“Santa’s Eyes”

Misty was seventeen before she ever sat on Santa’s lap. Surprising considering she’d elevated him to rock star status early on, pasting pictures of him on her bedroom walls where other young girls displayed the Backstreet Boys. She lit up whenever she saw him in books or on television. But when our parents took her to the mall to see him at the age of six, she shrank against my mother’s legs, wailing and keening like an old Irish woman at a wake.

This didn’t stop my parents from trying each year, always with the same result. I dreaded our annual pilgrimage to the mall with the mortification most twelve-year-old boys reserve for public displays of affection. Perched high on magnificent thrones, the mall Santas’ eyes were obscured by luxurious eyebrows, crimson velvet caps with snow white trim, and fancy, gold-rimmed spectacles. Still, as each Santa’s eyes lit upon the flattened, misshapen features of my sister’s face, the discomfort, and even revulsion, were visible.

On Misty’s seventeenth Christmas, my father heard about a man who played Santa for the neighborhood kids in his front yard. Maybe, he said, this would be different. I was not convinced, but my parents insisted we go. I prepared myself for the inevitable.

We drove the few blocks to Santa’s house, a dingy affair badly in need of paint and a good gardener. Santa hadn’t invested much in his charade. His costume was dime-store variety, made of cheap, worn, orange-red flannel. A pillow was conspicuously pushed up under his jacket, held in place with a rope belt. He was otherwise quite skinny. A matted beard was affixed to his face with an elastic band. His matching hat was too small for his head and sat perched atop it like a bird’s nest.

He looked nothing like Santa Claus to me, yet there he sat, in a threadbare lawn chair, in the middle of his threadbare lawn, joyfully passing out candy canes.

My embarrassment over the tantrum my sister was about to throw in this seemingly nice enough man’s front yard was compounded by the fact that, despite her childlike mental capacity, my sister was physically an adult. But my parents led her from the car and up the sidewalk to see Santa as proudly as someone would any six-year-old child. I trailed behind.

We got in line, and to my astonishment, my sister’s eyes lit up when she spotted this Santa imposter seated on a rickety folding chair. When it was her turn, Misty marched up to him without hesitation.

Santa’s face betrayed no surprise when my 5’6” sister clambered up onto his lap. She regaled him for twenty minutes, unloading a list of Christmas wishes she’d apparently been storing up her whole life. Santa listened patiently, smiling and nodding, occasionally laughing raucously, his eyes literally twinkling. Unshielded by glasses or synthetic eyebrows or a big, plush cap, all I saw in his gaze was warmth and acceptance. Afterward, Misty led the way back to our car pleased as punch, clutching her candy cane, as if Christmas was finally underway.

Our family visited the neighborhood Santa each year after that, until we lost Misty to a respiratory infection at the age of twenty-six. I never really understood the way my sister’s mind worked, or didn’t work. But her intuition, like her heart, was true. Something told her this Santa was the real thing. I didn’t get it then, when I was twelve. But now I see that the genuineness of that lawn chair Santa’s own heart shone in his eyes.

First published by Tolosa Press, 12/17/2015
“Santa’s Eyes” in Tolosa Press News
Copyright © 2015 by Leni Leanne Phillips