When it comes to kids' figuring out the truth about Santa Claus, some kids hear it from older kids. Some start to question and go on kind of a quest to investigate for themselves. Then, too, some will ask a parent - and ask and ask and ask, until one year the parent finds the best way s/he can to "fess up". There are any number of ways kids figure out the truth. In fact, there are, of course, parents who refuse to take part in encouraging the magical belief in Santa at all.
I don't want my story here to turn into something that's about whether it's right or wrong to encourage children to believe in Santa. Instead, I just want it to be a story about, truth, truths, and how children can find their own truth and truths their own way.
When December comes around I, like so many other people, inevitably find myself thinking not only of the upcoming Christmas holiday, but about the different Christmases of the past.
This year, for some reason, I keep thinking of the Christmas when "Santa" left for me the "Baby Dear" doll that I, along with my girlfriend, had so "desperately" wanted. It's not the doll that I keep thinking of, though. It's the little, baby-pink, flannel, jacket that was tucked next to the doll that I would later name, "Kimberly". I was seven that Christmas, and my mother had only recently come home from an eight-month stay at a "TB san". (For those who may not know, the "TB san" was a hospital for patients who had Tuberculosis, and where patients with varying degrees of illness were treated but also kept away from everyone else who was not sick in order to prevent the spread of the disease.)
It had been in early Spring that my mother began not feeling well, although I didn't have any idea that she didn't feel well. Pictures of her at that time show how rail-thin she was. Other than that, life, and my mother, seemed pretty much great. It was an exciting time for me because, being raised Catholic, I was about to make my First Communion on May 2. There were "Communion classes" to attend a couple of afternoons a week, and Sunday school was "all about" getting ready for the special occasion. There was also that amazing cold day in March when my mother and I deviated from the usual trips to downtown area of the small city where we lived and made a special trip outside the city to Jordan Marsh, which was the department store where my mother always went when someone needed "something really nice".
As my mother flipped through the circular rack full of Communion dresses, one dress that was particularly fancy and beautiful stood out. It was clear that my mother thought it was beautiful, and to this day I can feel my own, six-year-old's, eyes getting bigger when my mother stopped flipping and cleared away any parts of other dresses that covered up the one we were looking at. I noticed that my mother took the price tag in her hand and looked at it for a moment before letting it go. She said, "Do you think you'd like this one?" She then took the dress from the rack and held it so that I could see it better. With the dress easier for me to reach I looked at the price tag before answering. The dress we'd discovered had touches of ribbon, lots of particularly nice ruffles, and some tiny white buttons that were particularly pretty.
The thing was that I had a great childhood, and I'd always "had everything"; but I was also aware that money was always kind of an object when it came to what my parents would spend on. It wasn't that they wanted me to be "so aware", really. It was just that I wasn't stupid or in a coma. I'd seen how careful my mother was when she shopped, and I certainly knew that my father worked hard not only for his income, but just in life in general.
So, not wanting my mother to feel she had to buy a dress that was, in fact, the most expensive dress on the rack; my reply to the question about whether I wanted that dress was a hedging, "It's a lot." My mother said, "Well, it is, but it's a special day. I want you to have a special dress, so don't even think about how much it is." So, we happily went home with what we thought was "the most beautiful dress in the world". It seemed a little odd to be bringing home such a "dressy" and Spring-y dress" in the cold of March, and I would later learn that my mother had chosen to make such a Wintry day our shopping day for a reason. What I hadn’t known then was that my mother had been feeling really sick and wanted to make sure that I had my dress, in case she found herself in the hospital and unable to have enough time to shop for the dress in time.
The very next week I my sister and I (my brother was a toddler) would find ourselves standing in the living-room, crying, as our mother was brought out on a stretcher. One of the ambulance attendants, a man probably in his fifties, sounded disgusted as he said to us, "What are you crying for! She isn't dying." Neither my sister nor I replied to the unkind man, but the answer to his question was that we were crying because we were scared. We had never seen our mother brought out in an ambulance, although we knew she was sick and we knew she had coughed up blood. When you're seven - or twelve, as my sister was - and your mother is sicker than you've ever seen her, you're just scared.
My mother would spend a week at Massachusetts General Hospital. She was said to have pneumonia. A week later my father told us that she would be moving to a different hospital. I was with my father for his first talk with my mother's new doctor at the new hospital, and when the somewhat elderly woman told my father it was believed that my mother had tuberculosis, although, she said, they weren't entirely sure; I was horrified. At seven, I didn't really know what tuberculosis was, but I was old enough to have seen posters and ads about it in one place or another. I knew it wasn't good.
The doctor went on to tell my father how everyone who had been with my mother would have to be tested, and then she went on to talk about making arrangements for him to put us in foster care. My father said, "No foster care." The doctor said, "Well, what are you going to do? You have to work?" Sitting next to my father across from the doctor, I looked up at the side of his face and could almost sense him digging his heels into the floor as he repeated, "No foster care." The doctor "pursued her line of questioning" (as they say) and seemed to be getting impatient with my father. As the doctor pursued my father first said, "I don't know. I'll figure something out," and then "I'll think of something." As if my father didn't already know all, the doctor reminded him that he had to work and that my sister and I had to get to school. From what I'd seen of people dealing with my mother (which was that ambulance attendant and this doctor), none of these people were very nice. My father explained to me that this woman was not the doctor who would be treating my mother. He said that the doctor who would treat my mother actually seemed like a nice person.
My father did "figure something out" with the help of my mother's sister who, herself, was separated from her husband and was raising her daughter - not much older than I, and who had a physical disability related to walking - herself. My aunt would quit her job, and my father would pay her to come to our house each day after she got her daughter off to school. She'd then arrange to have my cousin come home to our house after school, and both would be at our house until my father got home from work. Both my father and mother were glad to have this particular aunt, with whom we were very close anyway, care for us. The arrangement, however, did mean that my father's already modest paycheck had quite a dent put into it.
To this day I don't know the extent of any medical bills that resulted from my mother's illness; but during that time when she was hospitalized my two-year-old brother, who had been born prematurely, had a few different episodes of having pneumonia and/or febrile seizures that resulted in my brother's being hospitalized for a few days as well. Again, I don't know what medical bills, or parts of bills, may have resulted. What I do know is that a different aunt helped my father provide some of my sister's birthday gift that year; and even though my father never really mentioned money, I was aware of the fact that he was worried about some bills. He and my mother had worked hard to build up great credit, so I know that the worry about not being able to pay bills on time was just another thing on top of the rest of his worries.
Speaking of the rest of my father's worries, those TB tests we'd all had came out negative for my siblings and me and a couple of other relatives. My father's came out positive but not "dramatically" positive. He was told that most people over forty would have a similar result. Mine, on the other hand, came out positive, and a little more "dramatically" positive than my father's. That set up a schedule or regular x-rays for me, as well as a prescription for a medicine aimed at addressing the present of the "TB germ" and a prescription vitamin liquid.
My sister and I lived kind of numb that first month or so when my mother went into the TB hospital. We went to school as usual each school day; but when it came to go to bed each night, not just for that first month or so but for the whole time my mother was hospitalized; my sister and I would start worrying that our mother might die or might never come home, and that's when we'd cry. We had an amazing and wonderful father that we loved every bit as much as we loved our mother, but he was not our mother. He worked, cooked, cleaned, took care of three kids and an eight-room house, and always tried to make us laugh. He sometimes ran from one hospital in Boston to another one in a not-so-handy suburb, or else didn't visit my mother in order to be with my baby brother when he was in the hospital. Life would have been perfectly normal for us if it weren't for the fact that our mother wasn't home. In school I was "the kid whose mother is very sick and in the hospital". That didn't affect my school work or my playing with friends, but it was there, and I knew it was there.
In any case, when May 2 came around my mother would not, of course, be there to see me make my First Communion. I was to be the one who would lead the procession of girls, for no reason other than the fact that I was a freakishly small girl, and kids in the procession were lined up by height. Still, being the first in the procession meant I had a couple of "responsibilities", and I not only took them seriously but was kind of proud of having been entrusted with them.
On the morning of May 2 my father put together everything that I would need, as well as his own suit and whatever my brother would need. My sister was old enough to take care of herself and her own stuff, and I suppose, she may have helped some with my brother. When it came to combing out my hair, which had been set (I think, by my father) on little rubber curlers the night before, my father suggested that my sister might be a better one to be able to style my hair for The Big Day.
My parents had always said they didn't want to expect older kids to take care of younger ones; so while my sister had always been nice to me, she'd never been involved with any "taking-care-of" roles. One thing that I recall most about that busy morning was that as my sister began to comb out my hair I looked up and saw her eyes filled with tears. As she carefully trying to do a good job with this responsibility of fixing my hair for my special day, I felt the tears skimming my face and really wished she wouldn't cry because I was OKAY - lonely and sad because my mother couldn't see me in that beautiful dress, but OKAY (or least OKAY enough).
Once the weather was warm enough we were able to see my mother once a week, and that would be every Sunday. Visitors were not allowed inside the hospital, so my father would pack up the three of us to go stand on the lawn outside my mother's first-floor window, where she sat and talked to us from far too far away. Sometimes her roommate's husband and two kids would be out there, talking to their mother too. I was glad to know my mother had a friend there. She had other friends there who were sicker than either she or her roommate
It was in Autumn when my mother was first allowed a “pass” from the hospital and was able to come home for a few hours on a couple, or few, weekends. Each time she would have to return to the hospital at the end of an afternoon, it was awful all over again. Later, as there was talk about her being able to come home, she was allowed weekend passes that meant my father would pick her up Saturday mornings and bring her back to the hospital early Sunday evenings. That went on for a few weekends until she would eventually be able to be discharged from inpatient care in November. There would be years of follow-up x-rays and check-ups at gradually decreasing intervals, but she was home and seemed healthy even if I never again quite felt as if there was much of a guarantee that she’d remain healthy.
As an adult, I have a far better idea of the kind of financial struggles my parents deal with in those months following my hospitalization, but there was always plenty to eat and heat and lights in house that had to wait for new wallpaper and new front stairs. At that time, though, all that mattered was that my mother was home – completely home – for Christmas, and my sister and I hadn’t had our nightly cry (if I recall correctly) since we first heard that our mother would be coming home..
From what my mother would later say, I now know that what was under the tree that Christmas wasn’t as much as what “Santa” had always left, and would later leave again. I didn’t notice, but then I was so completely and utterly happy to find that “Baby Dear” doll I didn’t care much about anything else. In those days what Santa left was different from what he leaves these days anyway. For example, in those days (at least for a lot of us from working-class families) the foot of Christmas stockings was pretty much filled with an apple, a tangerine, and a bunch of walnuts. There wasn’t a lot of room left for a whole of stocking stuffers, especially once some chocolate and a candy cane were added.
There, though, next to “Baby Dear”, was a somewhat different looking piece of doll clothing. It was the baby-pink jacket with darker pink ribbon piping, some tiny white buttons. There was hand-stitching that looked suspiciously similar to the kind of hand-stitching I'd known my mother to do. I may have believed in Santa, but I'd never been one to believe, or be told, that elves made the gifts he left. I'd been told that Santa had helpers who would help supply him with the stuff he left. Actually, now that I think of it, I'd pretty much been told that the role of elves was to hide places and make sure kids were being good right before Christmas.
So, as I noticed the white hand-stitching on "Baby Dear's" jacket I knew that, if nothing else, my mother hadn't had much of a chance before Christmas to "get out and talk to Santa's helpers", and I wondered, too, how she'd found the time to make that jacket without my seeing her doing it. As she and my father stood by, watching for our reaction to what had been left under the tree; I wanted very much to cry - not because I didn't like the little pink jacket, but because my mother, who had been through so much for so long and was finally home after what seemed like an eternity of living afraid of losing her; had chosen to let "Santa" take the credit for the jacket, rather than proudly just saying to me, "Here. I made this little jacket for your new doll."
In my relatively few seven, short, years of life I'd seen more than my share of store-bought/machine-stiched doll clothes, as well as real-girl clothes; so I saw in the imperfection of that hand-stitching, not only the truth, but a few different truths. I didn't allow myself to cry, no matter how much I felt moved to the brink of some serious tears because standing in that living room, right where she belonged and from which she'd once be carried away for such a very long time in the life of a child; was my mother, hoping to see my happy reaction to what Santa had left. So, instead of crying I put the little pink jacket on "Baby Dear', who had been left by Santa only in a wrap, newborn, under-shirt and diaper - happy and content to think that my "baby" was dressed in a pretty outfit, nice and warm, and safe with a "mother" who loved her.
Yes, I had a pretty good idea about one truth that day; and I came to be certain about that handful of other truths. I spoke none of them that day, or ever in the case of some of those truths. I would instead just carry them with me long after I stopped carrying "Baby Dear" around with me, and moved her from a doll-crib in my bedroom to the place where all childhood memories inevitably remain.