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Remembering the Christmas of the Missing Robot

By George Rose
Wednesday December 30, 2009 - 09:20:00 AM

When I was about seven years old I figured out that Santa Claus was just something somebody made up. Seven is about the time you realize that there’s just no way one guy in a sleigh can haul all that stuff around the world in just one night. He just couldn’t handle the inventory.   

I don’t think I had a problem with the flying reindeer or the tiny elves or the whole North Pole thing—yeah, that seemed feasible—but I just couldn’t envision ten billion presents stuffed into a sack barely big enough to fit a flannel sleeping bag. What I hadn’t figured out, though, is why my mother always put out milk and cookies for Santa every Christmas Eve, and why she (for it had to be her) always put “from Santa” on the tags of all the gifts we got on Christmas morning. 

It was November that year, and I still hadn’t let on that I knew the whole Santa Claus thing was a fabrication, maybe because I was afraid the presents would stop coming once the cat was out of the bag. My mother had taken me shopping with her that evening, and I was wandering around the aisles, feeling bored, when I turned a corner and saw it.  

There on the shelf was an enormous box, a picture of a giant robot on the front. Red and blue switches stuck out of his chest and arms, and it shot out missiles from its hands and walked and even talked. It must have needed about 20 batteries, the thing was so big, but it didn’t matter. I was in love with it. I had to have that robot. 

I rushed to find my mother and dragged her to the aisle. “Do you think Santa Claus will bring me that for Christmas?” I asked her, straining to control my excitement. It was a dangerous question to ask. I had to tip her off, but what if she said there is no Santa Claus, and there aren’t going to be anymore presents, so stop whining and get on with your life! 

Instead, she said, “I don’t know, dear. You could always send him a letter and ask him.” 

Then she took me by the hand and gently pried me from my new obsession. I thought I saw the robot eyes glare at me disapprovingly as I turned the corner. 

I don’t know how my mother did it, because we seemed to have less money than just about everybody I knew, but there always seemed to be plenty for everybody at Christmas. We never took vacations or got a new car or went out to dinner like other people, but we always had a big tree with piles of presents, and it took us hours to open them all on Christmas morning. She saved up the green stamps that she used to get at the grocery store to buy us presents, and she sent away for free gifts and used all the extra money she got to buy little things to wrap and put under the tree. Sometimes it would be just a pair of socks or a notebook or a pack of baseball cards or something we needed anyway, but we always had a lot of things to open. You had to hand it to her. 

And then there was something we just called the “Big Present.” There’d always be something spectacular waiting for us when we got up, unwrapped, the big surprise. One year it was a bike, another it was a train set, some expensive gift that said, “See! There really is a Santa Claus! Everything you ever wanted will be given to you, if you just continue to believe!” 

It must have put a terrible strain on my mother to come up with all that loot every year, but somehow she managed. 

Almost immediately upon leaving the store that rainy November evening I envisioned that robot sitting next to the tree on Christmas morning, out of the box, fully electrified and ready for battle. I practiced my surprised look, calculated how long I would hesitate before shouting out my appreciation, considered how I would hide my new knowledge that it was my mother, and not Santa Claus, who had procured it for me. It never occurred to me that she had probably already purchased all the gifts for that year (for she always started collecting for next year almost before the current year’s mess was cleared away), or that getting that robot for me would mean that we would have to eat a little less or go with fewer clothes for the next six months. I just knew that I wanted it, and if she were any kind of mother at all, she’d find a way to get it for me. 

I quickly figured out that my mother had to have a hiding place where she kept all the stuff that was supposed to be from Santa. After that, it didn’t take long for me to find her secret cache in the upstairs closet. I started making daily forays up there, checking for signs of the robot. None of the brightly colored packages seemed big enough, and I was starting to lose hope, when one afternoon I peeked in and let out a gasp, my heart pounding. That had to be the box! I retreated, trembling, terrified. Then I moved closer, carefully peeked into the giant bag that held the treasure, and confirmed it. The robot was mine! 

Or rather it was going to be mine. There was still almost a month to go until Christmas, and I was going to have to conceal my secret and live with the agony of expectation for quite a while longer. Not a problem. I could do it. I carefully put the package back in its corner, closed the closet door, and slipped down the stairway like a thief. I couldn’t wait until Christmas morning. 

I don’t have to tell you that those four weeks were the longest of my life. Every minute seemed like a lifetime. I couldn’t concentrate on my spelling sheets and multiplication hand outs in school, so distracted was I by the slowness of the clock. At times I was tempted to sneak back upstairs and check the box again, but I didn’t dare. Someone was bound to suspect, and besides, I liked knowing it was up there, in the dark, waiting for me. 

Finally, after what seemed a dozen lifetimes, Christmas Eve came. I sat through the dinner, the Christmas carols and the sweet lemon punch; I sat through Uncle Spencer’s jokes and Aunt Lorraine’s stories, and when at last I went to bed I lay there as if my eyelids were glued to the top of my head. I was alert to every sound, as though I had super powers. I tried counting sheep, which I had heard helped a person sleep, but I didn’t really know what sheep looked like, so I counted imaginary robots instead, though I gave up when I got to about five hundred or so. Then I rolled around and waited for the sun to come up. 

At last I saw the faint glimmer of dawn out my window, and when at last a lonely bird chirped from the tree in the backyard, I knew it was okay to get up. I crept downstairs in the dark, the only one up at that hour, and tiptoed toward my awaiting prize. I hesitated before turning the corner into the living room, wanting to savor the moment as long as possible.  

At last I advanced to the tree and gasped. Where was the robot? There was the clock radio my sister Kathy had asked for, and the record player for my sister Terry, but there was absolutely no robot in sight. How could that be? Had I just missed it? No. It was the very largeness of it that I was in love with. And yet it wasn’t there. 

For a moment I thought that maybe I had imagined it, but then I remembered seeing it in the closet. There’s no way that I could have made a mistake. And yet a mistake had surely been made. There was absolutely no robot in that room. 

I stood there stunned, as though the world had shifted on its axis. Did Santa know that I didn’t believe in him anymore, and so he had stolen my treasure from me at the hour of my triumph? But how could that be! If that were true, then there really was a Santa, and if he was real, then he would have gotten it for me himself. My head began to hurt from thinking about it, so I fussed with my stocking until everyone else got up, which we were allowed to do under the rules. 

When my mother arrived in her ratty old bathrobe (how could she buy a new bathrobe when she sank every extra penny into Christmas presents for her kids?), I searched her face for signs of a conspiracy. She seemed her usual holiday self, the self she always was on Christmas morning, happy, carefree, relaxed. She never got any presents herself; she got her enjoyment from watching others devour the fruit of her labor, and it infuriated me even more to watch her laugh and act surprised when one of us opened another package “from Santa.” 

After a couple of hours, after all the presents had been opened and the living room was a teeming mass of crumpled paper and half stacked boxes, she turned to me and asked, “Did you have a good Christmas, dear?” She must have seen the look of dejection on my face, because she came closer and asked me what was the matter. 

“Nothing,” I lied. Then I saw the look on her face change to one of sudden surprise. 

“My God, I almost forgot!” she exclaimed, and ran to the back of the couch. With some effort she extracted a giant box—my robot! “Santa must have forgotten it behind the couch,” she said, with a wink that left no doubt that she knew I understood the truth about Santa Claus.   

Instantly, a wave of joy and relief washed over me, and she gave me the biggest hug of my life. When she pulled away, her eyes were moist, either from joy or from some deep sadness our embrace had kindled or wiped clean for an instant, and it was then that I realized that there really was a Santa Claus after all. And that was the gift I received that Christmas, the Christmas of the missing robot.