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Christmas Johnny

Back in the old days, when I was not nearly so good at impersonating a courageous person, I wrote a blog under the name "The Recovering Supermom."

Of all the essays, I wrote back when I was just learning how to to be the mom to a kid with leukodystrophy, this one has ranked among the most popular.

It is about my dad, and, as I get older, I am astounded by how much we have in common. We are both magical thinkers. Magical thinking is something children do, it is why children believe in Santa and the tooth fairy. The secret to magical thinking is that if we wish something to be true, it becomes true.

For my dad, magical thinking defined his life. He was filled with a relentless optimism and belief that "everything would be okay." Whenever you called and had a problem, he would say, "don't worry about nothing, it will be fine."

Even when he was diagnosed with cancer, he would chat with the other patients and hand out icons of the Virgin Mary and tell everyone he encountered at Mass General that everything would be fine if they willed it to be so.

Dad died December 27, 2013.

While the official cause of death was bladder cancer, it always seemed to me that Cal's diagnosis with leukodystrophy had taken away his magical thinking. After living through earthquakes, the Nazi occupation of Greece in World War II and a civil war, in the end leukodystrophy seemed to defeat my dad more than the cancer. Six months after Cal's diagnosis the cancer that had been stabilized and even somewhat in retreat, roared back with a vengeance. Dad died the day after his 48th wedding anniversary and four days after Cal's fourth birthday.

A few days ago, a dear friend of mine remarked how upbeat I seemed. She said how impressed she was to see all that had been accomplished to help children with leukodystrophy. She said, "you know, the secret is your magical thinking." So, to my beloved Dad, whom I still miss all the time, this is for you Christmas Johnny, who taught me the power of magical thinking.

There was a jewelry store at the Middlesex Mall. For people who grew up in suburban Boston back in the 1980s, the mall, was just the "Caldor" mall: named for the Caldor store that was the mall's anchor. [Caldor was among the first generation of megastore, think of today's Target without the slick marketing campaign.] As a bit of trivia, this mall inspired the Saturday Night Live Denise and Sully sketches with Rachel Dratch and Jimmy Fallon.

For years the mall was also the scene for my father's recurring role as Christmas Johnny.

Daddy would show up at the mall's jewelry store right before closing on Christmas Eve. It was the store's owners who gave him the nickname.

This was the 1980s when it was a radical new retail innovation to have stores open all night for Christmas shopping and Massachusetts had just changed the old blue laws. Remember when it was decadent to shop on a Sunday?

The jewelry store owners were Jewish, so they were not in any rush to get home and get ready for the holidays. Christmas is a big time of year in the jewelry business and being able to take care of last minute shoppers like my Dad was an exciting new market demographic.

At 10 pm Christmas Eve, my Dad would drag one of us kids with him to get a present for my mom. My father would just stride into the store and demand that the owner and his wife bring out the biggest and most expensive piece they had . Daddy never cared about craftmanship, it was about how much gold there was in the piece. He would always negotiate by quoting them the current price of gold and estimating what the value would be based on weight.

My father was always going to be over the top as Christmas Johnny since the single present had to "count" for Christmas and my parent's wedding anniversary, which is the 26th of December.

My father is the most generous person, but he is not sentimental or romantic. He doesn't do flowers and chocolates and greeting cards. Some of my parents' biggest fights were over the fact that my father would get my mother things like vacuum cleaners for her birthday or an ice cream maker (even though my mother is lactose intolerant) for Christmas. I remember my mother yelling at Daddy, "Don't you understand that getting me a present that makes more work for me so that you can eat ice cream yourself is not a thoughtful gift?"

My dad would recycle the same card every Valentine's Day. I am sure it is in still in the house somewhere because Mom would throw it away and he would rescue it from the trash heap. Dad would hide that card in a drawer or the newspaper and make my mom look for the card so she could stop the annoying tinny song it played.

I remember this card so clearly. It was the first generation of musical cards and I don't even know if he ever signed his name in it: I think he bought it because he was impressed by the technology that made the card sing. My father is a big-time early adopter: he had the first cell-phone, video games, fax machine, VCR, car phone, and computer of all his friends. The funny thing is that he would buy the first version of all new groundbreaking inventions and never replace it. So, he had the first musical card on the market and just used it every year.

But, not getting Mommy a present for Christmas and their anniversary was not something even my father dared try to get away with.

I hated to go on this shopping trip when he would become Christmas Johnny. Shopping with my father is not leisurely. He is an old-school Greek and used to viewing every price tag -even at Lord and Taylor's or Filene's - just as a recommended starting point for negotiation. I remember trying to explain to my Dad that the prices were not up for discussion -like they were in Greece. Here in America - I would say in that condescending tone only teenage girls have - that bartering was not part of the retail industry. My father would smile at me with this wicked grin and waved his hand at his know-it-all daughter. Business is business and a sale is a sale.

His secret move, which worked without fail, was to throw a wad of cash on the counter, usually half the officially listed price, and the salesperson would be so hypnotized by the money that Daddy would sort of walk out of the store while they were counting the bills.

He loved to embarrass us, his spoiled American children, who didn't know how the real world operates. What was the point of shopping if it wasn't a blood sport? Daddy takes no prisoners. He took us kids around, in retrospect, because we were the good copsto his crazy, unblinking bad one. I now realize he kept us with him so security would not toss him out of the store.

The most important part of the Christmas Johnny character was his Archie Bunker-like diatribes. He would distract his opponents with a barrage of ethnic commentary about Jews and the jewelry business. You get the idea.

I now see this was just a game. Clearly, Daddy was just baiting the owners, trying to provoke them and drive them crazy so they would just get him out of the store and give him what he wanted. I never could get why my father, who had so many friends of different ethnic backgrounds, would bring out this character.

Like I said, I used to dread going, my mother would make me go "to keep an eye on Dad." As if anyone could control Christmas Johnny when he got going.

What made things uniquely horrible was how the jewelry store owners were excruciatingly polite, the more outlandish Daddy became the broader their grins got. I can only imagine what the said about him when they got home. And yet they would leave out crackers and cheese out for Christmas Johnny, as if Dad was sort of their own, private Anti-Semitic Santa. One year they stood by the main doors of the mall to unlock the doors to let him. They seemed to look forward to his visits.

It's funny the things you miss.

I started thinking of my Dad and Christmas Johnny recently. Christmas this year, like last year, will be a bittersweet time. Pat will be in the hospital until Christmas Eve and our Cal's birthday is on the 23rd.

Just three years ago my Dad and Mom came down to Philadelphia to celebrate Christmas and the birth of Calliope on Christmas. It was the happiest Christmas ever. I fear I will never enjoy this time of year as much. I got to come home with my beautiful new baby on Christmas morning and be with Pat and my parents and the kids. It is very special to be in a maternity ward on Christmas Day, don't let anyone tell you any differently. The nurses make a big fuss of the mothers and babies, they give you presents and chocolates and take photos.

Dad and Pat picked me up at the hospital. I remember Dad waiting with me as I sat in the wheelchair holding the baby. He had been worried all through the pregnancy given my age and the fact that I had been so anxious all along. He was so grateful and relieved we were both okay.

That day Christmas Johnny was so gentle and quiet and filled with emotion. He sat on the couch at our house in Bala Cynwyd with his 10th grandchild, making a cross over and over for his blessings, and then he made dinner for the whole family.

And so yes, when I was much younger, I told myself that I would not be anything like my Dad. I thought my Dad was so embarrassing. But now that I am older and a bit wiser, I realize that Dad's approach to shopping (and everything else) is absolutely brilliant. He has given me all his love, passion, and fearless craziness. He is getting me through this.

While I don't use the ethnic humor, my children and husband hate shopping with me because I too berate the salespeople and shame and guilt them into getting a great price. Whenever I buy jewelry, which I love to do, I go for the most impressive pieces that weigh the most. I quote the price of gold and push the jewelers on the fact that I know how much there is a mark-up on retail. Yes, I even call them crooks and schemers . On a few occasions, I have thrown the money on the counter and just walked out of the store. But, I don't have my Dad's confidence to pull it off so convincingly.

Unfortunately, the jewelry store at the Middlesex Mall closed down years ago. I would love to go home this Christmas Eve and have walked into that store. I would have asked to see the most beautiful pieces of jewelry for my dear sisters, mom and my daughters as presents.

Then, I, brimming with pride would say: "I am Christmas Johnny's daughter, let's make a deal."

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