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When St. Nick Begins to Lose His Magic, Just Remember Johnny D.

December 27, 1987|MAUREEN BROWN | Maureen Brown, a mother of four who lives in La Jolla, grew up in Detroit

When his name occurs in conversation, my daughter, who's almost 8, avoids my eyes. We are both aware of her recently acquiesced knowledge about the existence of the jolly old fat man in the red suit.

As the 5-year-old announces that he needs help printing a list for Santa, she flees the room and sulks quietly. Ultimately, she returns and shares that the magic of Christmas has deserted her. It's just not the same without the aura of Santa. I pull her on my lap and tell her of a Christmas long ago when I, too, was 8 and Johnny D. came to stay for the holiday. Johnny D.--the soldier boy who talked to Santa.

Like her, it was the first Christmas for me when the magic of the season no longer enveloped my soul. I envied my younger sisters and brothers who exhausted their days in discussion of Santa's visit to our house. I harbored anger with the entire world who had so boldly deceived me with such an elaborate tale about the little man in red. And I was especially cross with the girl on Whitcomb Street who had revealed the truth to me. I doubted my parent's belief that even as a knowing participant in the magic of Santa, I would find joy.

Our home had always been a haven for "lost souls," as my parents termed them. After our father met our mother, an orphaned young woman, he abandoned his desire to become a priest and care for the underprivileged. Yet, he never lost his gift for helping others. On his meager salary, we shared our meals and our home with countless individuals who were in need of shelter, a good meal or a family. One such visitor was Johnny D.

It was a particularly frigid night when I drove with my father in the old black De Soto to the downtown YMCA to pick up Johnny D. He appeared at the portico of the tall building, which served as his home, in a well-worn tweed overcoat and hat. He seemed younger than the description I had overheard from my parents of a young soldier-boy who had still not been able to put the war behind him. He had absolutely porcelain-white skin, a full head of dark hair combed back severely and a gait with a noticeable limp.

Yet, it was his voice that was the most remarkable aspect of his demeanor. It was devoid of expression--perfectly flat--just a monotonic offering of words, edged with a Southern drawl. My father patiently drew him into conversation about their work together. I was most eager, at 8 years of age, to know why he didn't have any family with whom to share the holidays, or what my parents meant when they whispered the words "shell-shocked" when his name occurred in conversation, or did he have any friends in that brick building that was his home. At the first hint of my interrogation, Johnny D. stiffened and my father's glance told me to avoid questions.

Once inside the front door of our home, the mood of the evening shifted. The house was aglow with candles, a massive Christmas tree graced our front room, and seven little children scampered about in holiday delirium. The smell of baking ham and sweets permeated the air, for there was to be a dinner following Midnight Mass with friends and family. Our father, exhausted from the season's work at the post office, was once again perusing each child's list to Santa and helping put out the annual snack of one glass of milk and our mother's fruitcake. No longer part of this charade, I shuffled about dismally accepting my fate at having to grow up.

Johnny D. settled himself on the green couch facing the Christmas tree and observed the scene about him with an absence of expression. In the kitchen, I quizzed my mother about what was wrong with Johnny D. and she replied, " C'est la guerre, " and promised to talk to me later. Even my older sister was too engaged in wrapping gifts to offer me information about Johnny D. and his condition. This was surely a dreary Christmas for me. Santa had deserted me and a dejected character was to share the holiday with our family.

Hours later, after Midnight Mass and a holiday feast, at my mother's request I brought the extra blankets and pillow for Johnny D., who was to spend the night on the green couch. He had rarely left this one corner of our home all evening and only occasionally did he drift into the conversation. Hoping to gain some inside information, I attempted to ask Johnny D. some questions. He merely nodded to my sleuthing.

Noting that Johnny D. was indifferent to my babbling, I commenced my Christmas soliloquy. The girl on Whitcomb Street had ruined my Christmas. I now knew everything about Santa's existence. Sure, I knew that Christmas was really about the birth in Bethlehem, but the Santa factor had always enlivened the holiday. When I grew up, I would never mislead my own children with a fictitious tale about a man in a red suit who delivered presents to children. My anger and disappointment this Christmas Eve flowed from my heart. Johnny D. listened to my monologue without the slightest sound. I retired to bed lamenting my fate.

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