Sean died before the leaves had fully turned that year. The spectrum of greenery had only just begun it’s gradual golden tint that would soon give way to vibrant oranges and reds. It was a sight that peepers from down south would head eagerly northward to behold. Places like Vermont and upstate New York might claim ownership of the most dramatic and stunning of foliage, but the Pocono Mountains weren’t exactly disappointing. It was no matter that year though, because Sean died too soon to see them.
Carmella was home with the two youngest boys, Jamie and Kevin. Roddy had gone to fish Lake Wallenpaupack with the unruly Kitchen brothers, and Patty was sitting in the teenage fort in the woods behind Rutger’s Dairy kissing a boy but Carmella never knew about that part. She’d had her hands full keeping the youngers from tearing each other’s limbs off as they fought over the sole surviving Ninendo control. She’d just had enough of the howls and yelling, when the knock came at the door. Pausing first to swat the back of Kevin’s head to hush him, she walked to the door and opened it to find a man in uniform.
The deputy didn’t make eye contact, he shuffled a bit on his feet and Carmella found herself resenting the fact he looked so young. When had police become this young? It made her feel her age, and she didn’t care for that feeling.
She nodded, then waited. Finally, impatient, she said curtly but not unkindly, “Well, what is it?” Her eyes narrowed as a thought occurred, “Is it Patty? Did she get into something with those kids again?”
He shook his head and cleared his throat, “No ma’am, ma’am can I come in?”
She led him in, but only a few feet and then they stood quiet again. He was staring at the now quiet boys, who were staring right back and Carmella told them to get to their room. When she tried to remember what happened after that, things got a little blurry. He’d explained about Sean, he’d crossed the medium on the I81 and collided with another car, and how there wasn’t anything that anyone could have done to save him once that happened. She wasn’t the kind of woman who fell apart, there hadn’t been a big emotional scene, she’d just nodded and nudged him out the door. He’d seemed almost relieved by that.
There wasn’t any snow yet, but the still, grey sky and thin veneer of ice that covered the decaying foliage on the ground portended it would arrive soon. Shrugging off the cold, Carmella wrapped a scarf around her neck and walked the three miles to the diner for her shift. Sean’s car had been totaled in the crash and even though witnesses said he’d swerved to miss a deer, he’d been deemed at fault and there wouldn’t be an insurance pay out. Carmella acknowledged even if there had been, there wouldn’t be a whole lot of relief- how much had a twenty-two year old Ford actually been worth anyway?
She’d been picking up double shifts when possible, carefully rolling whatever meager tips she accumulated into the coffee can above the stove every night. Just like the truth of their predicament, she hid the can from the children. Of course they knew times were hard, but they’d never been exactly easy. They’d worn hand me downs and too small shoes their entire lives, they’d always carried free lunch cards at school, there had never been a trip to Disneyland. The truth though, was that the valley was full of houses where kids were shouting at each other to get out of the home’s only bathroom. There wasn’t a whole lot of Disneyland for anyone living there.
Somehow, she’d strap together enough cash to keep the lights on, keep dinner on the table, and still have enough left over to put at least one gift under the tree with each child’s name on it. There was one thought that occasionally crept into her mind that kept her awake at night. The insurance company had warned that although they’d paid out their side of the claim, the boy’s family could come after her for damages. She didn’t have anything for them to take except the house. It was a small, drafty, weathered house- but it was all she truly had. Daylight was for standing on her feet serving customers, until the small of her back ached. Evenings were for feeding children, breaking up arguments, helping the littles with their homework, and trying to reason with a fifteen year old girl. Late nights though, those were for tossing and turning and worrying.
He wasn’t the sort of man who garnered attention. He was older than her, probably in his early sixties. He sat alone in the four person booth, absentmindedly moving his runny eggs around the plate. Carmella walked over with a half full coffee decanter in hand, and offered him a refill. It would be his third but he still looked tired. Bone deep tired, with bags under his rheumy eyes and what seemed to be an unnatural pallor.
She couldn’t help herself. “Is everything okay?”
One corner of his mouth turned up, the ghost of an attempted smile, and he said quietly, “I suppose so. As okay as it can be I suppose. Do you want to join me for a cup of coffee please?”
Not much startled her, but that did. The man looked harmless, he was well dressed for those parts, and the hours on her feet had made her weary. Despite her normal proclivity of avoiding strangers, she found herself sliding into the booth across from him. She upended the nearest mug and poured her own cup of coffee as he studied her from across the table. Finally, he spoke.
“Carmella, my name is James. My son, Jimmy, was killed back in September in the same accident that took your husband.”
The mug trembled in her hand, but her face remained stoic. “How did you find me?”
He shrugged. “It’s a small town, I asked a few people and learned you worked here. Small towns are good for sharing all kinds of secrets. I thought it would be better to meet in public than to come to your home, that might upset your children.”
He explained about his only child, Jimmy. He’d been a college student at East Stroudsburg University and had been heading home to Ohio for the weekend when the accident happened. James hadn’t wanted him to make the drive, not so quickly into the semester. He worried it might mean he wasn’t acclimating to college life, but Jimmy had assured him he just wanted to spend some time with his high school sweetheart. He’d skipped his last class of the day and set out two hours earlier than James expected, so it had taken a while to realize something had gone wrong. When the state troopers showed up at his door he’d known immediately. It wasn’t the first time they’d given him that speech- he’d lost Jimmy’s mother in a car accident back when the boy was five years old.
Carmella struggled with a response to the story, and settled on a weak, “I’m very sorry.”
He looked curiously at her, and she knew what he saw. The dark bags under her eyes, grey streaked hair pulled tight into a bun, her faded and worn uniform top, her sensible short nails that tipped calloused reddened hands. She was a woman who didn’t own much except worry, and she looked that way.
“I’m sorry for your loss too. Your husband, he was a good man?”
She felt her eyes begin to sting and willed them to stay dry. Nodding, she replied, “Yes. He was. He worked hard, and the kids- well he was good with them. Better than me to be truthful.”
“Carmella, I want you to know I read all the reports and witness statements. I was so angry at first, angry at your husband, angry at Jimmy for not staying put, angry at God himself for letting this happen, but I prayed on it. The harder I prayed, the harder it was to figure out why this happened. I still don’t understand. But I’m not angry anymore. This wasn’t anyone’s fault. It’s certainly not yours. I can see you’re weighed down with loss, but don’t let guilt have any part of that.”
In the weeks after their conversation, the days were still long and exhausting, but the nights were hers again. Sleep came more quickly, and dreams were more peaceful. As Christmas morning approached, she wrapped the small, modest gifts she’d purchased the children. There were new jeans they desperately needed, fresh socks without holes in the heels, warm gloves to replace the ones Kevin had lost, a lipgloss kit for Patty, and a book for each of them. Christmas had never been extravagant in the Rooney household, but this year it would just have to be a little more stretched than usual.
On Christmas morning she awoke early and put a pan of homemade cinnamon rolls into the oven and waited for the children to wake. She decided a fire would be a nice touch, and headed for the front door. Stepping onto the porch and into the cold air, she stopped abruptly. Leaning against the railing was a bicycle and a tower of brightly colored packages. She surveyed the road, looking for a clue as to who had left them and that was when she noticed the minivan with a bright red bow on the front bumper in the driveway. Shaking from both cold and trepidation, she reached for the envelope atop the packages.
Merry Christmas Carmella. I thought maybe this year we could help each other out a little. Humor a lonely old man who needed to find a little joy, and let the kids feel the magic of the season. -James
She looked back out at the minivan, and shook her head. She couldn’t possibly accept it. Then she glanced at the presents bearing her kids’ names. The door behind her swung open and Jamie and Kevin bolted onto the porch in their pajamas.
“What are THOSE?” Jamie asked with huge eyes as he pointed at the gifts.
Carmella looked at the packages, at the van, and back toward the boys and then threw her hands up. “Gifts… from Santa.”
“Kimmy, I told you not to bring that!” Patty admonished sternly.
The small child looked down at the small turtle in her hand and pouted. “He wanted to see Santa too.”
Turning to her youngest brother, now a senior in college, Patty raised an eyebrow. “She gets that from you, you know.”
Carmella reached down and hugged her granddaughter close. Patty was right, she was exactly as mischievous as her Uncle Jamie had always been. She struck a contrast to Roddy’s far more serious young daughters- old souls, that’s what people said when they met them. Carmella delighted in the glow the children had brought into their lives, and soon that glow would grow even brighter as Kevin’s baby boy was due any day now.
The child looked up at her wide eyed and asked suddenly, “Grammy how come Santa is in the hospital?”
“Sweetie we told you, he needs a rest this year. Don’t worry though, his helpers are still hard at work getting ready for Christmas.”
The elevator opened and Roddy, Kevin, their wives and the granddaughters emerged. They stopped to greet everyone, and kissed Carmella on the cheek. Kevin grabbed her hand and asked, “Ready mom?”
They walked to the room at the end of the hall, and before the entire brood had entered James was already raising his bed and happily greeting everyone. Carmella walked in last and surveilled the scene from the back of the room for a moment, savoring the joy on his face at their arrival. He’d aged a lot in the previous year, she could see the weakness in him as he struggled to hug each visitor, but his spirits were up.
Eighteen years earlier, Carmella had caught him on her porch attempting another surprise present delivery on their second Christmas without Sean. She’d insisted he come in and join them for breakfast, and that started the tradition. She’d had the kids write thank you letters and sent them out, and he began writing back. Soon they were corresponding all year and then every year afterward he’d show up on Christmas morning with a stack of gifts. Even after the kids had grown and moved on to their own homes, they’d still come back to enjoy breakfast with Santa as he was affectionately known.
After an hour of catching up, story sharing, and laughs, Patty noticed Carmella’s serious face and announced, “Alright everyone, let’s let Mom and Santa talk for awhile.”
With their exit, Carmella sank into the chair next to James’s head and smiled at him. “How’s it really going James?”
“It’s really going okay Carmella. My ticker isn’t strong, and I’m on and off dialysis. It probably won’t be long but despite that, it’s going okay. Don’t get that look, you’re not the kind of woman who cries and this isn’t worth crying over. I’m going to be with my wife and son again, I’ve been waiting a long time for that reunion.”
She clenched her jaw and squeezed her eyes shut and then finally was able to say calmly, “Well I hate to hear that. You know we love you James. You’ve become part of our family.”
He smiled, “Of course I have, I forced myself on you all. No one can turn Santa away.”
“Oh James… you’ve done so much for us over the years. Those early years when I didn’t have two nickels to rub together, you made Christmas happen. But it’s not just that, it’s your company, the calls, the letters. I can never thank you enough.”
“Carmella after Jimmy died I thought I’d never experience joy again. I thought there was just no possible way I’d find something to live for. You gave me that purpose. You gave me that joy. You and your children and grandchildren made me feel connected and alive. You gave me something to look forward to every year. Other than being a husband and a father, being Santa has turned out to be the best role of my life.”
She reached for his hand, and he kindly chose not to comment on the single tear that ran down her cheek. He smiled up at her brightly, and she found herself smiling back. They sat that way for a few seconds before Patty’s little girl burst into the room yelling, “I lost my turtle in here somewhere!”
As chaos once again surrounded him, Santa relaxed back onto his pillow and let himself revel in one of the most joyful songs of the season, the ringing laughter of children.