Santa chose gifts suited to my interests at every stage of life with telepathic precision. I believed in Santa. When I hiked in Yorkshire in my late teens, in a world padded with moss and lit with wildflowers, I believed in fairies and when I became Catholic in my twenties I believed in angels and saints and transubstantiation.
Sometime between 1943 and 1945, my father, a navy recruit stationed in California, was hitchhiking. John Payne, the man who, a few years later, would play the ever helpful neighbor Fred Gailey in Miracle on 34th Street, the lawyer who proved the existence of Santa Claus to cynical New Yorkers, gave my dad a ride.
“He was a real jerk,” was all my dad said about Mr. Payne. I speculated perhaps he was anti-war (my father never forgave Jane Fonda’s indiscretions), but researching this post I learned that Payne was a flight instructor for the Army Air Corps, and that he and my father could have been stationed at Long Beach at the same time.
Perhaps he was anti-war anyway. Payne was a religious man; perhaps he tried to proselytize my father. Perhaps he was just an arrogant pilot, or drove too fast, or didn’t offer my father a cigarette.
My father was abandoned by his mother as an infant, and raised in an orphanage until he was 4. There is a psychological attribute of those abandoned or abused by mothers: We are certain you dislike us. We are unlikable until proven otherwise, a filter which affects our interactions and our interpretation of events. Perhaps Mr. Payne was perfectly nice, and my father was somehow threatened by his good looks or his intelligence (he was known to be a genius) or his success. Or perhaps he really was a jerk.
A couple years after the end of WW II, Miracle of 34th Street was released. “Oh, that guy,” my dad must have thought when the movie came out—disbelief unsuspendable.
I don’t remember how old I was when my dad first told me the John Payne story, but I do remember the movie opening with the black and white Thanksgiving parade, the drunk Santa and the real Santa. Ever obsessed with domestic perfection, I remember the perfect dollhouse Cape Cod, the folded newspaper clipping bearing its picture, and the real, honest-to-goodness, white clapboard thing itself.
My father was a generation older than the fathers of my peers. When he said music was from “my era”, he meant Benny Goodman, and when he talked of filling the coffee bins labelled with 3 grades of coffee in his father’s grocery store, and filling them with the same coffee beans, he was referring to the Great Depression.
I remember the movie appearing yearly on the dusty T.V. in the 1970s and 1980s, playing in the background as my dad did chores, made hamburger helper. I remember sitting on the scratchy couch drinking cokes out of cans red as Christmas bulbs, entranced by the fact my father had lived in this black-and-white world of fedoras and good manners and had ridden in a car, unhappily, with this Fred Gailey fellow.
Now myself a somewhat cynical New Yorker, I own a copy of Miracle on 34th Street. My father, Mr. Payne and I enter a sort of uneasy mystical union when it plays. I loved my father immensely yet imperfectly, and miss him most at Christmas. It would take pages to express how much my father loved Christmas (I tried here). Mr. Payne, who met my father and may have been a jerk, saved Christmas. Or Santa. And he bought Natalie Wood the house— that perfect little house.
In art as in life, all good is the result of flawed people’s best efforts.
It’s not going to be perfect, you know. Have a Merry Christmas anyway.