--Sung by Perry Como, with words by Meredith Willson
In December of 1965, I left Saint Anthony’s Seminary in Santa Barbara on Christmas break and took the long train ride home to San Francisco. Keeping to myself, I spent most of the trip staring out the window and watching the scenery speed past me like a silent movie. The whole time I kept wondering: how could I explain to my parents what had been happening to me at school? For the first three months of my freshman year I had been emotionally and sexually abused by a Franciscan priest who served as the school’s prefect of discipline and used medical treatment as a ruse. I had no name for what I was experiencing. But inside I knew something was wrong. As I lay in bed each night in the dormitory listening to the other boys sleep, I slowly felt myself slipping into despair and depression.
Stepping off the train at the Southern Pacific terminal in San Francisco, I expected to be met by both my parents but was greeted only by my mother. It’s not hard to recall the joy I felt when I saw her. For the first time in months I felt safe. She was a tiny woman, barely five feet tall, and it seemed as though I towered over her now. My mind and my heart were compressed into one, enormous embrace that wrapped my arms around her small body, seven months pregnant. Her smile was big but her eyes were red and I could tell she had been crying long before I got there.
I hadn’t been away from home so long that I couldn’t recognize the unhappiness in my mother’s face.
When I asked where my father was she told me straight out that he had left. Then she led me to a coffee shop where we sat and talked for an hour and, without revealing too many details, made it clear who the guilty party was. My first reactions were shock and dismay. But as I listened to her story, which for many years would be the only version her children would hear, I realized that my mother had not only lost a husband of twenty-one years but also a childhood friend.
I instinctively understood how easy it would be for me to bury my own pain and become a comfort to my mother and my eight younger brothers and sisters. I felt a sense of liberation and relief as my body began to relax. I accepted the responsibility, willingly, and welcomed the chance to ignore my troubles. Ironically, my parents’ separation had now become a unifying factor in my decision to keep quiet about the abuse. More than thirty years would pass before I ever spoke about it with anyone in my family.
A Sense of Another Kind of Christmas
With so many kids in our house trying to find their way, everyone fought for attention. When I was living at home, and before I had any thoughts of being a priest, I was the comedian in the family. I would clown around and perform for my parents and siblings with such ease that I had a better shot at appearing on the “Ed Sullivan Show” than I did on the altar of any church. I was the Danny Kaye of the family and I did it all for the laughs to feed my hunger for acceptance.
My specialty act was playing songs on the phonograph and mimicking popular singers and performers. From Elvis and Kate Smith, to Eddie Cantor and Doris Day, I would learn the lyrics of songs and then lip-synch them. I was just five years old when I mimed my first song, a 78 recording of Enrico Caruso singing “O Solo Mio,” much to the delight of my grandmother. Thanks to the new medium of television I would study various celebrities and exaggerate their mannerisms. I dressed in my mother’s muumuu and mimicked Rosemary Clooney singing “Mambo Italiano.” I imagined I was Leopold Stokowski conducting “Night on Bald Mountain” with my hair sticking straight up and waving a wooden spoon. And I acted two parts at once, pretending to croon like Dean Martin while hopping around like Jerry Lewis. When I performed in front of my family I lost all inhibitions and carried the inventiveness and confidence of a much older kid. My father bragged that my talent came from his side of the family, which always got a big laugh since his side of the family was the same side as my mother’s (they were second cousins).
After I went off to the seminary, and all during my abuse, I lost most of my self-assurance and creative drive. Little by little as my grades dropped, certain aspects of my personality began to recede until they nearly vanished entirely. I was close to standing on the brink of dreariness. By the time I arrived back home on Christmas break I was as serious and solemn on the outside as I was disheartened and desperate on the inside. That other kid, the one who wore a ridiculous sun hat and pretended to be Ethel Merman belting out “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” was nowhere to be found.
That Christmas would be the last one our family would spend in the house we called home for many years. In the spring, and right after the birth of my youngest brother in February, my mother would sell the property and move the family to the suburbs in the East Bay to be near her brother and his family. My father would eventually leave the area and begin his long and painful estrangement from his children. But his absence that particular Christmas, more than any other, was deeply felt throughout the house. Like the scent of Mennen aftershave that lingered in every room, his presence haunted the house like a phantom trying to communicate, reminding us how confused and scared we really were and how much we missed him.
My mother tried her best to hide her own anger and grief. But her attempts to conceal the truth of our miserable situation proved to be more difficult. A gloom had already cast its pall over the house and Christmas was in danger of becoming an afterthought. The younger siblings in the house had little understanding of what had happened between our mother and father, but it was apparent even to them that the holiday spirit was different this year. They knew it was Christmastime and anticipated the joy and wonder it held. They saw the house adorned in traditional colors and the tree decorated in bright lights. But these outward manifestations seemed surreal and even false. There was a sense of another kind of Christmas, an alternate one that existed outside the realm of the one we had come to expect. The festive spirit was tainted, interrupted and intruded on by constant whispers, late night phone calls and voices raised in anguish and distress.
My mother’s condition was a serious concern. She had been advised by her doctor to avoid any unnecessary stress (which she found absurd). There was even some talk that the baby might arrive prematurely. Considering her deep devotion to the Catholic church and my father’s equal disdain for it, the possibility of my mother giving birth on Christmas day was an inspired thought. Her four older sisters, our aunts, were in and out of our house all week taking turns counseling my mother and telling the rest of us to go to our rooms and be quiet. Some nights they would sit around our kitchen table drinking sweetened coffee, smoking filter cigarettes, and advising my mother not to take my father back. Unbeknown to us, he apparently asked to come home for Christmas and she refused. Years later I learned that my aunts had convinced my mother to let my father stew in his own juices until some time after the holidays when he would be more repentant. But by then my father had had enough and decided to walk away for good. He grew weary of fighting with my mother and tired of fighting for us. While the younger kids looked for Santa Claus to show up and make things merry and bright, the rest of us tried to act like we knew what was going on, wandering in an out of a world run by crazy people impersonating adults.
With Candy Canes and Silver Lanes Aglow
Besides my father, the single most important thing missing from our house that Christmas was Christmas music. For reasons nobody could explain, every holiday LP we ever owned, every Christmas album from Bing Crosby and Andy Williams to Mitch Miller and Stan Freberg, was gone, missing from the stereo cabinet where all our records were stored. It was like they never existed. When I quizzed my mother about this she dismissed it by saying she had no idea where they were and that she couldn’t be bothered. “If you want Christmas music so much,” she snapped, “turn on the radio.”
I didn’t fault my mother. She had every reason to be angry. But she probably didn’t remember that the radio inside the stereo cabinet in the family room hadn’t worked in years.
And even if it had, the whole point of listening to Christmas music in our family was based on a tradition of selecting our favorite songs from our own albums and then playing them over and over again until they drove everyone nuts. We took great pleasure in creating play lists and acting like disc jockeys. In addition, and just as important, were all those familiar faces and images on the album covers. It made us happy to hold them in our hands, read the liner notes and just admire all that colorful holiday excess. That’s what made our Christmas music so special.
The radio, on the other hand, was a cheap and dishonest way of tricking people into the Christmas spirit. It was a peddler of false pretenses. Listening to a steady stream of nasty holiday commercials urging us to buy things while playing a smattering of Christmas standards was noise pollution at its worst. It was bad enough if you were trapped in your car. But choosing to listen to this drivel during the holidays in your own home was absolute madness.
Thus, the case of the lost Christmas albums became a real mystery to us and worthy of investigation. It also gave us something to do while we sat around wondering when Easter would arrive. The only explanation we could come up with, other than a burglar who wasn’t very bright, was that my father had inexplicably taken all the Christmas music with him when he moved out, a symbolic gesture that wasn’t lost on some of us. But the thought of a grown man angrily packing his suitcase with Christmas albums was just too ridiculous to imagine even for our family. My father had left behind many more essential items of greater importance, like his two-headed silver dollar, his ventriloquist dummy, and most of his underwear and socks. Why would he take the time to pack up a dozen or so Christmas albums and then forget to take such personal items like his prized barbecue grill or his Kodak Instamatic camera with pop-up flash? The likelihood of him skipping town with all our Christmas albums was about as plausible as him asking our aunts to tea.
The hunt for the missing music took place all throughout the house. At first, everyone was involved in the quest, looking in drawers and closets and under beds. But most of us got distracted during the search after finding other intriguing items that had gone lost, like hair rollers, baseball cards, Halloween candy and lots of loose change. Two of my younger brothers and I ended up rummaging through the attic with flashlights where we found, among other things, an old set of encyclopedias, several boxes of women clothes, two ukuleles, different sets of glasses, cups and dishes, and an ancient steamer trunk stuffed with newspapers, letters, photographs and my father’s navy cap and uniform from World War II. We also discovered an old copy of Playboy magazine. After examining it closely we determined it belonged to either my older brother, who was away in the Merchant Marines, or my older sister who once talked about becoming a dental assistant.
The last place on the list of possibilities was the garage. This was my father’s private domain. It’s where he kept all his tools under lock and key in a storage cabinet next to his work area. Nobody was allowed to open it without his permission. He had an impressive collection of hand and power tools that he lovingly oiled and kept clean. He was a marvel with his hands and could fix anything. But over the years he had lost too many hammers and screwdrivers and electric sanders to his sons who never learned to return things. He provided us with our own set of tools and gave us all the nails and screws we wanted. But he absolutely forbid us to use any of his tools. He always carried a key to the cabinet on his key ring. But he also kept a spare on a nail behind the calendar that hung next to the gooseneck lamp on the shelf above his workbench. We all knew it was there. But nobody ever dared touch it for fear of losing our privileges and our desire to go on living.
With my father’s sudden departure, and being the oldest male in the house now, I felt certain that the spare key had been passed down to me, its rightful heir. As I turned the key in the storage cabinet’s lock, I anticipated finding all the Christmas albums we cherished safely locked away with my father’s handsaws, pipe wrenches and pick-axes. But the cabinet contained only his tools. And as smooth and beautiful as they were in my hands--the feel of ash and oak forged with iron and stainless steel--a heavy sadness leaned into me. Gripping these forbidden objects that my father once held in his own hands, I was suddenly overcome with a desperate longing to ask his permission.
Then I noticed the large paper bag on the bottom shelf of the storage cabinet. It was an ordinary, brown grocery bag that was rolled tight at the top. Incredibly, inside were three Christmas albums, two LPs and one 78, and all by Perry Como. A Perry Como Christmas album was certainly part of our missing collection, but these three albums weren’t the records that were on that list. In fact, I had never seen these before. The two LPs, “Season’s Greetings from Perry Como,” his first album of recorded Christmas songs, and “Perry Como Sings Merry Christmas,” in electronically reprocessed stereo, were second-hand records in great condition. But the real treasure was the old 78, a 1951 recording of Perry and the Fontaine Sisters singing “It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas.”
That Christmas we played the same three records over and over again on our stereo phonograph, flooding the house with Perry Como tunes until my mother threatened to cancel Christmas altogether if we dared play anymore of his songs. Warmth and laughter had returned to our house that year, however briefly, and every spin of every song we heard was a reminder of the pleasure we shared and the love we clung to. Though our hearts were delicate and fragile, our silliness sustained us, right down to my version of a “Perry Como Christmas Special,” performed in a red, button down sweater and accompanied by my two brothers who played the part of the Fontaine Sisters. Together, we lip-synched and danced our way through “It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas,” a song that was destined to become a family favorite from that Christmas on.
I returned to the seminary in January following the holidays, and shortly afterwards my abuse ended. My offender had lost interest and released his grip on me. It was a day I never forgot. The air was crisp and cold but the sun was high and bright. When I walked away from his room that day for the last time, I felt the urge to go off somewhere, anywhere, and be a boy, as though it was the most natural thing in the world for me to do.
Years later, after my father had reconciled with his family and several months before he passed away, I spent a few days with him at his home in Ashland, Orgeon, sitting with him in his backyard. I told him the whole story about the year of the missing Christmas albums, how we first thought he had taken them when he moved out, and how I found, instead, the Perry Como records in his locked storage cabinet. He said he didn't remember the records or even putting them there. His best guess was that he bought them as gifts, possibly for my mother, and then hid them in the garage with all his tools.
The next morning, while the two of us were having breakfast in his kitchen, he started to laugh from that place deep inside where jokes often go. When I asked him what he found so funny, he said he had been thinking about the story all night. And the more he thought about it, the more he wished he had taken the Kodak Instamatic camera with pop-up flash.
Listen to Audio File:
It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas / Perry Como and the Fontaine Sisters, 1951
NOTE: This month's column marks the one year anniversary of "A Room With A Pew." When I first embarked on this journey, I had no idea it would be traveled with so many responsive and supportive companions. As readers and co-explorers of "A Room With A Pew," I thank you all for your understanding and kindness. With the focus squarely on the issues of recovery and healing, it's my hope to continue to offer writing that combines the elements of good storytelling with truth, compassion and humor.