Crossing over

November 29,2010
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

It all started about three weeks ago. L. and I were getting into the car at 8:00 am on a school morning, and just as he'd slammed shut his car door and I was doing my routine three-point turn around on the cul-de-sac so we could head off to school, L. said: "Mama, I know you and Papa have been lying to me." There's nothing like being accused of lying--by your oldest child, no less, to make your heart go pitter-patter very rapidly. Even at 8:00 am. "What do you mean?" I asked. He was quiet for a moment and, when I glanced in the rearview mirror he had an I've-caught-you self-righteous look on his face. "You've been lying about Santa." He said. "I know what REALLY happens." He wouldn't say more, except to nod knowingly at me. No matter how much intellectual thought we parents might give to how we will deal with the BIG topics our kids might one day raise: life, death, the birds and the bees, the existence of monsters, whether or not Santa is real, etc., etc. (there's really such a list), children will inevitably still blindside us with questions and accusations that come out of nowhere. One day you might be innocently pushing your child in the swing and he will suddenly ask you a disturbingly blunt question about the functions of certain parts of his anatomy; or your daughter might take your breath away with a very insightful and melancholy comment about love and life. Or, your child might bring you dangerously close to the 'Santa talk' at 8:00 a.m. on a school-day morning, when the only thing on your mind is how you will wake up enough to teach your 9:00 am class. I didn't say much the rest of the car drive to school. He wasn't forthcoming with any additional information on the nature of this Big Lie and just what it was he'd figured out, but I knew--oh, I knew--what he was talking about--deep down, to the very core of me, I knew it alright. But still I pretended. Maybe he had been talking about something else, really, or his revelation about Christmas and Santa involved his uncovering some logistical flaw in the fabric of the story of Christmas Eve--one we could explain, somehow, while preserving his faith in the night. When I used to imagine how I'd feel the day L. stopped believing in the existence of Santa, I thought I'd feel relief, really, that we'd crossed over the threshold and moved into settling down to enjoy Christmas for what it is, not a holiday tinged with the weight of guilt and anxiety over the fragile, magical tale we spin--the one we work so hard to preserve. But I felt profoundly sad inside that morning, as I drove into work, at the thought that we'd now reached this point. My son, who is often so literal, who will unravel emotionally at the thought of something deviating from the normal function of what it's designed to do--what he knows it can do--my son who even at a young age would scream and run from imaginative play involving the suspension of disbelief, my son has always embraced the idea of Santa, always carved out and set aside a small piece of himself and given it over to the red-suited, chimney-climbing, jolly and magical man, to the whole story, lock, stock, and barrel, right down to the elves and the Mrs. Claus and Santa's wintry, year-round retreat. It can't be time yet for him to stop believing, I told myself firmly and then I parked the car, walked into work, and banished the thought of all this from my mind. For about three weeks, that is. One day last weekend, the kids and I were shopping at Michaels for supplies for a 5th grade project. T. was in my line of sight, examining a do-it-yourself pottery kit and I was distracted by the Christmas ornaments, weighing a crystal snowflake in my hand and wondering if it was premature to buy it. L. was soaking up the Christmas decorations with me, and hopping from one foot to the other, so excited about the very idea of everything Christmas. "I just love Christmas," L. said, in a sudden outpouring of emotion. Then he lowered his voice and leaned in."Even though I know that Santa isn't real." And he said this so earnestly that there wasn't even the sliver of doubt in my mind that this was it. I paused, my heart shattering into a million tiny fragments, like a broken ornament. "What?" I said, for want of anything better. "Oh come on, Mama," he said. "I KNOW that you and Papa write 'Santa' on the packages and I KNOW that he doesn't really exist." If L. had been five or six, or maybe even seven, and not ten, I might have come up with some creative damage control. I could have spun a tale for him, I could have taken him by the shoulders and convinced him to suspend his disbelief, even if just for one more year--one more year, please, until I was better-prepared to watch him let it go. But part of parenting--a large and too-painful part--is knowing how to let go, how to meet those milestones with dignity, even if you feel all crumpled up inside, or shattered, like glass. All those carefully rehearsed words I'd once thought just right for the 'Santa talk' were swallowed up by the reality of the moment. Instead, I put my arm around L.'s shoulders and pulled him close. For a few seconds he melted into the embrace, and we stood there, in the ornaments aisle of Michaels, while the Christmas lights winked and blinked around us. Tauntingly? Magically? I didn't know what to say, or do. I wanted to stand there like that forever, or at least until the right words appeared to me, like invisible ink letters exposed at last, but L. stiffened and wriggled away. Then T. was next to us, chattering with excitement about a Christmas star, and we bought our felt and ribbons for the project and stood in line, and were surprised by how dark it was when we left the store. Another milestone, come and gone. Like all the others, it passed so quickly, leaving me spinning in its wake, wondering why I hadn't seen it coming (although I had, hadn't I?); and like all the others, it can't be undone, only looked after with that particular brand of quiet regret, the soft sadness we parents feel, the companion to pride and joy, the ache we feel at childhood's inevitable and all-too nearing end.