My mother’s parents lived in the teeny tiny town of Norwood, VA: very Deliverance. There was a spooky barn, a railroad bridge, a corn patch, an old red and white tractor, an orchard, and a series of overweight dogs that ate the leftovers from every meal. When I was little, our cats were all barn cats.
They went to a tiny country Methodist church up on the hill that had a Christmas party every year with Santa. Each child got a small wrapped present and one of those old-fashioned stockings containing an orange, a candy cane, and a handful of chocolates. It was way better than Santa’s helpers at the mall: because there were not many children (it was a Baptist kind of town), we got pretty much all the time we wanted to babble about how very very very very good we’d been and how very very very much we wanted a pony or a chemistry set.*
The year I was 7-ish, my dad excused himself to go to the bathroom right as we were ending the singing part. “Hurry back!” I said, because Santa would be there any minute.
We stopped singing. Santa came out and no Dad! Several kids went up. My sister (3-ish) went up to sit on his lap, and she howled and screamed in fright, which for some strange reason made Santa laugh a lot. This only made Sissa scream some more, until she finally wriggled out of his lap and ran away. My grandmother was giggling as she took Sissa’s present. I was worried about my daddy having tummy troubles in the bathroom, and then it was my turn.
I sat on Santa’s lap and thought what a very good Santa’s helper he was. He had nice eyes, like my dad’s eyes. He was very jolly: I could hear him trying not to laugh when he asked me what I wanted for Christmas. I rattled off whatever I wanted that year, while my wee brain began to form a suspicion that perhaps my daddy was not in fact in the bathroom. I stopped in my list.
“Is that all you want?” the Santa asked. And that was it. This was definitely my father. I squinched up my eyes and nodded.
Back in the pew, I stared longingly at the chocolates in my stocking and worked myself into a high dudgeon. The nerve! Santa’s helpers were supposed to be anonymous and from the North Pole, not your own dad.
I was, however, smart enough to keep my yap shut until Sissa had gone to bed.
“That was you!” I yelled.
“What are you talking about?”
“You were Santa!”
“I was not. I was in the bathroom.”
“You were! Grandmom was laughing and that was you.”
“That kind of doubt is the kind of thing that makes Santa take presents away.”
Argument ended, thank you very much. Many years later, we laughed a lot about how my sister screamed.
*Several years later, I did get a chemistry set, and I spent many happy hours turning liquid from white to purple and back again and, more importantly, setting things on fire. On purpose. Without getting in trouble.