Saturday, December 25, 2010

IS THERE A SANTA CLAUS?

This is an excerpt from my book "Splintered Heart." Is Marian Melnik me? Yes, AND no. All the characters in my novels have aspects of me. But the novel is not a story about me.

It was at Christmas time, when Marian Melnik was seven years old, that she had learned about praying.

The Melnik family was Jewish. They were not synagogue-goers. They were agnostics. Marian's father had explained it all to her in a cherished moment of real grown-up conversation.

"I'm an agnostic my dear, not an atheist. Atheism is something different." Anatol Melnik explained the difference to Marian carefully -- that there was a God but God wasn't necessarily Jehovah, Jesus, Buddha or the Lord. You could make up your own idea of God if you were agnostic.

Sometimes, when Daddy talked about things like Pharaoh and Ra, Thor and Vikings, Zeus and Hercules -- it was very interesting. But sometimes when he was talking about "alternative philosophies" like Ethical Culture, and "metaphysics" Marian could not help but let her mind wander. She would think ahead for big words to say, to show she understood. She knew her Daddy loved her smartness. He would smile, not his small-sized smile but his big one, when she managed to surprise him with a new big word.

"I absolutely comprehend," Marian said when her father was finished. And she did understand. Christmas was for Christians, not for agnostics.

Most all the children in the private school were Christians. The school was filled with red, blue, green, gold and silver decorations. There was a Christmas tree with colored lights, colored balls and tinsel in her classroom. There was going to be a Christmas party with candy canes, grab bag gifts, and Christmas carols.

Uncle Milton and Aunt Paula lighted candles, sang Hebrew songs, gave her cousins each a Chanukah gift -- last year a Mickey Mouse watch for Sammy, a locket for Natasha. Marian's best friend, Mary Ellen Warner was a High Episcopalian and she was going with her family to Acapulco for Christmas and New Year's. At Marian's home, the holidays meant that she didn't have to go to school.

But Agnostic was O.K., at least it made Marian one of a kind. Not "run of the mill" which was what Mary Ellen said about the Lutheran, Protestant, and Presbyterian girls in their class.

Marian tried to pray agnostically. She had been reading about Joan of Arc, who had talked to God and heard voices. Marian tried talking to her idea of God in her mind. She wanted Him to talk to her about Mamma.

Mamma stayed in bed most of the time. She was either tired or she had a headaches, or both things.

Daddy said, "Marian, I want you to promise that you will be brave and strong. And very gentle with Mamma. You've got to be the daughter and the son, a very extra special child for while."

In the bathroom with the door locked, Marian had looked it up in the Medical Book. She couldn't find out about "Tired" and "Headache" but she found out about Polio, Scarlet Fever, Sex, Spinal Meningitis, Syphillis, T.B. and Whooping cough.

She was terribly worried about keeping the promise that she'd made to Daddy. She prayed agnostically, that she wouldn't get one of the horrible diseases or the tired headache like Mamma.

All the girls in Marian's class expected dolls -- the kind that wet themselves or dolls with real human hair and wardrobes. One girl was getting a fur coat and the boys were hoping for radios or bicycles. Everyone knew it was parents who gave the presents but the talk was still of Santa Claus and what Santa Claus might be bringing them.

"I know Santa's bringing me a pair of pink satin toe shoes, and a Punch and Judy puppet theater," said Mary Ellen Warner. Mary Ellen was taking ballet for grace, and elocution lessons for poise. "What about you, Marian?"

"Probably my parents are going to give me an Encyclopedia Britannica." An encyclopedia had already been ordered, not for Christmas but for the family's general self-improvement.

"An encyclopedia?" Mary Ellen Warner wrinkled her nose the way she did when a boy came over to play with them.

"Actually I think I'm probably getting a Longines watch and a string of cultured of pearls and also probably a piano!" That impressed Mary Ellen Warner. When Mary Ellen got too snobby or stuck up, Marian had to invent ways of making her shut up.

"Couldn't we celebrate Christmas just this year, Mamma?" Marian asked her Mamma wistfully. Occasionally Mamma would say 'yes' to things without a great deal of fuss, but Mamma just said the usual -- "You'd better ask your father."

The thing about Christmas was not just the presents. It was the decorations and the music. All the children's voices lifted in song -- it made Marian feel as if she were part of a huge family holding hands around the equator of the world, looking up at the same stars and sending notes of music up into the clouds like the ever-larger smoke ring circles from her Daddy's cigarette.

The shiny fragile balls on the trees -- she wished she could have one of each color, just to hold them, look into them and see herself reflected. The icicle tinsel -- she wanted that too -- the silver fringe for a ballerina gown.

Last birthday, Marian's Daddy had taken her to Radio City Music Hall. She never would forget the vision -- the girl dancing with her Prince, her crown of diamond spires, her dress all glitter-gleam lace and sparkles.

And never ever would Marian forget the way the symphony orchestra came rising up from below -- musicians like penguins in their black and white suits, the silver and gold horns, the B O O M of the kettle drums, the up and down bowing-sticks of violins and cellos all moving together, all following their leader the Conductor who made the music get bigger and bigger until it filled every inch of blue space on the stage and in the theater which was one of the biggest theaters in the world -- her Daddy said.

"I am definitely going to be a musician when I grow up, a piano player or a conductor," Marian said to herself. You had to have alternatives, so if that didn't work out, Marian decided she wouldn't mind being a ballerina.

The Prince was part of it. Somewhere in the world, perhaps upside-down in China and growing up like her cousin Sammy was growing up -- there was a boy who would someday marry her. Marian knew, quite definitely, her Prince was not going to be fat like Sammy. Her Prince would definitely be as tall, as handsome as Daddy. She liked to imagine whirling and gliding with him to the rippling music that was in her ears when she was swinging on the swings at the playground.

A few weeks before Christmas, though she realized it was childish, Marian began praying for what she wanted from Santa. She was tentative at first. "Please let me get something for Christmas." But as the time grew closer, her prayers grew longer. She began to do "Now I lay me down to sleep." Then, to that prayer she added "God Bless Mamma, Daddy, Sara our maid, Uncle Milton, Aunt Paula, and my cousins," and onto that she added, "And could I have a string of pearls for Christmas. And a wrist watch. And could you consider a piano?

Marian wrote out a list, put it in an envelope addressed to Santa and placed it on the table in the hall, figuring Sara who was a good maid would show it to Mamma who would show it to Daddy. Probably they'd laugh but maybe they'd open it, and maybe they'd pay attention to the items on the paper.

The next day it was gone.

Nobody ever mentioned it.

A week before Christmas, Marian robbed her piggy bank. Using Mamma's nail file, she found she could scratch up into the slot and get out a few coins. In the locked bathroom, she managed to dig out two quarters, eight dimes, seventeen pennies, and three nickels.

More money came her way unexpectedly when she helped Sara organize the kitchen drawers. There was seventy-two cents in loose change which Sara said Marian could keep. And then on Sunday, when Marian got her Daddy his Times from the corner, he gave her a whole dollar bill tip.

The next day, at the 5 & 10, Marian bought a box of assorted balls and a pack of icicle tinsel. She wanted to have her own secret celebration of Christmas, her own private shrine. She knew even a small tree was out of the question, but she priced the miniature nativity scenes.

With $3.34 to start with, balls and tinsel using up $2.25, there was only $1.09 was left. It didn't take long to find out that even the least expensive "Little Town of Bethlehem" was out of the question, but on the other side of the counter there were other souvenirs -- Eiffel Towers, keys to the city, windmills, back-scratchers and rickshaws.

The rickshaw was IT. Such a tiny teeny thing, all hand carved wood -- wooden wheels with spokes like tooth-picks, tiny grips carved in the handles that pulled the carriage -- it even had a teeny wood-carved cushion and the smallest of small little foot-rests for the royal lady who would hire the rickshaw to take her through the busy streets of Japan and China.

The price was just 79 cents, so Marian bought it. She put the remaining 30 cents back into the piggy when she got home.

After stringing the colored balls on red yarn, Marian hung them in her window in a graceful scallop. She draped eight tinsel icicles between each ball. On the window sill she placed her green hair ribbon and some absorbent cotton. Once the royal rickshaw was carefully placed on the ribbon, it looked like a roadway surrounded by snow drifts.

Marian presented the shrine to her parents the way the guide at the Museum had presented the Egyptian exhibit. She stood up very straight, gestured to the window sill, explaining that decorations were traditional, it was important to conform to traditions since she was going to become a non conformist when she grew up, and celebrating Christmas was a way of orientating herself to the heritage of mankind.

Daddy did not say anything, but as he was examining the rickshaw, he smiled an extra big smile. Mamma said, "But darling, where did you get the money for all these things?"

"It's just leftover stuff from school. Some lady gave me the rickshaw. She didn't want it because it was made in Japan." Mamma was like Mary Ellen Warner. You sometimes had to invent things for Mamma. Little white lies were O.K. to tell, especially when you told them in order to be polite.

The explanation seemed to satisfy Mamma, and Daddy started talking about the boycott, the surplus inventory because of the War.

The last night before Christmas Eve, Marian looked out up at a star.

"Please dear God, a pearl necklace, a watch and maybe a piano -- I would certainly appreciate that, but I'd especially appreciate it if You would show me that You are there!" She was thinking of Joan of Arc and her voices. "Even if you can't give me those things, just give me a little sign that You can hear me."

Christmas Eve, she hung up a stocking and read a poem. So it would be a ceremony, she sang "Silent Night" and "Away in the Manger," then blew a kiss to the North, to the South, to the East and to the West. Checking the clock to be sure it was a full thirty minutes, she thought long, hard, and prayerfully about her Mamma, did "Now I lay me down to sleep" ten times, very slowly. The prayer wasn't to Santa Claus, it wasn't for pearls, watch, or piano. Marian wanted to know if there was a God and this was God's chance to prove it.

She left the window open wide even though it was freezing cold, just in case there was a Santa spirit that might want to come in.

Christmas morning Marian sprang out of bed and rushed to the window. The stocking was empty. There was no sign, not even the tiniest indication that God or Santa had heard her prayers or that either one of them or anything like God or Santa existed.

Her room was cold. She stayed there most of the day.

When Marian brought up the subject at dinner, Daddy explained it: "Praying is something that people invented, it gives them comfort. Don't count on praying, dear. You have to do things yourself. What you pray for you do not necessarily get!"

She nodded. The philosophy was very clear.

A week later, when Marian came home from school, Mamma was gone. Sara said, "Your mother is in the hospital."

Marian felt as if she was going down the swooping curve on the Coney Island roller coaster and had left her stomach behind at the top of the hill. She wondered if what had happened had anything to do with being an agnostic, disobeying her Daddy's rules and praying to God and Santa.

Marian put her four dolls in a shopping bag to give to Mary Ellen Warner who thought having a lot of dolls was very important. The green ribbon went into the waste basket, the cotton was flushed down the toilet. Then she broke the Christmas tree balls one by one and put the pieces in the kitchen trash can. She handed the royal rickshaw to Sara the maid.

Sara said, "Maybe you should keep it, and give it to your baby brother. He's coming home with your Mamma day after tomorrow."

"OH!" Marian said.

She retrieved the green ribbon, put it and the royal rickshaw on a high shelf, so she could use them next Christmas, and teach her new brother about God and Santa watching over you whether you liked it or not.

2 comments:

Carola said...

I didn't know about the Splintered Heart - never noticed it on the Readery. I see it is available used from Amazon.

bodacia said...

Emily, I was riveted by this excerpt from your novel. Marian is a very spirited young girl, and this makes me want to read more about her.

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