October 17, 2019 | Feature
a collection of memories by post- editors
Three years ago today, my parents flew from Minnesota to Providence for my first Family Weekend at Brown. We had been apart for barely over a month but hugged in front of Soban like it had been a year. I’d never been away from home for that long before, and though I was slowly acclimating to university life and talked with them regularly on the phone, I still missed our little routines: tired morning goodbyes over coffee, watching Wheel of Fortune with my mom over dinner, my dad and I finishing our respective work on the couch.
As we discussed plans for the weekend over bibimbap, we decided that we could all use a little of what used to be ordinary. So, instead of attending all the events Brown University had to offer, we sat together in my parents’ AirBnB and marathoned Will & Grace. This show was one of many sitcoms that had played constantly in my house, a pleasant background noise to chores, meals, and conversations. Half-watching the show and wedged between my parents as my dad recalled the first time he’d seen this episode, I was struck by how much I’d missed that noise. I don’t even remember what happened in the episodes we watched that night, but I do remember finally feeling at home in Providence.
When my parents left a few days later, it was back to my new life, my new world. There were midterms to study for, papers to write, friends to meet up with. But now, when I had the spare time, I turned on an episode of Parks and Recreation I had watched a hundred times before. I brought a piece of my old life into my new and, each time, felt a little more prepared for whatever the rest of the semester had to offer.
“When do you get out of your meeting? We’ll be there in a few hours to get the calculator,” my mom said to me over FaceTime. Thanks to Texas Instruments’s pricing model, it was cheaper for my parents to drive from Boston to Providence to get my old calculator than buy a new one for my sister. It was the second week of fifth semester, and I had just moved out of the only place I could consider my real home into an off-campus apartment with a million problems.
That day, I expected to see my family for a few minutes before they made their way back. To my surprise, my mother came in lugging a tote bag and a garbage bag, and my father a hefty set of tools. My sister trailed behind empty-handed but with arms opened for a hug.
Mom called me into the kitchen. “I got you two loaves of bánh mì. And frozen har gow. And har cheung. And here—some Vietnamese coffee. Oh! I also made you some kimchi.” She pulled out these foods as if from some bottomless magic hat while my dad banged away with his tools. I found him installing a new doorknob to my room, which had been broken since I moved in.
“It closes and locks now. See?”
My sister snuggled up in my bed after pulling a body pillow out of the garbage bag. “I brought you your favorite pillow. And Ollie,” she said, revealing a pink plush octopus: one of my only stuffed animals.
By the time they left, my fridge was full, my room secured and insulated, and my bed cozier than it had been that morning. Everything feels incomplete without my family, but their visit made my apartment feel a little more like a home.
I vividly remember how I learned that—spoiler alert—Santa Claus isn’t real. I must have been seven or eight, on the cusp of realizing that the world isn’t all magic and mystery and sunshine.
We had just arrived home from a long day out at Strike, a bowling and arcade establishment where I spent many a birthday knocking down very few pins but winning quite a few tickets. I remember it being Christmas Eve. My mom, dad, sister, and I often went to Strike during the holidays. It was late, probably past my bedtime, and as I shrugged off my coat to hang it on the back of my chair in the dining room, I saw my mom gesture to my dad, who dutifully went down into the basement. When he resurfaced, his arms were full of wrapped presents that he put under our tree—bedecked in lights and ornaments, a beacon to Santa.
Who, apparently, was my dad.
I don’t remember my exact reaction to this stunning revelation, which means I probably already had some inkling that old Father Christmas didn’t exist (after all, who would want to live somewhere so cold all the time?). But I definitely asked questions—so, who wrote back to me every year in such pretty cursive after I sent out my wishlist? Was it always Dad who ate all the cookies and drank all the milk?
I do remember that the year before, I had woken up in the middle of the night to a loud thump and the creaking of floorboards. Guess that was just Dad.
Years later, my parents asked me, “How did you learn that Santa not real?” I recounted the story, but my mom furrowed her brow. “We wouldn’t do that. Right in front of you? That doesn’t make sense.”
“This is definitely how it happened,” I protested, looking to my sister.
She shrugged. “I don’t know… Would Strike even be open so close to Christmas?”
It was an outrage. I went to my room and dug out the diary I’d kept back then. And there it was, written in my shaky, baby handwriting:
We went bowling! It was fun! Then we came home and dad put presents under the tree!!! Santa isn’t real!!!!
I ran downstairs and placed my diary on the dining room table for all to see. “I told you so!”
My mom looked at it. “I don’t know… You sure it wasn’t just dream you wrote down? I don’t remember.” My dad deferred to my mom, and my sister laughed.
But I knew the answers to the questions I remembered asking. The post office had a special program that replied to children’s letters to Santa. My dad was always the one to stay up, but sometimes he put the cookies back in their container.
The moral of the story: Sometimes your parents, for whatever reason, won’t admit the truth—but you know what you know.
Many kids are familiar with the practice of writing letters to Santa Claus, proclaiming their goodness and advocating for the right to presents each Christmas. I, with the help of my mom, did that too every year without fail. Another regular pen pal I had growing up was the Tooth Fairy. So I would regale her with tales of my labor—my constant tweaking and twisting, prolonged days of soreness and sensitivity due to my wobbling canines, and the elaborate doorknob-string-pulley systems I built.
The best part of this practice was that they would always write back. Santa Claus would congratulate me on another year of spotless report cards, timely chore completion, and getting along with my older sister (most of the time). The Tooth Fairy would celebrate the newest gap in my smile with me and would urge me to take good care of the latest state in my quarter collection—would it be New Hampshire? Or Texas? I would listen to my mom read these letters aloud, grinning and captivated, hanging onto every last word from my fantastical friend who was so far away but felt so near.
As I got older, I started to read the letters myself, relishing in their crisp folds, the festive patterns bordering the text, and the beautiful words and wishes the Tooth Fairy wanted to share with me. Then I began to notice some oddities in the letters—a grammar error here or a misspelled word there. My mom would reassure me in her fluid Cantonese, “The Tooth Fairy is just very busy. No time for spell check!”
One evening, I was playing in my mother’s closet, rummaging around to see what shiny jewelry and beautiful fabrics she was hiding. I found a box, deep in a shelf stuffed full of thick sweaters. I opened it, hoping for treasure, and instead discovered letters. Years of my correspondence with the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus, neatly stacked in the box. The delicate fantasy I had fought so hard to maintain shattered before my eyes. I remember crying, a whole-body cry.
“I’m sorry,” my mom said when she found me. “I wanted to help you keep this magic in your life, to help you believe in this beautiful fantasy for as long as I could.” That didn’t help.
“But now that you know,” my mom continued as she hugged me tight, “maybe I can help you find this magic somewhere else in your life, in reality.” And knowing that she had and would continue to make my life magical did help me feel better.
My dad is really all you could ask for: He’s got a strong-willed code of American masculinity that makes him a little scary, but he’s also tender and empathetic—willing to support me no matter what path I take.
Deep down, though, I’m pretty sure he thinks I’m a nerd. Not in the manner of, say, a bully—more like the cheerleading captain that takes pity on the frumpy valedictorian and gives her a makeover.
That’s because my dad’s pretty much been that cool high school girl all his life, especially when he was a cool high school boy: top of his class, a track star, lead of every theater production, and, central to his legend, asked out to senior prom every single year. Dance skills apparently held cultural cachet among post-war, predominantly middle-class Jewish communities—and, guess what, he also had the best two-step in town.
Even factoring out the two years I spent locked away at an all-boys boarding school, I never stood a chance. My junior prom night was spent eating peppermint Oreos and lazily watching The Passion of the Christ. Somewhere around the seventh minute of Jesus being flagellated by cackling Roman soldiers, my father’s voice carried downstairs to tell me to turn the volume down. His patient, dulcet tones carried a just barely detectable note of sadness.
I had a rough first year at NYU; it’s a complicated story that ends with me hooked on cigarettes while obsessively performing stand-up comedy to homeless people. In short, I decided that I was going to transfer within a week of arriving and called my father to tell him not to attend Family Weekend. I’ll never forget the chill of desolation I felt when he told me not to “lose your youth in transit…y’know, like your mother.” (This is how my dad speaks.)
By the time he journeyed up to see me at Brown a year and a half later, I had undergone an unprecedented glow-up. I was editing this magazine, I was TA-ing, I was running a film society. Furthering the image of my intense engagement, everywhere we went that day—even esoteric places like the RISD Museum—we ran into someone I knew (understand that I know 14 people in total, so this almost never happens). Reflected back to me off my father’s beaming smile, the new things in my life filled me with pride. It was a kind of pride they hadn’t given me before. I wondered if I hadn’t, deep down, glowed up just for him.
When my father left, all the sad, unfulfilled elements of my experience would once again assert themselves—my film society was falling apart, my academic work was unfulfilling. But his validation lingered; it’s good to have the cheerleading captain on your side.