I can’t remember when it happened exactly, but it was about 20 years ago when he ceased to exist. I was 9 or 10. It was one of those lingering exits; he had not been doing well for a couple of years.
My first memory of him is still crystal clear. I had just progressed to unassisted walking. My parents put me on the floor a few feet from where he sat on a warped metal folding chair in front of a golden globed and silver tinseled tree. They encouraged me in the direction of his toothy smile and outstretched arms. Short, hesitant steps got me within sight of sweat paths initiated under his eye, crossing his cheek then disappearing into a gleaming white beard with streaks of dull grey. I apprehensively turned my comfort-seeking eyes back towards mommy and daddy. Their reassuring smiles convinced me that they would never ever send me towards a stranger that would hurt me. I finally accepted the repeated invitation to sit on the stranger’s crimson velvet lap. Twinkling eyes and a hearty laugh helped replace any remaining anxiety with cautious acceptance. My trembling soon disappeared.
I only saw him once a year after that. He always reminded me to hug my parents and to be generous. Share any gifts I might receive with siblings and friends. He thanked me for the milk and cookies always left out for him. No, he couldn’t tell me exactly what time he might arrive and slide down our chimney. A big storm might change his schedule. I should just stay asleep and dream of fairies and angels. I should also remember to wish Jesus a happy birthday when I woke up.
One of our visits was shortly after I lost my first tooth. I showed him the quarter the Tooth Fairy had stealthily slipped under my pillow, and he told me that he and the Tooth Fairy were the best of friends. Many times, she called him asking directions to the bedside of children that did not have street addresses.
Skepticism grew as my belief in he and the Tooth Fairy deteriorated during my ninth and tenth years of this earthly experience. My seventh-grade brother and his sporadically maturing friends sprinkled me with uncertainties. I was silly to believe that these pleasant fantasies were real. It was Mom and Dad who waited until I was fast asleep to slip coins under my pillow or to fill the stocking I had hung by the chimney with care. After all, how could someone that fat fit down our little chimney? Not willing to accept their demise, I cried myself to sleep some nights. Within a few years, I was mocking my little sister. She was the silly one, not seeing through our parents’ charade.
Now I am the parent. I feel the recently ambulatory apple of my eye tremble in my arms. We slowly approach a rotund, bearded stranger in a red and white suit for the first time. His chair of bleached maple has a worn but padded seat cushion. The tree behind him has multi-colored lights peering from underneath copious tinsel. Only one bulb is burned out. “Don’t worry honey, he won’t hurt you.” I watch his smiling face beneath the beard as barely proficient legs toddle towards him. My own smile grows as I now realize my old friend is still very much alive. It was not Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy that had died; it was something within me.
I delight in returning to a world that contains jolly and generous elves, magical fairies that value teeth, and bunnies that hide eggs. All with the common goal of encouraging me to smile and to be nice to others.
about the author…David Lankutis was born and raised in the Little Snowy Mountains of Central Montana on the ranch his grandparents homesteaded after emigrating from Lithuania. He recently returned to Montana and retired after 45 years of helping keep the lights on for electric utility consumers around the world. He now coasts along in the twilight of his earthly experience journey. His journey is blessed with marvelous insights of grandkids demonstrating how to live for the moment.