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Friday, January 25, 2013

Well, Virginia, It’s Like This . . .

From the Vault Dept.: Asked to contribute to a group of pieces about falsehoods, I titled this “Fuck You, Virginia,” but Metroland’s headline creator changed it, probably wisely, to what’s heading this column. It originally appeared when my daughter was six. Today she turns sixteen and knows too well about adults and their lies.


I WANTED TO BELIEVE everything they said, because they were older kids and they were my friends.

My nine-year-old next-door neighbor, Kurt, was predisposed to avoid six-year-olds like me. But I was a big kid, articulate and clever, able to keep up appearances with an older crowd. When Kurt’s buddies collected, however, I felt the shakiness of my acceptance. I was the handy tease victim, the invariable monkey-in-the-middle.

None of that dimmed my craving for acceptance. The ribbing seemed an easy price to pay. We lived in northern New Jersey, in a small town long since given over to the close-together housing of Manhattan-bound commuters. But there were earlier-age remnants, like the freestanding garage set back from each house, a garage where the family’s horse once lived.

We sat inside Kurt’s garage one day in early December, puffy in winter jackets. The conversation turned to Christmas.

“I’m getting a race car,” said Kurt, and others chimed in with their anticipations. “Santa’s getting me a rocket launcher,” I said, and the others giggled and traded knowing looks.

“Santa Claus is your parents,” one of the boys said.

“He is not!” My defense probably made me red-faced. The laugher swelled.

“He’s your parents. I saw it. I stayed up last Christmas,” the kid continued. Others nodded confirmation as he described witnessing his parents spread presents under the tree. “Besides,” he concluded, “it never made sense. Nobody could carry presents to so many people in one night.”

That was an undeniable fact, but it was easily surmountable by magic. And I so much wanted that magic to be real.

I persisted, inciting them to a frenzy of insistence. If they had any doubt themselves, this was all it took to convince them. As I trudged home, the full weight of the betrayal crashed in on me. My parents – and every adult I knew and trusted – had lied to me. Television, that seemingly benign, living-room-based authority, had lied to me. Every shopwindow display I studied had lied.

Confronting my parents was no good – I didn’t want to hear the excuses they’d come up with. I listened to the holiday songs with their cheery refrains about reindeer and such and understood that the whole goddamn grownup world was in this conspiracy, and it was all about defrauding children. Not to mention inflicting that oh-so-simple torture of the “You better watch out/You better not cry” school. Of course it wasn’t some miracle elf deciding whom to reward – it was your parents.

There were aftershocks, of course. The Easter bunny and the tooth fairy fell quickly in Santa’s wake, and a fabric of similar lies was exposed. Until the nasty shocks of puberty set in, this was my most painful growing-up experience.

So I resolved I would never lie to my own kids this way. And when my first (and so far only) child arrived some six years ago, I remembered this resolve.

My wife wasn’t as sold on the idea. “Santa Claus is a special part of childhood,” she opined. “I don’t want to take away that magic.”

“I don’t want to lie to my child.”

“It’s not lying.”

I’m now convinced that she’s right. Not that I in any way joined in the Santa-making frenzy. It seemed to hit one day when my attention was elsewhere, and next thing I knew my kid was swept up in the holiday deceit, abetted everywhere we turned by songs and signs and stories. Even without any broadcast TV in our house, the bullshit leaked through. And I’m paralyzed by it.

My daughter has asked me point blank about Santa and how all those presents get delivered. “You know,” she insisted last Christmas. “You know how it’s done. Is it magic?”

I haven’t got the heart to dispel the myth. That’s right – it’s now become a myth. That’s because it’s a lie in which I’m participating, however passively, and it salves my conscience to assign it another name.

Some day, and I hope it’s soon, it will make sense to ease her out of this fiction. I’d like to spare her the sense of betrayal I felt at her age, and I’ve been trying to seed the situation with such sappy sentiment as “Isn’t it wonderful and kind of magic the way people are all nice to one another at Christmas?” but I can tell that’s not working. She clings to this concept of other-worldly magic and right now it makes a great deal of sense to her, as it did to me when I was six. I suppose it’s an offshoot of innocence, and that’s an endangered part of childhood I’d like to see preserved in my own child for a little while longer.

Metroland Magazine, 28 August 2003   

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