Chapter 4 – Papa
I was 23 years old when I found out my grandfather was Santa Claus.
My grandfather, or “Papa” as he was most commonly and affectionately known, loved Christmas with every fiber of his being. The only things Papa loved more than Christmas were Grandma and his family.
Papa grew up in-and-out of the foster system, and when he met my Grandma he vowed that their family would never experience what he did growing up. Papa did things like winning a guy’s suit in a poker game and then wearing that suit to a job interview for the place he ended up working the next 20+ years. He also hitchhiked from his Airforce base all the way back to Canton just for the weekend to see my grandma, and would spend all his money to buy her a single bottle of perfume when he was overseas.
But, these acts of love pale in comparison to what Papa would do at Christmas.
Traditionally, Christmas preparation in the Porter family begins in June, sometimes earlier.
Grandma would begin shopping when she and Papa would go on their summer vacations. When the two of them took trips, Papa would always remark jokingly on how much money Grandma saves him, and they would pack an entire extra suitcase on the way home for everything Grandma bought. Then, on Christmas Eve when Papa would hand out gifts, Grandma would tell every single person about where she bought that gift and how great the sale was. About halfway through the evening, Papa would cut her off saying, “Janet, just let them have their presents. No one cares. But, yes, you save me so much money.”
Gifts could be purchased anywhere from six months prior to Christmas or right up to the morning of Christmas Eve. If Grandma spent even three dollars more on one grandkid than the next, she would begin spending another three dollars on every single grandkid. Everything had to be fair and everything had to be perfect; there is no skimping on Christmas.
And then there were the cookies…
Christmas cookie baking begins immediately following Thanksgiving.
Aunt Lorraine and Grandma send everyone a schedule of what is being baked when, and you are welcome to show up and be present but helping is not really an option. When two Italian women are in the kitchen, they fight the entire time over the proper way to do something and any additional people present are understood to be nothing more than company and decoration. You don’t help, you don’t touch, and you definitely don’t take a bite of anything that’s pretty enough to be worthy of the cookie trays.
There was no place like Grandma’s when the cookies were being baked.
Aunt Lorraine has taken this tradition into her home as our family has changed in the past few years. When the cookies start baking, it smells like the best years of our collective cousin childhoods and with all the noise of, “don’t touch that!” and “girls, no! You can’t eat those!” it sounds like home.
And, every year, the same story is told.
The story of the year that Papa changed how we make cream wafers.
Cream wafers are light, buttery, sugary wafer cookies that create a delicate icing sandwich and melt in your mouth the moment you take a bite. For years, Aunt Lorraine and Grandma would stress over getting the perfect amount of icing into the cream wafers without breaking the cookies from the pressure of pressing the icing onto the wafer. It’s a daunting task and by far the most difficult cookie to make.
Until one year, Papa entered the kitchen looking for burnt or imperfect cookies to eat. He watched Grandma and Aunt Lorraine angrily icing the wafers with backs aching from being hunched over the table for so long and reached down to grab a broken cookie. Standing there for a moment, Papa casually said, “Why don’t you use a piping bag to do that?”
Aunt Lorraine, a woman who bakes wedding cakes and has made every birthday cake in our family for decades, stared at the table then looked back at Papa.
“Why the hell have we never thought of that?!” Aunt Lorraine yelled.
And that’s the moment cream wafers changed forever in the Porter house.
But, Papa gave more to Christmas than just revolutionizing the greatest cookie of all time.
Papa created a Christmas experience in our family.
Papa would gather grandkids in early December to spend an entire day making eggnog and cream puffs. He helped grandma roll meatballs and soak endive so the wedding soup for Christmas Day would be perfect. He would wake up early on Christmas Eve to have doughnuts for breakfast and get New England Clam Chowder cooking on the stovetop. He would bellow the name on every gift in his deep, Santa-like tone, then hold the gift in his lap as one-by-one each recipient stumbled their way through the tangled up legs of family members sitting on every chair, table, and floor space available to retrieve a perfectly wrapped package from Papa’s hands.
On top of this family Christmas, Papa always participated in a special Christmas tradition at Gregory’s Galvanizing, the company he worked for wearing that special suit he won in the poker games of his youth. In true Papa fashion, not only did he participate in this Christmas party, but he played a special role and made sure that all eleven of his grandkids attended.
Every year, the adults of the family would get all of us cousins dressed up fancy to go to the Gregory’s Christmas Party to see Santa Claus. My mom and aunts would sew matching Christmas dresses for all of us girls and the boys would be in those epic 90’s Christmas sweaters that everyone likes to wear now as a joke. We would stand in line with our parents and impatiently wait until Santa would call us individually by name to go see him. We would sit on his lap and he would ask us questions so specific to our lives that we were convinced that Santa knew us personally.
It never occurred to us that he did.
We were also convinced that we had the best Grandma in the world because she was standing next to Santa handing out his gifts. How does someone get that job?! Grandma must be a celebrity.
As Santa would hand us a gift, we would turn and smile for the person just ahead taking our picture on a Polaroid camera. These weren’t the now trendy, pastel colored Polaroids of today; these were the big, clunky, black Polaroid cameras of the early 1990’s. The picture would pop out and someone would write on the bottom white strip, “Gregory’s Christmas 1993.”
The party would continue with trays of cookies (the pretty ones from Grandma’s house that we were not allowed to eat on cookie baking days) and a magician and games. Just as things were winding down and only a few people were left, Papa would come walking into the room and announce, “Did I miss the party again?! Where did Santa go?”
We kids would riot. “Papa! You missed Santa! He was just here! He knew my name!”
Papa would explain to us that the rest of his office was at the party, so his boss made him stay to work. Every year I would tell Papa that he needed to get off work the next year because this Santa has to be the real Santa; he had a big belly that was real, not stuffed, and his hair really was gray and he really did wear glasses just like in all the pictures.
“Next year, I’ll make sure I don’t have to work,” Papa would say.
This went on every year of my childhood, until eventually I got older and I no longer believed in Santa. We still went to the party for my younger cousins and every year I thought, “This really is the best Santa.” The party would end, Papa would arrive, and my younger cousins would yell that Papa missed Santa again.
One Christmas Eve when I was about 23 years old, my cousins were talking about how my Uncle Bob was now Santa for the Gregory’s Christmas parties. Grandma responded with, “Bobby is good, but no one will ever be as good of a Santa as Papa.”
My head whipped around so fast and the words came out before I could catch myself, “Papa! You were Santa?!”
My family stared at me in hilarious disbelief.
“Yoyo,” my cousin Bradley has called me this for as long as he could speak. “You seriously didn’t know Papa was Santa? You do know that Santa isn’t real…”
By this point, my family is laughing hysterically.
“Honestly, I just never thought about it. I haven’t thought about the Christmas parties since I was little! Papa always said he was working and my Papa would NEVER lie to me, right Papa?”
Papa sat grinning and chuckled, “Never, sweetie. I would never lie to you.”
I started laughing with everyone and we moved on.
Now, here I sit, alone on my back patio on a cool October evening with tears streaming down my cheeks as the two-year anniversary of the day my Papa left us approaches.
Have you ever known a person that you loved and trusted so deeply that you never questioned them? A person that you knew would never hurt you because they truly never did, so your every memory of them is unaltered joy?
I have. That person is Papa.
It never occurred to me to re-visit the Christmas parties of my childhood to assess Papa’s whereabouts. Of course, as an adult, it is painfully obvious that my Papa was dressed as Santa Claus, which makes the magic of my childhood all the more special.
To be so loved and adored by someone that your childhood feels unbelievably perfect amidst accidents that blind you and family financial struggle is a gift nearly impossible to put into words.
Papa didn’t have a tragic illness or a quick moment that took his life. He passed from the weight of a tough life well-lived. As I saw Papa’s days with us reaching their end, I wept almost daily.
I remember one difficult day in the ICU. I stared at the strongest man I’d ever known plugged into tubes with skin a color I had never seen. He couldn’t speak, but our eyes met and I could read them instantly. He didn’t want me to see him this way, but I didn’t want to leave his side. My brother and sister-in-law were there and my grandma sat at the foot of his bed.
After a little while, I pulled a chair up next to Papa’s bed. He was trying to talk to us, but he couldn’t get the words out. I saw his struggle and the trembling that followed and I did everything I could to keep my tears in; a headache was forming from the strain. I thought that maybe if I spoke, he would feel less pressure to talk to us.
“Papa, you know, I tell all of my students about you.”
He turned to look in my eyes and I felt every ounce of fear and pain from inside him.
I held his hand.
“Remember the girls I was teaching dance to? Some of them are going to college now. I tell them all about my Papa who grew up in their neighborhood and who once dropped out of high school, the same high school they go to. I tell them about how you fought for our family, about how you never wanted any of us to go through all the struggle and pain you did. I tell them about how you wanted to be a better dad than you had and how you changed everything for us.”
My voice is shaking and I am holding in tears so hard that I feel like I might puke. My back muscles hurt from tensing every muscle.
“ Papa, they’re all graduating from high school now. Some of them have college scholarships. Some of them have dreams they want to work towards. They’re breaking the cycles in their families the same way you did for us. We got to baptize one of them at church last week.”
I hear my sister-in-law sniffle and I feel a little better about my emotions. I can sense this moment being forever etched into my memory.
“Papa, you raised an amazing family and your life is inspiring more than just us. I tell everyone I know about my Papa.”
We sat in silence after that, holding hands until the nurse came back in. When she arrived, I bolted for the parking garage. I let every emotion flow from my body and sat in a parked car for what felt like an hour.
Papa made it out of the ICU that day and came home for the rest of the summer. We celebrated his birthday, played cards on the patio, and let the great grandkids do whatever they wanted.
Later that fall, on another cold October day, my mom called me and said, “You need to come see Papa.”
I don’t remember what else she said, I just know that I wept as soon as I hung up the phone. The next day, I found someone to watch the girls and spent all evening at Papa’s house.
For most of the time, we just sat together. Family and hospice were in-and-out, and I did anything Grandma or the nurses would let me do to take care of our Papa.
As things quieted down a bit, I got to sit next to him. There was a moment where his breathing became so labored that I thought it might be the moment we were going to say goodbye. I saw the sadness in Grandma’s eyes as we sat on either side of his bed. I hated how stressed and strained I saw him.
This is the man who had more wisdom than anyone I’ve ever known. The man who held and loved every baby he ever met. The man who always had an open seat at his table. The man who always had something to give and asked for nothing in return. The man who never missed a major life event and suddenly, in one moment, I knew that every major event after this would be without him.
I did the only thing I could think to do.
Since I was a child, Papa had sang me the same lullaby. Whether I was an inconsolable baby or a bride on my wedding day, Papa sang and danced with me to the same song for three decades of my life. I held his hand and sang quietly to him, “too rah loo rah loo rah, too rah loo rah lai, too rah loo rah loo rah, that’s an Irish lullaby…”
I sang as best I could until things calmed down. As they did, he turned his head a bit, closed his eyes, and hummed that chorus with me. He hadn’t been able to speak more than a word or two all night, but in that moment he hummed the melody to our song, squeezed my hand, and Grandma and I cried. I stared at the man I believed to be somehow untouchable and the gravity of that moment sank into my heart.
When I left Papa’s house that night, that was the last time I saw him with air in his lungs. The next time I would see him would be less than 48 hours later in the same room surrounded by his best friends and as much of our family as was in the state of Ohio.
In honor of the Papa we all so deeply love, we threw the most celebratory Manhattan-and-cigar-filled funeral that I am sure has ever existed.
And now, as I sit on my back patio, I take in the taste and scent of plastic-tipped Swisher Sweets, the cigar he smoked almost daily for all of my life. My eyes are stinging from the tears and smoke and my heart aches from the memories of being so loved by such a great man.
I sometimes wonder if a day will come when I no longer grieve the loss of our Papa. I’m not sure that grief is something we ever stop experiencing as much as it is just something that we become accustomed to living with.
Grief comes in waves and in seasons.
It’s strong in August when his birthday passes.
It’s intense in October when memories surface of his death.
It’s heavy in December when his favorite holiday emerges.
It’s hard in March when St. Patrick’s Day arrives and I hear his Irish voice singing.
It’s difficult in summer when we go on vacation to his favorite spot.
It’s hard. It’s just hard. It is never not hard.
It’s hard when my kids order the same doughnuts as him and I know where they got that love of sweets from. It’s hard when I am insanely stubborn and my husband says, “Your Porter is coming out again” and I know he means that as advice to calm down but I’m just flattered because I know that deep resilience comes from the greatest man I ever knew.
The very thing that gets me through these hard moments are the words of the man whose absence causes them.
When my husband and I were younger and entering the most difficult years we have lived through up to this point in our lives, I asked Papa what advice he would give us. He said without even a moment of hesitation, “Sweetie, when you reach the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on.”
And so, when I grieve, I cling to that knot with all my strength. I let the emotions fill me, I write out his memories, I smoke his cigars, and I let the tears flow. I do not grieve because I am weak, I grieve because I am strong enough to let myself ride this wave with white knuckles on the knot of hope that comes with Jesus and the truth that I will see this great man again in a life with no more tears.
And so, for today, I grieve.I grieve with hope. I grieve with joy that is not conditional upon circumstances. And I grieve knowing that his legacy lives in me and every person I choose to share it with.