Sometimes the truth is better than Santa

Friday, December 25, 2009; B02

The year I had just turned 8 was the year I gave up my belief in Santa Claus, but not in the magic of Christmas. My older sister's birthday was at the end of November, and I was surprised when she held true to her decision not to receive any birthday presents. She was holding out for a new, sleek, royal blue English racer with skinny tires and shiny chrome hand brakes. She assured me that she would certainly receive the bike for Christmas as a reward for forgoing gifts on her 13th birthday.

I was wavering that year in continuing my belief in Santa -- one foot poised to follow in my sister's footsteps and her teenage world and the other planted firmly with my three younger siblings. So I relentlessly badgered my sister with a myriad of questions. How would Santa know she hadn't received birthday presents? Why would he bring such a grand gift when he had always left games, puzzles, books, pajamas and slippers under our tree? How could she be so sure he knew which bike she really wanted? If he didn't bring the bike, could she ask that the birthday presents she hadn't received be belatedly bestowed on her?

I thought my sister was taking a big risk and probably making a horrible mistake. I hoped she was right, though, because then maybe I would inherit her old, clunky, scratched bike with fat tires and wide fenders. My father had patiently taught me, his athletically challenged daughter, to ride it by placing his hand on the back of the seat to steady me down a small grassy slope and finally, after more wobbly starts and falls than I care to remember, releasing me like a baby bird to fly away on my own.

The last Saturday of November was unseasonably warm, and I bounded down the basement steps to pull my roller skates from the bottom of the bin that held my sister's softball equipment. As I leapt off the last step into the room, my father jumped up from a corner and spun around. His stern look and loud voice demanding what I was doing there startled me. He thrust a fat paintbrush behind his back and gruffly pushed me back toward the steps as he quickly retrieved my skates.

That afternoon, I asked my sister why she thought our father had been so unusually brusque that morning and what he was doing in the corner of the basement with a fat paintbrush in his hand. She speculated that he was finishing up one of his paintings for an art show. But why would he be working in the basement and not at his easel in the light upstairs, and why would he be using such a fat brush and not one of the small, thin brushes he used to create his watercolors? My sister dispelled my worry by telling me that he was probably pressed for time and startled by my loud, unexpected appearance.

As I lay awake early on Christmas morning, I felt like I was about to burst with anticipation and excitement waiting to see whether my sister had received her wish. When my parents called out that Santa had come, I bolted out of the bedroom ahead of my sister. I failed to notice whether she had received her Christmas wish, because there, with his painter's hand on the back of the seat, was my father balancing a beautiful turquoise bike. The bike, with fat tires and wide fenders, was painted a cross between the sky and the ocean with chrome handlebars that looked like silver glints of light shining on water. I knew at that moment that Santa never would have known to give me such a perfect gift and that only my father knew what I wanted the most without my even asking.

-- Clare Noble, Arlington

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