CLEVELAND - This is the first Christmas I will celebrate without my mother's presence. She died in June, but left me with a story of Santa Claus that I will carry for the rest of my life.
The first time I heard the story of "The Night Before Christmas," I was home sick from school. My mother, taking my temperature every few hours and spooning medicine down me, sat on the side of my bed, holding my hand. Christmas Day was approaching, and Mother and Dad were working to get our house decorated in time for the celebration of the birth of Jesus.
We were also anticipating the arrival of Santa Claus. I was in elementary school and the expectations I had for Santa's arrival were overwhelming. Of course, I was on my best behavior, aware that Santa "is always watching," as my parents would assure me.
But filled with a cough and cold, I was home for a couple of days.
"I'll read you a good story," said my mother. "It's about the night before Christmas when Santa Claus comes down the chimney," she said, while sticking the thermometer under my tongue.
The story excited me. Those reindeer actually flying through the air, pawing the rooftop once they landed on each house. I remember I wondered if Santa would get back in his sleigh and fly from house-to-house even if the next stop on his Christmas Eve tour was only to the folks next door --- across the driveway. Still, the thought of this man, whom I had visited at the downtown department store, pleading with him to bring me whatever toys I saw in the window or advertised on television, filled me with an unbelievable awe.
When Mother finished the story of "The Night Before Christmas," with Santa wishing everyone a Merry Christmas, "and to all a good night," I laid back on my sickbed pillow and thought about how Santa would visit my home.
That was when the problem hit me. It hit me like someone had dropped a lump of coal into my Christmas stocking, which was taped to the banister of our stairway near the Christmas tree.
We don't have a chimney for Santa to come down, I thought. Mother had left the room and I rattled that one thought through my brain. In "The Night Before Christmas," the story was specific. Santa Claus came down the chimney and entered the house through the fireplace. Of course, we had a chimney, but it was connected to our gas furnace in the basement.
How could Santa get to me and leave me gifts if he couldn't get in? He certainly wasn't going to waste time in coming down our chimney. It was too small anyway for his big belly and who would want to come into the furnace. It was too small for even the smallest person to fit in it; dangerous, too. My parents had long cautioned me about not playing near the furnace when I romped in the basement.
When Mother returned a while later to check on me, I hit her with the problem.
"We don't have a chimney, so how does Santa get into our house?" I asked. Unnerved with this question posed to her out of the blue, she said calmly, "Through the door."
"What?" I asked, in amazement.
"Through the door," repeated Mother. "He rings the doorbell or knocks on the door," she said, never missing a beat. It was then she told me how Santa had long entered houses like ours that had no fireplaces.
I was relieved. I was almost out of breath, trying to come up with a route for Santa to visit me. "The Night Before Christmas" gave no mention of Santa's arrival through doors. And the story had to be the official encyclopedia of how Santa Claus went about his business. I had no other story of his Christmas Eve visits.
"He parks his sleigh on our roof," said Mother, "and then jumps from that part of the roof just over our living room."
"What happens then?" I asked, my eyes wide with excitement.
"He either rings the doorbell or knocks on the door," she responded.
Mother told me she or Dad were usually awake for the official Santa Claus entrance. If not, his knock would awaken them. I asked what Santa said during all his previous visits.
"Ho, ho, ho," said Mother, rubbing her stomach as Santa rubbed his belly. "Is Leon awake?" she said he always asked her. She always said I was asleep, to which Santa would say, "That's good. Now, I'll leave the toys."
Her story was so satisfying of how Santa entered out house. I was comforted by the fact that Santa had different ways of getting into homes, no matter the situation.
It has been many years since my mother told me that story. Yet it sticks with me as surely as does the official story of "The Night Before Christmas." Whenever I hear the story or see Santa Claus in a department store on in a parade, my mind races back to that afternoon a few days before Christmas when my mother told me about her yearly personal greetings from Santa Claus in our own living room.
The story warmed me when Mother told it.
On this first Christmas I will celebrate without Mother's presence, I think of it with tears in my eyes. I celebrate her and I celebrate this season and what it really means. I also celebrate