Snow formed perfect climbing banks around the school parking lot, but there would be no recess that day at Kibbee Fuller Elementary School in Somers, Connecticut. It was Christmas party day. Wool mittens were left on the radiator to dry from morning snowball fights. Cutouts of snowflakes decorated the inside of the tall windows, ice crystals shimmered outside.
Mrs. Freeman had just finished circling the room with the gallon container of paste and a wood ruler she used as a scoop. As always, Billy was eating some of his. I dug my finger into the knob of white paste and started in to work, linking alternating red and green strips of construction paper. As we finished the garlands, Mrs. Freeman hung them on the tree.
The tree, the tree. The week before, Mrs. Freeman had asked if anyone could bring a tree to school. ME. I shot my arm into the air like a rocket. When my parents took us to pick our family tree, my sister and I both blurted out that we had volunteered to bring trees to our classrooms.
So there was my mother, a woman with four children, another one on the way (though we didn’t know it at the time) and a budget so tight that the milkman sometimes had to wait for his money. Buying three trees. She didn’t complain, but did suggest that next year we give someone else a chance. There was no scolding, just bemused tolerance. I’d also volunteered her to make cookies for the party. Cookies, she didn’t mind. The eggs came from our hens and she kept 20-pound bins of flour and sugar. Baking was just part of her daily routine.
“Room mothers”…. which my mother never was, because she always had kids at home… set out the cookies and punch in Mrs. Freeman’s classroom. A buzz was working its way from desk to desk and it wasn’t from the sugar. We knew that Santa Claus was in the building. Being a second grader, I knew that the miracle of seeing Santa the week before Christmas, was just one of those great things about being in school. It was the late 1950s and there were no mall Santas.
HO HO HO. He burst into our classroom, bearded, belted and dressed in the red suit. His face was nearly hidden by the mass of white hair. His eyes twinkled and as the poem goes, “He went right to work.” He settled into a chair, pillow-case of a bag at his feet. There were gifts; mine was a brand new blue comb.
When school let out, we scuttled through the cold to line up for our buses. As I did, I noticed the cars parked by the building. The principal usually parked there, along with visitors. My father’s maroon Hudson, faded and serviceable, sat next to the principal’s car. I boarded the bus wondering if maybe he’d been called in to help with someone’s car — he owned the local gas station.
At home that afternoon, I asked my mother why our car was at the school. Daddy was volunteering, she said.
It wouldn’t be ’til third grade, when my mother told me that Mr. Gerrish was a volunteer Santa that I put together, the twinkling eyes, the car, and the idea that Christmas is what you do, not what you buy.