“So, buddy. Everything going okay? Anything you want to talk about while we’re alone?” I asked my ten-year old as we pulled into the parking lot of the grocery store. I had just picked him up from cub scouts, and I needed to run a few errands before we headed home.
“No, Mom,” he sighed, reaching forward to flip the dial on the radio. “Everything is fine.”
“Are you sure?” I teased, always a surefire way to break him out of his silence. “Do you have a crush on anyone? Any girlfriends?”
“No! Stop. I don’t have a crush on anyone,” he said, finally settling on a radio station playing a song by Rihanna and the monsters in her head and under her bed.
“You know, because you can ask me anything. Anything!” I chortled.
“I don’t have anything to ask you,” he told me sullenly. “Hey! Can I get sushi for dinner while we’re here?”
I agreed, yes, he could pick out some sushi. His mood visibly brightened, and we walked through the darkened parking lot towards the store. Just before we stepped up on the curb, he said in a teeny-tiny voice, “I do have one question.” I looked down at his face lit by the fluorescent glow of the lights, and told him to go ahead.
And quietly, so quietly I could barely hear him; “Is Santa real?”
I remember when my oldest son was born as if it was ten minutes ago, not ten years. The long first labor, ice chips in a plastic cup, Joe cutting the umbilical cord with a decisive snip of the scissors. Just as we were getting ready to leave the hospital the next day, we laid him on the bed—swaddled and alert—and took a picture.
I remember the nubby pink blanket on the bed, the way Joe cradled Joey’s head in his hand, the nurse’s brisk manner as she collected our paperwork. But it’s not only the details of the day I recall, but the feeling of fatigue, of adrenaline, of okay now what do I do.
And now I’m standing in the parking lot of Fresh Market, grappling to find an answer about Santa Claus. Although the circumstances are different—the little baby swaddled on a hospital bed has been replaced by a tall, lanky boy wearing a Buffalo Bills jersey—my feelings have not changed in ten years; feelings of fatigue combined with adrenaline, of okay now what do I do.
What is the perfect age to learn there is no Santa Claus? He’s in fifth grade. He knows how babies are made and does his own laundry. I mean, I don’t want him to be the last kid in middle school who believes in jolly old Saint Nick.
On the other hand, if I tell one of my kids something, I might as well make an announcement on a bullhorn. They do not keep secrets from each other. Like teamsters in a union, all five are constantly whispering and negotiating and conferring together.
I love this about them; I love watching the beauty of their sibling bond, from clandestine whispers of she’s in a bad mood let’s just stay upstairs to I think I know what you’re getting for your birthday.
But it complicates matters like the sex talk and Santa Claus. Because maybe Joey is ready to know that one man cannot possibly fly around the world and deliver presents to every child in a single night, but the rest of them aren’t.
Especially Jack. Emotionally, my nine-year old is probably hovering around age five or six. And although he’s beginning to question some of the mechanics of Christmas—how come our Elf on a Shelf doesn’t set off the alarm when he flies out of the house, how do reindeer pull a sleigh full of presents—he still believes wholeheartedly in Santa. It feels nearly criminal to take this joy from him before he’s ready.
I want to let my boy of autism to stay young for as long as he needs.
Over the weekend someone posted a link on Facebook called “The Sweetest Way to Tell Your Kids the Truth About Santa,” by New York Times writer Martha Brokenbrough. In it, Brokenbrough writes a letter to her daughter explaining how Santa is magic and love and hope; how he is a teacher and we his students. And once you discover he isn’t an actual person, you too become the hope and magic of Christmas. You become Santa yourself.
Her sentiments are both beautiful and logical—a perfect explanation to accompany the crossover from believer to knower.
Still I am not ready.
For me, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy and leprechauns and singing snowmen and a man in a red velvet suit help weave magic into life’s daily grind of chicken pot pies and spelling quizzes and nightly baths. It is the antidote to childhood horrors like monsters under the bed and Bigfoot in the woods. These images of folklore add splashes of color to our landscape, and we need them.
I need them.
About six years ago I learned the son of a man I used to work with was killed in a car accident. The boy had just gotten his driver’s license, and had misjudged the slickness of the roads on a rainy spring night. He had been on his way to pick up his tuxedo for the prom.
My heart broke for my old colleague and his wife; broke for the breathtaking randomness and tragedy of it all, for life’s cruel blows. And it snapped into focus my own vulnerability as a mother, how quickly and irrevocably life can change with just a few raindrops.
But if we all believe in Santa, then my kids are still little. My four boys and one girl will continue to confide in each other when they snuggle under the covers at bedtime and reduce each other to helpless giggles with knock-knock jokes in the car. Little things like sushi for dinner or cookies for snack will break them out of a bad mood. They won’t be driving cars into trees or getting someone pregnant or flunking out of college. They will be safe.
In some ways, Santa keeps my own monsters at bay.
I know, I know. This is wholly illogical and impractical and ridiculous and I can’t keep my kids young forever. I can’t use a fictitious chubby man to insulate myself from heartbreak and tragedy, from the unknown elements of motherhood. One day soon, I’m going to have to let go of my image of infant Joey, and let him continue on his path to adulthood. I’m going to have to tell him about Santa.
“You know, Mom,” Joey looked up from the case, a container of California rolls in his hand. “Even if I did have a crush on someone, I wouldn’t tell anyone. I would keep it a secret.”
I stood and looked at him for a long moment before I agreed, some things are private.
“Except I would tell Charlie. He’s my brother, I tell him everything.”
Maybe next year.