martin zender at christmas, melody zender

Arty At Christmas

The probing kinds of questions adult males fear don’t happen beneath light bulbs at the police station, but in meadows, playrooms, and halfway up trees. They begin with: "Hey, Dad..."

"Hey, Dad, where does the moon go?" "Hey, Dad, how come ants are so small?" "Hey, Dad, does God love caterpillars, too?"

God makes three-year-olds bold like this. This is when God takes His finger from the dike-hole of wanting to know. With the finger gone, anyone too timid for bold queries ought to run for the hills. The kid is old enough now to question, too young to know. If ever a man’s reach exceeds his grasp, he is three.

My firstborn son Arty turned three just before Christmas. He has always awed us with his window-like eyes. They are eyes that keep no curiosity at bay.

The first time I saw Arty’s eyes, he was lying in an incubator. The overtrained staff thought he was pink and helpless, but they were failing to notice him scanning the room. When no one was looking (how did he know
this?), Arty turned to me with his eyes and claimed me as his father. I saw this and wanted to cry.

Arty’s Dad stayed the way Arty is now, so Arty is my good friend. Diapers are behind us these days, and so we enjoy fresher smells, like those found on wagon rides down Rome Road, or those drifting downwind from Mr. Oney’s barbecue. Arty’s current questions are simpler than God and the moon, but still full of wanting: "Where ya goin’, Dad?" "Will Mom make us cookies?" "What’s a barby-kew?"

I’m going back in time now, and it’s the week before Christmas. I have felt the waters of knowledge pressing against Arty’s dike. There are many things here searching for any weakness in the wall. God tires now and then, switches fingers, and a splash of deeper inquisitiveness leaks through.

A week before Christmas is snowflakes and ginger cookies, ropes made of pine, and the same songs that whisk you to childhood. A week before Christmas is Santa Claus.

He squeezed down our chimney back home—I never knew how, what with his size and antiquity—and the cookies on the holly napkins were gone, so that settled it; he’d been there. The toys I’d asked for were scattered around the room, and I reached out to touch what he had touched.

He awed me.

Melody is baking cookies in the kitchen. Arty skips in to see what we’re doing.

Santa ClausCome over here, Son. I’ve got something to tell you. Santa is his name, and he has a big, white beard. He flies through the air on a sleigh pulled by magic reindeer. He’s fat and jolly, a North-Polian by descent, born there in the deepest winter. He lives in a huge castle with a wife of his girth, and with elves, tools, and many oak worktables. He knows all about you, when you sleep and wake. He did this to me, too, Arty; he knows you.

He’ll come down our chimney on Christmas Eve. He’ll bring you toys, whatever you want. Stay up and wait, rub your eyes real hard. Do what you can to see him, Arty—but you never will see him, ever. That’s because—he’s magic.

He’s magic.

Arty turns as I begin to say all this (Melody is turning the cookies), but I can’t get past "come over here, Son." Something has happened.

The world is reflected now in Arty’s eyes. Ants, moons, and the God of the Universe pound across a dike that has just now broken. My own eye trembles to see this, and I turn away to look out the window.

"What do you want, Dad?"

I wrestle with the drapes. "Look at all the snow, Arty. Isn’t it great?"

"Uh-huh. Sure is."

"Do you want to go for a sled ride?"

"Yeah!" Arty bounds for the boot rack, unstoppable.

We boot up against a very real cold, my son and I, and we don the mittens that allow us into it. Our hands reach together for the golden doorknob, and we squint hard into the world, dead set to discover it.

Forgive us, Virginia.