Lucy was being her usual demanding self, as Snoopy ran around and caused mayhem. Smiling, I muted the TV and answered the phone.
“Hey Zack! We still on for tomorrow?” I assured the caller that indeed, I would be there, with bells on. Sleigh bells. “Awesome! See you at 4:30 and park on the side of the hall by the service door!”
I started to chuckle as I hung up, but paused. I modified my mirth to be a deep “Ho-ho-ho!” as I started watching the Holiday Classic “A Charlie Brown Christmas” once again.
I am a “Santa”. No, not someone who does it professionally from an agency, but as a volunteer. Years ago, when I was a slim and charming age of 31, a co-worker of mine sat down with me at lunch and asked if he could talk with me about something important. “Sure!”
Billie told me that he and his wife worked with an organization that helped out needy families during the holidays. A lot of the names came through churches and other volunteer organizations. A few days before Christmas, someone would show up at the home of the family, dressed like Santa, and have a sack of gifts for the kids and several boxes of food. There were also vouchers for local stores that couldn’t be cashed, only used for merchandise. Oh, and by the way, the electric bill (and maybe a few other utilities) have been paid. Santa and a helper would swoop in, drop everything off and be gone quickly. Santa would be given a note stating the names of the family members and some basic information (like; “Andy needs to do better to remember bringing his homework to school each day!”) to help Santa seem like he knew the family. Every year, the “SSSS” was looking for new people to be “Santa” and help out. If you did well, you were invited to do it again next year.
“SSSS?” I asked? “Super Secret Santa Society,” was the answer. They supplied the suit and all the stuff. I just had to show up and follow the instructions. “Sure, why not? Sounds like fun!” When I got home to tell my wife about it, she promptly got some red fabric from her hoard, and made herself a cute little “Mrs. Claus” outfit on her sewing machine. No plump little Mrs. Claus was she! She seriously rocked that sexy “Elf” outfit. (Now please remember that this as MANY years ago, before there was a big issue with background checks and security clearances and making sure that Santa wasn’t a pervert who had more than a lump of coal making a bulge in his pants when little Susie sat in his lap. The system was by personal word of mouth and referrals.)
Allow me a moment to describe my wife, Louisa. She stood a willowy 5’8” tall and had the lovely dark complexion of a person who had grown up in the Caribbean. Some of her family was from the Dominican Republic, but she had grown up in Puerto Rico. Lush black hair fell around her shoulders to the small of her back, and she had the classic “Brick Shit-house” body. We met through a mutual friend in college, and what she saw in a dumb guy like me, I will never know. But as he saying goes, I wasn’t gong to look a gift horse in the mouth.
We were assigned two families that first night. We loaded my station wagon up and I looked at Billy, asking; “So, who do I call to post bail?” The question surprised him and I continued; “If some guy showed up at my house and just strolled in, I would be plenty annoyed!” He just laughed. The first stop was a family of five. Dad was on a reduced work schedule due to a slowdown at the factory where he worked and Mom did what she could working as a cashier in a truck-stop. My wife and I looked at each other, nodded, gathered up the goodies and knocked...
“HO! HO! HO!” I called out as the door opened to a confused teenager. Brushing by him, Louisa and I entered the home and called out for some help with all the things for the family. Suffice to say, we were in and out quickly, because the family was pretty much dumbfounded. Laughing (all the way), my wife and I drove off to the next home.
The next stop was heartbreaking. This was just after Desert Storm had started and we lived near a military base. A lot of the local population was military, and with so many people being deployed, it was almost a ghost town. A young Army Wife was “holding down the fort” while her husband was stationed on the other side of the planet. She was 25, had married her High School Sweetheart and shortly after moving to the area with twin boys just shy of the age of 4, she was alone. The pay grade for an E-3 was hardly enough for a family to make ends meet, and this poor girl was forced to do it alone while her husband was far away.
We knocked, and after a few minutes, we heard scampering feet. “Who there?” a small voice asked. “Ho! Ho! Ho!” I replied. “Things are very busy at the North Pole, so Mrs. Claus and I are getting an early start this year!” The door flew open and two little boys were jumping up and down, screaming “MOMMY! SANTA IS HERE!!!” Well, Mommy wasn’t amused that her boys had opened the door before she could get there. She started to protest, but Louisa pulled her aside and quietly explained to her why we were there. I made a big show of saying that my tired old back was aching and that I needed help from “two strong boys” to help bring in the items from the front porch to be placed under the tree.
By now, Mommy was in tears, and was hugging my wife tightly. One of the boys looked outside and asked; “Hey! Where are the reindeer?” I laughed and answered that because there was no snow on the ground (we were in the South), I couldn’t bring my sleigh. BUT, you will notice that Santa has a big red station wagon! (I had decorated it with battery operated lights and a wreath on the grill.) The kids accepted it and that was that. Ahhh ... The joy of youth!
“How can I ever thank you?” the mother asked. My wife smiled and answered; “Never forget WHY we have Christmas. Like Scrooge said; Keep it in your heart, always.” And we left.
Well, it seems we got positive reviews. And so, for the next twenty years, Louisa and I would put on the Santa & Mrs. Claus outfits, and make deliveries. Sure, each of us had “thickened up” a little over the years, and the “baby fat” from two pregnancies had given Louisa a more lush figure. Did I care? Hell No, and Hell Yes. “No” as in I still saw her as that hot and sexy woman I fell in love with. And “Yes” because I loved the way she looked in the outfit, and couldn’t wait to get her home and get her out of it.
And then? Disaster.
A deep tissue mammogram showed an advanced cancer. Radiation and chemo did almost nothing to slow it from spreading to the rest of her body. In just eighteen months, she was gone. Family and friends rallied around me, but I knew that they would need to return to their own lives and I would be a sad afterthought. My son along with his wife and children came from Ohio, my daughter and her husband (no kids yet) came from Colorado. I found myself becoming a bit of a hermit. I went to work and came home. I found myself getting well acquainted with a fellow named Johnny Walker. For obvious reasons, I declined playing Santa that December.
The following year, I decided that maybe I should return to “Santa Duty” and called my friends of the “SSSS” to let them know I was available. The assignment they had was unusual.
The city animal shelter was trying to clear out a lot of animals looking for new Forever Home Families. For a low $5 fee, you got a dog or cat with all shots, spayed/neutered, tags and chipped. You also got a picture of you and your new pet with Santa.
I got to the shelter early, set up and relaxed. The staff was quite friendly, happy that I was there to donate my time to their cause. A lot of the dogs set for adoption were in a common area where people could visit with them and get to know them. Maybe decide which one to adopt. One little black dog stayed mostly in the corner, quietly watching everyone.