I know this story to be true because I know Ruben and he
wouldnt lie even though Ruben and I have never met. He lives in Alabama
in a hollow and I live in St. Louis. But that makes no difference. We met
accidentally by email because of the one thing we have in commonthe love
of poetry and prose. Weve been exchanging emails ever since about the
sundry matters of life. Its easy to tell the truth to someone you have
never met and very likely will never meet, age and distance being what they
Ruben, as he explains it, was once a popular teacher at a rural
middle school where each December students would pick a faculty member to be
their Santa Claus for their big party. The kids always picked Ruben. He didn't
know if they picked him because of his size or his popularity or both but he
could not escape the honor. The problem was, Ruben hated playing Santa Claus.
Having spent his childhood in poverty, with Christmas no
different than any other day, even worse emotionally for him and his brother,
he did not feel like playing Santa. He told another teacher it was like a rabbi
being forced to dress up on Halloween like Adolf Hitler. Nevertheless he always
played Santa but with great reluctance.
A big man, he needed only one small pillow to flesh out his
ample tummy. And the beard looked natural on him even when he wasnt gray.
He must have been a good Santa despite his feelings because the children loved
him and voted for an encore performance every year.
For 28 Christmases, however, Ruben in his off hours was a bit
merrier. He would drive another teacher dressed as Santa to the children's ward
at a local hospital. He himself would never play Santa at the hospital even
though the nurses told him he would be perfect for the role. Instead he let the
other Santa cheer up the young patients. But each year Ruben noticed he took
greater pleasure in seeing how the truly sick kids became more joyful when
Santa talked with them and gave them their gifts. In spite of bad memories of
his own Christmases past, Ruben enjoyed seeing the smiles on their faces.
What really gave Ruben a lift, however, was seeing the children
open their gifts. Christmas gifts were not something he himself had ever had as
a child. Poverty is always difficult to live with but rural poverty is often
hidden and that was the case in Rubens family. No one talked about it.
They just waited for the day to be over so their everyday poverty could resume.
They were used to that.
Even after he married a wonderful woman, Christmas for Ruben was
bleak. As a teacher he would be on Christmas vacation but his wife was a nurse
who had to work all the holidays, usually in intensive care. They had no
children of their own and no family members on either side lived nearby so
Christmas was a difficult time for both of them.
All the memories of his impoverished childhood would come
flooding back while Ruben ate sandwiches on Christmas Day and waited for his
wife to come home from work. She was the one bright spot in his life and he
always did his best to be upbeat for her when she arrived but at times that was
like trying to lift a giant barbell off his soul.
Now Ruben and his wife are both retired and Christmases are a
little better. They put up a tree now and have found a church they like to
attend. They even exchange a few gifts, items they might need and always one
surprise" gift - usually a box of chocolates for his wife and after-shave
lotion for Ruben.
His wife has time now to make a turkey on Christmas Day and her
apple pie is very good. But Ruben himself still tells folks at the local diner
that when he was a child, Santa was always missing in action. The other
customers understand because many of them know from experience that poverty in
childhood leaves scars that last. And poverty in the hollow where they live
didnt always end with childhood.