15. December 2004 · Comments Off on Belief in “Sandy Claws” · Categories: Domestic, Memoir

I don’t think JP and I ever held a firm belief in Santa who lived at the North Pole with a workshop of elves, and went around on Christmas Eve with a bag of toys for the good children and a sack of coal for the bad ones. We just accepted it as a polite and gentle convention, a sort of insider and mutually agreed-upon fiction, as sparkling and as insubstantial as the fake snow in the department store window displays. Being the children of a research biologist, we knew darned well from a very early age that it was just not possible for creatures without wings to fly… and that reindeer most certainly did not have wings as original issue. Dad, with logic and first-hand observation did his part in keeping us from certain pernicious heresies, but I think it was Granny Jessie who very quietly let us in on the joke at a very early age, without saying another word.

We— JP and I, later joined by Pippy— would spend the week or so before Christmas with Granny Jessie and Grandpa Jim, in the tiny white house on South Lotus, a house quite overshadowed by the enormous oak tree, the avocado tree, and Grandpa Jims’ grove of dark-green, shiny-leaved camellia shrubs, and on one day, during that week before Christmas, we would walk up to Colorado Boulevard, past the corner Italian grocery with the aromatic smoked cheese and salami hanging in the window, and sacks of chickpeas in the back. We always went in, but hardly ever bought anything, although Granny Jessie did once pick up one of the peas, and showed us how it really, really did look like a chick. The stock in the Italian grocery was suspect, and alien, too exotically spicy for Granny Jessie, who preferred plain American groceries from Don’s Market, around the corner on Rosmead Avenue.

We were not going to go to the grocery store, though, but down-town to the mercantile heart of Pasadena, to the department stores on and around the cross-avenues; Lake, Los Robles and Marengo. Sitting on the long bench at the back of the bus, on the way we passed the City College campus where Mom had gone to school, the famous Pasadena Playhouse where Granny Jessie took us for the children’s matinees, a pleasant jumble of Californa Beaux Arts and Spanish colonial buildings, all tricked out with tile and plaster facades, spiked here and there with grey gothic fantasies intricately cast in concrete, and one or two storefronts in the very latest 1930ies Moderne. Downtown offered generous sidewalks, almost promenades really, all garnished with palm trees, and a number of department stores in fairly close proximity: Hertels, where Granny Jessie had an account for many years, Bullocks, which had a very hoity-toity tearoom on the top floor, May Company and J.C. Penny— both of which were rather more upscale then than now.

And Granny Jessie soberly walked us around to all of the department store Santas, all three or four of them, during the course of one day. Hertels may not have fielded a Santa most years but Bullocks went all-out, with an elaborate set, sparkling with glittery fake snow. We would be solemnly perched on Santa’s red-velveteen knee, and queried as to what we wanted most of all for Christmas, mumble an answer, and be given each a small red and white peppermint candy cane.
“Want did you ask Santa for?” Granny Jessie asked.
“A train set… a swing set…Lincoln logs…a Freddy the Pig book… a play house… a wagon.” We would reply confidently, and be marched on to the next department store to put in our Christmas request in duplicate or triplicate.

No, we always knew it was a pretend, a game, but it seemed to amuse everyone to continue playing it. Besides, we usually did get something very close to what we had asked for— Clever Granny Jessie!— even if it came with a gift tag saying it was from “Sandy Claws”… written in Mom’s handwriting.

(JP and I, at May Company or J.C. Penny, circa 1957)

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