BY THE tender age of 7, I had reasoned away the notion of
Santa Claus. My logic was unsinkable: We had no chimney for the portly old man to gain access to our tree.
But after my eighth Christmas, I had reversed my thinking. Santa did exist. There was no need for Claus to slide down a chimney to enter my house. She lived there.
The year before had not been a good one for what was left of my family. My father had abandoned us. My mother quickly took action to keep us together. Working two jobs and going to school, she didn't have much time to spend with us.
My brother and I spent a great deal of time with relatives, who made us well aware of the burden we had become. Still, we met Christmas with anticipation that year, especially because my mother had the entire week off, and probably mostly because we were still children.
To my 8-year-old eyes, my mother was perfect. She had a fresh, unwrinkled face that glowed. If she weren't reading to us or playing games with us, she would be laughing hysterically at my clever "knock-knock" jokes.
After my dad left, that changed. Her sense of hurt and betrayal showed. The once-smooth surface of her face was replaced with a criss-cross pattern of wrinkles. She no longer had time for reading or playing. She was often irritable, and when I would try to cheer her up with my jokes, I only annoyed her.
We had been poor even with my dad around. Except for her wedding band, the only jewelry my mother owned was her
grandmother's ring, which had been given to her as a child. The intricately carved band housed a red jewel with an unearthly gleam to it. As a little boy, I was told the ring had magical properties, that whenever my mother was feeling gloomy, all it took was a look into the ring to cheer her up. I believed it.
That Christmas, every child in America wanted an Atari video game. My brother and I were no exception, but we didn't bother asking for one; even at the tender ages of 8 and 6, we were well aware of the meaning of the words "too expensive."
Christmas Eve brought the ceremonial decorating of the tree. Although that year's tree was half the size of the giants that had preceded it, we threw ourselves into the task. The tree's size made it look as though it had twice as many decorations.
Best of all, my mother had reverted to her old self. She joked and laughed and whirled about, placing each bulb in just the perfect position. All was right except for my feeling that something was missing.
Christmas morning we leaped out of bed and thundered to our mother's room. We presented our gift -- a necklace which we had paid for by not eating lunches the previous month. She cried and hugged us tightly.
We waited (barely) for her to regain her composure before dashing down the stairs. At the bottom, my heart sank. There was only one gift under the tree. My brother and I exchanged worried glances, then savagely attacked the wrapping paper.
It was the Atari. How could she possibly have afforded it? What magic did she use?
We hooked it up as quickly as we could and began to play, hypnotized by the images on the screen. After a while, I turned to look at my mother. She stood behind us, sobbing.
L I realized what was missing when I looked at her right hand.
Daniel R. Davis writes from Baltimore.