Good Bye Santa Claus
June 24, 2013 § 1 Comment
An honor guard of girl scouts flank the casket next to a large horseshoe shaped flower wreath with a banner that reads “Good Bye Santa Claus”. My mom puts her arm around my shoulder as we walk glumly back toward the parking lot, avoiding eye contact with the surprising huge crowd, that makes me feel both proud and embarrassed.
The dead Santa is my father. I am 12 years old, and he is barely 45, when he suddenly drops dead of a massive heart attack. He is a character actor, a bohemian and an atheist, a hedonist and aesthete whose greatest joy in life has been pretending he is the real Santa Claus.
He got this gig from Ira Katz, a curmudgeonly old Jew who owns a little toy store in our neighborhood. I love Ira, when he finds out that me and my buddies love these little die-cast cars called Dinkytoys, he makes a point of stocking the largest selection in town. When we become swept up in the post-sputnik science boom, he puts in a special student science section. We all love Ira and my father-of-three-out-of-work-at-xmas begs Ira to let him play Santa in Ira’s store in exchange for gifts for my sisters and me.
They become good friends, the Jew and the atheist, writing credible backstory to convince the kids that this is the real, one and only Santa, and most of them buy it. This Santa doesn’t sit in some throne, this Santa walks the aisle and gets down on his knees at kid level and speaks softly, lovingly. This Santa goes out on the street and waves at passing cars, and fantastically, despite his girth, does cartwheels and hand springs, grand jete’s and pirouettes, as he bellows out his ho ho ho’s. Yup, this is the real Santa.
Santa and Ira get to know just what all the kids in the neighborhood want for Christmas or Chanukah and they relish sharing this secret knowledge with the kids’ parents. But there are always a few who have fallen on hard times, and to whom the knowledge of their kid’s desires is a just dagger in their hearts. Moved by this, Ira and Santa take the gifts they know these kids want, and after the little store closes, they stay up late discussing philosophy, art and science, as they wrap up these gifts and put them in a big red velvet sack.
Then on Christmas Eve, Santa glues on his beard and pulls on his boots one last time, loads that big red velvet sack in the back of his Buick, and shows up, unannounced, and unexpected at these families’ homes. My father is a big man who needs no padding to play Santa, and his laugh booms in a way that makes a particularly convincing ho ho ho. After he has handed out the gifts, the joy and wonder he sees in these kids’ eyes unleashes an especially authentic bout of ho ho’ing, and with that, he just turns and walks away, leaving the kids’ hearts full of delight, and their parents’ eyes full of tears of gratitude.
The tears today at the cemetery all from grief, and I wipe my eyes as my Mom leaves me at the edge of the parking lot to get our car. I cringe as I watch the scoutmaster approach and I lower my eyes. He puts his hand on my shoulder, and in a loud forceful voice, slapping me on the back in a failed effort at a good-natured gesture says, “Well, it looks like you’re the man of the family now.”
The tears well up in my eyes again, and I look into his grinning face with horror, then turn and run back down to the graveside. I know I am just a boy, and I know, without a doubt, that I am a long way from being able to walk in Santa’s boots.