A Christmas Story
When my daughters were little girls, we three lived in Paris. The eldest, Daisy, used to do some modeling for magazines. On this particular day she had done a job for ELLE Magazine. She was about seven, or maybe eight.
Her younger sister Autumn and I took the metro, and went to fetch Daisy at her fashion shoot job on the Champs-Élysées. It was December, and it was cold and rainy. We three stood shivering on the sidewalk.
It was dark and getting late, it might’ve been 7:00 p.m. At that time, the girls’ nanny was our chubby, sixty-something concierge, whom we called Mémé Jabot. During the week, when I worked, the girls had their own room with bunk beds at Mémé Jabot’s apartment. They cherished their nanny. She spoiled them, but she made them toe the mark too. “L’heure c’est l’heure,” she said about meal times. On time is on time. No excuses.
Autumn spoke up, “Mom?” she said, “If we don’t take a taxi home, we might be late for dinner. You know how Mémé is about the time.”
Autumn was younger. But she was the voice of truth. I knew that upsetting Mémé was a real possibility. She might scold, and she would definitely blame it on me. “Your mother lets your sister be a model for magazines! What next?”
Madame Jabot was a professional nanny, and deliciously old-fashioned. I can say that now, but back then, her reluctance to allow the girls to enter the twentieth century wasn’t always a picnic. She dressed them exclusively in short plaid woolen skirts with tights, starched white blouses, and sensible shoes. If I didn’t buy them the clothes she wanted them clad in, she bought them herself. I once got them some jeans, and she handed them right back to me in the bag they came in. She was like a kindly Mother Earth. But she was also tyrannical. An Aquarius, she was as obdurate as an ox. Moreover, she worked harder than anyone I have ever known. But Mémé Jabot was also clever, dedicated, and she adored my children. She called them her American princesses.
“Okay kids.” I said then. ”Let’s grab a cab.” And so we did.
Daisy sat on my right, and Autumn to my left in the back seat. Traffic was heavy, and progress was slow. To help pass the time, I started to talk about Christmas. When I was a kid, if someone talked about Christmas in December, I got butterflies just thinking about Santa mysteriously dropping down the chimney and bringing all the presents. The presents were important. But the magic of Santa finding our house, and delivering the goods all by himself with only Rudolph’s red nose to guide his sleigh, was even more so. “So what do you think Santa Claus will bring this year?” I started.
“Maman!” Daisy’s piercing French Maman was dangerously close to cheeky. “Why didn’t you tell me there was no Santa Claus?”
All the blood drained from my head. I nearly swallowed my tongue.
“Er … um … well I…”
“In school this morning,” the child began, “Madame Bigoudie asked each one of us when we had learned that there was no Father Christmas.” Her voice was trembling, yet indignant.
I heard Autumn suck in her breath on my left. Oh my God, I thought. I will kill that Madame Bigoudie.
“Maman?” gasped the voice of truth. “Is it true? Is it?”
“How dare she?” I hissed. “How dare that woman …”
I looked over at Daisy’s pretty pink face, and noted tears welling.
“I felt like such a fool,” she told us. “I didn’t even have an answer. When La Bigoudie got around to me, I just muttered something like ‘I don’t know,’ and everybody laughed at me.”
I looked over at Autumn’s sweet face, and heard her gulp, before her dusky voice whispered aloud, “And the Easter Bunny?”
“Well… it’s true,” I said as I swallowed my own tears. “Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny… Well, it’s really me.”
“Mémé told us you gave a check to Santa Claus to pay for the stuff,” whimpered Daisy. “She said we should make a list, and then you give the check, and then he brings the toys.”
An angel passed then. In French, when an angel passes overhead, it means that a cloud of silence enters, and it takes its good old time hovering mutely, waiting. For a few leaden minutes, the angel hung out in that taxi’s back seat. I was numb. The kids were deathly quiet.
Little Autumn snuggled closer to me then. I took her soft pudgy hand in mine, and squeezed gently. Then, in a deep, throaty voice, she asked, “And the tooth fairy?”
I sighed the biggest sigh of my single, motherly life. I barely managed, “Yes. And the tooth fairy too. That’s me.”
Just then, the taxi pulled up in front of our building in La Rue de la Tombe-Issoire. I paid, and the girls clambered out in a hurry, so as not to be late for their prompt and always delectable dinner. I got out, hugged and kissed them goodbye for the evening, and watched as they trotted off down the corridor to Mémé’s front door. Then suddenly, Autumn came back, her long chestnut hair bouncing as she ran toward me. She grabbed my neck, pulled my head down to her lips, and whispered in English, “Mom! Be careful. Don’t tell Mémé. She still believes.”