The Gift of Mercy Mild
n Tucson, December was a temperate time of year, with gentle sunshine that lapped my bare arms when I lugged my winter coat home from school. One evening, Daddy announced that we would learn the words to his favorite Christmas carol. My three younger sisters and I clustered around him on the couch. His after-dinner drink swirled in the tubby glass when he placed it on a coaster. “I’ll say each line, and you repeat after me.” He held up his index finger. “Hark, the herald angels sing.”
I liked how Daddy’s eyes, a mossy green, were flecked with bits of yellow and brown. He nudged me. As the eldest, a first grader at Marshall Elementary, I was being called on to set an example. “Hark, the herald. . . .”
“Angels sing.” Daddy supplied the missing words.
My two youngest sisters lolled on the carpet, and Mom took them for a bath. I concentrated on keeping up with Daddy while we worked through oblique terms like mercy mild and triumph of the skies, which, separated from the music, sounded strange and old-fashioned.
Usually, Mommy was the parent in charge of Christmas. She decorated the tree, selected and wrapped all of the gifts with hospital corners, and made Mexican wedding cakes, morsels of chopped nuts dusted with powdered sugar, from scratch. When I was two, she had drawn on butcher paper a seven-foot-high Santa, freehand, no tracing required, and painted his shape with thick poster paints. Every year, she hung the Santa poster on the inside of the front door. Outside, Tucson’s temperature could climb to 60 degrees during December afternoons, but inside stood Santa in a luscious red coat trimmed with white fur, with feathered paint on his ruddy cheeks. He raised one mittened hand in a tender wave.
Now I waved my hand as we stumbled through “Hark the Herald.” “What does this mean? With-and-jelly hosts proclaim?”
A brief smile passed over my father’s full lips. “With angelic hosts proclaim.” He enunciated the words I had misheard. When he asked me whether I understood, I nodded vigorously. As we sang the carol, my sister and I hesitating in some places, Daddy nodding at us to carry on, I leaned against my father’s knee. I decided that from now on, “Hark the Herald” would be my favorite carol.
The patient teacher was my father’s best self, the opposite of the constrained, morose father who had surfaced when we visited my grandparents across the country. I had collected startling pieces of information about Grandpa: that he was mean when drunk, and that when Dad was 16, Grandpa, a retired boxer, had fought my father in the dirt road in front of their home.
hen I reached third grade, Mom allowed me to remove the rubber bands from the scroll of the Santa poster and unroll the paper. There was Santa, with his shiny black belt buckle, curly white beard, and vibrant blue eyes. As we smoothed the butcher paper, Mom told me that Grandpa was suffering from cancer, and that he might not live to see the New Year. I fingered the rubber bands, uncertain how to process this news.
A few days later our family gathered around our piano for a new tradition of singing Christmas carols. My parents had bought a small, coffee-colored upright. Mom decreed that we could each nominate one carol. “‘Hark the Herald’!” I called out before my sisters could collect their thoughts.
“All right,” Mom said from her place on the bench. She led in her true soprano, nodding her head in time to the beat. I sang with gusto, in full possession of the lyrics.
“Very good, Nancy-Marie,” Dad said after we finished.
“I want ‘Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,’” one of my sisters yelled out.
Mom bounced the carol’s opening chords. Dad sang with gleeful abandon, grinning at my sisters and me in turn. He swayed his body and snapped his fingers off the beat. If I watched him for too long, I had a sense of disturbed confusion, things out of sync. “Ho-ho-ho, you better watch out,” Dad hollered. He paused, then gave a little clap. I wondered whether all of the beers my father had drunk since the late afternoon had affected his sense of rhythm.
Mom cringed on the bench. She turned around to face Dad. “You’re off-tune. Listen.” She played a few bars of the music. “You better watch out, you better not cry,” she sang, her soprano demurely encouraging.
“Your mother really does have a magnificent voice,” Dad said. He repeated the phrase, Mom pronounced his singing better, and the family sing resumed. Dad never listened to music on the radio. As far as I could tell, he only enjoyed one musical activity: singing Christmas carols, which he bellowed off-key with a strange syncopation. Whether swayed by alcohol or stone-sober, my father was tone-deaf and arrhythmic.
hree days before Christmas, Dad’s sister called with the news that Grandpa had died. After he hung up the phone, Dad sunk down next to the front door and wept with his face in his hands. His body heaved with desolate sobs.
I glanced at Mom with a trembling concern. She shrugged her shoulders, turned on her heel, and headed towards the kitchen. “He just needs to cry it out,” she called over her shoulder.
I had never seen my father cry before. Unsure of what to do, I stood sentinel in the presence of his racking grief. Above him hung the jovial painted Santa, his black belt snug over his corpulent belly, his hand still raised in greeting.
As the years passed, the edges of Santa’s butcher paper became torn and frayed. I enrolled in piano lessons, spending increasing amounts of time at the coffee-colored upright. Dad complained that the sound of my music disturbed him, until his alcoholism and his anger at the sound of my piano music came like a wedge between us. I quit the piano when I was 16, in part a buckling at his rage at my practicing. By then, the painted Santa was gone, crumpled in the garbage can, Mom emphatic that the limp, torn poster was not worth saving.
After I summoned the courage to return to the piano in my early 40s, I considered my childhood Christmases. The way my father had wept underneath the painted Santa now seemed to have been more than bereavement at his father’s passing. Perhaps Dad also had cried out of hopelessness, for the love he had not received as a child. Despite the terrible events that had happened between us on the piano, Dad had loved me, as much as he had been able. Peace on earth and mercy mild. That evening I leaned against Dad’s knee, and he taught me the words to “Hark the Herald,” I would remember as a true gift.