I found out that Santa Claus has a disability the year I was 6.
I was familiar with the word “disability” at that age, as my father had one. His was a “war disability,” which came in the form of a wooden leg. Sometimes a “disability” check would arrive at the house, and sometimes he went to the “disability” place to have his leg checked on.
As far as I could tell, a disability wasn’t such a bad thing to have. My father went to work every day in a suit and tie. He painted the house. He pulled weeds. He went sleigh riding in winter and played ball with us kids in the summer.
Besides, his disability gave me a major advantage whenever I decided to do something I shouldn’t have. I had plenty of warning that he was coming because his leg, which was heavy and stiff, made an excellent noise when he walked.
That was the sound of my father.
And when I heard his singular tread heading my way, I had plenty of time to put away the candy I had stolen or hide the flashlight and deck of cards I was playing with under the covers when I was supposed to be asleep.
(I played Beautiful Casino Lady at that age, a game in which I beat the house at solitaire in an imaginary gambling hall. It was my father’s fault. He taught me to play cards as soon as I could count.)
Like most 6-year-olds, I was willing to suspend logic (if I had any to begin with) in matters that required me to take the word of my parents on blind faith. I believed that the bomb shelter was just a good place to store canned goods. I believed that the puppy went to heaven to see Gramma.
And I most certainly believed that Santa Claus could get down that skinny chimney while his reindeer pawed at the roof above. I believed he was able to get to every child’s house in the space of a night, that he favored ginger snaps and milk, and that he knew whether I was sleeping or awake playing cards.
That last matter, though, caused me great anxiety. My parents made it absolutely clear that Santa would NOT be stopping at our house unless all three children in residence were sound asleep by the time he arrived. As the oldest, I felt a certain obligation to set a good example. But on Christmas Eve, no matter how hard I squeezed my eyes shut, I could never manage to carry out the sleep plan. I’d stay in bed for hours, desperately wondering whether Santa could distinguish between pretend sleep and real sleep.
I’d lie perfectly still with my main doll, who went by the unfortunate name of Big Ugly, lying stiffly beside me, doing her doll-like best to feign sleep too. I’d resist scratching, coughing, sniffing and sneezing all in the hope that my wakefulness would escape Santa’s notice.
That was the situation at around midnight on Christmas Eve the year I was 6.
My sister was breathing with gentle rhythm in the bed across from mine. My brother, tucked in his crib in the room across the hall, was oblivious to the night’s significance. An hour earlier, I had heard my parents downstairs making their going-to-bed noises - the TV was turned off, the toilet was flushed, the coffee pot was set up - so I knew my whole house was asleep.
Everyone, that is, except Big Ugly and me.
Naturally, it was then that I heard a noise on the roof - it must have been the reindeer! - and I gripped Big Ugly real tight. “Lie still,” I cautioned her and then concentrated on listening with all my might.
I’m certain I heard some commotion at the fireplace next - a kind of rustling noise and something that could have been Santa wiping soot off his boots.
And then, incredible as it must seem to you, I heard a most distinctive noise.
There was no mistaking that sound, and my eyes popped wide open as the familiar-sounding footfall headed across the living room toward the staircase.
The footsteps came to a halt at the bottom of the stairs, and then there was silence for a moment.
Was he coming up here?! There was terror in my heart at the thought. He couldn’t come up! He’d find out for sure that Big Ugly and I were awake!
But he didn’t come up. The next noise I heard was the sound of him sitting himself down on one of the steps. And then - what was that? It sounded like the noise a screwdriver makes when something metal was getting put together.
I was mystified by it all. He sat there. I lay there. My heart pounded in my head. And while I waited for what would happen next, I began to ponder those footsteps I’d heard.
“Holy mackerel!” I said inside my head. I suddenly had it figured out, and I sat bolt upright in my bed, my terror pushed aside by this stunning new knowledge. “Why didn’t anyone ever tell me before?”
I pushed my covers aside and slid off the bed, my feet barely registering the cold floor beneath me. On tiptoe, I ran across the room to share this new intelligence with my sleeping sister.
“Wake up!” I whispered. “Wake up!”
She rolled over groggily and opened her eyes. I held my finger to my lips to make her be quiet.
“Guess what?” I told her. “I just found it out. You’ll never guess in a million years!”
“What?” she said. “What? Tell me!”
I finally had her attention.
“You won’t believe it,” I told her.
I took a deep breath and spilled the beans.
“Santa Claus has a wooden leg - just like Daddy!”