I’m seventy-five-years old and live in a nursing home but I remember 1933 and that week before Christmas as though it was yesterday.
Men huddled in empty box cars or stood in breadlines, hobo villages sprang up and hungry people knocked at back doors in search of food.
Today people jump out of offices with golden parachutes. Back then people just jumped out of office windows. My parents thought the Great Depression was the beginning of the end.
My father was a salesman for Finnegan’s Lumber Company. One day Mr. Finnegan called dad into his office and told him the company couldn’t collect from the builder of a house on Crescent Street. “We’ve taken it over,” Mr. Finnegan said. “If you and the misses want to move in until it’s sold, feel free. Just keep the damn place up. I don’t want squatters movin’ in.”
We moved in and dad closed off the upstairs, turned the downstairs into bedrooms, and mother hung blankets in the kitchen doorways to, “keep in the heat.”
Less than a week after we settled in for good people began beating a path to our back door to ask for bread or soup. There must have been an invisible sign on the back door: Lady of the house is a soft touch. No matter how we struggled she always had a crust of bread or a bowl of soup to share.
I was four and a half years old; a mouthy, smart aleck who knew my alphabet, could count to fifty, and fancied myself a super spy. I quickly became fast friends with the four-year-old twins, Oliver and Mike, who lived next door and, being an inch or two taller than them, became the leader of the gang.
The week before Christmas I overheard mother whisper to dad, “There’ll be no Christmas this year.” I put two and two together and, spy that I was knew there was no Santa Claus.
It had begun to snow the week before Christmas that year. The yard filled up with shifting dunes of snow. Icicles tapered from the eaves to the window sills. Mike and I ran our wooden trucks back and forth over the kitchen table while Oliver tried to find pictures in the spiky frost covered window panes. Mother pulled loaves of bread from the oven and spilled them from the tins on to the counter; soup bubbled on the stove.
“Time for lunch,” mother said, taking the trucks away and replacing them with bowls of soup.
Oliver and Mike, intoxicated by the warmth of the kitchen and the smell of fresh bread mingled with the aroma of beans and beef broth, grabbed their spoons and were almost salivating until I pushed the soup away. “I don’t want this,” I said.
Oliver shoveled in two quick mouthfuls, wiped the back of his hand across his mouth, then he and Mike pushed their bowls to the center of the table.
Mother pursed her lips. “Tsk, tsk.” She shook her head. “What would Santa say?”
“There is no Santa Claus,” I said.
Oliver and Mike stared at me. Their eyes rounded. Their mouths hung open. I was the Big Kid. I knew this stuff.
“Shhhh.” Mother pressed her finger against her mouth. “He’ll hear.”
I shouted at the top of my lungs, “There is no Santa Claus!”
Mother was trying to figure out where to go with all this when there was a knock on the back door. Saved! She pushed aside the blanket and disappeared. “Santa!” we heard her say. “Come in. Have a bowl of soup.”
“No, madam,” a deep voice rumbled. “I couldn’t come into the house but if I could eat it out here….”
“Ohhh,” mother moaned. Mom was a bit of a drama queen. Being a spy, I eavesdropped. “You must have heard my little boy say he wasn’t going to eat his soup and that there’s no Santa Claus.”
After a moment of absolute silence the blanket was pulled aside and – there He was. His long white hair and beard were covered with snow and his broad face was as red as his bulbous nose. He wasn’t dressed in red. He was dressed in dirty rags. I knew he was in disguise. Spies know these things. He just stared and if a four and a half year old kid could have had a heart attack I would have had one. I wanted to drop on my knees and beg his forgiveness.
He gently moved the blanket back in place and disappeared. Mother came in, gave me The Look, then spooned out a bowl of soup and carried it outside to Him.
The three of us pulled our bowls below our chins and ate like the Turks were at the gates.
It took years to wise up but, the memory lingers on and every year, the week before Christmas I try very hard to be a good boy.
About the Author
Grace Gannon Rudolph
Grace Gannon Rudolph lives in Plymouth, MA. She is the author of A Stroke of Good Luck and Ice Floes and Polar Bears: An Inside Look at Nursing Homes. Her plays We’re All in this Together and Elder’s Statements have been published by Baker’s Plays. Her short stories You Lead: I’ll Follow appeared on shortstory.us.com and Megabucks appeared on short-humour.org.uk.