My father was magical. He was, after all, a doctor… a healer, and he did it so well. If you went to him with any kind of health issue, the first thing he would do was make sure you understood that he was there to help, and he would help you. There was nothing to worry about. He had a pill, a shot, an exercise, or an opinion that would cure just about anything.
Even when I was twenty-five and facing a life-threatening illness, everyone thought I was dying. He didn’t believe it. And he was right.
Part of his magic was his kindness, his empathy, and his goodness. His patients called him a saint. My dad was Jimmy Carter good, Barack Obama good, Perry Como good, Jesus good. I guess it was easier to buy into all those staunch Catholic ideas because my own father figure was so saintly.
Of course, like Jesus, he had a temper, especially about things religious. I was going through the dark night of the soul at the age of seventeen. I’d read some atheistic interpretation of the Dead Sea Scrolls. And so I ask him why we should believe in life after death at all. He just got mad at me.
“BECAUSE GOD SAID SO!” He growled.
End of story!
He was a war hero, too, a medic in Patton’s Third Army during World War II. He had the medals to prove it. I still have his Silver Star, Bronze Star, and Purple Heart medals in my desk drawer even now.
Having a father like that probably made me insecure, susceptible to jealousy and feelings of guilt when I feared I would disappoint him. What saved me were his imperfections. He could be silly, embarrassingly playful, and goofy too. And that took the edge off of his saintliness. As a kid, I once asked him to name The Seven Wonders of the World. In all seriousness, he started off with: The Great Forests of the North. Then came The Grand Canyon, and The Statue of Liberty.
I saw that same playfulness even when he was a very sick man, playing with our little girls, his granddaughters. He loved to do silly magic for them, “Abracadabra,” he’d say as he rubbed a “magical” balloon on his shirt. The girls would be amazed when it stuck to their shirts. “Abracadabra,” he’d say again, and he’d pull a nickel from behind our four-year-old daughter’s ear.
Dad’s kindness, generosity, and even his playfulness were best displayed on Christmas Eve. His name, after all, was Nicholas.
An Iuppa family Christmas was primarily Italian. And dad was in charge. After working in his office (in our basement) ten to twelve hours every day (but Thursday), he would come up and put us all to work.
All through the days leading up to the big Christmas Eve event, my little brother and sister and I would help with the preparations. “Scotched Olives” were one of his specialties, and it had to be done just right. That is, to the mix of capers and celery and vinegar and salt, we had to add the olives… but first, we had to scotch them. That means that we kids got to line up all those big green olives and smash them with the end of a milk bottle to make sure they were cracked open so that the flavor could seep out. It had to be done days in advance and was really a lot of fun… whether I was doing it at age six or twenty-two.
My dad made the best Italian sausage in the world… his own recipe. That morning he’d get all the ingredients, and we had to prepare them. That meant grinding the pork in the old meat grinder we attached to the edge of the kitchen counter. Then we added Dad’s specially prepared spices. We each kneaded the ground meat by hand. And then, we had to replace the attachments on the grinder so that we could feed the mix of meat and spices into the sausage casings. He twisted the sausage into links, cut them apart, and there we were.
Mom fried them up. They would be beyond delicious, but we had to wait till Christmas Eve supper to have them.
Mom would slice the salami and coppa and other meats to add to a big antipasti tray. She’d make shrimp cocktails out of the big New-England shrimp that she brought home from the market.
My sister and I set the table, while my little brother would generally harass everyone trying to slow the progress but actually just adding to the festivities and joy. By this time, the tree had been up for weeks, filling the corner window in the room we called the library.
If we were lucky, all would be ready when the guests started showing up. Uncle Andy and Aunt Betty would bring boxes of Christmas cookies (they did, after all, own a bakery). Uncle Mike and Aunt Yolanda and their seven kids would bring Grandma, who had been working long and hard making pizza for the evening’s dinner. Other uncles and aunts and cousins would arrive by the carload. I had such good-looking cousins, I thought. The girls were beautiful; the boys were handsome. I felt lucky and even proud to be among them.
It got especially interesting when those girl and boy cousins started bringing their dates to our home on Christmas Eve. Who knew who among this infatuated crew might later become husbands or wives in law, future members of the extended Iuppa family? I was especially proud when I brought my girl, my future wife, to our home on Christmas Eve. I was sure that she was every bit as gorgeous as any of my cousin or their dates, even though (to Grandma’s dismay) she wasn’t Italian.
I’ve often wondered if it was hard for those dates to show up into on Christmas Eve and meet my grandmother and my aunts and uncles. I don’t think so. Everyone was relaxed. They’d been coming to our home on Christmas Eve their whole lives.
Many of my uncles would in the kitchen sharing jokes you just didn’t tell in mixed company. Mom and my aunts would talk about the latest TV heartthrobs, Liberace being foremost among them. Dad would unveil some special Christmas Eve gift for the whole family. Once, it was a new car. Another time he got a new amplifier for my guitar. And I amazed the crowd with a rendition of Malagueña that I’d worked on every day for the last six months. I got a round of applause. Another year Dad bought is a reel-to-reel tape recorder, and we recorded the whole New Year’s Eve party. Years later, we were still listening to that tape and laughing.
Finally, after we’d eaten all the scotched olives and Italian sausage and pizza, we’d gather around the piano. Dad would play Christmas carols, as we’d all sing along. Yes, he could do that too. I told you he was magical.
We’d look out through the picture window and see the soft white snow as it fell all around. Cars dove by silently on that snow-carpeted avenue. It was usually quite blustery out there…. but very, very warm inside.
That’s the story of my Dad on Christmas Eve. If you want to learn more about him, pick up a copy of my novel, Taken By Witches. There’s a different version of him in there. He’s the villain.