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I've never told a story that I wrote myself. I'm a big fan - and somewhat in awe - of storytellers who mine their lives for great stories, but I've never been one of them, choosing instead to bring to life the countless terrific tales that are already out there. That's not to say that I don't have stories, or that I don't occasionally write them down.

This is a true story. A LiveJournal posting, originally, that I wanted to share with a wider audience. It remains to be seen whether it's something I can perform aloud, but I think I'm going to try, this holiday season.
In any case, it's my gift to you - I hope you enjoy it.
BELIEF is a tricky thing. It can be so easy to lose. But sometimes, especially if you really, down-deep, want to believe, it can be easy to get back . . .

My daughter Natalie, who lives with her mother in Milwaukee, was 7 years old, almost 8, the Thanksgiving that her mother called to tell me that they had been discussing Santa Claus. Apparently, Natalie had told her mom: “In my mind I don’t believe in Santa any more. But my heart still wants to believe.”

This is unbearably cute, and yet hardly unusual. This is just how she is. And who she is.

This loss of faith was in the back of my mind on my next visit, early in December, when we went to the Milwaukee Museum. Even if she didn't believe, there were plenty of holiday offerings that she would still enjoy.

When we go to the museum, just like when we go to the zoo, she has a story for everything. She’s very imaginative, and she’s always thinking. She’s also talking all the time – Heaven knows where she gets that – because she wants to share what she’s thinking. She pointed out to me in the diorama of bison and Indians which buffalo was the daddy, in the family coming around the rocks.

“He’s the biggest one, on the outside, see? And he was just talking to the mommy about the weather, and he’s just about to see the Indian up there on the ridge, and when he does, he’ll warn the baby, and all three of them will run over that way and get away.” She could also tell what each of the Indians on horseback were thinking as they chased buffalo off a cliff, and which buffalo were going to survive, and which one was crying because it just lost a parent. She’ll be a writer, mark my words – everybody had a back story.

On this visit to the museum, they were doing several seasonal special things – the historical cobblestone street was decorated for an old-fashioned Christmas, and the houses of the world were showing how other countries trimmed trees, fed their families traditional holiday fare, etc. (“See how the little brother is feeding the baby? I bet it’s something he doesn’t like, but the baby likes it, so the baby gets his too.”) A series of local school’s choirs were singing by the butterfly exhibit that Saturday. And somewhere, there was supposed to be Santa Claus.

Well, we never did see Santa (or an old-fashioned St. Nicholas, I forget which), but we did see a couple of Santa’s elves walking around. But these were no pair of teenagers walking around, smiling and moving on. No, this was a pair of grown-ups, and they had a whole shtick worked out.

The man, 30s and balding under his green cap (both were all in green, with tunics and tights and usual paraphernalia), held a large binder of computer paper. After chatting for a minute or two about whether she’d been good, etc., he asked her name. Then he opened the book wide and thumbed through it rapidly. I could see it was columns of names and words and figures, though I couldn’t see anything too clearly. Suddenly –

“Ah ha!” he says, and moves the book so I can see the page, but Natalie can’t. “There she is, see? Right there in the ‘good’ column.” I quickly agreed – there was her name, all right.

Her eyes got larger and larger at this display. The elf explained that he couldn’t let her see, since some of her presents were listed next to her name. “But your dad may be interested to know some of what you’re getting. What do you think of that?” he asked me.

I said she must have been very good. “Why, look at that! Says here you just might be getting those Littlest Pet Shops you were asking for . . .” I said. She clapped her hands, in absolute glee.

I was having a ball. “What does this star next to her name mean?” I asked the elf. Well, naturally, that meant she was extra good, which was what I figured he’d say, and would probably deserve extra presents.

“Extra good, huh?” asked the lady elf, who had reddish hair and was taller than the man, even an inch or so taller than I am. She asked where my daughter lived. Natalie said Milwaukee of course, and I clarified it was the northwest area, the neighborhoods near Menomonee Falls. The elf’s eyes lit up, and they both started skimming through another section of the great big book.

“We don’t yet, do we?” “No, I don’t think we do,” they said in excited conference. And the woman plunged her hand into a sack she carried, that sounded like it had dozens of coins in it. Instead, what she came out with was ... a key. Just a discarded key, that could have opened any house door, or car door, or locker or safe deposit box once upon a time, just like all the others in the bag – and each one had a colorful ribbon tied to it.

“THIS,” she said, “is a magic key.” Natalie focused on it, inches from her nose, and she was positively vibrating. This was all so delicious. “We have a job for you, if you think you can handle it.” She nodded, not trusting herself to speak.

“In each town, we need helpers to hold onto the special magic key for their neighborhood. And we don’t have a key holder for your area yet! When Santa gets to your house, he’ll pick up this magic key, and then, if there are any houses in your town that don’t have chimneys, he’ll be able to use this key to open any door in the area to leave his presents. Now, this key won’t work for you on any door, but on Christmas Eve, it will work for Santa. This is a big responsibility – some of the kids in your neighborhood will only get their presents because of your help. Can you do that for us, and for Santa?”

No questing knight’s fingers ever took a Grail in hand with more awe and solemn duty than Natalie’s as she took that key in both hands and held it close.

It was two hours later that we finally left the museum and headed home, but the discussion for most of the car ride was about the key. “I think they made a good choice, you know, because I really like responsibility, don’t I? And I like helping people. I’m so excited! I’m going to be helping. I’m very responsible!”

And at home. “Mom! Grandma! Guess what! Santa’s elves gave me a JOB! And a KEY!!”

The rest of December, I checked in from time to time, from a couple states away, wondering how things were going. If the key had been forgotten. It wasn’t discussed every day, or even every other day – but it was not forgotten. Mom decided it should be outside the door, to make it easy for Santa, since their house didn’t have a chimney either. Grandma suggested they put it inside one of those fake rocks, so somebody didn’t walk off with the magic key before Santa could use it – and they’d write a letter to Santa telling him where to find it.

My girl took her responsibility seriously. And it worked – Santa left her a nice note on Christmas morning, her mother told me, thanking her for her help. And if any more proof were needed? She really did get all the Littlest Pet Shops she’d been wanting.

And belief won out for one more year.


I told you all that to tell you this.

I held that story close to me for all the next year. Shared it with many people. And I thanked those two nameless elves in my heart many times.

And I wondered repeatedly, as I still do, whether someone with a good imagination is more likely to be fooled, or less. I know I was very gullible as a child, a fact my mother loved to take advantage of, sometimes just for her own twisted amusement. I would believe anything. But I don't know if that was because I didn't have the imagination to think anybody would make anything up, or because I had so much imagination that anything seemed possible.

My own Santa belief story is much shorter. My mother says: "You were going off to school, you were school-age, and you were going to be in classes with other kids, and some of them wouldn't believe. I didn't want one of them to be the one to tell you. So I sat you down one day and told you there was no Santa Claus. You didn't hesitate - 'Naaahh!' you said, sneering, and went cheerfully off to school. I shrugged ... because if you weren't going to believe your mother, you weren't going to listen to anything anybody else at school said."

These are more or less the words I remember my mother using. I don't remember anything else. I don't know what 'going off to school' means - was I 6? 5? And I have the impression it was a good two or three years before I really wrapped my head around it. Thing is, I don't have a memory of any traumatic day, like some. I think the ideas co-existed for a long time: that there is a physical, literal Santa, and that we are all Santa, that we are all in on the storytelling and creation of Santa. And it can be a gentle slide from one to the other, because Santa ... as a newspaper editor once told "Virginia" ... is real, precisely because we all work so hard together to make him real.

Knowing it's all storytelling, but wanting to be part of the pretending. Letting the pretending become real, at least sometimes. Maybe playing the odds a little, too, and continuing to believe "just in case." I think that's the zone Natalie is in. Or was. The zone I was in so long. And pretty much still live in.

It's like pretending to believe in the reality of the Muppets. This is something my mother and I still do. But then, I'm gullible.

The next Thanksgiving - as my daughter, now 8, approached her 9th birthday ... (She is a Christmastime baby, and her birthday presents and Christmas presents tend to get mixed into one big pile, and I sometimes wonder if that's a factor ...)

The next Thanksgiving, I again asked her mom how things were now. As expected, no kids stay kids forever. I got the impression there was no way she still believed. Still - it was fun to talk about, for her. To pretend. To play the game. You tell Mom what you're going to ask Santa for, because you're pretty sure telling Mom is the important part of the equation. Anyway, besides Santa, there's always Dad, and Grandma, and these days there's the cousins and your baby half-sister and your stepmom (not that you ever call her that) and all the rest of your daddy's family, and Santa can't take care of all the presents . . .

Still, I thought I knew where I stood with this almost-9-year-old until I made my Thanksgiving-weekend visit. (I'd thought of seeing what events there were at the museum, again; instead, we walked the mall looking for Christmas presents.) I "helped" her buy tree ornaments for her mom and grandma, and pretended to be fooled when she insisted the one that spelled "DADDY" in candy canes was "for another Daddy I know." She and I also got something for my wife, an Island of Misfit Toys advent tree we both knew she'd flip for.

But when we walked past Santa, she got odd. She wanted to wave to him, but she could see he was busy. She wanted to yell what she wanted, but she knew that wouldn't be right. But she couldn't quite bring herself to go wait in line either. I offered to wait with her, even pay for pictures. No no ... there was some kind of struggle going on.

Later, I spoke casually of talking to "Santa" to figure out a couple of presents. I don't remember what I was talking about - just that Santa and I (meaning Mom, probably) would make sure she got the DVDs she wanted, but didn't get any twice. Her jaw dropped, and she looked at me with shining eyes, that may or may not have been a put-on.

"You know Santa Claus's number?"

Sure, I said. In fact, I had his cell number.

Her reaction to this was so priceless, I had to continue. "Sure, in fact, I was with him when he got his first cell phone. That's how I got it. It's not everybody who knows his cell number, you know."

I am my mother's child, clearly.

"Of course, I haven't actually talked to him in a while," I mused. "Haven't needed to call him, so his number could have changed. The number I have might not be any good any more." I was proud that this confession did not seem to dim my coolness factor in her eyes.

Well, I saw her several more times in December. More Christmas shopping and a movie early in December, then an overnight down here for presents, then a quick visit up there to see her school concert. A busier month than usual. Phone calls too. I didn't get to ask about Santa much, though.

Until her post-Christmas birthday party, when I finally asked her mother how things were with Santa this year.

"I don't know, and that's the truth," she said. "I don't think she believes, and then sometimes she really does seem like it. There was a nice note from Santa again this year, and she was really thrilled about it. Oh, and she was bragging to one of the neighbor kids the other day. Apparently, you have Santa's cell phone number?"

I swear, at this point, I don't know if I'm messing with my daughter's head, or she with mine. Overall, I think she's in on it, but won't admit to being in on it. I think.

Today, she is 9 years old. She is almost 10. She's not going to be a kid much longer. But somehow - I hope she never tells me what I don't want to know. Even when we know we're pretending - I hope we never stop pretending. About Santa, or about the Muppets.

Merry Christmas, Sweetheart.