Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Audacity of Hope

It is such a blessing to still have one at home who believes in Santa Claus with all her heart.  Her innocence brightens the entire Christmas season for all of us.

I vividly remember when the Santa bubble burst for our oldest daughter.  We were on vacation in Florida one April (I think it was 2001), and she and I were alone discussing how the Easter Bunny would schedule his annual home invasion around our availability.  I must have fumbled the explanation somehow, perhaps a momentary hesitation or an involuntary twitch.  My facial expression might have changed ever so slightly, a tell sign that I was freelancing my answer.  Kids can be very perceptive that way, and Marra was no exception.

There was a pause in the conversation, as she considered my apparently nonsensical answer to her reasonable question.  The wheels were turning inside her head, and I could hear the roar of all her childhood assumptions and constructs crashing down around her.  She stared me down and furrowed her brow.

“Are you the Easter Bunny?”  It was equal parts question and statement, since she obviously knew the answer.

I felt so small.  “Yes, yes,” I confessed, “I am the Easter Bunny.”  No sooner had the words hit the ground when the next domino fell.

“Are you the Tooth Fairy?”

I could see where this was headed, so after my second confession in less than a minute, I paused the interrogation to gather a witness for the defense.  “Cherie!  You’d better get in here!”  If my daughter’s childhood was going to end right then and there, we’d both needed to be present to pick up the broken pieces – not of Marra’s shattered dreams, each others’.  Our little girl was growing up, and we were growing old.

We welcomed her with a hug to the There Is No Santa Ever Long Club (TINSEL, for short), and made her swear the oath of secrecy.  “Tell your brother and the real Santa will deliver real coal to your stocking this year, understand?”  She kept our secret, but I imagine it was not out of loyalty to her promise made.  I think she more enjoyed watching her baby brother buy into some phony-baloney story mom and dad made up, and hoped for the day when his belief would be dashed on the rocky shores of real world, just like happened to her one warm Floridian morning.
My own recollection of the end of believing was not a singular moment, like Marra’s.  My hopes in Ol’ St. Nick’s existence suffered a long, slow demise, a few years of tears before the flame was finally extinguished with the certainty of logic.  There were several years of fleeting doubts, even though the clues were everywhere, especially the clues hidden amongst the cache of unwrapped gifts on the floor of my mother’s closet (I was just playing in there, honest!).  But each Christmas morning, I’d wake up and run down the stairs to find half eaten sugar cookies, an empty glass of cocoa, and a few carrot nubs.  On top of this obvious proof that a kindly old elf had come down the chimney, eaten our food, and fed his flying reindeer, there was always one gift whose source was shrouded in mystery, and that was enough to keep the flame alive one more year.  Never mind that we had no chimney and the front door was securely locked (remember, this was Jersey).  I was pretty sure for awhile that Santa was an invention, but for years, at least that faint flicker of belief gave me an excuse to stay up late and spy the brightly lit artificial tree from the top of the staircase, looking for evidence that never came.

The revelation to my kids that the Santa story is fairy tale represents the first loss of innocence for them, but I know that many more will follow, and subsequently sharpen their defenses against the real world.   There’s the first season of sports when they don’t get a trophy. There’s the first rejection by a member of the opposite sex.  The first loss of relative.  The first time they realize that their parents are flawed human beings (OK, that one might not happen to my kids, but I hear that it does happen in other families).  I know they need the immunities from these hurts that only life experience can build, but it’s OK to wish for a few weeks every winter that these hurts get postponed somehow.

Today, I realize that I do believe in Santa, in the spirit of the season that the big bearded lug represents.  The warmer, friendlier people around the holidays can overwhelm the line cutters and the parking space stealers.  The lights and the songs drown out the darkness and the silence.  Every once in awhile, a pleasant surprise happens, whether it’s as simple as a funny Christmas card, or a re-gift that suits you perfectly.  That’s the Santa spirit that I can teach the kids about.  He may not eat the cookies and drink the cocoa, but he can be as real as you can be.

Lucy still believes, and so do I, at least a little bit.  I mean, somebody drank that cocoa, right?

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