Mary Kiely: Thinking about last things, and lost things
The youngest of our three kids, 11-year-old Michael, is about to lose the last of his baby teeth. He is mostly pleased about this, as quite a few of his teeth fell out over a very short period recently, turning his attempts at chewing into acrobatic exercises. Candy, strangely, was still able to be ingested but broccoli trees, not so much.
“I think I’m going to wait and cash in all at once,” Michael told me the other day, opening his palm to show me the handful of teeth he hadn’t yet put under his pillow. “Ewwwww!” I said, and then thought to myself: Since when does the tooth fairy you are so shamelessly winking at offer payment options?
Time to admit it’s the end of an era at our house. Bye-bye to the shrink wrap of childhood credulity, and the sometimes hilariously inadequate parental subterfuges that support it. Hello to cold prosaicism.
Naturally the half-life of belief tends to be shorter with later-borns, especially when there are large age gaps between siblings, as is the case in our family. There are just that many more opportunities for “oops” and “uh-ohs.”
Still, it seems like it was only a few years ago that we were safe on first.
Consider this little gem of a Christmas letter from Michael, age 8. I was supposed to have sent it to the North Pole, but I found it a few weeks ago at the bottom of one of the ornament boxes. “Dear Santa,” the letter read, “Thank you all all these yerse for giving me presins. I like the matchbox ship frum last yere. This yere I want a dokder set. Love, Michael James Kiely.”
Almost before we knew it, though, the cracks in the hull were appearing.
“What do I have to do to get Silly Putty in my stocking?” he asked one time. Or, “If Bridget’s hairdryer was from Santa, why are you exchanging it at Target?”
(Because Santa has an outlet at Target, his quick-thinking older sister had retorted.)
Most worrying of all, one day a couple of years ago Michael sat me down to say coyly, “Some people think Santa is your parents. Yes, and one time I found my birthday gift from you and Dad, before my birthday. It was in your bedroom closet.” (Same location, not coincidentally, of the Christmas stash he was awaiting at the time.)
Maybe I should have been more frank and told the kid right then and there that it was okay to let this particular fantasy go, like a helium balloon, cut adrift for some other child to find.
After all, it might be the first but it would not be the last time that gilt and clay would meet in his heart, that his dream of possibility would end up sitting uncomfortably next to the shards of its incarnation. (Think political candidates, former lovers.)
But I didn’t confirm my son’s suspicions, for a couple of reasons.
The first was pure unadulterated selfishness. “I’m going to miss Santa,” my husband said to me once, of the prospect of no longer having a true believer in the family. Me, too. When the man in the red suit stops coming to your youngest kid, he stops coming to you as well. Gift cards for the after-Christmas sales
somehow just don’t put the same kind of jingle in your step.
A friend reminded me that someday we may have grandchildren, who will re-ignite the flame. But I have a funny feeling that my husband and I have the sort of offspring who will have to be relocated by backhoe, the kind to whom you end up shouting: “Go forth and multiply! Somewhere else!”
The second reason I didn’t rat on Santa is because there are some things you just have to figure out for yourself, like the complicated relationships among true and literally true and once true.
A few years ago I took Michael to a historical village at Christmastime, and he made a photo-holding penny rug ornament, for which we got charged $5. “Is everything a rip-off?” Michael had asked me solemnly at the cash-out, apparently having overheard some of the joking between me and the attendant in Colonial garb.
No, I tell the little boy in that photo, which now which hangs on our glittering Christmas tree. Believing and grieving often are companions, it’s true. But the snowflakes that melt on our tongues will also always be snowflakes, bits of love and magic and beauty come earthward for a little while.
Mary Kiely may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her column appears on the first Tuesday of the month.