My mother was a truth-teller. Her name was Ruth and she occasionally would scribble a note on a pad with the inscription across the top: The Truth from Ruth.
Telling the truth is basically a good thing for parents. My mother was not big on perpetuating myths or creating magical moments for us kids, but I knew that she could be counted on to explain a world that was sometimes complicated or scary or downright confusing.
I must have been in nursery school when Santa Claus appeared at a local shopping center, appropriately bearded and fat and in his red suit. I wanted to go sit on his lap. My mom didn’t really approve of her daughter sitting on a strange man’s lap, but she acquiesced. It was Santa, after all. He was jolly and had a comfortable, cushiony belly to lean against. I felt shy in his presence.
Later that week, we saw another Santa at an outlet mall. He was decidedly an outlet Santa: too thin with a long, beaky nose and black hair curling out from his red cap. I sat on his lap as well and up close validated that indeed, he was not the Santa of a few days before. I remember that he smelled like cigarettes.
I asked. My mom explained. There wasn’t a real Santa Claus. “Just some guy they hire to dress up in a Santa suit.” There were, in fact, men all over the city. “It’s a job some people take in the winter,” my mother said. “They must like kids.”
Instead of being crushed, I was relieved. That explained the difference. I was only four years old, but I was smart and saw the world in a clear way.
“But maybe you shouldn’t tell your friends this,” my mother said. “If they still believe in Santa Claus, they’ll feel bad.”
I didn’t tell anyone the truth about Santa. I kept the very grown-up secret to myself, feeling quite superior. I also knew how babies were created (the stork didn’t bring anyone) and that the tooth fairy was actually my dad. I tried to stay up late to catch him putting money under my pillow, but never could.
Later, I married a man who put out cookies for Santa and created reindeer tracks along the carpet with ashes from the fireplace. The girls mailed letters with real stamps to the North Pole and took the “being good” seriously around the holiday season. Our girls say that they had a happy childhood. But then, so did I!