Monday, December 24, 2007


When I was nine, we sold our 50-foot New Moon and began living in rent houses. That year our house had two fireplaces, neither of which could hold a fire but that didn't matter when it came to Santa -- the chimney was all we needed.

I didn't believe in Santa per se. When I was five, I'd watched a Godzilla movie on TV and spent the next few months having intermittent nightmares about his arrival to our town. Nothing stopped him, he was definitely on his way, walking across the bottom of the ocean. I was sharp enough to pull out my globe and figure out his path from Japan to where we lived in Lafayette, Louisiana. The most direct route would be to the West Coast, and if that happened, I'd hear news stories about Los Angeles or Seattle being laid waste. We'd have time to run.

But this was Godzilla, who was, if anything, unpredictable. If he headed south from Tokyo and detoured around Cape Horn, he could come up the eastern side of Brazil, veer left and be in the Gulf of Mexico without warning. Finally, almost undone by dread, I went to my mother and asked for help in the computations: How long did we have?

She was floored at first, but pulled out an atlas and taught me how to read mileage keys. Then she explained the vast distances in terms I could kinda comprehend. I wound up reassured that Godzilla couldn't live long enough to make that particular walkabout. He would stay focused on Japan. Too bad for them but my relief was profound.

I keep mulling over this new information, however, about the staggering size of the earth, how much time and effort it really took to get from one place to another. When Christmas rolled around, I applied it to Santa's delivery route and discovered it just wouldn't wash: There was no way he could do the whole thing in one night.

I approached my parents at breakfast, confiding I was beginning to think maybe Santa didn't really exist, or at least he wasn't personally toting all those presents to every corner of the planet. Daddy began talking about the time-space continuum and was reaching for a pad and pencil, and no doubt I'd have gotten whatever he knew about physics, the 1960 version. But Mama had one cup of coffee in her, and she interrupted to say "You're right, honey. Santa is made up. It's an idea, a belief, that represents a spirit inside parents everywhere to give their children presents. In that sense, it's magic."

Daddy was extremely upset by her reply. Not me, though. I was pretty moved, that fucked-up adults could share a universal benevolence expressed without fail one day each year. She swore me to silence with regard to other kids, especially my baby brother: "Don't ruin it for them just so you can brag about how smart you are." She had my number. I kept my mouth shut.

And yeah, that's my mother in a nutshell: Lets me believe in the existence of Godzilla but doesn't bat an eye at deflating the Santa myth.

So I played along, for my brother Bill's sake. It was fascinating to watch how grown-ups collaborated on this nonsense. I learned a lot about their capacity for deceit. And it explained why we never got the presents we wanted most on Christmas morning, the ones at the top of our lists: It wasn't that jolly old elf bringing them, it was Mama having to buy what she could afford. Reassuring, in its own way.

That Christmas when I was nine, Bill was five and had Santa fever bad. One of the fireplaces was in his bedroom, one was in the living room, and he was fixated on how Santa would know which one to use.

Mama plunged into preparations for Christmas in a way she never had. We didn't just make construction paper chains for the tree that year, or a couple of fruitcakes and some sugar cookies. We began our annual tradition of stained glass cookies, candy cane cookies, divinity, and pralines. She filled a shallow wooden box with sand and we built in it a manger from whatever materials we could scrounge, with tiny living cactus at the perimeter which helped keep the cats from using it as a litterbox.

She bought Redbook and Good Housekeeping, and together we decided on some of their decorations. My vote went for a pair of brightly-colored elves, painted on cardboard with tempera, whose separate arms and legs were attached to their torsos with brads so you could pose them in different positions. We hung these by the living room fireplace, put our aluminum tree beside it, and Mama told Bill that Santa would see the color wheel through the chimney shaft and know to slide down that one.

(Christmas 1965, Dilley, Texas, Bill Barnett with Chico; behind him is the fireplace, and at top on either side you can just see the blurry feet of our homemade elf decorations)

Mama's chosen decoration, however, involved buying a square yard of midnight blue cotton, hemming the edges, and painting on it with regular white housepaint a huge Star of Bethlehem and, underneath, the distant silhouettes of three wise men riding camels. The design was in the back nonglossy pages of the magazine, and Mama used graph paper to enlarge it, showing me to how to copy an image by envisioning bits of line enlarged ten times. I stood at her elbow as she laboriously lay down white paint on ironed dark cloth, a cigarette hanging from the corner of her mouth, and she told me the real history of those biblical times, the nuttiness of Mary being called a virgin, the taxes, the sectarian hatred, and the creation of Christianity by Paul long after Jesus was dead.

It's one of the best memories of my life. Mama seldom had leisure, especially for art-related activity. And the simplicity of what she was creating thrilled me to my bones.

When she was done, we hung it in the window after dark and trooped outside to look. That became my favorite Christmas decoration of all time.

At Christmas of 1985, our first without Mama, I went digging through the decoration boxes looking for it, determined to not just hang it but take it home with me afterward. Finally Daddy asked me what I was searching for. When I told him, he laughed and said he'd thrown it out, the paint was peeling off and the cloth was motheaten.

It's all stories, anyhow, in the final analysis. Including the original Christmas story. Mama taught me that. It's how you share it which carries the meaning.

(Godzilla-shaped Christmas tree spews smoke, Aqua City Odaiba shopping mall, Tokyo, Japan)


Anonymous said...

Merry Christmas and the most blessed of sacred seasons to you and yours, Maggie...

Thank you for sharing some Christmas memories.


Maggie Jochild said...

Thanks, Jan. I hope your visit with your mom in Florida continues to be a snowless good time. And that you're able to travel home without ghastly difficulty when that time comes.

Are you reading Skene directly online from your mom's computer? If so, are you leaving the URL in her cache or wiping it away after you're done? I mean, what will the woman make of "blossoms"? (giggle)

Anonymous said...

Happy solstice on xmas my dear friend.