Santa Claus Died 70 Years Ago -- Or Did He?
Ever given any thought to the best Christmas in your entire life? I never had until today when my childhood days in little Kopperl, Texas -- came rushing to the front of my mind. My first childhood friend, Merle and I were pre-schoolers back then and poor as church mice. We didn’t know we were poor because everyone we knew had the same life we did.I lived with my Granny and Merle lived with both her parents.
Strangely enough we didn’t think there was anything odd about that either. When we were little kids life just was as it was and one didn’t worry about how many parents were on the scene or if you lived with your grandmother, just your mother or whatever the circumstances were. In fact, many families were multi-generational as country folks took care of their own back then. We didn’t even know there was such a thing as a “retirement” or “nursing” home.
Merle’s parents were pretty much the standard of the day – her mother was a stay-at-home-mom and her daddy worked for a rancher just outside of town. As I said I lived with my granny and our two houses were about two city blocks apart. Living in such a small town had lots of advantages. I can’t remember a time when Merle and I didn’t walk anywhere we wanted to go, by ourselves, and nobody ever worried harm would come to us.
First of all, everybody knew everybody else and secondly – any kid belonged to every adult in the town. The lady that lived down the street was just as likely to reprimand an errant kid as the kid’s parents – and then go tattle on the kid to the parents. It was truly “a village raising their children.”
Every Kid’s Favorite Hang-Out
Merle and I particularly liked to go to an old woodworking shop owned by Mr. and Mrs. Talley. Mr. Talley repaired furniture and built a few “custom” pieces on special order for folks all over our little Bosque County, Texas. Mrs. Talley did whatever upholstering was needed. They lived in the back of their shop in two rooms – kitchen and bedroom/living area and a path leading out back to an old privy. They were as poor as the rest of us.
The first memory that pops into my head when I think of where they lived is the place was old and dusty – as were Mr. and Mrs. Talley. When the sun shone through the front windows one could see tiny dust particles drifting lazily and unceasingly through the whole place. The other thing I still think of is they had no place to bathe. My Granny was a “clean” nut and nearly scrubbed my hide off so it was beyond me that anyone didn’t have a place to take a bath – and I don’t know ‘til this day what they did about that!
Mrs. Talley was very short, had a pile of gray hair on top of her head (with wisps going in every direction) and probably weighed 300 pounds. Today she’d be considered morbidly obese but to us she was just short, chubby, wonderful Mrs. Talley with a bow in her hair. She always wore a bow in her hair.
Mr. Talley looked like a large elf. He was average height with a protruding tummy, had a mottled, unruly beard with a barely perceptible mouth hidden in it, and bushy eyebrows. He always wore bright green suspenders and cowboy boots with his pant legs tucked into them and walked with a kind of slow, hopping get-along (kind of like his feet hurt). In my mind he looked like a crippled-up, cowboy Santa Claus.
Anyway, it was a cold, December day and Merle and I (wrapped up like mummies) decided we’d go and visit Mr. and Mrs. Talley. The bell on the front door jingled as we walked in and Mrs. Talley immediately came to help us off with our coats and seated us near the old wood stove in the back. Mrs. Talley had a tea kettle sitting on top of the wood stove with steam coming out the spout. She fixed each of us a cup of hot tea with lots of sugar and milk and we settled in for a good visit and enjoyable afternoon. Imagine our surprise when Mr. Talley gathered up everything he had on his work table and put it all away. He then picked up an old chair, set it up on his table and began repairing a broken chair leg without saying a word to us.
Merle leaned close to me and whispered “I wonder why he did that? Whatever he’s making must be a big ‘ol secret!” I agreed and we continued to visit with Mrs. Talley and sip our hot tea. Mr. Talley’s actions were indeed strange as no matter what he was working on he’d always show it to us, explain what he was doing and why and we hung on his every word. Some days he’d even have a little carved, stick doll for each of us. Today he was strangely silent and nearly seemed to ignore us. In our childhood wisdom we decided he must not feel well and let it go at that.
The afternoon passed pleasantly and at 4:00 o’clock Mrs. Talley said it was time for us to go home as it would be getting dark soon. She helped us on with our winter clothing and we headed for the front door after thanking her politely for the tea. There was a little table sitting to the left of the big front door and as we were about to exit I happened to glance at it. The table was as it had always been but sitting on top of it was a hand-carved, four-poster, doll bed with slats and all. It had little flowers carved in the head board and was the prettiest thing I’d ever seen.
Noticing my interest in the bed; Mrs. Talley came rushing toward the front of the store as she explained that Mr. Talley had been commissioned by a customer to make the bed as a Christmas present for the customer’s little girl. Merle and I, still very much into the baby doll playing stage of our lives, were enchanted and had a million questions. Mrs. Talley sidestepped them all and hurried us on out of the store.
Unsatisfied Day Dreams
We discussed the doll bed at great length as we walked home and both of us envied the little girl that would own it. Merle went on to her house and I hit Granny’s front porch at a run to tell her about the doll bed and how much I hoped Santa Claus would bring me one just like it. Granny said she hoped I’d get a doll bed, too but that this was kind of a slim year for Santa Claus and it might be that he wouldn’t have enough doll beds to go around. I accepted what she said but the dream was, by then, imbedded (no pun intended) in my mind and suddenly my whole Christmas hinged on that doll bed.
As the cold December days passed Merle and I made many trips to visit Mr. and Mrs. Talley but we never saw the doll bed again. We did inquire as to its whereabouts and Mrs. Talley said the customer had picked it up. Looking back, we were two very disappointed little girls and although we discussed it between ourselves we never mentioned it to Mr. and Mrs. Talley again. Admittedly, I probably drove my Granny nuts as the bed was all I could think about or talk about those last few weeks before Christmas.
Granny and I walked out across the pasture and cut a cedar Christmas tree and decorated it for our living room. We strung popcorn and made paper chains and Granny put a white sheet around the bottom so it would look like snow (and cover up the bucket of dirt it was sitting in to keep it upright). There was a bowl of fruit and some nuts on the small living room table and Granny baked a little fruit cake and made some divinity candy – but there wasn’t one present under the tree.
A few days earlier Granny had helped me wrap up a doll baby dress I had, that Merle coveted, as it was to be her Christmas present from me. We put that one little present under our tree so it wouldn’t look so bare. I had drawn a picture for Granny’s present and just folded it with the picture facing in and tied a piece of yarn across it so we added that. The two lonely, little gifts stood out like beacons. We couldn’t buy any Christmas presents for anybody.
Merle came over to play Christmas Eve afternoon and we played dolls until close to four o’clock which was her “go home” time. I handed her my little gift as she left and she took it with her. That left only my little picture for Granny -- a folded piece of paper -- under our Christmas tree.
Not Much Christmas Cheer
Later that evening we’d just finished supper when George Lane, our postmaster and neighbor to the Talley’s, knocked on the door. He’d come to tell my Granny that Mr. Talley had passed away around five o’clock and the services would be at the Methodist Church the day after Christmas. He said Mrs. Talley had gone to her sister’s house and wouldn’t be at the shop. After George Lane left Granny and I talked about how much we’d miss Mr. Talley and what a kind man he’d been. I recall thinking how strange that Santa Claus died on Christmas Eve. I went to bed that night with a heavy heart and little enthusiasm for the coming Christmas morning.
I wasn’t too anxious to get out of bed Christmas morning and Granny was already up and in the kitchen by the time I found my slippers and stumbled groggily into the living room. I’ll never, as long as I live, forget the feeling that came over me when I saw our Christmas tree that day. Not only was the beautiful doll bed from Mr. Talley’s store under the tree but also a matching, carved, little chest of drawers and a dresser with a round mirror on top. I fell to my knees and touched every part and piece of the little furniture grouping as my Granny watched from the kitchen door with tears in her eyes.
When One Gets Older…
I was a lot older by the time I realized what a truly spectacular gift I’d received that long ago Christmas. My Granny had bartered with the Talley’s for the little handmade furniture set. She’d been baking for them for months unbeknownst to me of course, and had sewed two dresses for Mrs. Talley in exchange for the little pillow, bedspread and tiny mattress that came on the bed. I played with that set of doll furniture until I was too embarrassed to play with it anymore and then set it up on my dresser to look at as a childhood treasure.
The day Merle and I were in the shop, so many years ago, Mr. Talley had been working on the doll furniture set and put it quickly away so I wouldn’t see it. Both he and Mrs. Talley forgot about the bed sitting out in plain sight and had to make excuses to me when I spotted it. Seems the great, secret doll bed caper took immense planning and generosity on the part of all three sneaky participants.
Today, as I was dusting in my bedroom I carefully moved the little set to one side (it now holds my jewelry) and those old time Christmas memories came rushing back. I recall thinking that Santa Claus died when Mr. Talley passed away. Why? Well, like I said, for some reason he always reminded me of Santa Claus and when he died on a gift-slim Christmas Eve it just sort of all fit together – Santa Claus was dead.
Admittedly, this old heart warmed tremendously today when Mr. and Mrs. Talley came to mind. They were delightful, caring, loving, generous human beings – as was my granny, also long gone – and all originals to be sure. Looking back, there were a bunch of “Santas” in my little town and they all crossed my path as a child. They helped my granny raise me, gave generously of their time and love and made a dark, gangly, stringy-haired, part Indian kid feel like a very special child who could do anything in the world she chose.
But… it’s Mr. Talley who will always be my mythical red-suited Santa Claus wearing green suspenders. In my mind he’s still building doll beds and he and Mrs. Talley are still serving tea with lots of milk and sugar to little kids. I’ve been told that if one’s memory lives on in the mind of another one never really dies. If that be true, and I sincerely believe it is, then my Mr. “Santa Claus” Talley not only didn’t really die when I was a child but will never die because his memory is still deeply imbedded in my heart. And the tiny doll chest of drawers he crafted 70 years ago now not only holds jewelry but one old lady’s most cherished, golden, childhood memories.
So, I’ll hang my stocking again this year in honor of the Santa Claus who still lives in the hearts of the adults to whom he bought joy, laughter and a spirit of giving when they were children. No, Santa Claus didn’t die that long ago Christmas Eve and never will because the Mr. Talleys of this world, are who Santa Claus really is. Merry Christmas, y’all!