Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Reluctant Santa

"I cannot believe you're asking me to do this," I grumbled, while sitting at Mom's kitchen table, eating a homemade cinnamon roll and drinking coffee.
At the sink, washing dishes, Mom said, "Shhh! Your dad loved playing Santa Claus.
What would he say if you refused?"
"Dad was, like, forty-five when he started playing Santa—I'm twenty-five, Mom."
"But he would be so proud of you."
Mom was right about that—Dad would be proud of me if I took over his Santa job. The job started years ago when she talked him into being Santa for classes at the elementary school where she taught second grade. Over the years, he also ended up being Santa for the kids of many of his fellow firemen who asked for his services.
I was now a rookie fireman and I think Mom thought it would be just natural for me to jump into Dad's Santa costume and carry on as if nothing had happened. But something had happened. Dad passed away shortly after Christmas last year. And to make my life unbelievably miserable, my girlfriend of three years dumped me just before New Year's Eve.
I wasn't much up for the holidays this year.
I definitely wasn't going to play Santa.
"I've got the suit unpacked and hanging in the closet," Mom said. "Thought you might try it on this morning. I'll definitely have to find a bigger pillow for you."
"Mom, I don't think—"
"Shhh. This is a new beginning, Brody. Someone's got to be Santa. Think of all those kids you'll make happy."
Refusing Mom turned out not to be an option for me. I pasted a merry Christmas smile on my face and trudged off to school with her on the morning of the last day before Christmas break, my Santa suit packed in a knapsack slung over my shoulder. The first person Mom introduced me to was Mary O'Brien, the kindergarten teacher, who smiled at me with sparkling blue eyes and said, "Thank you so much for doing this. The kids are so excited. They'll come trooping in"—she glanced at her watch—"in about a half hour."
Mom said, "I'll leave you two alone," and scurried off to her room.
"Your first time playing Santa?" Mary asked.
I gulped. I hadn't looked at a woman since Charlene ditched me. But Mary O'Brien's smile—I don't know—momentarily seemed to light up my world. "Right. First time. I'm a little nervous."
Her hand darted out. "Don't be." We shook hands. Her hand was smooth, warm, strong, and a little shiver shot up my arm. "You can dress in the restroom in the teachers' lounge. And then I'll add a little makeup."
Finally dressed as Santa, I sat in the teacher's lounge while Mary applied rogue to my face. Squaring my Santa hat on my head, her blue eyes crisscrossing me, she smiled and said, "You look great! You'll be in my kindergarten room first. Then the other rooms throughout the day."
"Why not gather the kids all together in one big assembly?"
"They get more individual attention this way. And they feel more comfortable with their own group. Don't worry. The kids are going to love you!"
And they did.
At first, a few were nervous. Like me. Especially the younger ones. But eventually many crawled onto my lap—some slowly, others eagerly—and rattled off long lists of gifts they hoped Santa would bring. "I'll try," I kept saying. "I'll try very hard." And then I'd give a hearty, deep-throated "Ho! Ho! Ho!" Beaming parents stood aside and snapped pictures. In each classroom, joy filled the room—and unexpectedly filled my heart.
Buy the end of the day I was bushed. Back into regular clothes, my face scrubbed, I slumped in a chair by Mary O'Brien' desk in her room, while she finished erasing the blackboard. "You were marvelous," she said.
"Thanks. I'd never seen myself playing Santa. Ever."
Mom poked her head into the room. "Congratulations on a job well done, Brody. You two getting acquainted?"
"We are, Mom."
Before Mom and I'd arrived at school this morning, she'd pointedly told me about Mary—single, her first year of teaching. And I'm sure Mom'd told Mary about me, though maybe not all the details about the bad time I was going through.
"Are you going to hire out as Santa?" Mary asked.
"Never. I did this only out of the goodness of my mom's heart." Then I thought of my firemen buddies—Dad's buddies, too—and said, "Um, I might play Santa for a few guys at the fire department who have kids."
Mary smiled at me—I loved that perky smile. "Faculty's getting together after school at Johnnie O's Pub. Would you like to come along?"
For the second time today, I gulped. "Your date?"
She nodded, honoring me with another smile.
"I'd love, too," I said, and stood to shake her hand once more. "Playing Santa has been pretty fun."
The End
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