The mood at my parents’ house on Christmas Eve 1982 was very dismal. Eighteen days earlier a man who had just lost his job, sat in a Sandstone bar drinking for hours and then got in to his car to head home.
That same day in Duluth my brother, Danny, piled his three small children, his wife and our paternal grandmother into his car, put $300 in his pocket and headed to Minneapolis to buy a dishwasher from a relative. Danny had the misfortune of being on a narrow bridge the same time as the drunk Sandstone man. The inebriated driver was speeding across the bridge in the wrong lane as his car plowed head on into my brother’s car. The drunken driver and my grandmother were killed instantly. Danny made it to the hospital, asked if his kids were OK and then he also died.
As the family gathered that Christmas, no one was in much of a holiday spirit. Where there should have been laughter and holiday songs, tears filled the house as we were all still mourning our double loss. My parents had seven children and 21 grandchildren so the house was filled with the sound of lots of kids who were still excited because, after all, it was Christmas Eve. Wrapped presents were under the tree, the table was overflowing with food and Christmas songs floated through the house but it all seemed pointless. How could we celebrate when two chairs would be empty this year?
I saw Danny’s five-year old-daughter, Annie, sitting on the couch. She had witnessed the tragedy and lived through it just a short time ago and now it was Christmas. I plopped down next to her. We sat there silently next to each other for a while and then she looked up at me and said, “I don’t think Santa is coming this year.”
“Well, why do you think that?” I asked.
“Because my mom told me that,” she said.
My heart sank as I realized that after the funerals, I had been so busy cooking, shopping and wrapping presents for my own two children I had not thought that my brother’s widow might not have been up to doing the same. And since I lived 100 miles away, it made it harder to help out.
I hugged her and said, “Sure he will. You just wait and see.”
“But how will he know what I want? I never sent Santa a letter. My dad always helped me with it and now he’s in heaven. I kept asking my mom to help me write it and she said we would get to it but we never did.”
Tears were now forming in both of our eyes as I said, “Well, it’s not too late. Let’s write it right now and I will run right out and mail it. Santa has his own post office and the letters can get there in a matter of minutes using Christmas magic stamps.”
Annie sat staring at the floor for a while thinking this over then slowly turned to look up at me as a smile crept across her face and she said “OK”.
So we sat on the couch writing out her last minute Christmas wish list when I got a sinking feeling. It was Christmas Eve. Too late to go shopping. What was I thinking getting her hopes up like this? With each item she added I thought of how poorly I had handled this situation.
We finished the letter, folded it in three and wrote “SANTA NORTH POLE” on the outside attaching the “magic” stamp that I handmade by drawing a picture of Santa. I waved to Annie as I went out the front door to head to Santa’s Post Office and came back five minutes later proclaiming how the letter had disappeared as it went in to the mail box and would reappear instantly in Santa’s hands.
As I laid in bed that night I worried what would happen in the morning. I had asked Annie’s mom, who was in arm casts and still recovering from injuries herself, if Santa was coming and she said she had not planned anything. Great. Now what? After a sleepless night, my husband and I took our infant daughter and two-year-old son to the living room to see what Santa had brought for everyone. Piles of wrapped gifts were around the room on every chair, couch and open space on the floor. Each was topped with a stocking embossed with the child’s name proclaiming the owner of the treasures underneath.
We found our children’s gifts and, as my two-year-old sat in his dad’s lap and was starting to unwrap his Santa gifts I wandered around the room holding my infant daughter looking for a stocking with Annie’s and her siblings’ names. I did not see any. Great.
Well, I would just tell Annie that Santa must have something very special in mind for her and so her presents would probably come in a day or two. No. What kid would be OK with waiting for Santa gifts for a few days while every one else was getting gifts? No. I would tell her that Santa delivered her gifts to my house then I would go buy items on her list. No...
Just then Annie came running down the stairs and looked around the room. She went from pile to pile as her mother said, “Annie, I told you Santa was busy this year and may be late...” My mother came around the corner of the adjoining dining room and said, “What’s going on out here?” Annie was holding back tears as she said, “I think Santa forgot me. He must not have got my letter.”
“Why, Annie, I see something with your name on it out here. Come take a look.”
Sure enough in the dining room there were three stacks of presents with Annie and her two brothers’ names on the stockings that were perched on top of each pile of gifts. Annie let out a high-pitched squeal (that I can still hear to this very day) and ran to the pile tearing open gift after gift.
My heart lept as my eyes met my mother’s and her look said, “How could you have ever doubted that Santa would forget a child in MY house?”
In the midst of my mother’s grief having lost her youngest son and her mother-in-law, she was, as she always had been, there for us when we needed her.
I honestly do not remember if any of the gifts Annie received that year were on that list we made together for Santa but it would not have mattered. Santa came to a five-year-old little girl on the Christmas when she needed him most.