Essay Non-Fiction posted September 7, 2016

This work has reached the exceptional level
Finding out there was no Santa Claus was greatest gift.

Santa's Last Gift

by sueannculp

Santa Claus died on December 25, 1958 at approximately 6:10 pm. Before doing so, he gave one significant, life-changing gift. I know because I was there. And his last gift was to me.
It had been a rough year for my family. In early spring, my father drove up to the house in a new, bright red, dump truck. His eyes gleamed as he proudly announced, "I'm now in business for myself! No more hot, sweaty factory work for me." He caressed the truck's chrome fender as if it were my dog's belly. "Isn't she a beaut?"
My mother pursed her lips, and the number eleven flared between her eyes, visible signs that she was on the verge of exploding. Her voice was low, words clipped and even. "You quit your job? And bought a truck? Without telling me?"
"We've been talking about this for two years, Martha. The county has a ton of roadwork scheduled this year and they'll be begging for guys to haul gravel and blacktop to the sites."
"Where'd you get the truck?" I asked.
He smiled and winked. "Well, Princess, I guess Christmas came early for me this year."
My mother sniffed and folded her arms, jaw trembling. "Santa should've discussed this with me first."
Dad kissed her on the forehead and squeezed her shoulder. "Don't worry. Trust me. It's going to be great."
But it wasn't. That year set a record for rainfall. Dad worked one or two days a week, if he was lucky. And summer melted directly into winter as snow and ice pummeled the October landscape, ending all hope for any road repair projects.
Even a seven year old can tell when money is tight. Bologna sandwiches that used to contain two slices now held only one. Spaghetti and meatballs became spaghetti with meat sauce and then spaghetti only. Mom covered my schoolbooks with newspaper that the neighbors gave her, and when my dog, Pixie, chewed up her favorite, rubber, squeaky mouse, Mom replaced it with a pair of Dad's old socks which she tied up into a ball. It wasn't the same and as much as I tried to coax the terrier to play tug-of-war with it, Pixie ignored me, and crawled under the coffee table.
The silence was the worst, though. The chatter and laughter of our evening meal was reduced to single, short sentences.
"Please pass the gravy."
"Did you feed the dog?"
Looks like more snow on the way."
Mom pushed the food around on her plate. Dad stared out the window. I tried to act normal. After dinner, Dad retreated to his workshop in the basement. I don't know what he did down there, and I wasn't about to brave the rickety steps to find out. The basement had a dirt floor, and I was sure spiders lurked in every dark corner.
I helped Mom with the dishes and she asked the obligatory questions. "How was school today? Did you learn anything new? Did you finish your homework?" I answered with fake enthusiasm, hoping to make her smile, but I could tell she wasn't really listening.
I could hardly wait for the holiday season. Christmas was a big deal in my house. Every year, Dad strung lights on our front porch, Mom and I made dozens of cookies, and we all sang carols while decorating the tree. It would be impossible to be sad during that time of year.
Every night I marked a square off the calendar, counting down the days to when the boxes of decorations would come down from the attic. Santa would bring everyone presents, and my parents would smile again. I was sure Christmas would fix everything.
We always put up our tree after Mass on the first Sunday of December. Dad and I went to the lot on Saturday evening to pick out the fir. It was a special time for just the two of us. I wolfed down dinner of macaroni and cheese, not caring that it was for the third time this week, and ran to the closet to get my hat and coat.
"What are you doing?" Dad asked, as I struggled with the zipper on my parka.
"It's time to go get the tree! We have to get it before we have to pick Mom up from work." Mom had gotten a part time job at Sears for the holidays and often worked into the evening. "Come on!"
Dad's eyes, which should have been sparkling in anticipation for our yearly excursion, looked as dull as dusty granite. He cleared his throat several times, seemed to find something particularly interesting on the wall behind me, and shifted back and forth on his feet as if he had to pee.
"Is something the matter?" I said.
"Uh, I don't know if we can get a tree this year, honey. I'm not sure that we can afford it."
My mouth dropped open. Surely I had heard wrong. "No tree?"
Dad shook his head. "I need to talk to your mother first. Why don't you go get the cards and we'll play a game until it's time to pick her up?"
I shrugged out of my coat. I had counted on Christmas putting the joy back into my house. Surely my parents couldn't stay mad in front of a huge tree covered in lights and tinsel. Besides, where would Santa put all the presents? We had to have a tree.
"I think I'll just go read my book," I said. I needed time to think. Dad sighed and nodded. I turned to head up the stairs then stopped. "Dad?"
"You said Christmas came early for you when you got the dump truck. Maybe Santa could bring us a tree? It could be an early present for all of us."
Dad tapped his forefinger on his chin, something he did when he was thinking. "Maybe so," he said. "Let's leave early and see if he's at the Five and Ten. You can ask him."
"Now you go read. I've got some phone calls to make."
I could barely concentrate on my Nancy Drew mystery. I kept checking the clock. Dad's muffled voice rumbled through the floor in a one-sided conversation, but I couldn't tell what he was saying. An hour later, he called. "Time to go."
Soon, we stood in a line that snaked around a display of Lionel trains at Murphy's Five and Ten, waiting to see St. Nick himself. My turn came, and I climbed the red-carpeted steps to stand at his knee. Being seven, I felt I was too old to sit on his lap like a baby.
"So what do you want for Christmas?" he asked in voice rich like hot fudge.
"First, could you bring us an early present? Like you did with Dad's truck?"
Santa frowned, eyes darting over my shoulder in Dad's direction "What would you like?"
"A tree, please." I lowered my voice and he leaned toward me. "Mom and Dad haven't been happy for a long time. If we had a tree, we'd decorate it together, and sing carols, and stuff. They can't be unhappy if it's Christmas."
Santa smiled. "You know, you can have Christmas without a tree."
"But it won't be the same," I said.
He was quiet for a bit. "Is there anything else you want?"
I motioned for him to come closer so I could whisper in his ear. "Just bring presents for Mom and Dad this year. Mom would like a sweater; her favorite color is green, and a new bathrobe that doesn't have holes in it. Dad needs some new boots, his leak, and he's been shoveling a lot of snow. I'm sure presents will make them happy."
"And what will make you happy?"
I thought for a moment. "If they'll smile and talk to each other again, that will make me happy."
"I'll see what I can do." Santa patted my shoulder. "Now go over to my helper and get a candy cane. Merry Christmas."
I skipped down the steps toward a girl holding a basket of candy canes in different colors. I studied them, not sure if I wanted the regular red and white, or if I should be daring and try the blue and white one. I glanced back. Santa was talking quietly with my father. I had just chosen the red when Dad approached.
"We've got just enough time to walk around the square and look at the decorations before Mom gets off work."
The courthouse was a massive structure surrounded by a park in the center of town. The city decorated every inch with fantastical scenes; Santa's sleigh filled with presents, twelve foot snowmen that glistened from within, and a life-size manger scene. Lights dripped from all the trees like floating candles and the bells from the courthouse tower sang Christmas carols into the dark night. It was magical.
I held Dad's hand as we wandered through the paths, stopping at every scene. It took an hour to circle the building, then we headed straight for Sears. We reached the entrance just as Mom was flipping the "open" sign to "closed." Then she opened the door and Santa emerged.
"Thanks, again. And Merry Christmas!"
"You're welcome," he called back. Seeing me, he stopped short. "Oh, if it isn't Suzy. You must be here to pick up your mother." I nodded. "And what do you want for Christmas this year?"
I stepped back. "I just told you a few minutes ago. Don't you remember?" Santa's head snapped toward Dad, eyebrows lifted. "And how'd you get here? You were just over at the Five and Ten."
Dad chuckled, but his laugh sounded thin and nervous. "We've been walking around the park for an hour. I'm sure Santa came to see some of the children here before the store closed. Isn't that right?"
"Ho! Ho! Ho! Exactly right," Santa replied. "I try to see as many as possible, you know." He chuckled. "Well, must get back to the North Pole. Lots of toys to make, you know."
I looked up and down the sidewalk. "Where's your sleigh?"
"Come on, honey," Dad said. "Mom needs to lock the door, and Santa has to get going. He has a lot to do."
He pushed me through the door. "Merry Christmas," I called over my shoulder.
That night, I lay in bed a long time, thinking about the evening's events. Something was "off." Santa hadn't remembered our conversation at the Five and Ten. I knew Santa was old, and old people are forgetful, but we had just talked an hour earlier. Maybe that was why we wrote letters. So he'd have a record of what everybody wanted.
But it was more than that. I pictured Santa in my head. The red suit, trimmed in fluffy white fur, shiny black boots with matching belt, square gold buckle. Nothing seemed out of place. I turned over, pulled the covers over my head and squeezed my eyes shut, trying to see Santa clearly in my mind. I pictured his flowing white beard, hair that curled around his shoulders, round pink cheeks, and glistening eyes. Santa's voice at Sears had seemed different, slightly familiar, even. But we were outside with cars driving by and bells chiming songs from the courthouse tower. I replayed my conversation with Santa over and over. Sleep hovered nearby and I almost gave up, when it hit me like an icicle dropping off the roof.
I sat up, throwing aside my quilt. "Santa at Sears wasn't wearing glasses. He wore glasses at the Five and Ten."
I knew Mom hated it when her glasses got all water-speckled in the rain or snow. Maybe Santa felt the same and took his off when he went outside. Maybe he only needed them for reading, like Dad. I fell back onto my pillow, feeling a little better at having figured it out. Still, he should have remembered what I wanted for Christmas. I resolved to write a letter tomorrow to remind him. This Christmas was too important to risk Santa getting it wrong.
The next morning, we attended the nine o'clock Mass, just like we did every Sunday. When Dad pulled into our driveway he pointed to the snow-covered dump truck, parked ahead of us.
"Look at that!" A beautiful evergreen tree wrapped in netting stood next to the truck like a proud soldier. "I better haul the decorations down from the attic. We've got a tree to trim!"
I could feel my heart beat faster and excitement tingled in my fingers and toes. Santa came through. He would fix everything.
The day didn't turn out exactly as I'd hoped, though. After lunch, Mom complained of a headache so Dad and I decorated the tree while she napped. Dad didn't want to disturb her, so we didn't sing. Later in the afternoon, she came downstairs, wrapped in her ratty bathrobe. I smiled, thinking that soon she'd have a new one that wasn't stained and torn.
"Look, Mom," I said, taking her hand and leading her to the tree. "Isn't it pretty?"
Mom half-smiled. "Seems to be a lot of stuff in this one section," she said. "It should be spread out more evenly." She started re-arranging balls and tinsel. I looked backward in time to see Dad's face, his mouth a thin line under narrowed eyes, before he turned on his heel and stomped out of the room. My stomach dropped. Nothing had changed.
I wrote a letter to Santa every night for the next three weeks. Still sure that presents would make my parents happy again, I wanted to make sure he didn't forget my Christmas order. I gave my letters to either Mom or Dad each morning who promised to mail them. I thought I caught a glimpse of one in Dad's pocket and a couple in Mom's purse, but figured I had just seen a bill or other scrap of paper.
Each day felt like a year. My parents spoke to me, but rarely to each other. I saw Santa once more, inside Kroger's this time, next to the candy section. He wasn't wearing glasses and his suit was a darker shade of red. I mentioned this to Mom who replied, "Well, surely he's got several suits, honey. Can you imagine how they'd smell if he wore the same one every day? At some point, Mrs. Claus has to launder them."
That made sense. But wasn't Santa's suit sacred? Shouldn't they all be the same color? If he could wear different shades of red, then why not green? Or gold? It bothered me but I didn't say anything. Still, a little ball of fear lay in the pit of my stomach. Each time I saw Santa, he looked a little different, and the fear grew. I tried to smother it with happy thoughts. This Christmas was too important and I needed to stay focused on getting my family back.
By Christmas Eve, the fear was a lead weight. What if tomorrow morning came and I found the living room empty? I lay awake, listening to the clock downstairs chime every fifteen minutes. "Please, Santa. Don't let me down," I prayed. I fell asleep sometime after the clock struck two, but was wide awake again by four.
I crept downstairs, trying to avoid the steps that creaked the loudest, while begging Pixie in whispers to please keep quiet. I padded through the living room, and turned left toward the front parlor. My heart thumped so loudly in my chest, I was sure it would wake my parents. My hands were sweating despite the fact that the house was chilly. The tree glowed brightly in the darkness, shooting beams of red, blue and gold throughout the room. I swallowed hard and dropped to my knees. Light danced off the bows of packages nestled under the tree. I took a big, full breath, feeling light for the first time in months. Santa had come!
My chest swelled and giggles bubbled up from my throat. "Mom! Dad! Christmas is here! Come and see!"
My parent's staggered into the room, looking particularly bleary-eyed.
"Didn't we just go to bed?" Dad mumbled to Mom.
"Shush!" she replied. "Can't you see that Santa came?"
He smiled and put his arm around her shoulders. Time slowed. I held my breath. Mom leaned in and rested her head on Dad's chest. Then her mouth curved upward.
Relief flooded through me and my legs felt wobbly so I plopped down in front of the tree. I picked up package after package, my name on every one. "Can we open them? Please?"
"How about you open one now?" Mom said. "Then after breakfast, we'll open the rest."
Dad nodded. "Yeah, I really, really need a vat of coffee right now." He and Mom laughed as if they had just shared a secret joke. "Pick one."
I grabbed a box wrapped in silver foil tied with red curly ribbon. Inside was a little navy plaid dress, an exact replica of one currently hanging in my closet. I held it up, a little confused.
"Looks like that will fit your doll, Missy," Mom said.
"You're right!" I said. "We can be twins."
I ran to my bedroom and retrieved my favorite doll while Mom fried bacon and eggs. Food was the last thing I cared about at the moment, but Mom only cooked breakfast once a year -- Christmas morning. It was a treat that I appreciated more when I got older.
Soon, we gathered around the tree, and I opened package after package. A red whistle on a chain, a plastic harmonica, socks trimmed in white lace, at least a dozen new outfits for my doll, all of which matched my current clothes, and a patchwork blanket in a white wooden cradle.
But not one package for Mom or Dad.
It didn't seem to matter, though. They laughed and Dad sang off-key, making up funny new words to Christmas carols like "Guthrie the Green-Nosed Reingoat" and "Frosty the Snow Bum." Mom frowned a little at that one but Dad didn't seem to notice.
After I had opened the last package, Dad stuffed all the ribbon and paper into the trash can out back. He returned carrying an envelope.
He handed it to Mom saying, "One more present."
"But I thought we agreed..."
Dad cleared his throat and shook his head slightly. "Just open it."
She lifted the flap, took out a yellow sheet and unfolded it. Across the top in large, black letters were the words Bill of Sale.
"What's this?" she asked.
"I sold the truck. The new owner will pick it up tomorrow. And on Monday, I start work at Wagner Manufacturing. It's second shift but learning to make cast iron skillets might be interesting."
Mom's lower lip trembled, and her eyes grew misty. She wrapped her arms tightly around Dad and kissed him, something I hadn't seen in months.
That evening, while Mom made dinner, I sat with Dad in the big green recliner watching a Shirley Temple movie on TV. "Why'd you sell the truck, Dad?" I asked. "I thought you loved it."
"I do," he replied. "But I love you and your mother more."
Mom fixed my favorite meal that night, grilled cheese sandwiches with dill pickles inside and tomato soup. Unconventional Christmas fare, but I loved it. Ham was over-rated. We washed the dishes together, as usual. This had been the best day imaginable. Things felt good again. But still, not quite right. I didn't understand why Santa hadn't brought a gift for Mom or Dad. It didn't make sense and seemed really unfair.
The question that had been lurking in the back of my mind crept forward and sat on my tongue like bitter medicine. Finally, I just had to ask. "Mom, is there really a Santa Claus?"
She wiped her hands on a faded yellow towel and turned to me. "Why do you ask?"
"Well," I said. "Santa at the Five and Ten had glasses. The one at Sears didn't. And he didn't remember that I had just talked to him an hour before. And Santa at Kroger's had on a different suit." I paused a moment but Mom waited patiently in silence. "And Santa didn't bring you or Dad any gifts. I asked him to bring you a green sweater, and a new bathrobe, and new boots for Dad and not to bring me anything."
"Why did you ask that?"
"I thought presents would make you happy again."
Mom knelt down in front of me and drew me into her. "Happiness is a choice," she said. "It doesn't matter what we have or don't have. We can choose whether to be happy or sad." She pulled away and looked directly into my eyes. "Your Dad and I are choosing to be happy." She paused a moment, and took a deep breath. "And no. There is no Santa Claus."
This revelation didn't rock my world. I think I had known it in my heart for quite awhile. But one mystery remained unsolved.
"But, Mom, where did all the presents come from?" Mom sat back on her heels and her smile told me everything. An incredible warmth, like nothing I had ever felt before or have felt since, swept through me. "You and Dad are Santa Claus?"
She nodded. "Are you disappointed?"
I knew how my parents had struggled this year, trying to pay the bills. They went without so much. But somehow, they had still managed to buy Christmas presents for me. "No," I said. "This is the best Christmas ever."
I looked over Mom's shoulder. The clock above the stove read 6:10, the time that I will forever remember as the moment Santa died. But with his passing came immeasurable joy because he left me the greatest gift I've ever received. One that I've carried with me throughout my entire life and tried to pass down to my children. Genuine love, modeled by my parents through sacrifice, constancy and resilience.
Years later, I shared this Christmas memory with my mother. She laughed, telling me that all those gifts I remembered so fondly were either handmade or came from a thrift store. She made most of my clothes so my doll's wardrobe came from the leftover scraps of fabric. And Dad had crafted the cradle out of an old wooden box he pulled from the neighbor's trash. Still, that Christmas stands out above all others.
Dad worked in that factory for the next twenty years, without complaint, until he died of lung cancer at age sixty. I'm sure inhaling iron dust everyday had a lot to do with his early passing. I've often felt badly that Dad gave up his dream to be self-employed. But as Mom said, life is a series of choices. and I have since grown to respect the ones that my father made.
And every year, when I see children sitting adoringly on Santa's knee at the mall, asking for doll houses or remote-controlled race cars, I pray that when the Myth meets Reality, they'll look at their parents or caregivers with those same shining eyes. Because discovering that Santa Claus sleeps just down the hall, in your own house, three hundred and sixty five days a year, will be the greatest Christmas gift they'll ever receive.

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