When I was a kid, I had one of those neighbors—the obnoxious, bragging, rich kid who tries to outdo you at everything but who is still somehow your bosom friend. In childhood, friendship hangs so much on proximity and lack of mobility, and this was the one girl in the neighborhood besides my sister and me, so she was my friend.
It was love-hate. Loneliness would drive us together, and then an afternoon of watching her measure orange halves to make sure she had the bigger one and telling me she could make up rules for all the games because it was her house would leave me much more content to entertain myself.
This was a weekend when we were together, sitting on her parents gigantic sectional sofa, watching their gargantuan tv in the early 80s when this was a surreal experience. Snuggled up in the corner of that sofa overlooking the pool table in the other living room while her parents slept, she whispered to me, Your dad’s Santa Claus.
She was all the time trying to tell me things I didn’t know. Like her Aunt Mary’s birthday or the location of her private school. She was attempting to show off, my mother explained, when I asked why I would care about these things. So I rolled my eyes and figured I would certainly know better than she if my dad were the one, true Santa Claus.
But I have a vivid imagination, quite intricate and entertaining for the long days when my neighbor and I were not measuring oranges or arguing over whether to crush the crunchy autumn leaves. On my way home, I began imagining my dad, whose “uniform” was swimming trunks and flip flops except on formal occasions, when he wore his best blue jeans and cowboy boots, as Santa Claus.
Santa probably did have a secret place where he spent the year, when he wasn’t busy with the elves. There was a bassinet in my parents’ closet, from when my brother was a baby. It was filled with clothes now, but it was probably sitting on a trap door, a portal to the North Pole.
And I realized: my dad could be Santa Claus! The more I thought about it, the likelier the possibility. So after looking both ways several times and crossing that lazy island street that separated our tiny rat-infested house from the little mansion where the neighbor-girl lived, I resolved to ask my dad who he really was.
When I asked, his eyes made it clear that there was a secret here. He did that thing he does—calls you into the bedroom, gets comfortable, clears his throat. In short, he took forever to get started, his way of making a conversation “official.”
He told me the Truth about Santa that day, a Truth I was shocked to hear. Not only was he not Santa, there was no Santa. It was all just a ruse, a game he and mom and millions of other parents played—why? So they could give their children gifts without receiving anything in return. No praise, no thanks, no chores or favors.
I was in awe that such love existed. I spent the next several days slack-jawed that my parents, strict and stern as they were, had such an incredibly soft and generous side. I made a thank-you card at school, and I felt full of magic, touched by an incredible love.
And that’s about the time it hit me: whatever his exact words had been, Dad had not actually denied being Santa. I snuck into their bedroom to inspect the bassinet, but I was too scared to actually move it and look under it, so I gave it a quick rock and ran.
I watched Dad’s beard grow in, during the winter and come off in the summer. I watched him put on weight. I wondered, but I never knew for sure.