Everything is ready for Santa's visit. As we try to put Z to sleep so Santa can come, I was thinking about the Christmases I knew growing up. Z will never know those types of Christmases. I'll make sure of that.
THE YEAR WITH(OUT) A SANTA CLAUSE
I was thirteen or fourteen that year. It was the year I was baptized and the year my family lived in a small ranch style house in a neighborhood most people wouldn’t venture into during the day, let alone at night. Our street sat right on the dividing line between the territories of two rival gangs. No, this wasn’t New York, L.A., or even Chicago. It was a relatively small Midwest town who had seen recent influxes of people from the larger cities like Detroit and Chicago. With these new comers came the gangs. But oddly enough they didn’t bother us. Our street was neutral territory. And the gangs aren’t what I wanted to talk about.
We were very poor that year. Not just “things are tight” poor, but “the cupboards are bare” poor. We often ate only one meal a day because there was very little food. Breakfast or lunch had to be scrounged from left-overs in the fridge or were limited to buttered toast with government surplus butter and the twenty-five cent loaves of white bread from the day old store. The recession of the 80’s was hurting everyone. Almost no one we knew still had a job as most of the plants in town had closed down. Our small town lost General Electric, Hyster, Caterpillar, General Motors, Quaker Oats and even our Chuckles plant. (Remember the little gummy candies in the pack with assorted flavors? My grandmother worked for 30 years making those things. But that’s another story.)
Christmas? No way. We kids knew how bad things were and we didn’t even talk about presents. As the oldest of the kids I knew that while some of the younger ones still thought Santa would remember them, they were in for a big disappointment.
One day my stepfather came home from helping a friend who hauled off people’s trash to help earn extra money. That day he came home with the back of the truck filled with scrap lumber. He called us out to help unload it and I thought he was crazy piling up old pieces of wood. That night after my siblings had gone to bed, he put on his coat and went outside. He came in with an armful of wood. Now I was sure he was crazy.
He cleared off the table and laid it out. With a pencil he began drawing a pattern on a piece of cardboard. It took only a few minutes for me to be enthralled watching. I love woodworking. I love the smell of the wood, the feel of it, how it smooths itself and how the creations take shape. If I’d have been a boy, I’d probably have become a carpenter. After letting me watch for about a half an hour as he used his scroll saw to cut out the patters he looked up at me. After a long pause he handed me the piece he’d cut out and a piece of sandpaper. “If you’re going to watch, you might as well help.” And I did.
That December I helped him make doll cradles for my sisters and a rocking horse for my brother from the bits and pieces he had scrounged from other people’s trash. We stained them, painted them and lined them with scraps of a garish blue velvet that had also been salvaged. I helped my mom sew little mattresses. I helped my stepfather glue yarn my grandmother gave us to the horse for a main and a tail. The same blue velvet lined the rocking horse’s saddle. We kept all of this hidden during the day and pulled it out at night to work on after everyone was asleep.
A couple of days before Christmas, my mother stood in line at the Salvation army and picked out a couple of second hand dolls. She brushed their hair, cleaned their plastic bodies and my grandmother sewed simple little dresses for them from scraps. On Christmas Eve I helped arrange these treasures under the tree and went off to bed. There would be nothing for me the next day when I awoke, but it felt so very good to know the younger kids would awake to find that Santa hadn’t forgotten them after all.
When morning came I followed them into the living room. I couldn’t completely suppress my disappointment that there would be no gift for me, but I tried hard not to let it show. To my amazement there was a rectangular wooden box sitting under the tree. It had been pieced together from strips of wood, stained a dark walnut color and the words “Holy Bible” had been burned into the top and outlined with gold paint. I lifted the lid to find the same blue velvet lining and a white Bible. I didn’t care that the Bible had been bought cheap because someone had ordered it with their name and not picked it up. I didn’t care that the name on it wasn’t mine.
My father had left my mother and me before I was two. He never had any contact with me and I could pass him on the street today and never know. All my life I had felt the void. But in that moment I realized the man sitting on the sofa smiling smugly was trying in every way he knew how to be a father for me. I realized that despite all the problems we had, he thought of me as his daughter. He and I had worked into the early hours of the morning on the kids toys. This gift meant he had stayed up even later to finish this for me.
Santa Claus came that year to our house. He didn’t just bring dolls, cradles and a rocking horse. He brought us a father.