LETTER TO SANTA, c. 1928
I found this letter just the other day, among things my mother saved. She’s been gone 40 years and I have no idea where this letter has been hidden. I have been trying to figure out when it was written. I remember the moment when I found out about Santa Claus. I was walking the usual respectful distance behind my big brother and his friend and overheard comments that led me to sudden understanding. We were walking up Pollard Road, beween the Willards’ house on the left and Mrs. Moore’s house on the right. Our house was in sight, high up above us. I don’t think there was any sorrow about it, and certainly no big family conference, and Christmas went on being wonderful.
This letter must have been written when I was 7 or 8, before the 1929 crash, when my father still worked five and a half days a week. He caught the 8:06 train to Hoboken and the Christopher St Ferry to the Bell Lab at 463 West St in New York every morning and came home on the 6:20 so our time with him was very special. When he was cut to 4 days a week we thought it was great to have him home more. Mother told me later that she had made a deal with him from the first that there was to be no talk of money worry in front of the children. The first time I knew there was a problem was after a movie at the State Theater in Boonton, waiting while Mother and Dad discussed at some length whether or not to buy ice cream cones for five cents apiece. The Rexall drug store that sold them was just a few steps away. The decision was favorable. The drug store also had a rack of books. The first book I bought by myself came from there, Napoleon by Emil Ludwig, with a black cloth binding. That was long after this letter was written, but I never missed a chance to look over those books.
The important business of this letter is on the front page. After that, it seems to me that I was writing to fill up the page and enjoying the writing. The only vital item on the inside page is “a bear that will hold me.” I already had a rather lumpy, large, dark brown bear handed down from my brother. I left it in a hammock at a campground on Casco Bay in Maine, and caused some annoyance when we had to drive miles back to get it. I don’t remember his end, but it was on my eleventh Christmas that I got a fine mahogany drop front desk which I ignored until my father insisted I open the drawers. In the bottom drawer was a big box from FAO Schwarz with a Stieff bear inside. That was in 1931. In 1932 we were told there would be no presents except the parlor grand piano. Its $1200 price tag was hung on the tree. My brother started lessons, and I was told there was not enough money for lessons for both of us. I cagily lurked in the hall and listened to the lessons, and on the happy day that mother told my brother he would have no more lessons because he wasn’t practicing, I was ready.
The bycikile! arrived. No training wheels. No paved driveway. Very short level area. Dad ran along beside me time after time uintil I got the idea. Mother ruled that I could ride the mile to school, but I must get off the bike and move it off the road every time a car came in sight. I did that. There were no sidewalks.
I don’t remember why I needed a light over my doll house. Mother and Dad built it in our cellar, secretly for weeks. It was over 4 feet long, two stories high plus the attic, a more or less exact replica of our house, with shingles cut one by one from heavy green oilcloth, with a chimney painted to look like the real one of natural stone, furnished with FAO Schwarz furniture, redwood chairs with white satin cushions, a refrigerator in the kitchen, a garage. The outside was covered in rough paint to simulate stucco. It had lights in every room and when I came down Christmas morning it was under the tree, all lit up. It was so big it had to be kept in the attic to play with, and I may have found the attic lights unsuitable. The house stayed in the attic until my folks retired to North Carolina and Florida. Then the doll house stayed in my attic for 50 years, and the auctioneer sold it when I moved to a condo. I kept hoping to pass it on to a grandchild but they were always far away, or their homes were too small, and then in a few minutes they were grown up.. I think I was in that in-between stage when Santa brought the doll house but I was aware that he didn’t build it.
I note that the boring, practical presents are listed in a separate corner. Why some new bed clouths? Mother was a meticulous housekeeper and I might have heard her say she needed new sheets, but this was certainly no worry of mine. I didn’t learn to make a bed until I took a Red Cross home nursing class in 8th grade, and proudly changed mother’s bed with her in it. It was like her to get seriously ill just when I needed to show off my new skill. Before that, she said firmly, “Your job is to do well in school. Any fool can learn housework when she needs to.”
“Toys, mabe.” The Douboule set of tinkertoys arrived but I have no fond memories of it, just of envy of my brother’s Erector set, and his Lionel trains that I was not to touch, and his chemistry set. Thank goodness he decided he didn’t want a sister at Cornell and said it would be nice to have a sister at Smith. I remember him saying this, standing in the breakfast room where I had college catalogs spread over the table. He didn’t know what a wonderful choice he was making for me.
The little Christmas tree did not materialize, but later when I had my own house and children they had as many trees as they wanted. We went together to choose the big tree, then the brother in the group brought in cedar trees from our own mountain side, any size desired.
Mother took care of the doll clothes request. I was surprised to see a baby doll on this list. Every baby doll I had got operated on because my brother and I wanted to see what made it cry. But my Patsy doll had no surgery. She wore silk dresses and bloomers. The dresses had bound edges, and faggoting and smocking. My friend Ruthie and I played with paper dolls but cutting them out was the best part. Nothing in the doll world could hold a candle to a bear. This is an addiction of unknown origin, inexplicable, unwavering. The Stieff bear in the desk drawer was blond, formally named C12 H22 O20 which I had just heard was the formula for sugar, ( actually carbohydrate) but his every-day name was Boufy .(Rhymes with woofy.) He led the life of a well loved bear. He fell out of a canoe on Raquet Lake in the Adirondacks and had to hang by his ears on a clothesline for some time, but he survived for over 20 yeara until a pedigreed Cocker Spaniel puppy named Snooozy tore him to pieces and spread his excelsior over the yard. I have since seen Boufy in pictures of Stieff classic bears but I never tried to replace him. He was definitely “a bear that will hold me.” There are bears all over this current house but there is no favorite, no one bear to talk to. None of our children shares my addiction, nor ever asked for a bear.
For the closing, faithfully yours, where would a 2nd or 3rd grader pick up a line like that? It was my impression when I saw my father in his office that his entire job was signing letters, but I’m sure none of them said fatihfully yours. My letter to Santa had to be written before 4th grade, because Miss Byrnes, my 4th grade teacher, would not have let me out with such spelling. One day we were allowed out for recess one by one only as we each spelled Tigris and Euphrates correctly. We had to repeat each new spelling word 3 times, write it on paper and write it in the air with great grand Palmer motions.
some books - I received one book for each birthday, one for Christmas and once in a great while my father would pick one up in the city on a whim, for no occasion. It was he who gave me Padraic Colum’s The Adventures of Ulysses and the Tale of Troy, which I rewrote in snappy quatrains, and Louis Untermeyer’s The Book of Living Verse. I inherited mother’s copy of Palgreave’s Golden Treasury. The next Rexall Drug purchases were a soft leather covered Kipling and a hard cover Shakespeare. Now I have the complete works of S. on my Kindle reader. I don’t think I ever got all the way through that first Napoleon. The town library was first some shelves adjacent to the principal’s office in the Lake Drive school. Next it was in a full room in the school basement. Then it moved upstairs to a room near the auditorium. At last it got a fine red brick building all its own, near the Lackawanna station. I came home one day with 4 books and mother said she didn’t believe I was really reading them. This caused her to have to listen to all four books. Eventually I had the joy of runnng a library and helping new readers discover books. Watching first graders suddenly start reading , one by one, day by day, is like watching a bud burst into bloom suddenly over night.
It appears that I have had two lifetime addictions - bears and books.. I didn’t start smoking when I found that cigarettes and sheet music each cost twenty five cents and I chose music. Of course when one comes home with a new piece of music, one must give it just a look before practicing scales and the rest of the lesson. And thus one becomes very experienced at sight reading, a handy skill. As to other addictions, I didn’t even know of their existence.
I have rationalized that I still believe in Santa Claus, if I define him as the symbol of the remarkable kindness that comes over people when we start wondering what to give each other, and we hear the familiar music, and the old stories, and we start making cookies and getting out wrapping paper and ribbon.
There isn’t anything to ask Santa for this year, except big things like peace for the world and health for all the people I love. I’ve collected quite a list of those in 88 years. I see my old list does not mention food or money. How nice to have lived when and where these were taken for granted. I don’t need to write a letter to Santa this year, but if I did, as one who has enjoyed 88 Christmases, I think I could honestly sign it as before,