We sat silently at the table. Keith, the youngest of us, was maybe five, six at the most, I probably was around eight, sneaking up on nine. My daddy had said go by the table in the front room and dutifully we waited quietly.
There was no tree in the living room, no lights around the windows, no radio on playing Nat King Cole singing The Christmas Song—a song that unfailing marks time for me ever since I was driving back from a holiday party my senior year in high school and the song came filling the car with a strange sentiment, which in years ahead I would easily identify as a combination of desire and satisfaction. Nat’s voice had a very reassuring quality, and at the same time the music made you want to have someone near to share that moment, someone you could touch in an intimate albeit unembarrassing way, like her hand between your legs or vice versa, and catching green lights all the way on the slow drive home.
When my daddy walked in the room we all looked up, certain that this was an important moment. My daddy was a man of few words, he didn’t joke around and when he told you to do something, well, as young as we were we understood.
It was maybe a week before Christmas. In future years by then we would have already strung lights around the grillwork on the front porch and on the edge of the roof fronting the sidewalk, and during the holiday seasons when we went all out, we would put color-coordinated blinking bulbs in all the windows facing the street, but at that moment there was only the lonely dining room ceiling light illuminating the bare table and the close-cropped heads of my father’s three sons as our giant of a man stood in front of us.
I don’t know where my mother was. She wasn’t in the room. Was she even home? I don’t remember.
Maybe I looked up at the fixture, a sort of frosted glass plate that muted the harsh illumination, the same kind of covering I broke one day while bouncing a rubber ball in the room. Boom, it shattered and a falling shard cut my top lip—the scar is still there, you just don’t notice it because of my heavy mustache.
Then my father pushed his hand into his pocket and pulled out his wallet, opened the leather, extracted three five-dollar bills, gave one to each of us, said “that’s Christmas,” turned and walked out the room.
Nothing further was said. No lecture. No sugar-coating the naked truth. We continued celebrating Christmas for years after that but inside each of the three Ferdinand boys there was a calculator that added up each sentiment, every desire, all our feelings as part of the emotional audit we routinely did at key moments for the rest of our lives.
Thanks to my father, my brothers and I viewed Christmas and everything else in life with cold, clear, unsentimental eyes. We could and often did go through social feel-good motions but the mask of mythology had been ripped off our eyes early in our lives when our father taught us the true meaning of Christmas: give what you can and move on.
—kalamu ya salaam