I just knew everything would be alright. Every year I would wake up to a pile of gifts under the tree, and somehow I knew this year would be no different. It was December 24, and there were a grand total of six presents under our tree, and they were all for other people. It was something new, to be sure, but I had a feeling that if I searched long enough and hard enough, Iíd find my momís stash of gifts. They had to be somewhere.
To be honest, I never searched before. I didnít think it was a good idea to try to find my stash of presents because I knew my mom would be crushed if I ruined the surprise she planned for Christmas morning. Besides that, I knew Santa was watching, and I didnít want to risk ruining my chances of receiving the optimum number of gifts from the jolly old Saint.† So instead of investigating the somewhat troubling absence of packages under the tree with me and my sisterís names on them, I chose to be patient.
On the surface, I accepted the truth. We were broke that year. My mom was going to nursing school and working two part time jobs to get the bills paid, and it was only by the grace of God that we still had a phone. I had a paper route in the neighborhood that brought in a hundred dollars a month, and most of my earnings from that went to my mom so she could pay bills like electricity and water. What I brought in wasnít much, but it helped out.
Being eleven, I guess I was slow on the uptake. My mom had sat down with my sister and I and told us that sheíd do her best for us on Christmas, but the truth was that she hadnít received a dime from our dad in ages, and usually when his child support check did come, it bounced. I hated my dad for that. My mom struggled each and every month just to keep a roof over our heads while my dad lived like a king in another town. My sister and I were out of sight and out of mind for him, and my mom was someone he loved to heap torment on. I knew that he purposely let us struggle so that sheíd pay for trying to make it without him, and that no matter what she did, heíd be somewhere waiting in the wings to make sure that she knew he was better off that she was.
On Christmas Eve I collected early on my paper route and was really surprised at the amount of tips I got. As soon as I was finished collecting, I hurried home to turn the money over to my mom, who I was sure could use it for bills, especially if she had spent a lot of money on presents that year. Along the way I stopped at the corner store to buy some candy.† They had a sale on Hersheyís Bars, my momís favorite candy bar, so I got nine of them for three dollars. I figured Iíd stuff three of them in each of our stockings if there was any room after Santa left. He usually crammed all of our stockings with goodies, but I figured Iíd find a way to make them fit. I just had to wake up before my mom and sister did, but after Santa was gone.
As I was checking out, I saw some really nice lockets with letter embossing on them. One had a cursive F, and another a cursive R, which was just right for my mom and my sister, respectively. They were five dollars each, so I grabbed them both and rubbed my hands together, excited about seeing the looks on their faces when they found the lockets in their stockings the next day.† When I got home I snuck up to my room and hid everything I bought, then I walked down the hallway to my momís room to give her my collection money.
From the hallway I could hear voices. One voice belonged to my sister, and the other to my mom. They were arguing fiercely about something, so I stuck my ear to the door and eavesdropped. When it became clear to me what they were fighting over, I felt sick to my stomach. My sister was all over my momís case about Christmas, wanting to know if she had gone out and bought her the leather jacket she wanted. My mom told her that she already knew the answer to her question, and my sister went on to tell my mom that she was angry that there were gifts under the tree for our cousins and aunts and uncles, but nothing for us yet.
Of course this left my mother in tears, and she screamed back at my sister that she was doing all she could. She said that the gifts were for the help we received from our family throughout the year, and that we had plenty of other reasons to be happy that Christmas. My sister retorted that if the gifts were for all the help our family gave her that both she and I should have gifts under the tree too, because every dime the two of us made went towards bills in our household. She also said that she resented working every night after school and not being able to afford the things her friends had.
Hearing this exchange left me shaken, and I quickly retreated to my room so I could settle down. I knew how important that leather jacket was to my sister, and I cursed my dad for not being the man we needed him to be. I felt like all of the stress my sister was putting on my mom belonged on my dadís shoulders, not my momís.† I felt like I just had to find a way to take some of that stress away from my mom, so I decided to turn to the one person I knew of who could make things better in our house. I sat down on my bed and I wrote a letter to Santa Claus. I knew it was late, but I thought that maybe if I left it on the tree for him heíd get it and maybe he could do something.
I was sure not to ask for anything more than I intended to. I had one thing in mind that evening, and that was my sisterís jacket. I sharpened a number two pencil and used my history book for a surface as I used my neatest cursive to write my letter. I was sure to explain everything to him just in case he missed it, but I was sure that he already knew our situation. I made it clear that if he needed to take away something I was supposed to get in exchange for her jacket, I was willing to do it. I just wanted my sister to get her jacket and my mom to have a little relief.
When I was finished with the letter, I sealed it in an envelope and put it under my pillow so that my mom and sister wouldnít see it. I came back out of my room and went back down the hallway to my momís room, where the door was finally opened. I went in and handed her my collection money and gave her a hug, making sure that I told her how much I loved her. From there we went downstairs and turned on the TV to watch Holiday specials on the couch.
As the evening wore on, my eyes drifted to the lonely Christmas tree in the corner of our living room and took note of the presents underneath. There were the same number of gifts under the tree on Christmas Eve that were there the week before, and I wondered to myself if it was true. Maybe my mom wasnít able to buy us gifts. Maybe things were as tight as she said they were. I looked up at her face and noticed that she had silent tears streaming down her cheeks.
I felt helpless. My mom struggled year round, and she didnít deserve to cry on Christmas Eve. She deserved to be happy. As far as I was concerned my mom was a queen and she deserved to be treated as such. My chest felt heavy for a moment and I realized that I was struggling to choke back tears myself, but I quickly rebounded and decided that I was the man of the house. I had to be strong for my mom and my sister, so I reached out with my right hand and wiped the tears from her face, then I took her hand and gave it a strong squeeze.
I was the last one up that night, making sure that I was up to place the letter on the tree. Once I was sure it was secure in an obvious spot, I went back upstairs to my room to get some shut eye.† I had a hard time sleeping that night, and I think a lot of it had to do with my own hopes and fears. I was so worried that Santa wasnít going to find the letter that I let my stress build and build until I lost control of my own devices for about an hour and cried myself to sleep.
My alarm went off at 5:30 in the morning, and I quickly hopped out of bed to go investigate. I wasnít worried about anything but the letter. I was beginning to doubt the location of it, and I felt a sudden rush of anxiety course through me as I made my way out of my room and down the stairs. When I got to the bottom of the stairs I had to blink because I was so shocked. I walked up to the tree and looked it over to be sure I wasnít imagining things. It was all so surreal to me. The proof was right in front of my eyes, though, and as I surveyed the scene, a new feeling swept over me.
The letter was still there, unopened. Our stockings were empty, and the same gifts were sitting under the tree that had been there the night before. I sighed heavily and wiped my eyes, finding it hard to keep my emotions in check but prevailing none the less. I wasnít going to let myself cry because it wasnít the manly thing to do. I was the man of that house, and for the first time, I knew what my duty was.
I slowly climbed the steps and returned to my room, where the stash I had snuck in with the night before was waiting. I gathered everything up and in spite of the growing lump in my throat, I smiled as I dropped the candy bars and the lockets in the stockings that hung for my mom and sister.† It wasnít much for the extra large stockings that we had all my life, but I made a point of situating the contents so that they looked as full as possible, then I went back upstairs to my room so I could give myself the privacy I needed to weep.