This Christmas, in addition to jeggings and Nerf hatchets, my children Poppy and London also received gifts from a friend who had been in the Middle East visiting family. Poppy’s bounty included sweets from far-off lands, a tube of Jordanian lipstick that changes color with your mood and a neon green headband that could be worn under the hijab if Poppy owned one.
London’s gift had a more direct connection. Earlier in the year, he’d written a report on Lawrence of Arabia and treated his subject and environs with the same level of obsessive curiosity as he did with other childhood heroes such as Hellboy and Sherlock Holmes. Since our friend couldn’t smuggle a curved dagger (khanjar) through Homeland, she brought a thobe and ghutra instead. When London tore open the gift wrap and spotted the familiar robe and head scarf, he declared, “I am so wearing this for free dress,” referring to the one day in the week students at his school are allowed to practice fashion freedom.
“Really?” my wife Lala asked. “Kinda looks like a dress.”
“I know,” London said with the authority of a man who had done his due diligence.
“Maybe he should wear it to Grandpa’s party in June,” Poppy said, smirking. We’d been talking about the Wilder family reunion and, more specifically, a cocktail party my dad insists on throwing on the last evening of our gathering. For me, mixing my father’s girlfriend’s family, my stepgrandmother and her boyfriend, octogenarian pals from various condos and water aerobics classes, and our extended family (including manic rug rats and easily bored teens) in a house as childproof as a glass museum seems like an idea that will have no other choice but to end badly.
But as I imagined London strolling in like a traditional Arab to a party hosted by a former banker who hands out copies of the Bill of Rights as party favors, my mind raced back to the last time I was in my father’s apartment. It was during spring break and, as always, I tried to ignore the bunting of flags that adorned the old man’s car and his front door, as well as inconspicuous items like pencil holders and cordless telephones.
After all, I am accustomed to his frequent emails on the death of health care, the rise of socialism and the threat of radical Islamists. No, the thing that truly frightened me that day was uncovering a newsletter claiming that our current president’s social security number belongs to a dead woman in Connecticut.
My father’s politics have always leaned heavily to the right, but I recall one Christmas Eve in 1988 when I had hope that his leanings wouldn’t make him completely topple over.
Having just completed my first five months at a Manhattan advertising agency, I’d invited a few work friends, including a junior and senior executive from the company’s Japan office, to our annual Christmas Eve party. The junior exec couldn’t make it, but the senior, Katsumi, rolled up in a limo and a tux, a young Japanese woman in a long black dress draped on one arm, an expensive bottle of bourbon nestled in the other.
My father graciously welcomed Katsumi and his friend into our split-level ranch. I was happy but dumb. It was the tail end of the Reagan years and, as I learned later, the mumblings of trade deficits and military buildup quickly circulated through the party and, for some of my father’s friends, the smell of World War II still lingered in the air like wood smoke. There were suspicions from the Catholics in gaudy Christmas sweaters about this visitor’s marital status back home in Tokyo, but the question repeated most was “Who invited him?”
I’m still not sure whether it was out of loyalty to me or to the Christian holiday, but my father used the same booming rage that now vilifies teachers’ unions to defend Katsumi as a guest in our home. I know the comparison is not pure, yet when I think of my old friend in his tux and bowtie, I see London draped in his kandoora, a hattah tied neatly to his head. My father stays in the picture, too, somewhere in the background.