I know I've posted this a couple times, but it's Christmas...
And this story is about my Gramps--one of my all time favorite people...
The Perfect Santa
I hadn’t seen him in almost forty years but there he was, waving at me from the cover of a greeting card. Perfection. He bore no hat on his bald head and his beard flowed fat and fluffy. A magical twinkle glimmered in one eye while the other closed in a saucy wink. Just the way I remembered him. I’d been five when I'd first seen him, but I remembered every detail with vivid clarity.
My mother and I moved into my grandfather’s old farmhouse after my parents separated. We displaced my mother's twin sisters when we put our bed in their room. As a result, the tension in the house hovered like another person in the too full house. Mother harbored angry feelings toward my father, my aunts routinely expressed anger about having to share a room, and I missed my dad.
Living in a house with three women, I had too many bosses so I spent most of my days outside, trying to hide in an effort to stay out of trouble. They constantly reminded me that Santa would bring me nothing but a ‘sack full of switches.’ It was only natural that I wouldn’t be looking especially forward to his visit.
That December, the weather roared into our rural area, uncharacteristically cold and bitter. I felt more excited about wearing my new fur hat than about any visit from Ole St. Nick. The prior Christmas, I'd found a sweater and a set of paper-dolls under the tree. Those old presents couldn’t compete with my new fuzzy head-piece with its big shiny sequins. I loved to skip into the sparkling lights the sun created when it reflected off the sequins. My father had sent me the hat. Naturally my mother hated it, but it didn’t matter.
My hat was not my only source of entertainment. When the house became unbearable, I’d escape to the barn and amuse myself. I’d become a master chef, creating amazing pies and cakes out of mud and corn kernels; I’d be a major-general, leading my troops to victory against hordes of Nazi soldiers; or, I’d imagine myself a fairy queen, turning dandelions into roses with a single swish of a twiggy wand. I possessed an active imagination, which I hid carefully because my mother didn’t appreciate my flights of fancy.
I might hide my activities, but I never lied because Gramps said I must always tell the truth. I idolized my grandfather and followed him to the fields whenever I could. Not only did he never scold me, Gramps often provided a buffer between the three screeching women and me. He’d whisk me away just in time to avoid a spanking or he’d show me a new baby calf and let me help with the milking. Best of all, he told the most wonderful stories. At least once each week, he’d take a break from the rigors of farm life to sit by the fire and tell me a tale. I would sit in his lap, mesmerized by his voice and the characters he imitated. Even my teenage aunts often stopped doing teenaged things to listen.
One night in mid-December, Gramps finished his latest story about a ‘giant toe.’ I’d started to sweat because the fire crackled and I still wore my new hat. Gramps just sat there instead of going to bed like he usually did. My aunts, who were still in high school, went to their small room to do homework and my mother hadn’t come home from her second-shift job at the factory. Just Gramps and me.
“So, Teensie, what do you want Santa to bring you?”
I took off my hat and concentrated intensely on a sparkly sequin, trying not to cry. I wasn't sure how to tell Gramps about the switches.
When I didn’t respond, Gramps asked, “Teensie, what’s wrong with you?”
“Santa won’t come to see me, Gramps. I’ve been bad.”
He started to laugh but stopped abruptly when he looked at my serious face. I'm sure he feared I might start sobbing. He put on his straight face and asked, “And just what have you done that’s so bad?”
“Well, I wrinkled Aunt Judie’s throw rugs and I got finger prints all over the coffee table after Aunt June dusted it. I got mud on my new shoes and I wore my hat when Mama said I shouldn’t.” I spewed forth, a litany of my transgressions.
I stopped rambling long enough to wipe my nose on my sleeve. “And, Gramps. That’s just stuff I did today. I can’t even ‘member all the stuff I did yesterday.”
He stared at me for a few seconds and I just knew he thought I would get those switches after all. Maybe he'd feel bad for me and we could have some chocolate milk on Christmas and just forget about ole Santa.
He finally said, “By-the-By,” That was one of his favorite expressions but I had no idea what it meant. “Teensie, you must try to mind your Mama and your aunts, but you must also remember, Santa looks at your heart, child. He only cares that your intentions are good.”
I looked up in wonder. “You mean?”
“Yep. Santa doesn’t care about throw rugs and coffee tables. He wants you to have a good heart and do your best. Have you done that?”
“Oh, yes.” I began to feel pretty good.
“And have you told any lies?”
“Not a one!” Then, I felt really good.
“Then I’m sure Santa will bring you something nice.”
I hugged Gramps and went happily to bed. I didn’t sleep though. I sat up under my covers and tried to imagine what Santa might bring. If I stayed away from the rugs and coffee table, maybe my aunts would help me make some chocolate oatmeal cookies for him.
I tried to imagine Santa eating that cookie, but I didn’t know exactly what he looked like. I knew he had a beard, wore fancy red clothes, and came down the chimney, but additional details were sketchy. I finally fell asleep trying to remember to remind Gramps that we must put the fire out on Christmas Eve.
On December twenty-fourth, my aunts and I sat around our Christmas tree eating chocolate and biscuits. Mama and Gramps had already gone to their rooms and Jingle Bell Rock played on the old radio. I hummed along, cutting paper dolls from an old catalog. Aunt June looked up from her photo album and asked. “Shouldn’t you be going to bed?”
“I’m not sleepy. Besides, I have to make sure the fire goes out.” Both aunts snickered.
June went back to her album and Judie stuck her head back in her magazine that had a picture of a man and a woman kissing on the cover. I was cutting out another dress for my paper-doll when something in the window caught my eye. There he was. Santa!
His bald head shown in the darkness and I wondered if I should loan him my new hat. He had rosy cheeks, a long glittering beard, and the brightest red coat I’d ever seen. I quickly looked at my aunts to see if they’d seen him, but they were still absorbed in their photographs and magazines. I looked back at the window. Santa held his finger to his lips and winked at me. Then, just like that, he was gone. I checked again to see if my aunts had noticed but they were still doing teenage things. After a quick check of the fireplace to make sure there were only coals, I ran to bed and pulled the covers over my head. Christmas would be wonderful. I had seen Santa.
As years passed, memories of that Christmas Eve faded. The greeting card brought them all
I stood by his grave and tried to tell him how much I'd miss him, but I couldn't speak. I knew Gramps understood. He always understood, and his understanding made me believe in myself. I whispered a prayer of thanks.
As I addressed Christmas cards, I took a break and called my Aunt June. After we talked about the kids and the weather, I asked her about that Christmas, “When I was five, was that Gramps who dressed up as Santa?”
“What are you talking about?”
“That Christmas when I was five, there was a Santa at the window. Was that Gramps?”
My aunt was silent for a few seconds. “No one ever dressed up as Santa. Even if we could have afforded to rent or buy a Santa Claus suit, your mother would never have allowed it. You know that.”
“Are you sure?” I persisted. “I’m sure I saw a Santa outside the window.”
“I promise you. While we lived in the farmhouse, there was never a Santa.”
Oh, but there was! After I hung up, I looked out the window. It had started to snow and once again, I believed. ----------------------------