A Christmas Mystery

Every year at this time during my growing-up years, a few days before Christmas, a mysterious man would knock on our door.
It was always at night – he most likely worked during the day – and in my memory of his brief visits it was always snowing. We seemed to get more snow in Boise in those days. The image of the mystery man appearing in the glow of our porch light on snowy evenings is indelibly etched in my memory.
He was a nice looking man and was always impeccably dressed – a suit and tie, a dressy, knee-length overcoat. A fedora lent a distinguished air, heightening his aura of intrigue.
For some reason, probably that I was the youngest in the family and quicker than everyone else – I was almost always the one who answered the door. His greeting never varied.
“Hello,” he would say, politely removing his handsome hat. Then, holding out a package, “This is for Joan.”
The packages were beautifully wrapped. I was young and self-centered enough to wonder why he never had one for me, but never asked about it. In some vague way, I understood that he was a part of Joan’s past that was as much a riddle to me as the gifts he brought each year.
Joan was my older sister and only sibling – ten years older and in some ways as much a second mother as a sister. She helped me with my homework, paid for braces on my teeth, went halves with me on my first guitar. A good sister. But why did she get a Christmas present from the enigmatic man who came to our porch every year and no one else in the family did?
In addition to being beautifully wrapped, his gifts were tasteful and expensive – perfume, jewelry boxes, a Bulova watch. Gifts chosen to please a teenage girl. The only one in the family he seemed to care about was Joan, or Joanie as she was known to almost everyone else. He never asked to speak to my parents, who perplexingly stayed in the background when he came to call, and he didn’t seem remotely interested in me. Who was this guy?
I was 16, my sister married and gone, when my mother finally let me in on the family secret.
“There’s something I want to tell you about,” she said one morning before leaving for work. “It won’t take long. You might want to sit down.”
It sounded serious, and it was.
“Did you know that your father and I were both married before we were married to each other?” she asked.
She might as well have asked if I’d known that they were both vampires. There had never been so much as a whisper of a clue.
“Joanie isn’t your sister,” she continued. “She’s your half sister. That man who brings a Christmas present for her every year is her father. Any questions?”
Not one. The power of speech had left me.
In bits and pieces over time, I learned a little more about the mysterious caller. By then, with my half sister no longer living there, he’d stopped coming to our house at Christmastime. Maybe that was why Mom waited till then to tell me about him. If she’d done it while he was still popping by with presents, I might have asked embarrassing questions. He was clearly a part of her past that she had no interest in sharing.
My father’s first wife was even more of a conundrum. Not once did he or my mother mention her. I never saw a picture of her, never knew her name.
As the years passed and my mother acquired the nonchalance of old age, some sketchy details emerged. Her first husband’s name was Ben. They’d fallen in love at a young age, married, had Joan. He worked for a time at the iconic Hannifin’s Cigar Store in downtown Boise. His last name was Coppes. Ben Coppes.
The rather conspicuous subject of why they divorced was never touched upon. In their own ways, each of my folks was a private, old-school person. Some things simply weren’t discussed, and failed previous marriages were at the top of the list.
After Joan died, in 2012, one of her sons gave me an old photo album that belonged to her and before that to our mother. It was filled with pictures of her and Ben and their friends when they were teenagers or in their early twenties. Even allowing for the poor quality of the old photos, Ben and my mother at that age were striking people.
The pictures in the scrapbook made me want to know more about them. What was their relationship like? What were they like all those years ago, and why didn’t their marriage last? Most of all, who was Ben Coppes other than a guy who used to work at Hannifin’s and showed up at our door, clothed in mystery, once a year at Christmastime?
If any of his descendants or anyone else who knew him read this, I’d love to hear from them. Solving the puzzle of the man on the porch could be one of the best Christmas gifts ever.

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Statesman and is posted on http://www.woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@hotmail.com

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