss more than ever. So please accept this humble contribution to the magic that is all fathers as my gift to you for Christmas.
The perfect Christmas Eve.
The heavy slate clouds had finally let go their burden, sending fat snowflakes—legions of delicate white crystal angels—swirling crazy and silent on the twilight breeze.
In the department store window, a collection of phonograph records hung from strings of glittery garland and the Christmas tree lights reflected on the shiny black disks.
The record jackets, propped in rows among blankets of fake snow and more lights, caught Carmen’s attention. Especially one. Thomas Beecham Conducts Carmen.
“Daddy.” Carmen shoved her hands deep into her coat pockets and shuffled sideways on the sidewalk to nudge her father. “Tell me.”
Benny Franchino shot a gloved hand to the spotless glass to brace himself against his daughter’s playful shove. He tugged the brim of his fedora. “Tell you what, baby?”
How embarrassing, how silly, to want to hear the story again. He’d been telling her the same tale since she’d been a tiny tyke—probably before she even learned to talk. In fact, for years she probably never even understood the words at all.
She should have outgrown it by the time she reached her teens but she hadn’t. She never would. And here she was at twenty-five, still wanting, needing to hear the ridiculous tale. And the funny part? It was make-believe, purely fabricated in her father’s unending supply of tall fables. But Carmen didn’t care. It had been created for her and her alone. And it made her smile.
Pointing to the Carmen record cover, she sideswiped her father once more. Even to ask for the cockamamie story, as though she believed it, sent heat to her cheeks. She shifted her gaze to the sparkly flakes on the sidewalk. “My story. The Carmen story.”
“Ah.” Benny nodded. "You mean the story of how the opera Carmen got its name?"
It didn’t take much to get him into the heart and mindset to retell the absurdity.
Yes, make me three years old again. “Yes!”
“Oh, well….” Adjusting his hat once more, Benny glanced to the thick gray sky as though the words hid in its depths. “It happened, just as I’ve told you a million times….”
“The composer needed a name for his newest opera.”
“And…?” Oh, how terribly silly to even be listening to—much less asking to have it told—this outlandish fantasy.
“He came to me, Benito Franchino, because he'd seen your ma and me strolling with you in your carriage.”
Noting the smile, so lost in another world, on her father’s face, Carmen’s heart ached. A nice, beautiful ache, though. Could she possibly love him more than at this very minute? She thought not. How could her soul not swell to nearly bursting, seeing the reminiscing in his soft brown eyes, the contentment on his handsome face?
It wasn’t only the story she found so sweet. It was how he told it.
“Wait a minute.” Rearing back in mock disapproval, Benny narrowed his eyes. “Who’s telling this story? Me? Or you?”
Carmen slipped her hand into the crook of his arm. She nuzzled into the comforting wool of his overcoat. “You."
“Well, the composer proceeded to tell us he’d been inspired by the beautiful kid in the carriage.”
“Yeah. You.” Benny stopped, brushed flakes from the brim of his hat and continued walking. “Could he please ask your name, he said. A child so beautiful, he said, I gotta name my opera after her.”
Wanting to be a little child again, Carmen tucked her chin, fishing for the words she still loved to hear. “I was beautiful?”
“Ay-ay-ay.” Benny’s gaze rose to the gloomy sky again. Was it a habit or did he really see answers there? “You were the most beautiful kid in the world.” He draped his arm about her shoulders, drawing her nearer. “You are beautiful, bambina.”
That rushed the warmth to her cheeks once more. Not embarrassed but pleased. “And so the opera composer…?”
“Oh, yeah, him!” He held up a finger. “Well, I put up a fight, of course. You know me.”
Benito Franchino, former middle weight boxer. His career may have been over, but the fire, the intensity, in his soul burned just as bright as ever.
“Your ma begged me to reconsider. You know she always saw a future as a singer for you.”
“And she’d be so happy, baby, to hear about your contract with The Met.”
“Are you happy about it?”
Her father stopped so abruptly, a tiny avalanche of snowy dust drifted from the brim of his hat. “Am I happy? Am I happy?” There went his stare, squinting to the heavens, then returning to her. “I’m so goddamn hap—” At Carmen’s surprised gasp, he grimaced. “Sorry about the language....” He made a sign of the cross. “I’m so happy. Oh, baby, if I could only shout to the world just how happy I am.”
Carmen’s throat tightened. Tears were soon behind and she swallowed past the constriction to fend them off. “I’m glad, Daddy.”
Too tough—as always—to get caught in the sappiness of the moment, Benny cleared his throat and shot out his cuffs. “So this opera fellow….”
“Yes. Him.” How the love inside her wrenched her heart. Tears did well to the corners of her eyes, only to sting in the chilly air.
“Well, he put up a pretty good argument, too. So, finally, your ma and me figured why not? Quite an honor it was, we thought. You know?”
“So that’s how the opera got its name.” Carmen sighed. Yes, it was a crazy story, so whimsical. But, even in its zaniness, so necessary.
Benny turned his face to the clouds where evening had finally snuffed the feeble, muted light of day. “Guess it’s time I got back.” This time his gaze didn’t leave the darkening canopy.
“Not yet, Daddy.” Carmen wrapped her fingers around his forearm to pull him closer, a desperate grip to keep him from leaving. To hold the day like a still life painting. “A malted at Bernbaum’s?”
With a forlorn glance at the bustle of Christmas shoppers—as though watching for an approaching train—he shook his head. “I’ve stayed too long already, sweetie. I have to go.”
Like the baby in the carriage in her father’s silly story, Carmen yanked away from him. “I hate—”
“Carmen.” His gloved finger touched her lips.
She gave the tears permission to fall in earnest.
Her crying always tore her father's heart out, and she could at least make him feel guilty for leaving.
“Baby. My baby girl.” The sadness in his voice assured he couldn't be deterred by her tears this time. “You know I can’t stay.”
Carmen stalked to the store window, her boots crunching on the thickening snow. “Then go. Go.” Jerking from his attempt to cup her elbow, she moaned, “Why drag it on, huh? Just go.”
“Why did you come anyway, goddamn it?”
“Carmen.” Was there a chuckle in his tone? “Pretty talk, bambina.”
“I tell you what. Maybe you’ll forgive me if you see what I left you.” Tucking a finger under her chin, he coaxed her to meet his eyes. “You just check under your Christmas tree. You just look, eh?”
“Sure.” Carmen shrugged away from his touch.
Somehow, it helped to bristle. She could pretend it didn’t hurt if she could feign anger. Of course, in time the resentment would fade and love would flood back in to fill the wounds. Love that would last until the day she died.
“No goodbye hug?” He made a big fist—the perpetual boxer in him—and gingerly grazed his knuckles on her cheek. His gentle prod was filled with the same sadness that rent her own heart in two.
Reluctantly, Carmen turned and leaned into him, melted into the familiar strength of his arms. She breathed in the comfortable aroma of his Bay Rum, the sweet smooth scent of his hair pomade.
Years in the boxing ring gave his arms such super human strength.
Carmen could hardly breathe in his tight embrace.
Tremors rippled through his body to hers. He was crying, too.
After a short eternity, he loosened his hold and stepped back. “You finished being mad at your old man?”
Shuffling and not able to stifle the smile sneaking to her lips, she murmured, “Yes.”
He swiped tears mingled with tiny snow crystals from his cheeks and turned to leave. Over his shoulder he blew a kiss. “Merry Christmas, baby.”
“Merry Christmas, Daddy."
He started down the sidewalk but stopped and jabbed a finger in the air at her. “Under your Christmas tree.”
And then he left—a tall, powerful figure in a long black overcoat and hat, blending into the flock of shoppers. Soon she couldn’t see him at all.
Carmen barely remembered the walk back to her tiny apartment. She stood on the stoop for a moment, drinking in the scene of the neighborhood kids shouting in the snow. Bundled in their thick coats, hats and gloves, they constructed a gaunt snowman. The white stuff hadn’t fallen thick enough yet to make much else—not after snowball fights, anyway.
With a sigh, she shuffled up the steps to the entrance and pushed through the thick wood door.
Christmas music from stereos echoed in the warmly lit stair well. Laughter pealed from behind closed apartment doors.
Maybe she’d go to a party later. After a good nap, she’d know if she felt up to mingling and wine and Christmas trees with big bulbs of bright light.
Upon entering her apartment, the first thing to greet her was her own tree. A tiny laugh escaped her. Why did she put up a tree every year? No one ever saw it but her. Yet she could no more think of not having a scant evergreen in the small abode than she could imagine holding back the wind with a butterfly net.
Growing up, she’d given up many childhood things. But a tree was the one thing she couldn’t part with. Maybe because of her parents, she figured. The warm, happy holiday memories she had of them when—no matter how little money they had—her father made sure there was a tree.
Kneeling on the worn carpet, she plugged in the lights and sat on her knees to watch the red, green, blue, yellow and white glimmer on the fragrant branches.
Peace. There was something so comforting about a green tree with lights and bogus icicles.
Carmen carefully plucked the snow globe from its cozy nest beneath the tree and wound it until Silent Night began to twinkle from its music box. She returned it to its lonely spot, dragged a couple of pillows from the nearby armchair and tossed them to the floor.
Reclining, she rested her head on the pillows and closed her eyes. The delicate music caroled from the globe and, within a few moments, Carmen drifted to sleep.
Later—had it been hours or minutes? She didn’t know—a soft, husky voice tiptoed through the mist in her mind. Under the Christmas tree, baby. Her father’s words filtered into her thoughts and excitement jolted through her. She jerked to a sitting position and studied the tree skirt for his gift.
Carmen’s body shook with the sobs that finally made it to the surface in her soul.
So it had been a dream. Just a dream. Beautiful, warm and tender, gut-wrenchingly loving. A year from—exactly, on Christmas Eve—the day he’d died.
There was no proof to assure he’d really visited her this evening. Yes, just a dream. Her father, so real, so touchable, so gentle. Daddy.
But even so, even that fleeting imaginary encounter, that silly re-telling of the absurd opera story was precious to her. She supposed it was the gift.
Out of the corner of her eye, she caught a glimpse of a something—something very small—nestled in the folds of the white tree skirt. Whatever it was, it wasn’t wrapped.
With trembling hands, she reached to pick up the item.
A tiny figurine of the saucy opera character, Carmen. The very porcelain trinket her father had given her on her fifth birthday.
The figurine which had tumbled from the knick-knack shelf years ago and shattered into a handful of countless colorful pieces. Its breaking had splintered Carmen’s heart into as many fragments.
But here it was, still worn but in one piece. Impossible.
She strained to scrutinize it through the limited lighting from the tree. It was the very same diminutive sculpture whose red dress had faded with millions of loving touches. The same chipped mantilla on the tiny opera singer’s shiny black hair.
But, oddly, no marks to show it had been repaired. Except for the fading paint and injured mantilla, it was as though it had never broken.
Carmen’s breath caught and she nearly dropped the trinket. Clutching it to her bosom, she closed her eyes tight. Now she knew she was dreaming.
Another search under the tree revealed no note, no explanation. Did it matter? Even if it was a dream, it was perfect and Carmen refused to let any doubt, any questions cloud the sunshine filling the small room.
With a huge sigh she lay on her back on the floor and scrunched the pillows under her head to get a full view of the bright star glistening through the window.
She touched the figurine to her lips, hoping it would still be there in the morning. Hoping it wasn’t only her imagination.
“Merry Christmas, Daddy.” Wrapping the statuette in her fingers and clutching it to her chest. “See you next year?”
Then she felt—didn’t hear, but felt like the tender touch of a palm on her cheek—his voice, Merry Christmas, bambina.
Carmen smiled to herself, closed her eyes and fell asleep.