“Weird Santa,” by Liyou Mesfin Libsekal

Dec 25th, 2018 | By | Category: Nonfiction, Prose

In my early twenties, I had a Franco-American boyfriend who, despite what his background might suggest, knew very little about the world. Once, he found a childhood picture of me sitting on a black Santa’s lap and almost gave himself an aneurism. I watched him convulse, all thirty two of his little brown teeth exposed, the vein on his temple threatening to pop over a man in a bad wig. A black Santa, the hilarity! I, of course, didn’t think it was weird at all. But then again, no one had a weirder Santa than my family. Our Weird Santa came year round, and he took cramped commercial flights instead of the usual herd of reindeer.

Our father was King of Airport Gifts. He was Lord of the Duty Free. Whenever he came home from a work trip, we could count on a few staples to be in his Samsonite carry-on. There was Toblerone, which I disliked but accepted because it wouldn’t be fair if my sister got it all. Then there were a few knick knacks from whatever city he’d been in: a giraffe bookmark from Kampala, a pencil case with “Denmark” written in red and white from Copenhagen, bookends from Nairobi, and so on.

The last staples were t-shirts from tourist shops. These were our favorite because they made up our nighttime wardrobe. Even our mother, whose sleepwear in our early childhood consisted of long silky gowns that made her look like one of those elegant, cunning women in the soaps, started throwing Hakuna Matata shirts over her slinky nightwear.  We looked forward to those t-shirts more than we looked forward to our Christmas gifts. We crowded around our father the second he stepped in the door; he was our Airport Santa Clause, and we loved him for it. It wasn’t until we got older that the gifts started raising eyebrows.

The first time we began to question our father’s gift giving abilities, was the day he came home from a two-week trip to France. We had just moved to Italy at the time, and our mother hated to drive there so she took the train to meet our father at the airport. The way she tells it, it started with a smell; one that followed them onto the metro. Our mother, having a weak stomach for strong smells, switched seats, but it did nothing to resolve the issue. So, she put her scarf over her mouth and nose and choked all the way home. Our dad sat with her, and said nothing about the whole thing. It wasn’t until the two of them got into the elevator of our building that my mother realized that the smell was coming from our father.

When our parents walked in the door that afternoon, my sister and I were already waiting. But the smell walked through the door before our father did. It hit us like a stinky French freight train. “What is that?” my sister asked, looking our father over for evidence of rot.

“Whad is iiiid?” I asked, holding my nose.

“You see?” my mother said, pointing to her confused children. She didn’t know why he didn’t just come out with it. What did he have in the suitcase? I think my father wanted it to be a surprise because he refused to say until he could open the suitcase up and hand my mother, a half a kilo of ripe Camembert cheese.

When our father opened that suitcase, my sister and I knew whatever Eiffel Tower t-shirt, whatever Parisian print was in there, it was unsalvageable. We were devastated, and angry with our father for his choices. It might seem cruel, because Dad had only done this because he knew our mother liked cheese. And I suspect he imagined they would enjoy it together over a period of months with the glass of wine they drank every night, but my mother banned it from the apartment. We all did. Throw it out! We demanded as the smell spread over our small apartment. Throw it out! My sister and I were on the verge of tears. Something was wrong; people didn’t eat this! Our father had made a mistake! We rushed to shut our bedroom doors, a pathetic attempt to salvage some good air. He had to throw it out!

Eventually our mother let Dad keep the Camembert in the mini fridge on the little balcony outside the kitchen. And from then on, if our father was seen heading to the kitchen, the whole apartment went still. We would watch him as he gathered a small plate and some crackers and sauntered out like a sad bulldog.

“Dad’s going for the Camembert again!” one of us would shout, and someone would keep watch as he stood out in the Italian winter, making sure he didn’t come back inside with a single morsel. He’d go out there in his big coat and cut into that hunk of Satan’s breath, cheese-ified. And we wouldn’t let him back inside until his plate was empty, and the mini fridge was shut tight.

I don’t know how long it took our father to eat all that cheese by himself in short, cold, bursts; but he was determined to not be beaten. Besides, if he threw it away, the neighbors might think we had killed something.

A couple of years after the Camembert incident, our father came home from a trip to Denmark with a peculiar find. It’s worth mentioning that our father never had a knack for shopping. Not the way some other men don’t; our father has a very specific kind of inadequacy. An obliviousness that manifests the second he walks into a store. He’s not one to read labels or packaging, but he will read any kind of manual cover to cover. So when he came home with two large hoodies in place of t-shirts, we should have known something was bound to go wrong. The sizes alone showed us they must have been a last minute purchase. They were essentially made to fit Viking-sized men.

When my sister received her olive green hoodie, she had a startled look about her. She looked up at our father, and then at our mother, and then back at the sweater. At that point, I abandoned my own, and tugged at hers.

My sister has always been the sweet child. She has a kind of softness, the kind of heart that would never risk hurting someone she loved. She yanked the sweater away from me, knowing that my mouth kept me from having the same disposition, and put on her best smile. “Thank you daddy,” she said, in a honeysuckle voice.  

Daddy? I thought; she never called him that. I looked at my sister, who was looking up at our father, a toothy smile plastered on her face; something was up. I looked down at my own sweater, in the center, was embroidered the cast of South Park. I looked up at my father; at twelve and thirteen, our parents would have never allowed us to watch a show like South Park. In fact, they found all adult cartoons disturbing. They didn’t understand them. Neither did I really, but what I did understand was that my father saw a bunch of cartoon characters on a sweatshirt and thought, this will do for the twelve year old.

I decided I quite liked my sweater. My mother looked at it, trying to remember something she couldn’t quite put her finger on. I felt sad thinking of my dad out there on his own, in the harsh Danish winter, his eyes glazed over like a zombie’s, buying oversized hoodies in a rush. I beamed like one of those toddlers in tiaras. “Oh, thank you, daddy!” And followed my sister to her room, where she held the olive green sweater up in front of me. Printed on it, in black: 69. Underneath: Pervert.

2002 was a different time, so neither my sister nor I understood the 69 part of the whole thing, but we sure as hell knew what a pervert was. My sister wore that sweater around the house for years before any one of our parents ever noticed, or rather before I pointed it out to my mother and she held it up in front of my father and tried not to laugh as it all sunk in.

Not noticing things was typical for our father. When our mother had taken us to pierce several new holes in our ears after months of our father saying no, he didn’t notice for two months. And even that was because we felt bad and confessed.

Either way, those years are imprinted in my mind: My thirteen-year-old sister drawing cartoon cows on her desk: 69 Pervert. My fourteen-year-old sister eating Coco Pops on Sunday morning: 69 Pervert. My fifteen-year-old sister painting her nails alternating colors: 69 Pervert. Our parents still don’t know what the 69 part of the sweater is about, and they don’t ever need to. As for my sister, she still wears her pervert sweater whenever she comes home. And sometimes, I spot our mother doing a bit of gardening, “69 Pervert” proudly on her chest.

When we left Italy, our father went to Sudan, and the rest of us went home to Ethiopia, where there were better schools. That first year apart, our father came home for Christmas with two hand puppet monkeys wearing Santa hats. One for each of his daughters. I was fifteen; and my sister, seventeen. He hadn’t bought us toys since we were preteens, and suddenly, as we neared adulthood, the plush toys abounded. The following year, he came home for Easter, and with him came a little duckling that sang a quacking song.

Maybe our father didn’t know how to cope with his children growing up. Perhaps he was trying to hold on to the last bit of childhood we had left because after high school graduations, the plush toys stopped. And the gifts became silk fabrics from Thailand, small rugs from Afghanistan, and we knew he had gotten a good grip on himself.

Sometimes I think about all the gifts we’ve gotten throughout our father’s years of travel, and wonder what went unnoticed. After all, my mother only recently noticed that out of the ten or so candlestick holders my father bought for her miniature nativity scene in the Christmas of 2003, four of them resembled fertility idols. Elegant little pagan creatures carved in dark wood, honking their pointy wood tits at the baby Jesus.


Liyou Mesfin Libsekal is an Ethiopian writer living in Addis Ababa. She writes poetry and essays.

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