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The air that day
That day was the day Santa was visiting our class room. Could you imagine how excited I was? Santa was coming to our little classroom with the walls covered in finger paintings and other works of art, and the bright red carpet littered with tiny beings in the far right corner of the room. We even had the cookies and milk ready on one of the six tables all the way to the left side of the room.
My class-mates and I sat squirming and impatient as Tyler hopped off of Santa’s uncomfortable lap and stumbled back to the circle. Eventually we would all have a turn on his lap, even me. It was just a matter of time.
I had never thought Santa Claus would be so skinny, or so tall. I had always imagined a short, fat man with red cheeks and warm eyes. But the Santa sitting in front of us on one of our tiny pre-school chairs, with long legs sprawled out in front of him, looked completely the opposite. His belly was flat, his cheeks a dirty sand colour. The brilliant fluorescent lighting made his beady black eyes squint as they jumped around the room, coming back to the table of milk and cookies over and over again. This man could only pass as Santa to a group of eager, impatient and exhausted 4 year-olds. He was in luck.
“And vut’s your name, leetle kiddy?” He boomed in an over-exaggerated voice, looking straight at me.
“It’s Angelou.” my teacher Pat answered in a perky tone from the middle of the circle.
The man in the loose red suit muttered, “Angela”. He grinned, his crooked teeth surprisingly white. “This is lovely name.”
The circle of two dozen or so fidgety students put their hands over their mouths and giggled loudly, each making silly faces at their neighbors and pulling at their clothes as they realized Santa’s mistake.
“Shh…” Pat warned us, giving the class a disappointed glance. “Her name is Angelou. Angelou, Ivan.” She said, still looking carefully at our class. Then she slowly swiveled her head towards the front of the circle, gathered her blond hair into a pony tail and set her kind eyes on me. “Go have a seat on Santa’s lap, and you can ask him what present you would like for Christmas.”
Her tone was encouraging, and I really did want to sit on Santa’s lap, even though he looked a bit different than what I had pictured. I ran over and cuddled into his lap. He kept his legs sprawled out lazily in front of him, so I had to cling to his white felt beard so I wouldn’t slide off. He never so much as winced.
“Mhmm… And vut does zis one want from me?” Santa asked me in a thick accent.
I wanted what the 8 girls before me wanted from Santa: The brand-new Spice Girl Barbie Doll. I put on my most important voice, and said hesitantly,
“Sanna, I want that Spice Girl Barbie for Christmas time, you know, Sanna, the good one, and that’s what I’m gonna be gettin’.”
“Ho, ho, ho!” Santa laughed. “Oh of course zis iz vut you vill be getting! Now off wiss you, back to zee circle. I believe you are damaging my…Oh so silky beard.”
As I left the preschool building, the air hit me like an invisible wall and for a split second, I rejoiced as a rush of pure happiness ran through me and made my whole body shiver.
The one thing I remember most clearly about that classic December day was the air. I just couldn’t get enough of that cool, refreshing air. It was a unique and wonderful feeling, to let it into my lungs. It smelled like nothing and yet everything at once. I remember how it smelled; those exciting Christmas-is-coming smells. I remember how my nostrils and then my lungs stung as I breathed in mass quantities of it.
My mother looked down at me with a worried look on her red face. “Oh, honey, are you cold?! Of course you’re cold. Just look at you, you’re shivering!” My mother tends to answer her own questions. “I told you to wear your green jacket; this purple one is way too thin!” She pulled off her big ugly black scarf and tightly wrapped it around my fragile neck, so I wouldn’t freeze to death before reaching our van which was about 30 feet away. When we reached the car, I opened the back door by myself and trusted my mom to do the rest.
“Lift me, mommy!”
I was gently lifted into the back seat, and I immediately pulled and tugged at the itchy scarf in a desperate attempt to get it off of me.
“Honey, no! You’re going to strangle yourself to death!” And with one swift motion, my mother unraveled the scarf from my neck and wrapped it gracelessly around her own neck before going to sit in the driver’s seat.
As soon as my mother was able to start the car, she put the heat on full blast. Over the sound of it, she said loudly, “You’ll be warm soon, honey. How was your day? You must be tired. Did you have fun? Of course you had fun! What did you do? Something cool I bet!”
“Zachary and Tom got in trouble, and I made this pretty necklace, but I couldn’t keep it, ‘cause she wanted the beads back, and we got to sit on Sanna’s lap! An...And we’re gonna get presents, and he’s gonna bring me the spice girl Barbie, you know, the good one, for Christmas!”
My mother had been smiling at me until I mentioned Santa, at which point her smile vanished from her dark lips and the brightness in her eyes visibly faded as she became all too interested in the dirty floor of our old van. I was young, so I couldn’t foresee that she was about to say something that would never leave me again. The words came out cold, harsh, like she was trying to hurt me. And those five simple words that when strung together can hurt so bad, stung in the worst way.
“We don’t believe in Santa.”
I did not understand.
“Silly mommy, you’re mixing your words. Believe is for something that might not exist.”
Then, slowly, my innocent mind began to put the pieces together.
“You saying you think Sanna doesn’t exist, mommy.” By now my voice was very soft, too soft to hear properly. But my mother, she knew exactly what I was saying.
Still my mother said nothing, nor did her face. All she did was look down at her bracelet, that big ugly copper bracelet which was already greening, and blinked. Then, after too long, she spoke.
“Honey, we don’t celebrate Christmas. So even if Santa does exist, he doesn’t bring Jewish children presents for Christmas. That’s what we are, honey. Jewish.”
She might have realized that she worded this wrong when she finally looked at my face, which was almost purple from forgetting to breathe and slick with tears that I couldn’t control.
The car ride home was almost silent, except for the loud sound of the heating and a few desperate attempts at conversation from my mother.
“Look, Honey! There’s Toys R Us!”
“Are you coming with me this Sunday to visit Bubba?”
“What would you like for supper?”
I remember wondering why she couldn’t just answer her own questions like usual. It’s not that I was too mad to answer her; it was that I couldn’t remember how to open my mouth. That or it was sealed shut. I was in deep denial of what she had said before, and the only thing that I wanted to hear from her was “Santa does exist, and he’s bringing you that Spice Girl Barbie doll, you know, the good one, for Christmas.
When my mother stopped the car, the heat turned off and the silence surprised me. My mother didn’t make a move for her door, so I opened mine and got out by myself. The air shocked me and made me smile such a smile that it convinced my mother I had forgotten what had happened earlier. I walked into our yard, which was covered in a brilliant coat of untouched snow. I made my way to the middle as my mother leaned on the car and watched, with a relieved face. I breathed in one last cool breath of air before heading to the front door of our house.
“At least Sanna gives everyone air,” I said. “I don’t think I could live without this air.”
My mother laughed lovingly. “Yes, this air is very important.”
She had no idea.