Writer’s Prompt #37
It was the worst Christmas ever, and maybe that’s why I was given a miracle.
There were only three of us left at home: Gladys, 13, Elsie, 9, and me. All six of our older siblings were grown and on their own, so they weren’t with us when we were ushered into Mama’s room. She laid in bed, her body somehow diminished like a paper doll or a punctured balloon beneath the tangle of blankets. She seemed old, illness having grayed her hair and thinned her face and robbed her of vitality, but I know now she was only 52. I was eleven.
I don’t know about Gladys and Elsie, but I wanted to flee that room and probably would have if not for Papa, a lone sentry, standing guard at the door and following Mama’s instructions.
She stretched out one bone-thin arm, beckoning us close, and whispered, “The only thing I regret is leaving my three girls.”
“Then don’t!” My voice, louder and bolder than I meant it to be, had an angry edge. Gladys and Elsie were sniffling, which irritated me. I prided myself on never crying; on climbing trees while my sisters played with dolls. Papa had whipped me numerous times after finding me nestled in the wide, thick branches of the magnolia in our front yard, but that never stopped me from scrambling back up as soon as he turned his back.
I couldn’t stand their sniffling. I wanted to run to my tree, but I wanted more than anything for Mama to be in the kitchen baking biscuits and singing in her tuneless, happy contralto.
She died the next day, which was five days before Christmas. We wouldn’t have put up a tree if not for my oldest sister, who made sure we had Christmas despite everything. Daddy was too far gone in his grief, and time doesn’t heal all wounds, because he would never recover. But that’s a different story. This one’s about my Christmas miracle.
I don’t remember planning to slip into the living room on Christmas Eve, but the tree my sister cajoled us into decorating drew me like the star of Bethlehem must have drawn the three Wise Men. It glowed in the dim shadows of the room as I squeezed back the tears that had not flowed in the days after Mama’s death. Slumping in a chair, I stared at the tree, at the three forlorn stockings dangling from the mantle, and at the darker shadows that seemed likely to pull me into their lonely grasp.
I must have dozed off or I wouldn’t have snapped awake so suddenly. The rustlings, a thump, and the certainty that someone else was in the room filled me with terror.
“Papa?” I cried before my eyes were fully open; before I saw Santa.
Yes, you heard me right. I saw Santa.
He stood in all his round, bearded glory, girth stretching the red suit to its limits, fur-trimmed, immense, spectacles perched on the tip of his rosy nose. His smile chased away the shadows in that gloomy room.
“Santa?” I don’t know if I said it or thought it, but he put his finger to his lips and quieted my frantic, beating heart with his “Shhhh.” Then he handed me, a girl who didn’t like dolls, the most wonderful doll I had ever seen; a doll to make me change my mind. Maybe he meant it to be for one of my sisters. Once again, I either said the words or Santa read my thoughts, because he shook his head. “No. This one’s for you.”
I woke to a weak trickle of sunlight and the excited giggles of my sisters. It was Christmas Day, and a dash to the living room revealed that our stockings were full. I told my sisters later, after we had emptied our stockings and opened our presents, that I had seen Santa. They believed me at first, but in later years they said it must have been Papa. I convinced them Papa would not dress as Santa when he wasn’t even in a frame of mind to put up a tree, so they changed their tune and declared I must have dreamed it. But that doesn’t explain the doll that was in bed beside me when I woke up.
I can’t let you think everything from Christmas Day forward was happily ever after. I’m too pragmatic and too truthful to indulge in fairy tales. Seeing Santa was a miracle, yet it didn’t keep my family together.
Poor Papa tried his best. He interviewed housekeepers, but I was a ringleader in sabotaging his efforts. I persuaded my sisters to cry and break and spill things; to pinch these women when Papa wasn’t looking, or smear mud on their dresses or release toads in the house. I thought he was trying to replace Mama, and I wasn’t going to let it happen.
What happened instead was that Papa lost his store, because this was during the Great Depression. He succumbed to alcohol and grief, and we three sisters had to split up, each of us going to live with a different sibling.
It worked out okay, though. I went to live with the oldest, the one who got us the Christmas tree, and she was the best of them all. She kept the sisters close and made sure we saw each other. Some years were lean to the point where we had to beg for second-hand coats and live off molasses and biscuits, but we survived and the Depression ended and we grew up.
I’m an old woman now. I’ve buried a husband, lived a good life and held my great grandchildren. My own children, who have surprised me by growing old, tell me it’s amazing they’ve never seen me cry.
Every Christmas I still think of the night I saw Santa, and I still know it was a miracle. You want to know how I know? Because, even though I never saw Santa again, I experienced other miracles.
Miracles aren’t something you can summon at will or wish into existence. They happen when you least expect it, usually when you’re at your wit’s end and don’t have another place to turn. They might come in a bold red suit, or they might land soft as a butterfly, so you have to be able to recognize them. But when you do, you’ll realize that all of life is a miracle.