Veterans Day is a federal holiday celebrated in the United States to celebrate members of our armed forces. For me it is a day to be thankful my father lived through the Vietnam War and the hell it caused his body. I have written many essays about what it means to be a veterans daughter. But, I wanted to share this one since the holidays are coming up.
I’m inspired by my father in many ways, not only because of our shared love for nonfiction books, but also because of his hard work advocating for veterans. He was able to give voice to those who where ignored and marginalized through his work in the Veterans Administration and volunteerism. Like him I wish to give a voice to those who are not heard.
This essay is just one of many memories I hold dear.
My Santa had a hook for a hand. He also smelt like stale cigarettes. I’ve only met my Santa once, and I’m convinced he was the real deal.
I don’t remember much about Christmas that strange year when Dad packed up his new wife and life to move west. Maybe the Christmas I met my Santa was even a year earlier than Dad’s departure. I had to be less than five, and still extremely clingy to my Dad.
My siblings were there too; however, it didn’t matter to me. I can only imagine they ran around and played with all the other kids in the Veterans Administration (VA) Syracuse, New York, hospital’s cafeteria. Most likely I clung closely to my father the way I always did before he moved. That was when we still lived on Humbert Avenue and my biological mom moved out. That house had a haunted coffee table. Dad made it before we were born, and one by one each child hurt themselves on the sharp edges so badly that it required multiple visits to the emergency room. Dad said he got tired of paying for the E.R. bills and burned the darn table.
That was before I knew my father had much worse scars than I did. That is why we were at the VA hospital celebrating Christmas. After being a patient, Dad decided to work for the VA trying to make a difference for veterans like himself. He brought us to a VA party that had the real Santa, he even had an authentic silver beard.
I remember smelling him, like I used to smell Dad and Opa. Pulling close for a hug and snuggling into safety. He smelled like old smokes, generic hand lotion, and sweat. He hugged me with his left arm, his big yellow teeth gleaming under the twinkling lights. I loved him even before he gave me a large stuffed polar bear with his silver hook hand. My little hands grabbed the bear and hugged it hard, if it were a live puppy, the head would have popped right off. I didn’t want to leave the real Santa.
When I asked dad years later about ‘the real’ Santa having a silver hand replacement hook he looked me in the eye unphased and said, “Maybe he did, maybe you are just thinking of Uncle Fred.” Ma is always a few words away trying to tell me with excitement, “You got Big Bear there!” Ma was my father’s secretary back then; she knows about my Santa too.
After that I never really believed Santa would come, no matter how hard my Ma and Dad tried. My sister and I only whispered about all the other fake Santas when we saw them at malls or on TV. We were no fools—we kept up the charade of belief for personal gain. I told my parents Santa was real well into my teen years, and so did my sister. What they didn’t know was my Santa was out there somewhere in a VA hospital.