Frank and the Tutu
A Christmas Story
When I was six, my mom started dating a man named Frank. Frank was tall and he had dark hair and I could tell my mom really liked him. At first, I thought it might be a good thing. My mom’s eyes sparkled when he was around, and I could tell she was trying hard to make him happy. I didn’t know how to feel about Frank, because he didn’t make any kind of effort to get to know me. He didn’t play with me like my mom’s previous boyfriend Joe, he didn’t make jokes or ask me questions about school, he didn’t seem to really want me around at all. In fact, I heard him ask my mom when I would be at my dad’s on more than one occasion.
After a few months, my mom started trying to include me in their plans more often. One weekend, we went to visit Frank’s parents and my mom reminded me to be polite, to say please and thank you, to look his parents in the eye if they asked me a question, and to speak up when I answered. My mom told me Frank’s dad had a voice box, and not to stare at it. When I asked what that meant, she said he had a hole in his neck and his voice might sound a little funny. That sounded pretty scary to me, and I wondered what would happen when we ate dinner. Would I see the food going down? Where should I look? What if he talked to me while we were eating? I was a shy kid to begin with, I had to work hard to seem relaxed and now there was all this neck business. I was pretty quiet at dinner, I looked mostly at my plate or my mom, but it didn’t matter because Frank’s parents didn’t speak to me.
When Christmas came that year, my mom put up a tree. She always loved Christmas. She told me to make my list for Santa. What I wanted more than anything was a tutu. I’d been taking ballet for two years by then, and was sure I wanted to be a ballerina when I grew up. I’d seen this white tutu with a little white headpiece that was supposed to look like Swan Lake. I put it on my list and told Santa I thought I’d been really good that year.
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Christmas morning, Frank came over. We were going to open some gifts with him, and then just my mom and I would go to my Aunt-Louise-and-Uncle-Richie’s for Christmas dinner. Frank would go to his parents’ house. I was happy and relieved we weren’t spending the day with him. He always wanted me to play quietly in my room so he could read the paper, and that didn’t sound like a fun way to spend Christmas. I just wanted to get the Frank part over with so we could go and have fun. When Frank showed up, he looked like a man going to the dentist. He clearly had no interest in exchanging gifts with me, but I knew it was important to my mom that we get along, so I tried. I gave Frank the gift my mom had told me Santa brought me to give to him - a cigar cutter because he liked stinky cigars. (Secretly I thought the stinky cigars went perfectly with his stinky meanness). I didn’t really understand the way this worked, I didn’t know why Santa would bring me a gift to give to Frank instead of just giving it to Frank directly, but I didn’t question too much. Frank grunted a thank you in my direction and gave my mom’s knee a little squeeze. And then it was my turn to open Santa’s gift from Frank to me. My mom looked excited. I opened the box, and couldn’t believe it - there was the tutu, the exact one I wanted! I squealed “Thank you!” jumped up and down, and ran to my room to put it on. After a few minutes, my mom came in. I had just finished attaching the headpiece.
“Make sure you thank Frank properly,” she said. “I did, I said thank you,” I told her, trying to get the clip in my hair just right, and I had. “Well, thank him again, and really thank him, he spent a lot of money on that tutu.” I scrunched up my face. “What do you mean? Santa brought that for Frank to give to me. It’s really from Santa.” My mother didn’t look happy. “Listen,” she said, “just go back out there and tell him how much you love it and how much it means to you.” She looked serious and I started to feel anxious. “But Mommy, I did say thank you. I’ll say it again, but I don’t get it. It’s from Santa, it was on my list. I got it because I was really good this year.” My mother’s face had that scary, twisted up look that meant she was angry. “Okay, that’s it. There is no Santa, okay? Santa isn’t real. Frank bought the tutu for you and I need you to go and give him a much bigger thank you!” I stared at my mother. Santa wasn’t real? I could feel tears coming. “Do not start crying,” my mother hissed at me. “Go and thank Frank and we can talk about this later.”
I went down the hallway and into the living room. I didn’t feel so good about the tutu anymore. “Thank you very much for the tutu, Frank, “ I said, trying not to cry. “I really wanted it.” Frank waved me off. “You’re welcome, no big deal,” he said. My mother told me to stand in front of the tree so she could get a picture. She told Frank to get in the picture with me, but he wouldn’t. My mother sighed and told me to smile. I don’t know if she imagined getting the photo printed and framed as the start of some new chapter for me and Frank, or if she took the picture to remind herself never to date a man like Frank again. He told my mom he had to go. She walked him to the door and I went into my room. Santa wasn’t real. Why does everyone pretend there’s some guy in a red suit magically going down chimneys dropping off gifts to everyone if he doesn’t exist? Where did my letter go? Why did all the grown ups lie about it? Why had Frank gotten me the tutu when he clearly wanted nothing to do with me?
My mother was not pleased with me. She wouldn’t talk about Santa anymore. When we got to my aunt and uncle’s house and my cousins came pouring out the door talking about Santa and gifts, I knew they were just pretending for me. They were all teenagers, so they knew it was make-believe. “I know Santa isn’t real,”I said, “You don’t have to pretend anymore.” They were shocked. My uncle looked at my mom. My mom said she’d told me because I wouldn’t thank Frank for the gift he’d gotten me. I was still in the tutu. Now it was my uncle who didn’t look pleased. “She’s six, Cath,” I heard him say to her quietly. My mother looked embarrassed. My cousins tried to backpedal, they said Santa brings some of the gifts. But the fat man was out of the bag.
It wasn’t the most fabulous way to find out Santa wasn’t real, but I feel for my mother. She was in a relationship with a man and she wanted it to work out, but it wasn’t going to work out if he and her daughter didn’t get along. I can almost see her wheels spinning, thinking she’d go get the tutu for me, and telling him she’d gotten this gift I really wanted that he could give to me so then we’d be friends. She undoubtedly wrapped it for him, too. He wasn't going to play. He wasn’t invested, he didn’t care. It’s such an awful feeling to bend over backwards for someone who just isn’t that into you. And maybe he was into her, but not enough to deal with a kid in tow.
One afternoon a few months later, my mom, Frank and I went to a parade on Columbus Avenue. There were a lot of people, and I couldn’t see, so I asked Frank if he would put me on his shoulders like my dad would have, but he said no. My mom tried, she told him I couldn’t see anything, and wouldn’t he please pick me up, but he refused her, too. I sat down on the curb and started crying. My mom told me to get up, but I’d had enough, “Why is he so mean to me?” I wailed. Years later, my mom told me that was the moment she knew things weren’t going to work out with Frank. Years and years and years later, my mom called me one day. She was still in New York City, I’d been living in Los Angeles for almost two decades. “You’re never going to believe this,” she said, “guess who I found on Facebook?” “Who?” I asked. “Frank!” she said. “Whaaaat?” I asked. “Yes,” she said, “ and that’s not all, he’s married, he has a husband.”
So there is your little holiday story about three people who never should have spent Christmas together.
If you’d like to meet me in real time to talk about ill-fated relationships and trying too hard when you really ought to walk away, I’ll be here 12/22/23 at 11:15am PST or you can wait for the Come As You Are podcast version. And if you’d like to meet me in Portugal in June, it’s going to be incredible, and I’d love for you to be there.