A Poignant Pause to Santa Claus
In an effort to beat the holiday blues, I am running the following story, which I wrote and first published in December 2008, in the hope that it connects with the inner child of each adult, female and male, reading the Blah-Blah-Blah-Blah Blog.
While I do not have a recollection of exactly when I stopped believing in jolly Ol’ Saint Nicholas – as he was embodied in various media images – I can recall with the clarity of an idle snowglobe that the week leading up to Christmas Day felt surreal. Okay, I did not know the concept of the word surreal at the age of three or seven or even eleven. It was a magical time, when my thin body felt lighter than the new snow into which my childhood friends and I would make angels. There was not a plaid wool coat or parka that could stop us from practicing that winter ritual, especially at Christmastime.
It was an innocent era. We would run up and down the block, enthusiastic about the perennial Rankin/Bass TV movies of doll-like stop-motion characters – Kris Kringle, Rudolph, et al. – and of lollipop-bright colors that made for warm winters. We would bid each other a cheerful “Good night” so we could finish our dinners in time to watch one of the programs, knowing that each aired only once a year. In a similar vein, it was a sin to miss A Charlie Brown Christmas, and there was no DVR back in those days.
Houses on my block smelled like gingerbread was baking inside, while on the outside dazzling light displays competed with others. Despite the frosty air – back then, global warming was an unknown threat of the future – neighbors with reddened ears and noses still managed enough warmth to stammer “Have a merry Christmas” and “Happy holidays” through their carbon dioxide mist to passers-by. In this atmosphere, the most outlandish scenario was believable.
So when my parents asked me and my older brother to compile our Christmas lists, we both believed that those doodads would find their way on Santa’s sleigh on Christmas Eve. It did not matter that we had no fireplace in our modest brick home. I just figured that Santa had found an ingenious way of creating a route from the chimney to the boiler room, from which he easily could sneak up the basement staircase, pad across the kitchen, and skulk into the living room to leave us all presents. I used to think that Santa must have studied ballet, for what other way could he tiptoe in those clunky black boots around that lopsided tree without disturbing any dangling ornaments?
All I had to do was brush a branch with the bun atop my head for ornaments and bulbs to come tumbling out of their places and tinkling as they hit the bare, glittered “blanket of snow” wrapped around the faux pine tree’s red-and-green base. My young mind could not bear to imagine Santa getting electrocuted from the tangle of strung Christmas lights and twisted metallic fringe. Who needed strings of popcorn with that chaos?
Each year, I kept my faith in Santa Claus, knowing it would be redeemed the next morning upon my sighting of dolls crying “Mama” and my brother’s Lionel train chugging around the track that made a village out of our small living room. So intense was my anticipation on Christmas Eve that, until the age of eight or nine, I would become so anxious that I would – to put it as indelicately as it felt – lose my dessert. My belief in the portly red-and-white angel was so potent that I was torn between staying up late to catch a glimpse of him and having my nose sprinkled with pepper as punishment for not obeying my parent’s nine o’clock bedtime curfew.
Until the age of eleven, I faithfully accompanied my mother to her workplace – a nearly all-female branch of Ma Bell – every Christmas Eve day for the chance to sit on Santa Claus’ well-padded lap. There I would bring his legs closer to an arthritic state as I whispered my wishes into his ear and then feel his belly roll from his thunderous “Ho, ho, ho!” I had a wonderful fashion sense at that age already, and so I noticed how well the big man’s white hair, mustache, and beard complemented the white fur trim of his suit. His coat was, like, a vintage Lilli Ann number, but designed for men of generous girth … above the belt, that is.
What a harmonious sight! I would swing my annual gift from this workplace Santa: a foot-long, red net stocking filled with toys and hard candies. How psyched was I that Santa had stopped at my mommy’s job for the afternoon before whisking off to join his reindeer for an amazing trek around the globe, including my brick house that night!
When the next summer arrived, I saw red. Not the red of Santa’s suit or of the candy stocking, either. Rather, I gasped at the first sign of womanhood. It was a total coincidence that I had viewed Brian DePalma’s horror movie Carrie only a week earlier – I believe it was a double feature with They Came from Within (Canadian title: Shivers), about fornication-inducing parasites. Honestly, I was more freaked out by Carrie than by the horny-parasite flick, because of what I interpreted as an evil connection between telekinesis and menses. But, hey, I figured if Sissy Spacek’s scary Carrie could make knives levitate, I could use my yet-to-be-manifested telekinetic powers for a positive cause: making Santa’s reindeer fly.
What can I say? The mind of a young writer can be a minefield of absurdity. Perhaps I lived in some enchanted suburb. No, not every child on the block and in class discussed the existence of Santa Claus. Or could it be that my faith in Santa was so great that when those who were naughtier than nice spoke of his non-existence, I simply could not hear them?
Reflecting back – this time with a little less clarity, like the Animagic vista of a shaken snowglobe – I realize that my parents did not know what to do about the Santa Claus tale that they had raised me (and, when he was much younger, my brother) to believe. Later on, I figured out that my father was just going along with the Santa program. My mom, on the other hand, loved fantasy. She was a major fan of Natalie Wood, having grown up with her film characters, and so it was one of our perennial traditions to watch Miracle on 34th Street together.
To this day, I faithfully watch Miracle on 34th Street at Christmastime, albeit on DVD. Back then, the movie was playing on the old black-and-white television in the kitchen while I helped my Betty Crocker-wannabe mom bake Christmas treats (and make a major mess). I can recall my tween self shrugging off the cynicism displayed by Wood’s precocious Susan. And so I said within, and with conviction: “I believe. I believe.”
You see, I had no awareness that I was too old to believe in Santa Claus. At the time, I was still playing with baby dolls as earnestly as I was with Barbie dolls. On my Christmas list for Santa, there was no request for a Nintendo DS, but for new fashions for my four-year-old Malibu Christie doll and diapers for Newborn Baby Tender Love. I was midway between dreaming about how soft the first kiss from a boy might feel and fantasizing how powder-fresh my first baby might smell. Oh, and how I’d share the news of each event with my mom. Looking back, I am glad that I gave her that glimpse into the future, even if only part of it would come true.
I forever will be mystified that, that summer, my mother encouraged me to get baptized. Although I remember the lone walk down the aisle to join the church while the choir and congregation sang, I do not remember the feeling just before the minister plunged me backward into the water during the baptism, which occurred the following week. Or perhaps my subconscious remembers that suffocating feeling because whenever life seems too tough, it is as if I’m being submerged in water while I can see the light above me. I do recall the splashing of the water upon my emergence and my gasping for air as I was cleansed of sins I had no idea I had committed—apparently since Adam and Eve’s transgression.
Soon I was learning more about Jesus’ life and His Resurrection, and being told that I was on a path to being a Christian adult. And months later, in December, it was as if my mother (my non-churchgoing father was silent on this) was equating Ol’ Saint Nick with Jesus Christ. She talked of faith and the need to believe. She had lost me.
Somewhere between my thirteenth and fourteenth year came the poignant pause to Santa Claus. My mother no longer could keep down her dessert, but not because she was anxious about Santa’s arrival. In fact, she was frequently having difficulty with her appetite and sustaining a healthy weight. Despite being mysteriously ill, she promised that for our family the next Christmas would be the best one yet. I have no idea what she discussed with my brother, but she asked me to think hard about what I really wanted. I was a teenager, but she still told me to compile a Christmas list – and to complete it as quickly as possible.
In vain, I wrote down the only three objects that I desired: a Miss Piggy hand puppet, comedian Steve Martin’s album featuring the smash “King Tut,” and a Polaroid Land B camera. I cried an ocean that day because I knew that Santa Claus would find it a breeze to deliver those objects but doubted he could summon up enough magic dust to actualize the wish that was not on my list: to keep my mother alive. And not just long enough to hear me swoon about my first kiss and to coo with my first baby.
In less than a year, Mom had surgery and was diagnosed as terminally ill. Our family was stunned. She continued to work at Ma Bell, and I began going there after school so that we could travel home together. While she had the fate of a tragic operatic character, I had plenty of time to kill watching soap operas in the break room – the end of “General Hospital” (the Luke & Laura days) and the entire “Edge of Night” – until she was ready to depart for home. Every one-on-one moment of those after-work evenings was special to us, and all these years later they are a reminder of the significance of quality time.
It was difficult, however, to be draped in her melancholia every day and to listen to repeated accounts of well-meaning friends, co-workers, and strangers wishing her a successful pregnancy. She resembled a woman in her last trimester; oncologists had given her six months. A working-class parent, she could not actualize the made-for-television fantasy of traveling to all the places she wanted to see before dying. Years later, we would meet each other on nameless beaches in faraway tropical places of my recurrent dreams.
The vicious reality of my mother’s fate had wiped out my already waning belief in Santa Claus as swiftly as the cancer was devouring her tissues and organs. When the claustrophobic feeling of being submerged in the baptismal tub washed over me, I was smacked more than fourteen years back to my voyage from amniotic fluid to the birth canal. Dropping to my knees, I prayed through moist, shut eyes to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This time I needed the Trinity to, in the words of Natalie Wood’s Maria praying to Madre de Dios in West Side Story: “Please, make it not be true. Make it not be true!”
By the time her final Christmas Day with us arrived, my mother had firmly believed that she was journeying closer to Mary’s Son in His resurrected form. There she was, already close to heaven, and we were stuck down on earth, unable to hide our somber faces. She was afraid and unafraid; she had faith. We were the helpless ones, unable to attend church without her.
Cessation of work gave her more time to begin planning her cremation. She had control of the where although she could not know the when. It was ironic that she wanted such spare accoutrements, the opposite of the Black character “Annie Johnson”’s opulence in one of my mother’s favorite films, Imitation of Life, the 1950s remake of which was required viewing in our household.
Funny how I grew up to prefer the original Imitation of Life, released in the 1930s. Instead of a white actress, it featured a Black actress, Fredi Washington, in the role of the teenage Peola Johnson. It is interesting to note that in the original Imitation of Life, the racial identity of Peola’s father was revealed as Black, not white. People tend to forget that detail, yet that fact makes Peola’s rejection of her Blackness much more emotionally complex than passing. And in no way am I saying that it was easy for all ivory-complexioned Blacks to pass. By the way, it is Peola’s mother, the live-in servant Delilah Johnson (played by Louise Beavers), who reveals Peola’s father’s identity – saying that he was a light-complexioned “colored” man – while she is disclosing her daughter’s inner torment to Beatrice Pullman (played by Claudette Colbert). “Bea” is her employer and later becomes her partner in a business based upon Delilah’s pancake recipe. (What else is new? Can you spell A-u-n-t J-e-m-i-m-a?)
By the time of the 1950s redo of Imitation of Life, just as Blacks were still getting lynched in the South and North, there was still no way to whitewash the tragic circumstances of an identity-confused young woman who believes she must choose between loving her mother – and, by extension, herself – and the murky privileges of “passing” in segregated U.S. society. Ironically, the 1934 original is more positive with regard to Black self-determination than the 1959 remake, within the macrocosmic context of real-life Black people being better off economically, culturally and spiritually during segregation than in assimilation.
My mother may have nixed the idea of a formal funeral à la Imitation of Life, but she did want to hear Mahalia Jackson … while she was still alive. Surrounded by colorful, sparkling Christmas cards mounted on the living room wall and an assortment of gifts that would have loaded down the Three Wise Men, my mother wailed and hummed along with Mahalia Jackson as one of her Christmas albums spun on the turntable inside the flip-top stereo unit. I thought it strange that Mahalia seemed simultaneously exalted and sorrowful, her voice bending as the needle popped with static against the record beneath the wobbly metal arm of the old unit.
As the LP spun slowly and unevenly, I imagined that the buxom angel belting out Christmas carols gospel-style also was preparing Mom spiritually for her coming transition. Only one religious selection by Mahalia caused my mother to weep that Christmas morning, and all these years later the reason is midnight-clear: “No Room at the Inn.” Its meaning was not apparent to me then. And just like that, my mom had lost me again as she had done in my twelfth year when she talked of faith and the need to believe.
Indeed, I was lost, in an “Amazing Grace” kind of way, but all I needed to do was turn to God and find peace in divine comfort. Although I could not see Him, I needed to believe that He existed just as I had held steadfast to a belief in Ol’ Saint Nick in early childhood.
Copyright © 2008 By Chantale Reve