"Santa's Coming, Isn't He?"
The year was 1968. It was a very cold and record-high-snowfall winter, in Minnesota. One morning when we awoke, our mother yelled up to us in a frantic tone to get up. My sister Dana and I jumped out of bed, anticipating a snow-day from school, because it was in the weather forecast we heard the night before.
That night as we went to bed, the wind was picking up and the snow was beginning to come down in large flakes, adding to the already several inches of accumulated snow on the ground.
In the darkness, you could see the snow build to mounds and wisps like whipped cream, in its own world of artistic freedom, highlighted only by the occasional street light, which seemed far off because of the shadows-upon-shadows that they produced. It is a fantastic world they create, looking like blankets of white-meringue frosting.
We raced downstairs to get to the television. Casey Jones, Captain Kangaroo, and of course Axel and Carmen-the nurse would be waiting for us, to welcome us to another day in the state of mind of the 1960’s Minnesota.
Mom called us into the kitchen nervously. She was sitting with a cup of steaming coffee and her signature cigarette at the kitchen table. She sat, looking into her cup of coffee like someone with terrible news to tell. I sat down at the table not knowing what to expect.
Dana was pouring cereal into a bowl, when Mom looked at me with fear in her eyes. She said, "Steve, I cannot see out the windows. The snow has covered them up."
I looked up from the table, and for the first time I noticed what she was talking about. The light that was coming through the window was filtered with an almost transparent veil of snow. I jumped up from my chair as she looked at me with a smile, betraying her need for someone else to be afraid as well. Instead I let loose a loud "YIPPEE!" Not only would school be closed, but the sledding would be fantastic.
Dana startled from my yelling and started to cry. I grabbed her and hoisted her up on my shoulders to show her what was going on, and she too began laughing.
Mom looked at us like we had just lost our minds, because we were now captive in our own home! It was probably an old fear from the past that freed itself from her genetic memory of ancient times, when her people were often captive in their homes until the spring-thaw.
To us, it was like another Christmas present. It was added time to our coming Christmas vacation. Mother was trying to bring calm to us from her fear, and we in turn were celebrating the new snowfall. It helped us forget that there were still no Christmas presents under the tree.
We had all decorated the tree together the night before with an uneasy happiness. Dad joked that there might not be any presents this year. Mom looked at him with a painful smile and said he was just kidding. However, I knew they weren't.
It had been a difficult year for us, as Dad once again had to start a new job that paid even less than the last one. Things were bad for us all. There was an uneasy happiness that Mom, Dad, and I shared, because for Dana it was the first Christmas she would remember for the rest of her life.
Christmas for us was the one time I could be sure that Mom and Dad would not be arguing again. There would be fantastic baked goods that Mom would make, and Dad would always sneak around, trying to hide each present that he had picked up after work, but this year that part of the mystery was not happening.
He seemed more and more nervous as Christmas was now only a few days away, and I could tell he was not happy. He was desperate. He would try to mask his fear by finding work for me to do, and then you could tell that this idea was worse because I was doing what I was told to do. His hidden idea was backfiring, because as everyone knows, and as he too realized, Santa loves all children, especially the good little boys and girls.
Decorating the tree the previous night together was a time when each of us added their own touches. After we had finished decorating the tree, we would look at our differences and similarities—the things that make a family a family.
In a family like ours, the parents never spoke of our financial troubles with us because of their embarrassment. There was always an uneasy sense of shared nervousness, as our smiles hid the truth of our fears. Was Christmas coming this year?
I was nine years older than my sister, and I had celebrated many Christmases with our parents through very difficult times. However, we were together, and for me that was all that mattered. We seemed to have grown through these difficulties together.
For my sister this was all new, and maybe I felt a guilt that I had never known before, because we never had to worry about doing without, when all you had was each other. Maybe this was the new feeling Mom, Dad, and I shared, and honestly did not know what to do with these new feelings.
We had just moved to Sauk Rapids from the country, and there were reminders everywhere that we did not have the things we didn't know we needed. Dana was super excited, and asked me almost every hour, "Is Santa coming soon?" I would tell her, "Yes, he will come."
Usually we spent Christmas day at my mom's parents’ home, but this year Dad could not bear it. We were broke, and with barely enough to eat, because we had moved to this house after gardening season was over, out of necessity for Dad to find work. Going to my grandparents’ house definitely had a different meaning for my dad, as this was where he was put to the supreme test of courage.
The Korean War could only be described as a training period for this war between Dad and Grandpa. Grandfather had a great talent of making everyone's accomplishments seem insignificant to his. It was a special time for my Dad.
This year was different. Dad had lost his good paying job at the creamery at no fault of his own, and the manager had embezzled the profits. There was no way Dad could face my mom's relatives this Christmas, and Mom was sad because of it, but understood.
This Christmas we would either make it together or fall apart. Dad had found another low-paying-night job so that we would survive at least financially, but now he was working sixteen hours a day.
To Mom, I'm sure she felt like he was trying to escape this picture of failure that she had to face each day with a smile, because in her family, work came second to family.
There was no speaking about going to Grandmother’s house this year, at least not by all of us. Each night their arguments became louder. My sister would come to my room and talk to me, flinching every time their angry voices would echo up the stairs.
Her first words were always the same: "Is Santa coming?" I would tell her that he would, and to not worry. I was getting tired of her asking me this, and maybe it was because I was afraid that I was telling her a lie too. After her persistent questioning she would head off to her room.
I would lie awake in my bed, listening to my parents screaming at each other, trying to pick out clues of what Christmas was really going to be like. I could hear my mother begging my dad to take us to her parents’ home, so at least the kids would have a Christmas.
My father’s pain could only be detected by his anger in his response—"No!" He told her it would be our family, and our family alone that would celebrate Christmas together this year. Dad could simply not face another year of disappointing looks from her relatives, as he had enough of those Christmases.
It was now Christmas-Eve morning, and I could smell Mom making a special breakfast for Dana and I. I met her in the upstairs hall and we walked downstairs together. I grabbed her hand as we turned the corner to the living room, and noticed that there were no presents under the tree.
Mom quickly whisked us into the kitchen to save herself from the impending questions from us, which she had no answers for, and from the three-year-old looking down at her pancakes.
Dana and I were eating our breakfast with Mom, who was now talking about all the wonderful things we would bake together, like her melt-in-your-mouth popcorn balls, which I taught Dana how to mold with her hands for the first time.
The fragrance of spices from baking the pumpkin pies would permeate each corner of the house, taking us away from everything we were worried about.
Our mom had a talent of taking simple ingredients from the cupboard and devising wonderful treats that would carry us through the holidays together, no matter what. She made a deal with us: if we would help, she would make them extra sweet just for us. We volunteered for the assignment with excited vigor.
She would cut the crust-trimmings from around the pie, coat the strips with egg, and then sprinkle them with sugar and cinnamon for a first-taste of the treats to come.
As we sat at the kitchen table munching on our first Christmas treat, I could see Dana was mustering up her courage. She took a deep breath, that seemed to be taken directly from Mom and I, and asked, "Is Santa really coming this year?"
Before this moment of happiness left our mother's smile, I said, “If you truly believe, he will come!" Mom gracefully smiled at me with an uncertain smile that I had never seen before.
It was truly Christmas again, just as I had remembered them from before, and we were laughing again. I stopped eating for a moment and watched Mom and Dana munching away, smiling at each other. I realized something strange at that moment—that I was the only one that truly believed.
I continued eating, watching my mom and sister talking and catching the crumbs from our treat in their cupped hands.
The rest of the morning, Dana and I talked about our plans for the day to come, and I told her I would have to shovel the new snowfall before we could go sledding.
I got dressed for the work ahead, as one does for hard work, and walked outside. I looked at the drift which neatly covered the kitchen window that had earlier caused Mom her distress, and chuckled. I located the shovel where I had left it against the garage door, covered completely in snow, and looked at the feet of new snow to be removed with a sigh.
My father had taught me to start at the deepest and hardest place, and work to the easiest, as he explained, "That is how a man does it". The snow was so deep that I had a difficult time heaving it over the existing banks on each side of the drive way. I worked on steadily till I reached the street.
I looked down the street both ways and saw that I was the first one done. It was strangely lonely; not a car was in sight, and there were no other kids shoveling. I came to the idea of building a snow fort at the end of the drive, in the steep banks I had created from my snow shoveling.
I built the fort with an elaborate tunnel system. It was perfect. I could spy on our neighbors in total concealment, and then retreat deep into the center of the fort. In the center the street noise became a whisper, and I could feel the cars’ vibrations as they drove by.
Everything was a brilliant-white inside the fort, with only the rays of the sun poking through the air-hole at the fort’s top. From the top to the driveway entrance, I built a slide as slick as ice. I would lie on my back with my nylon-shelled-overcoat and fly through the angles and loops of my slide. It was great!
I did this for hours, forgetting about my sister’s questions, and that my Dad unfortunately had to work only eight hours that day because it was Christmas Eve. Just as he was entering the drive I shot out through my tunnel. He slammed on the breaks and almost hit me.
The rest was a blur, but as I opened my eyes I was being held up in the air by my dad, and he was crying. I said I was sorry as he looked in my eyes, saying nothing.
I walked ahead shakingly on the driveway to the kitchen door, and there in the window were Mom and Dana, staring at me strangely.
The rest of the night we were all quiet. Dana sat next to me on our couch as we tried to pretend to watch the Christmas program, “It’s A Wonderful Life” on the television set. Mom said it was time for us to go to bed, and we both looked at each other as we ascended the stairs to our bedrooms.
My sister’s eyes said it all as she looked at me, but I had no answer. As I lay in my bed, I heard Dana walking towards my room. She stood at my door and asked, "Are you sure Santa is coming?" I tried with all my heart to answer her, but I could not, and she turned and went back to bed.
I lay in my bed looking at the ceiling above me, asking myself the same question over and over, "Was Santa really coming?" With all my strength, I asked God to send Santa to save our family, and drifted off into a restless sleep.
A few hours later I heard a large thump on the roof above me. I leaped from my bed and ran downstairs. Immediately I looked under the tree and there were presents! I started yelling for Dana, Mom, and Dad came out of their bedrooms to see what was happening. Still half-asleep, they looked in disbelief. Dana came running down the stairs, screaming all the way.
I yelled, "Santa has come, I told you all!" Mom and Dad walked over to the tree, and they looked like people do when they see a miracle. Dana ran to the tree and started to cry in a hysterical laughter. Mom and Dad looked at each other in shocked disbelief. I picked up Dana in her bunny-suit sleeper and carried her outside to show her the miracle.
It was very cold outside, but we felt nothing. I showed her where Santa's sleigh had landed, and where the reindeers’ feet stood in the snow on the roof. Our mom came to the door and told us to come in so we wouldn't freeze, and I yelled, "look at this!"
Mom and Dad reluctantly came outside and looked to where I was pointing. Through the haze of everything that had just happened, they smiled too. It was the kind of smile that only parents see on their children’s faces when a magical moment like this comes.
Dana and I rushed past our parents to the living room to open our presents. We opened each one carefully, afraid that this all might be just a dream.
Inside the wrapped packages were presents that were special to each one of us, even for Mom and Dad too. Mom and Dad quickly went to their bedroom. At first it was quiet, but then the shouting began, both claiming neither had spent money they did not have.
I tried to ignore them as Dana was able to. It was enough just to see her smile. I opened another present and noticed that the wrapping was very, very old in design. I had never seen anything like it, even at Grandmother’s. I knew my mom had not purchased them because she never left the house without Dad, and Dad lived by one thing, and one thing only—discipline. There’s no way he bought them. Even if he had, Mom would have thought him the hero of this family drama. My sister and mom never left the house until I got home, so it was definitely not our Grandparents.
I looked at my sister, who was looking at me. There were no words, but she knew that if you truly believe in Santa, he will come!