What follows is a Christmas story from my family that I published in my Post-Star “Over My Shoulder” Column for December 21, 1994. Hope you enjoy it!
A very special Santa
My mother had a little ornament that she placed on the Christmas tree each year, a tiny cotton Santa that she said she had placed on her tree from the time she was a little girl. The little Santa was, truthfully, in sad shape for its years of wear. But it was one of “those things,” something given a special meaning when my mother was so little. Why, no one knew. Not even Mom.
As I grew older, with each Christmas I came to look forward to that Santa being placed gently on a high bough, nestled securely to prevent shrieking children, or cats, from knocking it to the floor. Without realizing it, a part of her childhood Christmases gradually became a part of her children’s. It was a good feeling.
The tiny Santa moved a lot over the years. From my mother’s birthplace in Mechanicville, it went to Saratoga, then to Fort Edward and then Ticonderoga, at each juncture adding children and years to its life. It sagged and it drooped and it faded. Yet it survived, tying each new Christmas into the ones that had passed.
The last time my mother put the Santa on her tree was in Ticonderoga in 1982. Shortly thereafter, she was diagnosed with cancer and on her next Christmas, which was to be her last, she decided she and my father would come to our homes instead. I remember her apology for not having a tree, which I later recognized as her way of saying, “I’m angry because I can’t put up a tree, like I should.”
So that year, 1983, for the first time in decades, the little Santa stayed in a box in my parents’ cellar. At Christmas, 1984, my mother was gone and, again, the little cotton Santa stayed packed away. For that Christmas and the next two, my father would not decorate the house nor have a tree. The Christmas person in the King family was Mom and the Christmas person was gone.
About two and a half years after my mother died, Dad told us he was selling our family home in Ticonderoga. It was too big and too full of memories. “Come and take what you want,” he told his children. The rest he would sell. For weeks upon weeks we helped him sort through the remains of a lifetime, as much a reward as a burden. For you must understand that Mom saved everything: family pictures and letters, dad’s service records, the kids’ report cards, canceled checks, even occupant mail. As I had before, I looked through acres of boxes of Christmas decorations. As before, I could not, amidst them all, find the tiny Santa.
Mom always was fond of saying, “What will be will be.” I resigned myself to the fact that it was gone. “Things change,” my father was always saying. Oddly, I think that while he knew that was true, in a way he never resigned himself to his own wisdom. Almost three years to the day after my mother’s death, he died. Things had, indeed, changed.
For my wife, Sara, and I, that Christmas of 1987 in Glens Falls was, with my daughter being six, filled with expectations of Santa. It was also an oddly empty Christmas. We got out the boxes of decorations and frantically searched for our tree’s special angel, fearful it had been misplaced and then found it packed snugly away. My daughter sighed a big sigh! Under our regular boxes were the ones I’d brought from Ticonderoga. I rummaged through them, looking at the bubble lights and other things from my childhood Christmas trees.
And then, I found it. A tiny box inside of which was my mother’s faded cotton Santa wrapped up securely. Lost, but never really lost. Tenderly, I placed it on a high bough. And there it will go again this year, as we celebrate our Christmas and the memories that a special decoration carry with it.
From my family to you, a very merry Christmas.