A Favorite Christmas Memory
I Was 31 When I First Believed
“They err who think Santa Claus enters through the chimney. He enters through the heart.”—Charles Howard, Legendary Locals of Orleans County
“Mommy, look! He’s HERE! Mommy! Can you believe it?” Katie, a blonde, wispy-haired five-year-old bounced up and down on Gramps’ hearth.
Cassie, her three-year-old sister, sat next to her, smiling in that big-grinned, full-toothed, tight smile that only a toddler can manage.
Their eyes were huge and shining, big as lighted windows. Their pink cheeks glowed. They wore matching peach sweatshirts, each hand-painted with a big snowman. Both girls were laughing, bubbles of joy popping out of their round-O mouths, watching in amazement as he walked in the family room door. Transfixed by the sight.
So was I.
It didn’t matter that I was a college-educated, thirty-one year-old working woman who understood reality. An involuntary gasp still escaped my own mouth. He was here.
No doubt about it. He had to be real. It had to be him.
Santa Claus had come.
Jolly, Jovial Santa Was Standing in Our Family Room
“Ho, Ho, Ho! Katie and Cassie! Have you been good girls this year?” his voice boomed, deep and jolly, across the small family room. It bounced around the corners and flittered through the flames of the Christmas Eve fire. He wore red velvet trimmed in curly white fur.
The deep voice resonated as it asked the two transfixed girls questions: “And how, young ladies, was your trip from Kentucky?” “And I hear you did swim team this year?” “Tell me, Katie and Cassie, has your mom been good this year?”
The dewy-eyed duo giggled and stuttered like a flock of twittering birds, unsure how to answer any questions asked by this happy giant standing in front of the fireplace.
I secretly worried they’d report that I’d been a bad girl this year and that this, the “real” Santa, would leave me a lump of coal. Santa, true to his jolly nature and famous powers of intuition, must have glimpsed my uncertainty. His big red hands pushed a bag full of cookies into my hands before handing a bag to each of the girls, rumbling, “Ho, Ho, Ho! Tookie…I mean Mrs. Claus, made those specially for you!”
He patted each girl’s small blonde head, gave a hearty wave, and turned, lumbering and laughing through the narrow doorway into the kitchen, “Ho, ho, hoing” all the way.
We Knew Mrs. Claus’ Nickname
When he had disappeared into the frosty air of our front porch, we noticed the crisp, clean imprints of his big black boots on the carpet. I never did figure out where the sound of sleigh bells came from or why the family room suddenly smelled like gingerbread and vanilla. It must have been those cookies made by “Tookie.” (How privileged we were to know Santa’s nickname for his wife and the lady responsible for the culinary side of Christmas! “Tookie” (of the cookies) sounded right.
Like the girls, I was unable to stop laughing, the eye-watering, belly-shaking, gasping-for-air kind of laughter. I had never before seen Santa so up close and personal, appearing right in our family room the Night Before Christmas. My daughters had never been so utterly enamored with anyone before now. I had never truly believed. Until now.
A Giant Elf with the Giant Heart of a Neighbor
Dickie Pope had been our next-door-neighbor for the last twenty-five years. He was a huge, burly, red-faced, white-bearded guy who worked the barges that flowed up and down the Ohio. He traveled a lot and wasn’t always home, and his three boys, Mark, Steve, and Chris, were each one year younger than each of the three Johnson girls. Like us, the Pope boys were all grown and gone from home. Daddy must have told Dickie that I was coming home with the kids for Christmas. Some kind of secret neighbor-notification must have existed for Mr. Pope to time his visit so perfectly, exactly when my daughters were quietly sitting on the edge of the fireplace.
Dickie’s Santa charade was an act of kindness and joy that I will never forget, but it also brought back the guilt of youth. When we were very young, right after both families had first moved onto Driftwood Drive, for some odd and errant reason, I decided I would taunt Stevie Pope. Why, I’ll never know. He was a cute, freckle-faced, sandy-haired little boy who never did me any harm—until the day I decided I was going to insult him and his dad.
Michele and I were standing guard at the mouth of our open garage. Chris and Stevie stood in mirror image of us, facing us down. Somehow, we got into a word war. Believe me when I say I was only six and have no memory of what I said. I know it was something mean and that I threw in the classic “call to brawl” with whatever insult I had hurled. I jeered, “And your Dad, too!”
Stevie was a sturdy fellow, and when he pulled his elbow back and propelled it forward in a sucker punch to my gut, I felt it. Never mind that I thoroughly deserved it. I went screaming to Mother who had Daddy talk to Dickie so he would talk to Stevie, and it wasn’t even his fault. I still feel bad about the fact that I insulted the nice kid next door and his dad, Dickie Pope, who gave me one of the most wonderful memories of my adult life.
The year that our neighbor came into our lives as Santa Claus is the year I truly believed. It was also the year I realized that while I thought my dad hung the moon, other kids had dads who knew how to sprinkle stardust, too.
This story is excerpted from the upcoming memoir, "The Magic of Ordinary," a personal story of life with a loving father; the universal story of the force of a father's love.