Mary Louise and Santy
Mary Louise could hardly contain herself as she sat by candlelight, sitting as still as a child on Christmas Eve could sit while her mother brushed out her hair. It was the middle of the Civil War and their plantation home in South Carolina was in ruins, but Mary Louise just knew Santa Claus would answer the letter she wrote.
“Now, don’t you go wishin’ for the moon, young lady,” her mother lectured her as she began to tie pink ribbons in Mary Louise’s brown hair, making two, perfectly divided pigtails.
“But if Santy got my letter….”
“I didn’t send Santy’s letter,” her mother said abruptly. “He couldn’t run the blockade anyway if I had sent the letter.” She finished tying the second ribbon. “Blame the Yankees if you don’t get no Christmas this year. It’s their fault.”
Mary Louise knew not to argue with her mother when she got into one of those moods, and she seemed to be in one of those moods all the time recently. After her mother left the bedroom, she scrambled to her desk and pulled out a piece of paper and a pencil and proceeded to write the very same letter over to Santa Claus. She had but one wish.
“Please, Santy, let me see my daddy one more time.”
Folding the letter neatly, Mary Louise went to the window, opened it and tossed it out in the cold night air. Her mother always told her Santa Claus was magical so she knew her letter would reach him on the winter wind of Christmas Eve. Content she had done all she could do to ensure a merry Christmas, Mary Louise closed the window and ran to her bed where she buried deep underneath the many layers of down-filled quilts. No time had passed since she closed her eyes, it seemed, when she felt a cold blast, a gentle ho ho ho and the familiar baritone chuckle of her father.
“Daddy! Santy!” Mary Louise whispered excitedly.
Jumping from bed she ran to give her father a big hug. She knew it had to be her father because no one could hug as well as he did. She sniffed. Yes, it was the smell of his sweat and a slight hint of his favorite Cuban tobacco. But Mary Louise detected another scent, unfamiliar, acrid, almost taking her breath away.
“I can’t stay long, darlin’,” her father said. He pulled her away. “Let me look at you. You’ve grown an inch since I last seen you. And still got that purty smile.” He hugged her again. “Always keep that purty smile, darlin’.”
“Oh, Daddy, I just have to give you a Christmas present!” She turned to Santa Claus. “Isn’t that right, Santy?”
“Yes, Mary Louise, that’s right,” Santa replied.
“And I know just what to give!” Mary Louise stuck out her hand. “Give me your tobacco pouch, Daddy.”
Her father pulled a leather pouch from his tattered, soiled gray trousers and handed it to her. Mary Louise ran downstairs to the parlor and opened a drawer in a large old desk. She gently lifted the lid off a humidor and carefully scooped out the last of the fragrant Cuban tobacco into her father’s pouch. She quickly returned and proudly presented it to him.
“It’s the last, Daddy. I knew you would want it.”
“That’s mighty kind of you darlin’. I’ll never forget it.”
“It’s time to leave,” Santa said.
“But I have to give my little darlin’ something.”
“Oh, Daddy,” Mary Louise said in a soft voice, “just you being here is all the Christmas I need.”
She watched her father’s eyes fill with tears as he pushed his long dark hair from his forehead. Her nose crinkled as she noticed his hair had begun to turn just a touch of gray. Mary Louise’s head cocked when he pulled his pocket knife out and opened it.
“I know. This will be from me to you for all the Christmases in your rest of your life.”
The next morning Mary Louise jumped from her bed and flew down the stairs to the kitchen. She felt one side of her neatly parted hair fly free of the pink ribbon, but she did not care. She had to share with her mother the happiness of her visit with her father, all thanks to Santa Claus.
“Oh Mommy, Mommy! It was wonderful last night! He came! He came! Santy came and he brought Daddy with him!”
Her mother looked up from her cup of coffee as she sat at the table. Her hands covered a letter.
“What on earth are you talking about, Mary Louise?”
“After you left me last night, I wrote another letter to Santy and threw it out the window. And he got it. He woke me up with his ho ho ho and when I opened my eyes I saw Daddy!”
“You were dreaming, child.”
“No, I wasn’t dreaming! It was real!”
“That’s foolishness! Now sit down and eat your breakfast.”
“No! I’ll prove it!” Mary Louise ran to the parlor, brought back the humidor to the kitchen table and put it down. “See, all the tobacco is gone.”
“That was the last of your father’s favorite tobacco. Very expensive tobacco from Cuba. What did you do with it?”
“I gave it to Daddy. I put it in his pouch. I wanted him to have it,” Mary Louise said softly.
“You dreadful child! You threw away your father’s tobacco as part of this cruel joke that he was here last night!”
“But it’s not a joke, Mommy. Daddy was really here. Santy brought him.”
She watched her mother sink into the chair, dissolve into tears and hold up the letter on the table.
“Because this letter says the Yankees killed your father at a place in Maryland called Antietam. I got this letter three weeks ago, so there’s no way your father could have been in this house last night! And why would he have come home and not….” Her voice choked. “…and not visited me?”
“Maybe,” Mary Louise whispered, “because you didn’t write a letter to Santy.”
Her mother arose abruptly and shook Mary Louise’s shoulders.
“You terrible child! How can you be so mean to me, especially here at Christmas?” She stopped and reached out to touch the loose strands of hair on the side of Mary Louise’s head. “And you lost one of the ribbons from your hair. Do you know how expensive ribbon is now?”
“I’m sorry, Mommy.”
“I’m so angry I can’t stand the sight of you! Go to your room and stay there all day!” She stepped away, picked up the letter and folded it. “I shall spend the day in prayer, asking God to give me the strength to forgive you. Perhaps all will be better tomorrow.”
Mary Louise turned and without another word went to her room. There she decided she would never write another letter to Santa Claus again. It was not that she no longer believed in Santa; no, it was because she decided there was no use in asking Santa to give her something if no one believed her when it happened. She pulled out a lock of dark hair streaked with gray tied with a pink ribbon. It was her present from her father. Mary Louise was afraid to show it to her mother because she might throw it away, and Mary Louise wanted to keep it forever.
Her mother forgave her the next morning and gave her extra jam to go on her biscuits. Her mother never celebrated Christmas as long as she lived. This is not to say Mary Louise never had a merry Christmas again. She had a life-long love affair with Christmas, starting with her eighteenth year when she relented and wrote another letter to Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, folded it and tossed it out in the winter wind.
“Dear Santy, Since Mommy hates Yankees so much, please bring me a nice Yankee boy to marry.”
On Christmas Day, a school friend, who knew Mary Louise’s mother never celebrated the holiday, invited her over for dinner. In the parlor was a tall, willowy young man with long straight dark hair and soulful eyes.
“Mary Louise, I want you to meet my father’s new assistant, Thomas. He’s from Ohio.”
Mary Louise was impressed with Thomas’s strong but gentle handshake. By that evening they were sitting close to each other by the parlor fireplace. Instinctively she leaned into him and he placed his arm around her shoulder. With her head on his chest she sniffed. His sweat smelled like her father’s. She sniffed again.
“Do you smoke a pipe?”
“Yes,” Thomas said. “It’s my only vice. I buy the tobacco from Cuba.”
Mary Louise and Thomas were married by the next Christmas. On Christmas Eve she pulled out the strand of hair tied with the pink ribbon and told him the story of her Civil War visit from her father. She also told him about her letter asking for a nice Yankee boy. He believed her. They had five boys and three girls, each carefully taught to write letters to Santa Claus, fold them neatly and throw them out the window onto the winter wind of Christmas Eve.