December of my sixth Christmas was filled with whisperings from older neighborhood kids that led me to question the existence of Santa. The night of December 24 put my doubts to rest. But in order to tell this story properly, I need to fill in a couple of details.
For many years my brother and I shared the only bedroom in a house so small that we set up our Christmas tree in the kitchen. My bed was at right angles to the door that looked into the kitchen, an important detail in the telling of this tale. Tommy and I had finally gone to bed with the usual Christmas eve jitters. Would he come? Would I get the bride doll I’d wanted? Would Tommy find a coveted electric train like the one that we had seen in the Dayton window? A train would be particularly special since so many of our family -- Dad and Grandpa included -- were firemen and engineers for the Soo Line.
Tommy and I talked and giggled late into the night until the final warning came from Mom: “If you kids don’t get to sleep there’ll be no Christmas!” And so we slept.
It must have been around 2:00 a.m. when I awoke to a noise in the kitchen. Now remember, I had a direct line of vision from my bed to that tree. Sure enough, someone was under it, setting up a train set. But something was very wrong. The guy under the tree was Dad. My memory now fades to shades of gray as I watch him on his knees. His arms are on the floor, his back is hunched. He reaches to place a caboose on a track...and he sobs.
I am six. I am disappointed. I am confused. I roll over and go back to sleep.
I learned the next morning that Soo Line management had called to tell my dad of his father’s sudden death of a heart attack on the steam engine Grandpa was driving that night. And that’s when I learned the truth about Santa. He lived in my dad, a man who would focus on making a little kid’s Christmas morning special despite the huge loss he had just undergone. I never did tell neighborhood kids that they were wrong. At six, I wouldn’t have known how. But even at six, it was enough that I knew.