There are just two days left before Christmas Eve, so I better post my Christmas poem now, before I get crazy busy (still grading and then shopping yet to be done).
If you read the first installment of my online bio, you know that I spent part of my boyhood in the Philippines. Sometime after I was born in California, my parents moved to the Philippines, where my mother practiced medicine and my father studied law. This poem takes place during that period.
A Photo with Santa Claus
— Naturalized American citizens living overseas
must return periodically to re-establish
residency by living one year in the States.
There were the usual screaming kids, tugging
on their Mom's and Dad's arms, whining
for a Davy Crockett coonskin cap or six-gun
with holster, a Shirley-Temple-curled doll
that really wets. His son's probably playing
in the toy department, the other parents must
have thought about this lone man in line
at the San Francisco Emporium — in line to see
Santa. Between children jumping off
and on his lap, Santa looked off to his left
where a troupe of silvery Tinkerbells skated, the ice
cooling the air of this huge room, a cathedral
to free enterprise. I look now at this photo,
faded thirty years, of the man who livened up
Santa's workday: my father in a double-breasted
brown suit, his red tie spangled with fireworks.
In Santa's lap, Papa's holding a briefcase,
blonde leather fastened with buckle straps.
Papa beams at the camera with a mischievous twinkle
in his eye. Santa's smiling at this marvelous prank.
Everyone in line laughed to see a grown
man sitting on another grown man's knee.
A snapshot meant for a son, half the world
away in Manila. Your son who could hardly recall
your face. Papa, after you whisper your Christmas
wish into Santa's ear, shake his hand
man to man, then step back into the world
of business suits and residency rules, I want
the breeze from the skaters' ice to part your hair
— shiny and black — caress your lovely face
as you glide down the Big E slide, hugging
the briefcase to your chest like a lonesome child.
— Vince Gotera, from Premonitions: The Kaya
Anthology of New Asian North American Poetry
(1995). Also appeared in Fighting Kite (2007).
My father, as a naturalized American citizen (i.e., a citizen by law rather than by birth), had to re-establish residency in the US every so many years. He would spend that year living in San Francisco's International Hotel, among the manongs, male Filipino immigrants who had established this bachelor community on the edge of Chinatown.
During one of those residency trips, my father sent me a photo of him on Santa's lap at the Emporium department store, just as described in the poem. I no longer have this photo, but I remember it vividly as one of the defining images of my childhood. It's memorable not only because, as the poem says, it's a "marvelous prank," but because it shows Papa's love for me: Filipinos can be very shy, almost to the point of shame, a profound cultural emotion called hiya, and the very fact that Papa did this, despite his hiya, says volumes about what he would do for his absent son.
Papa and I never talked about the Santa event that I can remember. And so all the details are wholly imagined. The word "blonde" (female rather than the more accepted "blond") is intentional; the manongs had a slang term for their white girlfriends — "blondies" — and I don't doubt that Papa, himself a kind of honorary manong, had blondies.
The poem is also about manhood and the dignity of work. My father, as a Filipino immigrant citizen, was not always able to work in the US at a profession he felt he could respect. At the time the Santa photo was taken, however, he was working as a civil servant for the Navy and was quite happy during his residency year. By having Papa and Santa shake hands "man to man," I am symbolically lifting my father out of the daily experiences of racial prejudice he probably had during those times — the late 1950s. The poem is thus simultaneously familial and political.
As I said in my last post, I'll leave other fruits of this poem for others to pick. I'll just leave off now by saying, "Merry Christmas!" Go sit on Santa's lap. It'll make your day and his!
NOTE: the graphic above is from artist Charley Parker's website Lines and Colors, showing the work of four Santa illustrators. Starting at top left, clockwise, the images are by
Thomas Nast, J. C. Leyendecker, Norman Rockwell,and Haddon Sundblom(for Coca-Cola).