Great-Uncle Merrill, I realize now, was the family effete. As a kid, he was something of an elf; slight, bow-kneed, and rather dapper, but old, with a high nasal laugh that struck the ear like a whistle and bared his terrifying teeth. He lived with his mother, the fearsome four-foot Great-Grandma Albee, until he died from liver failure in his late 60s. Somewhere along the way, the Mormon church picked him up, and (unlike the motorcycle club whose coffers he disappeared with) he was not able to shake them off. When I knew him, he drove around in a long, gleaming burgundy El Camino and like to sing old sheet music songs.
He also liked to play Santa Claus.
One Christmas day, when all the grownups were good and drunk, Uncle Merrill disappeared. Hours later, a pot-bellied leprechaun in a ratty Santa suit tottered out from the woods behind my grandma's house in Preston. The little red-faced man rapped on the sliding-glass door, while most present ignored the cries of "Heo! Heo! Heo! Merrrry Chrrrristmas!" fogging up the window. Those not oblivious with Christmas grog and cheer assembled behind the couch, hiding from this man's decrepit attempt to fill our holiday with love and normalcy.
As the filthy red outfit smeared against the glass, struggling to get in, we steeled ourselves for thank-yous and kisses (exhale at that dangerous point five inches from sauced relatives' then breathe). In a burst of cold air, smelling of mothballs and damp pine needles, America's most crushed and rumpled Santa staggered in, sweating heavily. He lunged at the plastic silver tree, crushing a few smoke-saturated packages under his tiny pointed dancing shoes. "Heo! Heo! Heo!" he screamed.
I never once thought this man was Santa, even when I still held a fragile faith in the fat man, but I didn't think he was Uncle Merrill, either. I thought of him as some nightmarish conflagration, Uncle Merrill possessed with the spirit of the holidays (those demons pressing on toward TV commercial nostalgia), possibly poisoned by Grandma's notorious deviled eggs. Uncle Merrill wanted to create memories for the kids, memories other than unwillingly kissing the scratchy cheeks of terrible, old, grasping men. And he certainly brought down a ragged red curtain on all that, hinting at happier festivities, when Santa suits were new and soft.